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Electricity supply interruptions could have 'huge' impact on Irish society, expert warns

John Fitzgerald’s comments come after concerns were raised recently about potential blackouts this winter.

Lough Ree power station Co Roscommon
Lough Ree power station Co Roscommon
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

THE COST OF interruptions to electricity supply in Ireland would be “huge”, economics professor and energy expert John Fitzgerald has warned. 

His comments, in an interview with The Journal, come after concerns were raised recently about potential blackouts affecting the country this winter. 

While the most stark concerns about blackouts have now subsided (repairs to the two power stations at the centre of the concerns are being fast-tracked) Ireland will still have to deal with increased threats to the electricity grid into the future as demand rises.  

“The costs of interruptions to electricity supply in a modern society are huge,” said Fitzgerald, who is one of the most prominent economists in the country and a member of the independent Climate Change Advisory Panel.

In the case of a blackout in the winter months, the gravest impact would be from people’s heating, he said. 

“If you have a significant interruption for a day or two you could have huge problems, especially in winter, where you could have people with hypothermia.” 

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy want to investigate why we are facing an Irish electricity crisis. Support this project here.

Recent warnings

In June, the operators of the national electricity grid, EirGrid, first warned about the possibility of blackouts this winter due to expected shortages in supply.

The shortages, it was warned, were primarily due to the closure of several power plants and an increase in demand for electricity due to the opening of several data centres.

Concerns have been raised regarding the amount of electricity consumed by data centres. An EirGrid report from last year predicts that by 2030 data centres and other large energy users will make up 27% of Ireland’s energy consumption.

The reduction in electricity generation – coupled with significant growth in demand – has led to increased concerns regarding the stability of Ireland’s electricity supply, particularly over periods of high demand such as in the winter months.

The main cause of reduced electricity supply is the closure of two natural gas power plants, which have been out of service since last winter, awaiting repairs. These two power plants produced approximately 15% of Ireland’s conventional generation.

The two plants in question, Whitegate in Cork and Huntstown in Dublin, were due for maintenance repairs but these were delayed as a result of Covid-19.

The parts needed to repair the two power plants are expected to arrive in the coming months, sources confirmed. The Huntstown plant will be back online in October and the Whitegate plant will begin operating again in November.

The developments mean both power plants will be operational before a peak in electricity demand later this year. The reopening of these plants has eased concerns regarding potential blackouts. However, worries remain that such blackouts could occur in the future.

FitzGerald pointed to research by the ESRI that shows if such a blackout were to occur, it would have a much greater impact on the residential sector as opposed to business.

This is due to the substantial impact an electricity outage would have on people’s daily life. Households are reliant on electricity to power their heating, hot water and lighting. With an electricity blackout, quality of life is dramatically impacted.

“The pressures on the system at the moment appear to be significant so dealing with that is an urgent issue,” Fitzgerald said. 

Emergency generators

In response to queries a spokesperson for EirGrid said: “One of the measures EirGrid is seeking is the connection of new emergency generation in order to maintain the security of electricity supply in Ireland.

“A process of securing emergency generation for this coming winter was instigated by EirGrid in recent months on the instruction of the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU).”

“This additional generation was one of a number of contingency measures being looked at by EirGrid.”

The spokesperson added: “The outlook for the return of the two gas-fired generators is now much improved, and therefore the need for this emergency generation is reduced.”

While concerns of electricity blackouts may have subsided for this winter, they cannot be ruled out into the future, the government has conceded. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications said:

“While the possibility that the level of available generation capacity would be not sufficient to meet all demand at all times can never be ruled out, there is a range of actions being taken by the CRU and EirGrid to ensure security of electricity supply over the coming winter and years ahead.”

“The actions being progressed include: increasing the availability of existing generators; the development of new generation capacity; and changes to the grid connection of data centres.”

A renewable future

Ireland’s electricity generation is entering a period of transition over the coming years as the country shifts towards renewable energy sources.

A target set by the Government states that by 2030, 70% of Ireland’s electricity consumption should be powered by renewable energy sources.

As a result, the coming decade will see the electricity grid moving away from oil and peat-powered plants to those powered by renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. 

Laura Mehigan, an energy researcher in MaREI, the SFI Research Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine told The Journal: “It is extremely important as we transition to a decarbonised electricity system that this reliability is maintained”.

“The most challenging period for this could be within the next few years,” she added.

The transition to renewable energy sources presents a new set of challenges, many of which can be overcome through the implementation of new technologies.

Renewable energy sources are the future of Ireland’s electricity generation, as Mehigan noted, “Renewables such as wind, solar and bioenergy have the potential to play a huge role in Ireland’s electricity sector but will need the assistance of other technologies to unlock their full potential”.

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Wind power, in particular, looks set to become a major component of Ireland’s electricity generation system. As a result, Ireland will have to import electricity during periods of little or no wind.  

FitzGerald noted the importance of this during the winter months: “In January, you have a high-pressure area stuck over Ireland for a number of weeks and you are going to have low temperatures and no wind. So when electricity demand is at its highest you will have a number of weeks every few years when there is little wind.”

These weather patterns reinforce the need for Ireland to make use of electricity imports from continental Europe in winter months and export during periods of high electricity generation.

New technologies

Many new technologies for the storage and transportation of electricity are being developed as we move towards renewable sources of energy, Mehigan explained.

Such technologies will allow for better management of electricity demand and ensure a smoother supply of electricity to consumers.

Mehigan detailed how in the future, several technological solutions could be put in place.

Demand-side units (DSUs) and short duration storage such as batteries will smooth short term variability, long-duration storage will allow oversupply of renewables in one season to be utilised in another season where there is undersupply.

While these sound like great solutions, the technology is not quite there yet, as Mehigan points out: “These options are more expensive and unlikely to be widespread by 2030, however, more cost-effective solutions may emerge.”

Another solution that is not economically viable, but may eventually be in the future, is the use of excess electricity to generate hydrogen which can then be stored and used as a back-up fuel. 

FitzGerald stated that the ESB is carrying out an experiment at Moneypoint power station aimed at converting electricity into hydrogen.

Although the process “is likely to be very expensive” if advances in technology are made, “it may well be the long term solution” to long-term electricity generation and storage problems.

Mehigan added: “The challenge for the intervening years is to ensure that there is sufficient generation capacity to maintain a reliable and secure system for all possible weather events.”

Data centres

The introduction of demand-side management will be a key element in the future of our electricity system. In short, this will involve electricity companies encouraging consumers to avoid using electricity at peak times by lowering the cost of a unit of electricity when demand is low.

Data centres will also be incorporated into this demand-side management, as they could shift a portion of their electricity use to periods of low demand.

Energy Economist at University College Dublin Lisa Ryan explained how this would work: “We would have this huge energy user that would drop in times of demand but could consume extra in times where we have a lot of wind.”

Despite concerns about the impact of possible blackouts, FitzGerald noted Ireland’s “very good track record on reliability”. He pointed out that the well managed nature of the electricity system should “give one some confidence” regarding the future of Ireland’s electricity supply.

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