Meeting the future of Ireland’s sustainable energy needs

ESB Networks manage a staggering amount of national energy resources and the long-term future of energy demand here is already on their radar

ESB Networks

The scale and type of electricity generation and consumption is changing as we move to a low-carbon energy system


While we all know the ESB, the full scope of the work of ESB Networks is another matter. Responsible for getting the electricity from the generating sites to users, it oversees a huge network that connects the generators on one side to the homes and businesses of all 2.3 million electricity customers in the country on the other.

The numbers involved are almost mind-boggling. The organisation is responsible for 155,000 km of overhead power lines, 2.2 million poles, more than 640 high-voltage stations, 20,000 ground mounted sub-stations, 236,000 pole mounted sub-stations, 23,500 km of underground cabling, and 2.3 million customer meters.

It is a national monopoly but is regulated in the public interest by the Commission for Energy Regulation to provide a reliable electricity network for all customers in all parts of the country, says Derek Hynes, operations manager for ESB Networks. For example, ESB Networks is completely neutral as to where the electricity it transmits comes from, he explains.

Derek Hynes, operations manager for ESB Networks
Derek Hynes, operations manager for ESB Networks

“The generating plants can be owned by any company and come from any source – it just ensures the customer gets it as and when it is needed. While other components of the energy value chain are market based, a regulated Networks business ensures that there is no duplication and delivers value for money to the customer.”

Hynes also points out that the company is an instrument of national energy policy for both the regulator and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment. “We are committed to supporting Ireland’s target of supplying 40 per cent of energy from renewable resources by 2020,” he says.

There is also the question of the public service obligation. “We offer a connection to everyone who wants one everywhere in the country at a set price,” Hynes explains. “This keeps the price of an electricity connection as low as possible, and makes the connection process as quick and efficient as possible. ”

He points out that each euro spent by an electricity customer in Ireland is split three ways – 60 cent to the generators for fuel and plant costs, 10 cent to the supplier company, and 30 cent to ESB Networks. That 30 cent goes to pay for all the new connections and the maintenance and operation of the system. A share of it also goes to innovation, which is becoming increasingly important to the organisation.

“The scale and type of electricity generation and consumption is changing as we move to a low-carbon energy system,” says Hynes. “That move will be achieved through an increase in renewable energy connections. These include wind, solar and wave, more distributed energy resources like battery storage and solar panels in homes and businesses, as well as the electrification of heat and transport through e-cars, heat pumps and other technologies. All of this requires complex integration with the electricity network.”

We have relied on the hard engineering solutions for 90 years but the future will see a mix of solutions

Work on connecting and integrating renewable energy continues apace. ESB Networks connected the first wind farm to the grid in Bellacorrick, Co Mayo in 1992 with a capacity of 6.45MW and currently has nearly 3,000MW of renewables connected to the grid, including over 200 separate wind farms. It forecast that 8,000MW of renewables will be connected by 2030.”

But this is just one side of the story. The needs of consumers are also set to change quite profoundly. “Consumption will be very different by 2030,” says Hynes. “The average house has a peak demand of about 2.5KW. That hasn’t changed much since the 1980s. But an electric vehicle uses 7KW and an air-sourced heat pump uses three. That means that when someone with both of these gets in from work in the evening and switches on the heat pump and puts the car on charge they are going to have four times the demand of a traditional user. That is going to be the case for more and more users and we are going to have to be able to meet that demand. We have put together a range of technical solutions to deal with this.”

The traditional response for an electricity company to a demand increase was bigger generating stations and more cables but that’s no longer sustainable socially or environmentally. “We have relied on the hard engineering solutions for 90 years but the future will see a mix of solutions.”

This will see the organisation maximising the usage of its existing assets. Advanced sensor systems will be deployed to give quality data on what’s happening on the network in real time. “This will allow us to see when there is spare capacity on the network in certain areas and offer incentives to customers to use it at those times.”

Reliability is going to be an increasingly important issue, he notes. “At present it might not be a huge problem for a householder if they have a power outage between 3am and 5am. But if this means that your electric car isn’t fully charged and you can’t get to work in the morning, it is a serious issue. We are now moving to telecoms and IT industry standards of availability to ensure that we can offer customers the reliability they require.”

We have been innovating since 1927 and we operate all aspects of our business to the highest standard and innovate to continually improve these standards

Customer engagement is playing an important role as well. “We need to go with our customers on the journey they are making to low-carbon energy and help them along the way. An example of this is our PowerCheck smart phone app which provides access to real-time service interruption information. In 2012, 3 per cent of our customers were using it and in 2016 this rose to 55 per cent. During the recent Storm Ophelia in October, Powercheck was used over 2 million times.”

And that customer engagement is set to become even more important as the full impact of the EU Clean Energy Directive comes to be felt. “That gives every citizen the right to be a consumer or producer of electricity so we will be working with our customers to enable them to sell electricity from their solar or other systems back to the grid should they wish to. We will also be introducing artificial intelligence and machine-learning technologies to manage the network better. When you add people’s homes and the multiple devices in use in them to the network you will increase its scale to a level where it would be impossible to manage with present systems. We will need to use artificial intelligence for that.”

He firmly believes that ESB Networks is more than capable of meeting the challenges ahead. “We have been innovating since 1927 and we operate all aspects of our business to the highest standard and innovate to continually improve these standards,” he says. “We continually challenge ourselves to improve our systems and processes and to embrace developing technologies to increase efficiency and deliver value to our customers. We have just launched our Innovation Strategy which takes all of these innovations that we have been working on over the last few years and tells the story of how we are bringing them all together to meet the needs of our customers now and in the future.”

For more on ESB Networks, visit esbnetworks.ie