Threat to electricity supply recedes but long-term concerns remain

Data centres are arriving but ramped-up green electricity supply not quite there yet

Data centres currently require up to 1,100MW from the national grid

Data centres currently require up to 1,100MW from the national grid

 

Confirmation that power plants in Cork and Dublin will be back online in the autumn has considerably eased the immediate risk to electricity supplies next winter. However, the long-term problem is stubbornly refusing to go away.

Bord Gáis Energy’s Whitegate power plant in Co Cork, and one of Energia’s two electricity generators at Huntstown in north Dublin, which is offline – the other is supplying power – are likely to be back in action ahead of the winter.

While nothing is ever 100 per cent certain, this should position the system to cope with likely peak demand, which is generally about 5,500 megawatts (MW).

The absence of both plants last winter was a factor in market overseers issuing amber alerts for Dublin, basically a warning that electricity demand was close enough to capacity to heighten the risk of power cuts should anything go wrong.

Data centres are increasingly blamed for this problem – currently there are enough of them on the system to require up to 1,100MW. However, it is in the longer term that they really become an issue.

National grid operator EirGrid has agreed to provide connections to enough of these facilities to consume 1,800 MW of power and has applications for a further 2,000MW. The State company has no choice but to connect them, as legislation obliges it to do so.

This leaves Eamon Ryan, Minister for Energy, with a problem. When he first held the office, between 2007 and 2011, he backed the notion that data centres would be part of a new hi-tech, job-creating economy powered by mostly green electricity.

The data centres are arriving, but the green electricity we need is not quite there yet. Much of it will come from offshore wind farms that have yet to be built, so consequently have no definite start date. In the meantime, some existing power plants could shut.

A review of our energy needs could provide some solutions to this quandary. One obvious solution would be to build more fossil-fuel burning power plants. Presumably that would be unpalatable to a Green Party minister. It will be interesting to see how Ryan squares this circle.

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