Saturday, 10 October 2015

The future of power generation in Northern Ireland - Part 3

Will the North South interconnector resolve the security of supply problem in Northern Ireland?

In 2009 the international engineering company Poyry completed an extensive engineering study that included over 20,000 hours of technical effort entitled: “Impact of intermittency: How wind variability could change the shape of the British and Irish electricity markets”. As the press release concluded:

  • As far as investment is concerned, the drivers for new thermal plant are not encouraging. According to Pöyry, such plants will have to operate at low and highly uncertain loads and, under current market arrangements, the likely returns do not appear good.

  • The report says: “If significant wind energy is achieved, along the lines required by the 2020 renewable targets, we predict power stations which are built now will face much more uncertain revenues in the future. For example, any generation built before 2016 to cover closure, under emission regulations, of existing coal-fired power stations, would face a volatile future, uncertain to the point that plant may only operate for a few hours one year and then hundreds of hours the next year.”

  • And with the level of wind energy envisaged on the system by 2030, the variation in prices will be extreme. There will be periods of negative prices and very short periods with prices at almost £8000/MWh.

Note: The latter price is some two hundred times what is currently typically achieved in the market place for power supply to the grid. Both Eirgrid and National Grid, as steering committee members, participated in the above study by Poyry.

There is no doubt that Johnathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame would have recognised this for what it is, outright stupidity. However, he was equally adept at putting it: “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into”. The lack of thought and analysis to justify this renewable programme, not least that analysis, which was legally required but never completed, is simply astounding. Taking away some 40% of the electricity market from reliable dispatchable power plants and handing it over to unreliable intermittent wind turbines, means that those dispatchable power plants no longer get the run times they used to and when they are running, it is often in a highly inefficient stop / start mode to balance the intermittent wind energy input to the grid. So a good solid business venture becomes a lousy business and it makes absolutely no sense, to invest in new infrastructure in a jurisdiction, which is pursuing such an energy policy.

Hence the reason why AES is simply not interested in completing the DeNOx upgrade to Kilroot or investing in new generation capacity to replace Ballylumford B. The fact that decisions have been taken by both administrations, as documented in the Eirgrid Planning Report Volume 2A Section 4.2.4 ‘The Position of the Governments and Regulatory Authorities’, to build the North South Interconnector and associated wind energy developments, simply means that Northern Ireland is now off limits for investment in replacement conventional generation.

This can actually be seen in Volume 3B Chapter 4 Transmission andTechnology Alternatives Section ‘Potential Alternative: New Conventional Generation in Northern Ireland’:

  • 30 One measure to reduce the impact of the transmission capacity restrictions described could be to build further generation in Northern Ireland.

  • 31 It is conceivable that a new conventional generation plant constructed in Northern Ireland would improve security of supply issues in the medium term; however, it must be recognised that investment in new generation is at the discretion of independent commercial ventures, and market forces have not produced any proposal for new conventional generation to date.

  • 32 Enforcing the construction of a new power station to improve security of supply in Northern Ireland could not be achieved without creating fundamental distortions in the SEM. Such distortions would, in their turn, have a consequential adverse impact on other existing generators, further jeopardising future investment in generation.

 The above statement is disingenuous to say the least. The fact is that building a replacement power station for existing dispatchable capacity, which will no longer be available, is a perfectible viable alternative to the North South Interconnector, which in practice is not being realised, because of decisions already taken at Government level to economically ‘kill it’ as a viable option. If we go back to Section 3.2 and the Maastricht Recommendations, then to re-quote:

  • 80. “When all options are open” may be read as a time when any option could still be chosen as the preferred option. Some examples of situations when all options might no longer be considered open could include:
    • When a public announcement of a preferred option has been made even though the plan or programme has not yet been adopted;
    • When a formal decision on the issue has been taken by a public body (including representative bodies like local, regional or national parliaments);
    • When a decision maker has promised to constituents that they will pursue or avoid particular options;
    • When a public authority has concluded contracts or agreements with private parties related to a decision subject to the Convention which would have the effect of foreclosing options prior to meaningful input from the public - (See the findings of the Compliance Committee on communication ACCC/C/2008/24 concerning compliance by Spain (ECE/MP.PP/C.1/2009/8/Add.1), para. 119 (a) (iii).

An examination of the Eirgrid Planning Report Volume 2A Section 4.2.4 ‘The Position of the Governments and Regulatory Authorities’ is thus revealing within the context above.

  • In March 2006, the Director of Energy Networks at the Commission for Energy Regulation confirmed in writing to the then Head of Grid Development and Commercial at ESB National Grid (now EirGrid) that:

    • The Commission [for Energy Regulation] and the NIAER have considered the option of constructing either a 275 kV or a higher capacity 400 kV line. Both regulators have decided that the additional cost associated with the 400 kV line is justified on the basis of both its higher energy transfer capability and its ability to be upgraded in the long run more practically and economically. Accordingly, the Commission hereby approves a standard of 400 kV for the additional Interconnector line.

  • This letter of confirmation from the CER thus set the context for developing a higher capacity additional interconnector between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

What is clear is that public authorities are entering into agreements with associated public funding arrangements, which have the deliberate intent of closing off alternatives and doing so in a manner, which bypasses the whole procedures of public participation related to such large and obtrusive infrastructural projects.

However, to return to the issue of ‘security of supply’, it is clear that the future direction proposed by this Eirgrid project will lead to the situation in the near future, such that Northern Ireland will only have two remaining dispatchable power stations of note, namely those at Coolkeeragh and Ballylumford C. Is this significant? As a grid engineer will explain, power stations were traditionally built close to where the actual power demand was required, not just to reduce the extent of the transmission network and associated losses, but also to assist in maintaining grid stability. In other words you can transmit power (electrons) on long transmission lines, but you can’t maintain the stability at the end of them where the point of use is. Therefore to maintain grid stability, imbalances and disturbances in smaller grids have to be compensated for, both locally and immediately. This is completed by relying on power generation units, which must store enough kinetic energy and reactive power to compensate the power imbalance; in simply terms they have rotating inertia. In more complex terms it can be explained by the below:

  • Voltage is a measured physical quantity, which fluctuates as a function of the network state, i.e. grid topology, generation, load, transmission lines and transformers. For network security reasons, i.e. compatibility with the rating of equipment, the supply of customers within the contractual ranges of voltage, plus the power system’s voltage stability regarding disturbances, a voltage control is needed to maintain voltage deviations within predetermined ranges.
    • Voltage levels are maintained by reactive power, assured by different facilities: depending on their operational state, all generators, loads, lines and transformers are either reactive power consumers or producers. Reactive power cannot be transmitted over long distances efficiently, and voltage control is thus a regional problem.

    • Primary voltage control is implemented by the voltage regulators of generating units. These regulators initiate a variation in the excitation of generators, and reactive power is adjusted using automatic devices with a time response of less than a few seconds. Secondary or tertiary voltage controls are implemented within a time period that can range up to several minutes, using either automatic control devices within a given zone of voltage control, or by the TSO’s manual action to activate reactive compensation equipment.

    A good example is Dublin, for which it is eminently possible to transmit all the power it requires (in terms of electrons) from power stations located in the South and South West of the country, plus supplemented by power transmission from the UK over the new East West Interconnector linking the North of Dublin to Wales. However, this is never done, at least two power stations in the Dublin area must be kept running at all times to maintain grid security – the rotating inertia of their large generator sets is essential to maintain grid stability in the surrounding area.

    So where does this leave the future position of Northern Ireland; only two remaining power stations of note, of which one could trip or be off-line for maintenance, while the grid is full of highly intermittent wind energy rapidly varying their output, as the wind rises and falls. Doesn’t take a genius to figure that one out, but this is what Eirgrid are actually selling in their planning documentation as ‘Security of Supply’.

    Note: The term brownout comes from the dimming experienced by lighting when the voltage sags. A voltage reduction may be an effect of disruption of an electrical grid, or may occasionally be imposed in an effort to reduce load and prevent a power outage, known as a blackout. As the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland put it in their May 2014 press release:

    • Security of supply

    • It has been many decades since ‘security of supply’ has been the primary concern in relation to our electricity grid.

    • The recent focus has been on the cost of electricity and on fuel poverty, masking the serious issues around the current stability of the Grid and the availability of adequate quantities of electricity at peak times of the day.

    • Even if the priority issues are appropriately addressed now, the lead-in time for the required infrastructure investment means that stability and supply issues will become even more acute in the short term.

    • Regrettably, timely decisions on improvements to our infrastructure have not been taken to date; as a result the impact will be untimely ‘brown-outs’ (short interruptions in supply) and potentially ‘black-outs’.

    • By the time the necessary decisions on infrastructure investment are eventually approved, significant costs will have accrued to these projects.

    • How NI plc tackles this problem is of hugely significant strategic importance yet it is not apparent that any co-ordinated approach is being taken.

    • The failure in decision making and prioritisation at the Northern Ireland governance level has not only led inevitably to more widespread security of supply issues, but ultimately to higher electricity prices than otherwise would have been necessary.

    • How is this manifesting itself?

    • These issues are already impacting on business expansion plans and jobs.

    • Brown-outs are happening now across the province - from the Ards Peninsula to North Antrim, from Castlewellan to Omagh.

    • Businesses are having to use generators to provide electricity where Grid supply is not available. (On-site generator supply is at least twice as expensive as Grid electricity, thereby affecting competitiveness).

    The only conclusion which one can draw from the above, that bad enough as it is now, the North South Interconnector and its associated wind farms are only going to make it worse.

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