Electricity interconnectors will be underused

 

The North-South electricity interconnectors will be underused for years despite the completion yesterday of a €19.6 million upgrade programme. Some €6.5 million of the investment was paid by the EU.

Constraints on the electricity network in the Republic mean only limited portions of the capacity on the interconnectors will be used before a wider national upgrade is completed in 2008. A €650 million upgrade programme is under way but a spokesman for the national grid operator, EirGrid, said "considerable" additional investment would be required when the first phase of the current programme was complete in 2004.

The principal interconnector between Co Louth and Tandragee, Co Down, was out of use for 20 years after it was bombed in 1975 by the IRA. When reinstated in 1995, it had capacity to export 70 megawatts (MW) to the North from the Republic and import up to 170 MW into the Republic from the North. According to EirGrid, such capacity could be increased "in exceptional circumstances" if required.

The latest investment was designed to increase the interconnector's capacity to transmit 600 MW both ways, effectively doubling capacity of the cross-Border transmission system.

It also saw two standby interconnectors upgraded with 120 MW capacity each. Those minor interconnectors link Strabane in Co Tyrone with Letterkenny in Co Donegal and Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, with Carraclassy, Co Cavan.

Though not embraced in the Belfast Agreement, such developments are seen as a crucial part of the peace dividend.

The initiative was welcomed yesterday by the Minister for Public Enterprise, Ms O'Rourke and the Northern Ireland Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Sir Reg Empy. They described the investment as a crucial stepping stone in the creation of an all-island energy market.

But while cross-Border energy trading will increase following the investment, a joint ESB-Northern Ireland Electricity statement said "full use" of the interconnector "depends on the completion of planned reinforcements to the ESB networks". This means that the final integration of the interconnectors into the two networks will not take place for some years.

An EirGrid spokesman said: "Whereas the facility may be there to import up to 600MW, it will require, down the line, significant infrastructural reinforcement on top of what is already planned."

Despite the increased capacity on the South-North element of the interconnector, it is thought that serious constraints on the network between Dublin and Louth and a supply shortage in the Republic mean that opportunities to export power to the North are very limited.

When asked why the expenditure had been sanctioned, EirGrid's spokesman said: "We're spending the money now while we have the money rather than looking for it in an uncertain economy in the future."