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Winters of discontent? Why EirGrid is highlighting its concerns about potential power shortages

Erik G

ELECTRICITY SHORTAGES, CAPACITY constraints and ‘amber alerts’ have started to become part of our everyday lexicon with an Irish energy crisis seemingly waiting just around the corner this winter.

A major report by EirGrid, published this morning, has added to the general sense of disquiet about the situation.

The national grid operator is predicting that Ireland could face electricity shortfalls over the next five years due to increased demand and lower supply due to the closure of a number of fossil fuel-fired power stations.

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

So what’s in the report and what sort of solutions are being put forward by the company?

Let’s take a look.

Will we have power cuts this winter?

It’s probably worth starting with the question everyone is asking after weeks of speculation.

The report doesn’t exactly predict rolling blackouts, outages or power cuts.

What it does say is that due to a number of factors, electricity is going to be tight this winter and over the next five winters. It forecasts that such “capacity deficits” will result in an increase in the number of ‘System Alerts’ (or ‘Amber Alerts’, as they’re also known) being issued over the coming years.

But as the grid operator explained in a statement accompanying the report, a system alert isn’t the same thing as a power cut.

It just means that the margin between supply and demand is particularly tight. In this situation, the grid is particularly vulnerable to the sudden loss of a power plant or other unexpected issues.

There have been eight such alerts in Ireland since January 2020, including during periods of very low wind, limited interconnector support from Great Britain, prolonged outages at two large gas generators and the impact of Covid-19 on maintenance.

Ok, so what’s causing the tightness of supply?

A few things.

This isn’t mentioned specifically in the report but we know that the loss of a couple of major gas-fired power plants — Huntstown in Dublin and Whitegate in Cork — has been put particular stress on the supply side this year.

Both plants have been down for maintenance due to what EirGrid described as “unexpected and significant failure of equipment”.

The good news is that Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan said last week that the two plants are expected to be back online before winter arrives in earnest.

But any prolonging of those outages could have significant consequences. 

Low or no wind this year has also been an issue for electricity generated from renewable sources like wind turbines.

EirGrid also said low levels of support from a connector linking the UK grid to Ireland’s — due to capacity constraints on the other side of the Irish Sea — has also been a factor.

In the longer run, these supply-side issues could be amplified by the closure of fossil fuel-fired power plants, EirGrid said.

In fact, over 1,600 megawatts of electricity is due to be retired from the grid by 2023 in the drive to decarbonise the economy.

SSE’s Tarbert distillate oil-fired plant in Tarbert will be gone by the end of next year. The ESB’s gas-fired plant in Aghaada, Co Cork is set to close by the end of 2023 and so is its coal-burning plant at Moneypoint in Co Clare.

Are data centres having an impact?

Absolutely — and they’re expected to play an even bigger role by 2030.

On the demand side of the equation, the report found that the energy demand created by “large users” like data centres could skyrocket over the coming years.

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In one scenario plotted out by EirGrid, these large users could account for up to 25% of Irish electricity demand by 2030.

Based on those projections, the grid will need an extra 140 megawatts of electricity each year just to keep up with this level of increased demand. 

In a separate briefing document on the security of Irish electricity supply, the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities (CRU) warned that “the scale and speed of demand growth in the Data Centre sector is significantly beyond that arising from organic growth in the general economy”.

What are the solutions being put forward?

There are a few but they’re all seem pretty unpalatable from a climate perspective.

The most damaging to Ireland’s climate change response would probably be to keep open a number of ‘dirty’ fossil fuel-fired plants beyond their slated closure dates.

The CRU suggested that the use of older more carbon-intensive electricity generation capacity could be extended on a temporary basis to help make up shortfalls in supply.

“Given that these older plants tend to be higher emission fossil fuels based and more expensive to run, the intention will be that they will be available to support security of supply,” the commission said today.

Even Green Party leader Eamon Ryan admitted today that the option of prolonging coal-burning Moneypoint’s lifespan is on the table — but only as a “last resort”, he said.

Gas is certainly not as dirty as coal but it’s not actually clean either. But one option put forward by EirGrid would be to build another gas-fired electricity power station.

“It is clear from the report that new, cleaner gas-fired generation plant is required now to address this issue, especially for when wind and solar generation is low,” said EirGrid chief executive Mark Foley this morning.

“Appropriate volumes of dispatchable flexible gas generation are critical to support the transition to a low-carbon power system into the next decade, as we move to 70% renewables by 2030 and, ultimately, a zero-carbon power system.”

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