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Inside Northern Ireland's plans to decarbonise its electricity grid

  • Every few months we see a story spread across the online media about the UK running entirely on renewable energy for several weeks, but unfortunately it's not quite that simple. What they usually mean is that the English National Grid has run on wind turbine output during a particularly windy period, and often Northern Ireland has been guzzling oil and burning coal and gas the whole time.

    How does the NI power system work?

    Northern Ireland's electricity supply has been managed by SONI (System Operator for Northern Ireland) since 2014, and while NIE Networks is responsible for the maintenance of the infrastructure it's SONI that sets out the Northern Ireland's energy strategy from an economic standpoint.

    The electricity grids in Ireland and Northern Ireland have operated as a single all-island wholesale electricity market through the Single Electricity Market since 2007. While there has been significant investment in renewable energy infrastructure on both sides of the border, most of Northern Ireland's primary energy production still comes from burning fossil fuels.

    The Department for the Economy's 2018 figures offer cause for optimism on the decarbonisation of NI's electricity production, with 38% of the electricity consumed in the region being produced through renewable processes (around 83% of which was from wind). The region is set to smash its 2020 target of 40% renewable energy production, with the figures for the first six months of 2019 showing over 43% generated from renewables so far.

    SONI's strategy for 2025

    SONI has now announced its £500m strategy for 2020 to 2025, which includes a significant investment in infrastructure. The ultimate goal is to meet the Irish Government's 2019 Climate Action plan goal of 70% renewable electricity production by 2030 and the UK's target of net zero CO2 production in the energy sector by 2050.

    Part of the problem with increasing renewable output is that wind and solar aren't reliable energy generators and it's difficult to store large amounts of energy between periods of activity. Northern Ireland can currently produce up to 65% of its capacity from renewable sources including onshore wind and solar power, but this would need to reach 95% by 2030 to meet current targets. Reaching zero carbon by 2050 will require new solutions and new infrastructure.

    Investment in new infrastructure

    New infrastructure that will help Northern Ireland's energy grid become more responsive includes the upcoming North South, Celtic and Greenlink Interconnectors that will help the all-island energy grid act as single system. This will help particularly as more electricity users begin to generate their own power and maintain their own energy storage that can be linked to the grid -- such as solar power systems in homes and businesses.

    The renewed push for decarbonisation of the NI power grid comes less than a year after Belfast City Council approved plans for a £300m 480MW gas power plant in Belfast Harbour, but even this may be good news for NI's carbon targets. The new plant will is designed to minimise carbon emissions compared to the aging Ballylumford and Kilroot power plants, and will reportedly be the most efficient plant of its kind in the UK and Ireland when it comes online in 2022.

    Gas power plants can also provide much more rapid on-demand energy generation capacity with fast start-up times, and so should be able to better fill the gaps in renewable energy generation as part of a smarter energy grid. This should help the grid remain stable as more renewable wind and solar assets are added to the grid, though the ultimate aim should be to phase out even gas power plants by 2050 as renewable energy generation and energy storage technology advances.

    What does it mean for consumers?

    The average consumer just wants to know what will happen to their energy bills, and the hope is that bills will start falling as these plans begin to come to fruition. The new north-south interconnectors should make the all-island energy market more competitive, and more renewable assets entering the grid should help reduce our reliance on expensive fuel imports.

    Another complicating factor for decarbonisation in Northern Ireland is the fact that much of our local home and business heating infrastructure is still based on imported oil, coal, and gas. Electric central heating currently has over double the running costs compared to mains gas central heating, so there's a long way to go before Northern Ireland can end its reliance on imported fossil fuels altogether even if the electricity supply industry goes green.

    In its strategy document, SONI was clear to point out that decarbonising the NI grid will require more investment in large-scale infrastructure, and that's one area that consumers are split on. Many don't want electricity pylons, substations, and wind turbines to ruin their local landscapes, particularly in rural areas and those on the border, but investment in infrastructure will be needed to meet the UK and Ireland's ambitious energy targets:

    • Meet Ireland's target of 70% renewable energy 
    • Have 95% renewable energy on the system at any one time by 2030
    • Potentially add up to 1,600MW of additional renewable infrastructure by 2030
    • Reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050


    About the author

    Brendan is a Sync NI writer with a special interest in the gaming sector, programming, emerging technology, and physics. To connect with Brendan, feel free to send him an email or follow him on Twitter.

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