With no power comes no responsibility – Northern Ireland sleepwalking towards an electricity crisis

When Kilroot power station failed to win an auction to supply the all-island Single Electricity Market (SEM) held in December last year, its owner AES announced that the facility was to close. Despite announcing that the power station was to close in May 2018, at the time of writing it remains open.

The closure of Kilroot, and the already scheduled closure of part of Ballylumford power station, means that Northern Ireland will lose over 900 MW worth of electricity generating capacity. Given the constraints on Northern Ireland’s ability to import power from elsewhere, these closures will mean that Northern Ireland could face severe issues with keeping the lights on in the years ahead.

As shown on the chart above, there are essentially three sources from which Northern Ireland can draw electricity; Non-Renewables (such as coal and oil), Renewables (such as solar and wind), and Interconnectors (one to Scotland and one across the border). Including Kilroot, there is currently 2,242 MW of capacity for non-renewables, 800 MW between the two interconnectors, and 1,669 MW of installed capacity of renewable energy, of which an average of 317 MW was produced for the 12 months to March 2018.

The chart below shows the same data, after the closure of Kilroot and the part closure of Ballylumford. There is a 40% reduction in the capacity available from non-renewable sources, from 2,242 MW to 1,336 MW. With a peak demand of 1,777 MW, Northern Ireland would be dependent on the two interconnectors to meet demand in the event of there being no availability from renewable sources.

The Moyle Interconnector, which links Auchencrosh in South Ayrshire in Scotland to Ballycronan More near Ballylumford, went into service in 2001 and has a capacity of 500 MW. It has suffered a number of faults over the years, most recently in 2017 when capacity was restricted to 250MW for five months. Any potential fault that arises with this interconnector can take a substantial amount of time to fix, given the difficulty of working with undersea cables. There could be a lengthy delay in bringing the link back online if it goes down in the future.

Another potential issue with the Moyle link is the fate of the Hunterston B nuclear power station in North Ayrshire. It is currently operating at reduced capacity following the discovery of cracks in one of its reactors. The reduction in supply could limit the capacity available to Northern Ireland through the Moyle Interconnector.

The North/South Interconnector faces possible issues too. Supply through this link between Tandragee in County Armagh and County Louth, is limited to 300 MW (existing links between Letterkenny and Strabane, and Corraclassy and Enniskillen are too small to be used). A “hard Brexit” in 2019, which meant that the UK crashed out of the European electricity market, would mean that this link could no longer be used.

Earlier this month, the Financial Times (£) revealed that the British government is considering requisitioning electricity generators from the army and using them on barges on the Irish Sea to help keep the lights on. This is a ludicrous idea; there are currently 3,897 2kW field generators in service, capable of producing 7.8 MW between them, which would hardly make a dent given the loss of a 300 MW supply.

The all-Ireland Integrated Single Electricity Market, which was meant to go live on the 23rd of May this year, has been put back to the 1st of October due to “IT defects” (imagine that). However, supply between north and south is physically constrained by the 300 MW capacity of the existing interconnector. Plans for a new interconnector, which would allow flows of 1,100 MW over the border, were approved this year but construction has not yet started amid legal challenges.

EirGrid’s All-Island Generation Capacity Statement 2016-2026 forecasts that Northern Ireland would have a supply deficit of 220 MW by 2024, given scheduled closures of parts of Kilroot and Ballylumford over the next few years. However, closing Kilroot immediately would mean that there could be a deficit of over 300 MW in the short term, rising to up to 800 MW if access to the two interconnectors is lost. This could mean both supply shortages and price rises.

Having an all-Ireland integrated market in electricity requires adequate interconnection between north and south. Decommissioning a substantial amount of Northern Ireland’s electricity generating capacity before the new North-South Interconnector is completed makes no sense.

With the closure of Kilroot, Northern Ireland will be relying on the two interconnectors to Scotland and the Republic of Ireland to meet demand at peak times. The former has had a number of faults throughout the years, and the access to the latter is now (absurdly) subject to geopolitical risk.

Today’s announcement that the Civil Service will not appeal against a judgment preventing the development of a waste incinerator, because it cannot be authorized without a sitting minister, is an example of how the ongoing absence is leading to governmental paralysis. The scheme would have supplied an average of 11.4 MW to the Northern Ireland electrical grid.

As Northern Ireland stumbles along interminably with no government, real-world bread and butter problems such as keeping the lights on are beginning to pile up. Whilst many consider our political classes to be stuck in the dark ages now, we may soon be fondly reminiscing about the times when this was merely a metaphor.

A qualified accountant and data analyst, interested in politics, economics and data. Twitter: @peterdonaghy