Friday, 16 March 2018

Blackouts Probably A Greater Threat to Northern Ireland Than Brexit

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is currently in the process of carrying out an inquiry into it's long neglected Electricity Sector. I have been highlighting the issues in the North since 2015. Things are now coming to a head. 

There is an interesting and worrying submission made by AES, the owners of Kilroot and Ballylumford coal powered stations.


  • Since the publication of the provisional results on 20th December 2017, two key questions have been asked of UREGNI and SONI:

  • Where will Northern Ireland get the equivalent energy when the Kilroot coal units and the Ballylumford B station unit close?
  • What will the cost of this additional energy be, assuming it can be obtained when required?

  • To date AES is not aware that these key questions have been answered, and is only aware that what has been stated publicly is that SONI believes that sufficient “capacity” has been procured in the T-1 process.

  • Despite the unconsulted upon change in constraint rules, actual dispatch of Kilroot from 5 January to 10 February inclusive was such that when the Kilroot units have been available and the NI demand has gone above 1400 MW, at least one Kilroot unit has been on 96% of the time. In the context of the I-SEM go-live date on 23 May and the expected removal of Kilroot’s coal units due to the results of the T-1 capacity auction, AES would question the discrepancy in approach to load centre stability between Belfast and cities in the South. We would encourage the publication of the technical assessment carried out to determine that the Kilroot coal units are not required, so it could be compared to the October 2017 declaration of Kilroot’s criticality.

  • Further in parallel with this publication, SONI and the UR should outline (i) details of the clear rationale for the change to their proposed operation regime, (ii) details of the risk assessment carried out to ensure they were not taking on any increased level of risk in how they operate the NI electricity system on behalf of Northern Ireland electricity consumers without such consumers being fully aware of, consulted with, and comfortable with, any potential additional risk.

There is a requirement for three power stations to be on load at all times in the region to keep the grid stable. Two of those are Kilroot and Ballylumford. If they close down, blackouts are a certainty for Northern Ireland. What will the cost be to the economy there as industry is forced to shut down or depend on their own off grid electricity sources ?

The media are focused completely on the impact of Brexit and the Irish border on the North's economy. But in the end, it may well turn out that political decisions made about their electricity sector will have the most adverse impact. Perhaps then, people will wish they discussed this issue a lot more.


  1. Ballylumford C operated by AES (600MW) and Coolkeeragh operated by ESB (400MW) are both closed circuit gas turbines. This leaves Ballylumford B (650MW OCGT) and Kilroot (650MW dual fuel) to keep the lights on when wind is low.

    The BBC report of 26 January 2018 says that Kilroot power station in County Antrim is facing closure within months with the loss of up to 240 jobs. A further 30 jobs are under threat at Ballylumford power station. Kilroot failed to win a major generation contract in an auction process to supply the all-island Single Electricity Market (SEM).

    AES UK & Ireland president Ian Luney said that over the last three years Kilroot met 22% of local electricity demand and he was "surprised" at the decision not to award the contract. A contract relating to part of the Ballylumford power station, near Islandmagee, has also not been renewed, threatening 30 jobs there. Of the other jobs, 120 are staff at Kilroot and the other 120 relate to contractors.

    The chief executive of the Utility Regulator, Jenny Pyper, said it was important to note that the SEM auction only allocates capacity for the next year and that "There will continue to be commercial opportunities for new and existing generators to participate in the market in further auctions later this year. The decision to close the Kilroot plant has now triggered the Plant Closure Process which is designed to ensure security of supply and the needs of the system continue to be met".

    Robin McCormick, general manager of SONI said: "We are confident that the generators who have been successful in that auction process will provide sufficient and secure generation for NI at the lowest possible cost."

    This leaves the post Brexit NI grid highly dependent on the HVDC Moyle Interconnector, which has had a very patchy past since 2011. One recalls a certain financial regulator in another jurisdiction who was happily confident in banking reserves before the system crashed. This blog had given a timely reminder to get out and bend the ears of your MPs and MLAs before confidence crashes on the hard rocks of reality!

    1. The moyle interconnector is counted as non synchronous generation therefore will be of no use for system stability. The ocgts are currently used for reserve and replacement reserve. So I'm still unsure how they intend to keep the lights on.

  2. Even if the North South interconnector is built, it will be at least two years and possibly four before it is commissioned. The Northern Ireland grid is the only market for any generator which begs the question of how can they survive a one year loss in sales and the uncertainty of whether they will ever get back in. No retail store, farm, airline and hotel could survive that, how can power stations do so?