Thursday, 16 September 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
9. To ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the policy measures being taken by his Department to ensure the resilience and security of energy supply at times of peak demand; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43931/21]
I appreciate that this question was covered earlier to a certain extent. It concerns the need to ensure the resilience and security of our energy supply at times of peak demand, especially as we face into the winter months. As we are aware, there were some amber warnings last year, as well as earlier this week and last week. I would like to hear the Minister's views on this. Can he guarantee there will not be any blackouts this winter?
I read out similar written responses previously, so I will address the question directly, if I may. In regard to blackouts this winter, a variety of factors have led to the difficult and tight circumstances we are in. As the Deputy noted, there were two amber alerts last week, which occur when the power is less than something like 400 MW or 500 MW. If another large plant came down, we might have to shed loads, which is when an amber alert would occur. We are in these circumstances for a variety of reasons, including increasing demand, but the main one is that many older plants are not performing as efficiently as a new plant would. There is a good deal of old, conventional plant, some of which has had to undergo regular maintenance this year, and that has been affected by Covid. During that period of Covid, we could not bring in skilled expertise from outside to carry out maintenance, so we had to delay it, and as a result much of our plant is out for maintenance or has had maintenance difficulties.
At the same time, two large gas-fired power plants, which are two of our most modern and best plants, by circumstance had major technical problems that took almost a year in each case to fix. The good news is that both look as though they will be back in operation this autumn, and that should see us through this winter period. Nothing is certain, but we are increasingly confident that we will not have to experience blackouts this winter. The underlying challenge is still there. As I said, we have 2 GW of older plant, at the likes of Moneypoint and Tarbert, which, along with Edenderry, are typically higher emission plants we need to switch away from. They will play a critical role in the next three to five years in providing the security we need, but we need to get back-up alternative generation, such as battery storage, open-cycle gas plants, which are very quick and switch on and off quickly. They will not run a great deal but will be critical to provide power at those moments when the wind is not blowing and while we wait for those interconnectors and a more balanced system to be delivered.
I thank the Minister for his response and hope he is correct that there will not be blackouts this winter. I will address the issue of power demand throughout the UK and Europe, which is at a crunch pace at the moment. This is leading to higher prices and there have been amber alerts and threats of blackouts. The price is skyrocketing. Will the Minister comment on the higher prices and the impact this can have on families and homes throughout the country?
It is a very significant issue throughout Europe and the world. I addressed it earlier but to reiterate, the primary reason for the higher prices this winter relates to a very dramatic spike in international gas prices. Gas is an internationally traded commodity and a fungible market that is influenced by events throughout the world. There has been a significant boost to the economy in Asia as it emerges from the Covid pandemic, and a considerable increase in demand for gas there has drawn much liquefied natural gas, LNG, which is a mobile gas resource, to the Asian market, leaving the European market short and the prices increasing. There have, for a variety of reasons, been restrictions on other supply, both within Europe for gas and from Russia, as well as from other sources, all of which has added to it. At the same time, the price of carbon on the European emissions trading system has increased to more than €60 per tonne. When carbon prices in Europe are so high, coal plants will switch off and gas plants will turn on because the price of carbon affects that of coal. That has led to a spike in demand, which has led to gas prices increasing.
Has the Minister, his Department or any of the utility companies given consideration to advising or assisting people to conserve energy in the coming period, given that there have now been a number of amber alerts, with a danger and fear of blackouts?
Yes, we are. Critically, EirGrid and CRU are engaging first with industrial customers, which may have demand flexibility. As I said earlier, given that we have such a high level of renewables in our system, we are good at this type of demand management and balancing between variable demand and variable supply. The first people to turn to, therefore, are some of the large industrial users to see whether they can manage their processes and production use.
Nevertheless, for all of us the signal should be clear. Reliance on fossil fuels and betting on that as the solution for the future does not make sense. Rather, we should invest in energy efficiency and in retrofitting and improving our building stock in order that our demand for energy, electricity and all its uses decreases. The issue of high energy prices, which is a real issue now throughout Europe, will attract misinformation suggesting that this is all because of the transition to low carbon, but it is not. It is because of a spike in fossil fuel energy and this should be a message to us. The sooner we can remove our reliance on that uncertain supply, the better off we will be.