Facing future energy challenges on an all-Island basis

It is perhaps a significant pointer for the future that one of the most successful examples of North-South cooperation over the past decade has been in a vital area which is not even covered by the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Energy cooperation has seen the extension of the South’s natural gas pipeline network to the North in 2005, and the establishment of both an all-island (wholesale) electricity market  in 2007 and an all-island electricity grid in 2008.

The latter came about with the purchase of the Northern electricity grid operator, SONI, by the Southern grid company EirGrid. These hugely complex linked operations have been accomplished successfully with little publicity and no controversy – no controversy  because everyone agrees that in an age of scarce, expensive and often insecure energy resources, it makes sense for this small island to increase its energy cooperation to maximise security and minimise costs of generation and supply.

As a final piece in the jigsaw, earlier this month the Republic’s state-owned electricity company, the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) – by far the largest in the South – announced that it was to buy Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) for just over £1bn.

Ireland, North and South, is the most vulnerable country in Europe when it comes to energy supply and security, given its lack of any significant indigenous coal or oil resources, and its geographical position as an island perched at the westernmost limit of pipelines bringing oil and gas from the world’s great providers in the Middle East and Russia. As that excellent report Infrastructure for an island population of 8 million1 pointed out earlier this year, the two parts of Ireland are dependent on a single pipeline from Scotland for 90% of their natural gas needs, and over 65% of Ireland’s electricity comes from natural gas, a much higher proportion than other European countries.

The supply of other vital fuels is equally vulnerable. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic import 100% of their oil, and the latter imports 70% of its solid fuels, figures which are far above the EU average. Last year’s draft Strategic Energy Framework for Northern Ireland estimated that ‘93% of Northern Ireland’s power generation is from externally sourced fossil fuels.’

All this means that Ireland’s electricity is among the most expensive in Europe, with industrial prices currently 28% above the EU average. This is one of the factors which has led to the Republic’s sharp deterioration in competitiveness in recent years. Electricity prices North and South have converged over the past decade.

With such an all-Ireland system in place, the energy challenges of the next 50 years – which are now seen as among the major challenges facing the whole planet – will be tackled on an island basis. Among these will be the capture and supply of renewable energies such as offshore wind, wave and tidal power (and maybe even advanced nuclear generation) and the kind of smart grid and meter technology which will allow them to flow smoothly into the island grid system and to individual firms and households.

The aim is that by 2030 renewable generation (mainly wind) will provide approximately 30% of electricity generation. Even this will be a mammoth task. Professor David MacKay, Chief Scientific Adviser at the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, estimates that the amount of wind power needed to provide half the power used by the UK’s car owners driving an average fossil-fuel car 50 kilometres per day would require covering the windiest 10% of the country with windmills. He emphasises that ‘if we want wind power to truly make a difference, the wind farms must cover a very large area.’2

Then there are the 70% of requirements which will continue to come from non-renewable sources. Vital policy decisions will have to be made on an all-island basis about the mix of fuels and the optimum share that gas, coal and – controversially but perhaps inevitably – nuclear will provide in the future.

Facing up to such difficult decisions will be the stuff of good government over the next 30-40 years. They are all about the survival and prosperity of the island as part of a sustainable planet as fossil fuels peak and then begin to run out. They will make the incomparably smaller ‘big’ decisions that Northern Ireland is used to – about policing and paramilitary violence and sectarian divisions – seem picayune by comparison. These are the decisions which will require unity and solidarity between Belfast, Dublin and London. It is a very challenging, but also a very exciting prospect.

Andy Pollak

1 Infrastructure for an island population of 8 million. Engineers Ireland, Irish Academy of Engineering and InterTradeIreland. February 2010, pp.30-35

2 David JC MacKay, Sustainable Energy – without the hot air. UIT Cambridge, 2009, p.33

  • Is ESB (still) the elephant in the room – and a growing elephant at that?

  • Drumlin Rock

    Andy, considering as you say almost all our energy comes via GB sure this should be “Facing future energy challenges on a British Isles basis”, for whilst cross border energy transfers can help slightly it merely scratches the surface of the need, and unless a major power source is developed in either juristiction it will continue to be the case.
    The fact the Irish state now owns NIE is not viewed as a positive development by all, with obviously the needs of southern voters/share holders paramount to those of Northern Ireland consumers, and your assertion the that integration of the supply networks occurs without controversy would certainly be disputed by this group http://www.seatactiongroup.com who will have the new North-South Interconnector in their back yards.
    Finally as a Tyrone resident where most of these wind turbines have landed can I just say the novelty has worn off and the saturation point will soon be reached, so where next? off shore? but then we share the sea and coastal areas with our neighbours on the mainland so surely we should be talking to them as much as to the south?
    You are right that both North and South are too small on their own to solve the energy crisis, but the same is just as true if they work together, and by focusing on the minor benefits of local co-operation we risk losing focus on the bigger picture and the main sources of our energy supply.

  • ulstergeordie

    A good article but it fails to highlight several very important points.

    Firstly, if this is to work, the first place attention needs to focus is the grid infrastructure here in Northern Ireland. The last time any work was carried out on it was 40 years ago and in its current state will not be able to integrate with renewable energy being generated. Some industry sources have been quoted as saying that we need to start with a blank canvass, What is needed is a commitment from ESB that they will commit to the same grid investment as they have have the Republic, namely to the tune of €1billion. This is the investment which is needed if we are going to address our renewable commitments.

    Secondly, there is a danger that we could get bogged down in the perceived advnatages of both onshore and offshore windpower. The sceptics are beginning to gain a voice in GB. Not only is it very erratic and unreliable, but it is very oversubscribed, you only have to look at the granting of 4 ROCs for microgeneration wind projects. The scope needs to be widened to other renewable technologies and these need to be supported and given a crack at the whip.

    Thirdly, an interesting view on nuclear power. Nuclear in itself could be one way to single-handedly meeting our low carbon committments, it wins hands down over wind and other areas. It is relaiable, SAFE and you only have to look at mainland Europe for a case study of well it is working. The no-to-nuclear lobby is strong in NI and will be an obstacle to any constructive debate on the matter.

    Fourthly, here in NI we don’t have the primary legislation in place which would help NI acheive a goals. The primary legislation i am referring to is an Energy Act. This could be 3 years in the pipeline.

    Interesting times ahead but smoke and mirrors alone will not help meet our renewable targets. Real investment is needed in the grid and a widening of the technologies is a must as well as looking at primary legilsation in the form of an energy act.

  • Back in the 1970s, the CEGB made a calculation of how much electricity could come from wind, without having to build extra reserve power stations for when the wind died. It was one third. Although there is less spare capacity these days, the ability to quickly start gas turbines means that the figure will be about the same – so there is no problem with unreliability.

    Also, there are other sources of renewable energy. We can make biogas from seaweed harvested around the shores of Ireland and Scotland. Each year they produce one million tonnes dry wt. of seaweed. I did that study for the Energy Technology Support Unit. Coppicing of willow can produce a lot of energy, as foretold in 1953 in Egon Glesinger’s “The coming age of wood”.

    And the really big one is wave power. As capital intensive as nuclear power, but quicker to build. There is more wave power coming off the Atlantic than the total electricity demand of the British Isles.

    Now the bigger problem is transport and heating, since electricity only makes up 10 to 20% of total energy demand. Insulation and energy conservation can help a lot with the heating (and industrial energy uses): we still have taxes that do not reward energy conservation. But Ireland uses a lot of diesel and petrol in its transport.

  • Watcher

    I believe we really do need nuclear power – although not ideal, i think if everyone wants to continue to live the way they currently live, it is our only option.

    It should be jointly funded and built to safeguard our power needs north and south.

  • aquifer

    But Nuclear is very expensive, and a bit idiotic when we have not yet worked out how to create efficient markets for energy efficiency, which is usually self-funding and does not need to be done by big companies.

    Wind is our big local resource. As fossil fuels get more expensive the relative cost of retaining older power stations to provide occassional backup drops away.

    Hopefully the financial crisis will highlight the idiocy of paying to import fossil fuels that will only get more expensive.

    Perversely fossil energy prices can remain high in recessions, because there is no investment in extraction capacity.

  • Wind is a distraction. We’ll end up nuclear at some point in the future – there’ll be no other option.

  • frank ferguson

    Andy

    As discussed there are possibilities for developing Renewable Energies by introducing innovative Technologies in Northern Ireland and also in the Republic of Ireland

    Offshore Wind is hampered by the lack of agreement on the Seas around Ireland especially from Carlingford Lough to Lough Foyle

    Pumped Storage Hydro Power combined with Off Shore Wind or On Shore Wind could conserve Water and Power and provide Emergency Supplies ( reference Dinorwic in Wales and to a lesser degree Turlough in Wicklow)

    A proposal for Pumped Storage at Camlough in Newry was cancelled because the IRA in their wisdom blew up the Interconnector at Tandragee and the 2×150 MWe Sets were sold for scrap still in the manufacturers packaging.

    There is a new proposal by the Spirit of Ireland to introduce Pumped Storage in the Republic of Ireland being promoted by The Spirit of Ireland ( ref spiritofireland .org)

    Alternative sites can be located in Northern Ireland and should be investigated

    Also several other forms of Renewable Energies can be promoted to reduce the dependence on imported finite fossil fuels and obtain Power at competitive Rates but we need incentives to encourage Investments.

    An International Hydropower Conference is scheduled on 16 th to 20 th August 2010 in Johannesburg and this includes visits to new Pumped Storage Installations, very large Run of River at Inga in the Congo ( 39,000MWe)and also Off Grid Generation for remote locations and there are many opportunities in Africa for all forms of Infrastructures, Services and Utilities for expanding populations and ever increasing demands

    frank ferguson pp NIRECON LIMITED
    b Ballycarry

  • frank ferguson

    Andy

    As discussed there are possibilities for developing Renewable Energies by introducing innovative Technologies in Northern Ireland and also in the Republic of Ireland

    Offshore Wind is hampered by the lack of agreement on the Seas around Ireland especially from Carlingford Lough to Lough Foyle

    Pumped Storage Hydro Power combined with Off Shore Wind or On Shore Wind could conserve Water and Power and provide Emergency Supplies ( reference Dinorwic in Wales and to a lesser degree Turlough in Wicklow)

    A proposal for Pumped Storage at Camlough in Newry was cancelled because the IRA in their wisdom blew up the Interconnector at Tandragee and the 2×150 MWe Sets were sold for scrap still in the manufacturers packaging.

    There is a new proposal by the Spirit of Ireland to introduce Pumped Storage in the Republic of Ireland being promoted by The Spirit of Ireland ( ref spiritofireland .org)

    Alternative sites can be located in Northern Ireland and should be investigated

    Also several other forms of Renewable Energies can be promoted to reduce the dependence on imported finite fossil fuels and obtain Power at competitive Rates but we need incentives to encourage Investments.

    An International Hydropower Conference is scheduled on 16 th to 20 th August 2010 in Johannesburg and this includes visits to new Pumped Storage Installations, very large Run of River at Inga in the Congo ( 39,000MWe)and also Off Grid Generation for remote locations and there are many opportunities in Africa for all forms of Infrastructures, Services and Utilities for expanding populations and ever increasing demands

    frank ferguson pp NIRECON LIMITED
    Ballycarry

  • Greenflag

    True . The Republic made a big mistake all those years ago when they cancelled the building of a nuclear powered station at Carnsore Co Wexford .

    While we should do everything possible to maximize wind and other none renewable sources the fact is that countries like the USA , France, UK , are investing in new nuclear powered plants . The Germans are also considering revoking their ‘ban’ on new nuclear stations .

    As you say if we want to continue to live the way we do – we don’t have time to ‘hope ‘ that new technologies will do the business.

    Fossil fuels will get more expensive as demand from fast growing countries with huge populations will overwhelm the supply side and drive prices ever higher .

    Whatever happened to that other earth saving cheap energy solution -fusion power ?

  • aquifer

    If we can export enough wind and wave energy that can pay for our fossil fuels, if the Dooish gas field to the west turns out not to be large. Nuclear has been very expensive to date. The French built reactor in Finland was supposed to be privately financed and cheaper, but is behind programme and over budget. We should just insulate our homes and import less fossil fuels, we do not need nuclear.