Irish electricity system under too much pressure for comfort

Technical problems at Whitegate underscores need for stable electricity sources

Forecasters are warning of a cold spell next week, possibly the most severe of the winter so far, with Siberian weather bringing snow and ice. Not only will it dash hopes of an early spring, it will also drive up electricity demand.

On December 3rd, Irish electricity consumption reached a new high of 5,112 mega watts. One month later, the energy market supervisor issued an amber warning. This signalled that while there was enough power to meet likely demand, the generating capacity held in reserve was low enough to spark concerns of a power cut, should the unexpected happen over a two-hour period.

The unexpected did not happen, while part of the point of issuing warnings is to ensure that the system is ready to act if something untoward does occur. Even so, there have been times when the Irish electricity system has been under too much pressure for comfort.

Several things fed into the amber warning; one was low wind speeds, which meant most renewable generators could not supply electricity. Among others were the fact that Bord Gáis Energy's Whitegate plant was out of action because of technical problems, while in December, two peat-fired plants, in Shannonbridge, Co Offaly, and Lanesboro, Co Longford, were shut for good.


Wind supplies 40 per cent of our electricity, but we continue to need conventional power plants, that burn gas, and let’s face it, other fuels, to ensure consistent power supplies. Bord Gáis has confirmed that Whitegate could be out of action until the end of June while it deals with a technical problem. That means the system is without a facility that can supply power to about 300,000 homes.

Technical problems happen and Whitegate will ultimately solve this one. But its absence underscores the need for stable electricity sources. The State owns Shannonbridge and Lanesboro, it is time to find ways of getting them back on line and to consider building a new conventional power plant.