The Daily Telegraph

Ireland’s energy crisis threatens blackouts

Amid a shift to renewables, the country has become too reliant on imports of gas. Rachel Millard reports


Back-up power generators have started to arrive in Ireland to help it keep the lights on during the next few winters. The mobile turbines, described as “effectivel­y jet engines”, are set to be installed in areas including Dublin and nearby County Meath.

The €350m (£308m) temporary capacity was ordered by the environmen­t minister, Eamon Ryan, last year as a “last resort”, after regulators flagged a looming shortfall in generation.

“This is an electricit­y emergency,” the minister of state, Ossian Smyth, told parliament in October.

Darren O’rourke, the MP for Meath East, retorted: “It is a national scandal.”

Fears of blackouts across Europe and the UK this winter – sparked by market turmoil linked to the Ukraine war – have started to recede as spring looms. Yet concerns about the future remain: in Ireland, surging demand for electricit­y and the closure of ageing gas-fired power stations have left the country vulnerable next winter and beyond.

Critics have also warned that Ireland is becoming too reliant on imports of gas, as domestic fossil fuel generation is sidelined in pursuit of green goals.

The problems highlight the challenges of transition­ing the energy system away from fossil fuels, while still maintainin­g security of supply.

Kathryn Porter, a consultant at energy analysts Watt-logic, said: “I’m not sure [Ireland’s] sums [on energy supply and demand in Ireland] have been adding up. It echoes concerns that have been arising in other markets.”

Former top civil servant Dermot Mccarthy has been asked to independen­tly examine the circumstan­ces behind the immediate squeeze, while the government has also opened its own energy security review.

In October, politician Barry Cowen called for a fix to the “Cold War state of our energy infrastruc­ture”, piling pressure on Leo Varadkar, the taoiseach, to find a more permanent solution to the problem of keeping the lights on.

Ireland’s single electricit­y market covers both the Republic and Northern Ireland. It trades electricit­y with Britain via two electricit­y cables from England, and imports gas via pipelines from Scotland. It has evolved rapidly in recent years to incorporat­e more wind power: renewables accounted for 42pc of Ireland’s electricit­y mix in 2020, compared with just 7pc in 2005.

Demand for electricit­y has leapt over the same period, driven in part by the growing number of energy-hungry data centres set up in Dublin, attracted by low corporatio­n tax rates. This hunger for power is only set to grow as electric cars and heat pumps start to replace petrol cars and gas boilers.

Rising demand at a time of insecure supply has started to trigger alarm bells as to how well the system can manage. Problems were apparent even before the energy crisis of the last 12 months. There were eight “system alerts” between January 2020 and September 2021, indicating tight power supplies.

In September 2021, Ireland had to block exports of electricit­y to Britain to preserve supplies on the island. That month, Eirgrid, which operates its electricit­y grid, warned of a potential shortfall in coming years.

Its report predicted that about 1.6GW of generation would be retired in Ireland over the next five years and 600MW in Northern Ireland, as gas-fired power plants were phased out.

Gas-fired plants are getting old but are also being pushed off the system by the growth of wind power. However, wind is unpredicta­ble.

“We expect system alerts to be a feature of the system over the coming winters and this winter is likely to be challengin­g,” Mark Foley, chief executive of Eirgrid, said back in 2021.

New gas-fired generation would be needed to help fill in the gaps in intermitte­nt wind and solar supplies, he said, calling for a “clear signal” for investors to build new plants.

Plans to cut national carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 call for about 2GW of generation from new flexible, gas-fired power stations to help fill the gaps left by intermitte­nt wind supplies. Last February, the government secured contracts for back-up power supplies from October 2024, which are expected to lead to 1.1MW of new gas-fired generation being built, as well as 120MW of battery storage.

However, supplies procured in this way are not as certain as many would like: Some generators that had agreed to supply back-up for 2022/23 dropped

‘We expect system alerts to be a feature of the system over the coming winters’

‘This winter is likely to be challengin­g’

out, piling pressure on the electricit­y network this winter. It adds up to an uncertain picture for future electricit­y generation that has left industry and homeowners concerned. In November, the Irish Academy of Engineerin­g claimed that a lack of energy planning was deterring internatio­nal investors.

The Irish Academy of Engineerin­g has also raised concern about the security of gas supplies, which are needed for power stations as well as for heating and industrial uses.

Around three quarters of Ireland’s gas demand is met by imports from Britain, via Scotland, with the rest coming from its Corrib gas field, off the north-west coast of County Mayo.

The Irish government is no longer issuing new gas exploratio­n licences, as part of a move away from oil and gas to cut carbon emissions. Existing licencehol­ders can continue to apply for extensions to keep a well in production. However, the situation leaves Ireland increasing­ly reliant on imports.

Brexit means the UK no longer has to supply Ireland under the EU’S “solidarity” rule – so in theory, supplies to Ireland could be restricted if the UK was facing shortages of its own.

Politician­s and regulators have been looking at ways to manage demand. Data centres must now “deliver strong economic benefits” and be willing to promote Ireland’s “national decarbonis­ation objectives”, the government has said. Electricit­y prices have cooled for now, reflecting the easing pressure on fuel supplies across Europe. But they remain far higher than pre-pandemic levels.

As reviews into energy security are prepared, there are few easy answers.

A spokesman for the department for the environmen­t, climate and communicat­ion said it was confident the regulator and Eirgrid were addressing the challenges.

It noted Eirgrid’s conclusion­s that while the system this winter is tighter than last, there is “no risk of a system-wide blackout, solely due to insufficie­nt generation”.

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