When will the lights go out?

September 25th, 2021 5:10 PM

By Southern Star Team

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THERE has been much talk, from various different angles, of the threats to Ireland’s ability to generate sufficient power over the coming years.

The subject is relevant for so many reasons: we have given commitments about reducing carbon emissions, so the method of power generation is important; we have several large data centres connected to tech firms based here, which use huge amounts of electricity; domestic energy bills, across the board, are set to rise this year, and we are forging ahead with new sources of power generation, most notably, offshore wind power.

When you combine all of these elements together, you can understand why the story is concentrating so many Irish minds as winter approaches.

There were some pretty sensationalist headlines already this year about the ‘lights going out’ or Ireland being ‘plunged into darkness’ if our power demands exceed our power generation this winter.

But how sensationalist were they, really?

Just this weekend we had a national newspaper, the Business Post, reporting that there were plans to import emergency electricity generators costing hundreds of millions of euro for next winter (2022).

It seemed like a shocking story – implying that without them, the country could ‘go dark’.

There was also talk that such an outcome would have a devastating effect on our reputation as a base for global tech firms, and that nobody else would risk locating here, if we could not guarantee uninterrupted electricity for their massive servers.

The dirty words ‘nuclear power’ even raised their heads again.

But before we get carried away in this doomsday scenario, let us remember that there is nothing new in this story.

As far back as 2003, The Irish Times reported that the ESB was planning to ship two massive mobile generators into Ireland that October to prevent potential power blackouts during the winter.

‘As part of its plan to prevent shortfalls in supply, the company has decided to purchase, rather than lease, the two units. One will be located at the ESB station at Aghada, Co Cork, and the other at the former Asahi plant near Killala, Co Mayo. They will come into Ireland in several articulated trucks,’ the paper reported.

At that time, the cost was a reported €25m, a ‘snip’ compared to the costs being touted this year!

So fears about ‘blackouts’ and power outages are nothing new.

And there is also nothing new in vested interests creating fear in order to progress their own agendas.

The big data centres are worried they are getting a ‘bad name’ for using up Ireland’s precious power, but an EirGrid report claimed that by 2030 data centres and other large tech firms would need 27% of Ireland’s energy generation to function.

Minister Eamon Ryan recently said that those firms should not be worried because there are plans in place to create more than enough power to meet demand. Part of what he is referring to there is the government’s ambitious plan to open up our coasts to global windfarm developers. But, as the wind energy industry said this week, we would need to get our act together in the next 12 months on that, or we will, literally, miss the boat. Two power plants, out of action since last winter, should both be back in service by the end of November, and that will ease some of the fears, for now.

But to think we are back right where we were 18 years ago – talking about purchasing multi-million euro generators – shows the lack of forward planning by successive governments.

Let’s hope that the current government has more foresight than its predecessors and can finally get its act together before it’s, literally, ‘lights out’ for our technology industry.

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