Thursday, 16 September 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
1. To ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if he will provide assurances that the State will not face blackouts in winter 2021 as a result of the demands on the electricity generation and transmission network, including from data centres; the steps he is taking to address the increasing number of amber alerts and supply and demand challenges; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44107/21]
Can the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, as Minister with responsibility for energy and electricity, provide assurances that the State will not face blackouts this winter as a result of demands on the electricity generation and transmission network, including demands from data centres. Will he outline the steps he is taking to address the increasing number of amber alerts and supply and demand challenges? Will he make a statement on the matter?
I thank Deputy O'Rourke. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, has statutory responsibility for monitoring and taking the measures necessary to ensure the security of electricity supply in Ireland. It is assisted in this statutory role by EirGrid, which is responsible for the day-to-day management of the electricity transmission system.
CRU has advised me that it has identified challenges to ensuring the continued security of electricity supply. It is in the process of addressing these. They include lower-than-expected availability of some existing power stations; anticipated new power stations not being developed as planned; expected growth in demand for electricity, including through the growth of data centres, as mentioned by the Deputy; and the expected closure over the coming years of power stations that make up approximately 25% of conventional generation capacity.
There is a range of actions being taken by CRU and EirGrid to ensure security of electricity supply. These include maximising the availability of existing generators; the development of new generation capacity, including temporary generation capacity in advance of winter 2022; making changes to the grid connection rules for data centres; and working with large energy consumers to reduce, where possible, their electricity demand during peak periods.
While a number of system alerts have been issued over the past year, including two last week, they have not affected the supply of electricity to customers. I am advised by CRU that owing to the expected return of two key gas-fired power stations by November, the outlook for the coming winter has improved. However, it does not eliminate the potential for further system alerts. My Department is supporting CRU and EirGrid as they progress the actions necessary to ensure continued secure electricity supply.
The prospect of blackouts is quite incredible. In my area, County Meath, and in Dublin West, there are particular pressures. I am aware of this from having spoken to people in the sector. We have noticed a significant increase in outages. Whether they are related to the issues under discussion is a separate matter but there is certainly a coincidence, at the very least.
We are hearing from a range of people about the prospect of blackouts. This is in the public discourse. I heard Professor John FitzGerald on the radio over the summer talking about going back to the 1970s, when we faced the reality of blackouts. There is genuine mismanagement and policy incoherence. On the one hand, there is the shift towards renewables but, on the other, there is increasing demand for data centres. What assessment has been made of current and future demand from data centres? How has this been factored into our energy policy?
This is a complex situation. There is multi-annual complexity. We have to look forward to the next decade and beyond, but particularly to the next three to four years. Our expectation is now that we will not have outages this winter but we never know. There could be a power station breakdown, or something similar to the loss of the two large gas power stations that went offline early this year. There are always developments that cannot be completely predicted but, subject to the return of the two gas power stations, we expect to be able to get through this winter period. However, no one should underestimate the scale of the challenge we will face in the coming winters, particularly the three or four after the coming one. We have to retire, by 2025, some large generators, such as those at Moneypoint coal-fired power station, Tarbert and Edenderry, or at least switch them from being high fossil fuel generation stations to low fossil fuel generation stations.
The demand side is very much a part of the equation. Data centres are only one element. CRU has produced a major study and has engaged in public consultation on how it will work with data centres to make sure they complement our electricity security system.
I might get the Minister to expand on his point on how data centres will be factored in. He will appreciate that there are those who would use this opportunity to try to make the case for increasing our existing dependency on fossil fuels. The Government needs to be very clear on its position on that. In that regard, I would make reference to the existing planning permission application by Shannon LNG, among others.
The point I want to raise is on the impact of the challenges on the cost of electricity. We are facing another winter at a time when costs are increasing continually. From one supplier, there has been a 50% increase over the past 12 months. It is having a huge impact on families. How is the Minister going to address it for families?
To go back to the last point I was making, the data centres have to fit in with our decarbonisation plans. We can achieve this by considering their demand response and whether location can vary demand. Many data centres have been located in the Dublin area. EirGrid has been doing a lot of work on the question of bringing the generation to where the power is used so our grid will work better. It is also a question of ascertaining whether the centres can have their own backup power, and work within a system of backup power, so they can contribute to system security.
Deputy O'Rourke is right that there is a significant issue over increases in energy prices. The increase affecting gas has had consequences for electricity. It is primarily subject to international factors. It is an issue right across Europe and most of the world. It is a complex situation but it is primarily driven by a massive increase in gas prices. It is occurring because last winter was very cold. There is a very low level of gas storage and the price of carbon on the international carbon market is very high. It is an issue of switching off coal plants internationally and switching on gas plants. The circumstances I have described, and a huge increase in demand for gas in Asia, are leading to a spike in gas prices, which is the primary cause of the increase in electricity prices.