I remember very clearly the day when the then Energy Minister, Eamon Ryan, announced the results of the 2008 All Island Grid Study in the press centre in Government Buildings. This study showed that the grid system on the island of Ireland could safely accommodate up to 40 per cent electricity production from variable renewable energy sources without compromising security of supply.
By complete coincidence, the British Government chose the same day to announce a new programme of nuclear power development. One of the journalists present asked Minister Ryan why Ireland was not, like Britain, going down the nuclear path. The Minister picked up a copy of the grid study final report and said: “Because we don’t have to. This report tells us we can choose another way.”
While there have been days on which wind power has momentarily contributed 50 per cent of the electricity being handled by the transmission system, a day-long average contribution of 40 per cent was achieved on Christmas Day 2011. An engineer can have no better present than to see his feasibility study predictions confirmed in practice.
Ireland is well on course to achieve its 2020 EU targets for both electricity production from renewable energy sources and total energy from renewables. It is clear that we can do this with onshore wind alone, provided that we can get the projects and the supporting grid infrastructure in place in time. It is vital that the planning process continues to improve, that decisions are delivered in timely fashion following due deliberative process, and that such decisions are accepted and respected by the public. Last year, Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte published a policy statement on the strategic importance of electricity transmission and other energy infrastructure – an unusual step, but one which was deemed to be necessary under the prevailing circumstances. It has since been quoted in several planning hearings.
The signing of the memorandum of understanding between Ireland and the UK concerning the export of renewable energy from Ireland to Britain has allowed us to think and plan regionally. This will enable better utilisation of available renewable energy sources, as well as more optimal deployment of transmission and distribution infrastructure than would otherwise be possible.
It is important to make sure that the playing field is as obstacle-free as possible for project developers. The original ISLES project identified the technical, environmental, regulatory and economic issues around interconnecting the Irish, Northern Ireland and Scottish grids in a way that would facilitate the development of marine renewable energy projects. We are just commencing a second stage to this project, with EU Interreg support. In parallel, the Spire project will revisit the grid study, examining how various energy storage options might enhance the grid’s ability to accommodate even more renewable-generated electricity.
Ireland’s smart grid roadmap is currently being updated to ensure we capture and plan all the actions necessary to deliver the infrastructure which will enable electricity from renewables to be managed effectively and efficiently, and I am very excited by the proposed ESB/NIE/EirGrid/SONI smart grid project for the north west.
Getting the context right requires care to be taken to understand that pushing forward to meet energy and/or climate change targets must not be done without consideration of all possible effects of so doing – on the environment in its widest sense, on conventional generators and on energy users. It is interesting to recall here that the 2008 grid study showed that the overall cost to society of pursuing a high-renewables policy for electricity was about the same as for “business as usual”, although the allocation of costs within our society was different. More interdisciplinary scenario modelling and inter-agency dialogue should help us do the right thing and do the thing right.