Power Blackouts: Contingency Plan or Reality?
Not only are energy prices soaring in Ireland, but there is also a possibility that the country may be facing electricity shortages for the next five winters! Read on to find out more.
Why is There an Electricity Shortage in Ireland?
Various factors are contributing to the current energy crisis in Ireland:
- The global energy shortage.
- An increase in large data centres in Ireland.
- The lack of wind.
- A growing number of electric vehicles.
Let’s explore these contributing factors in more detail below.
The global gas and energy shortage
This shortage has been talked about numerous times since consumers were suddenly hit with the news that seven Irish energy providers increased their prices at the same time back in April 2021. Electricity and gas prices have been soaring out of control since then, with suppliers having to regularly advise their customers of continuous price changes. Energy companies have blamed the spike in wholesale electricity prices in the process.
As the economics Law of Supply and Demand states, the less gas available, the higher its price. In this case, the price of gas has risen by precisely 250% in a year!
One of the contributors for the gas shortage was the year and a half of confinement from 2020 to 2021. There were fewer workers globally available to extract gas as we were all confined to the four walls of our respective homes.
When the entire planet came out of confinement, manufacturers fired up their plants again, offices and restaurants re-opened, and everything restarted worldwide. Unfortunately, we had half of the gas in hand because its extraction was considerably slowed for a whole year.
To compound the issue, every day our society requires more energy rather than less. Now, Russia, the most important exporter of gas to Europe, has stopped providing gas altogether, creating an even bigger shortage, and consequently a spike in price due to less availability of the resource.
An increase in large data centres
Ireland has managed to attract big data corporations, such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook, to set up shop in the country. Such top brand names are great for the economy, but they are putting a large stress on the energy demand.
These corporations require large servers to store all the data they accumulate. These servers need to be kept in cool rooms where the air conditioning runs 24/7, 365 days a year.
So much energy, Eirgrid estimates that data centres will account for 27% of Ireland’s electricity consumption by 2030. This is why the operator has called for a moratorium on new data centres in the Dublin area in July of this year.
Seeing the incredible amounts of energy data centres are using, some people are now calling for their ban in Ireland despite the economic downfall that may bring.
The lack of wind
In an effort to solve the increasing heatwaves, global warming and gas emission problem, Ireland has opted to invest heavily into renewable energy, such as wind. According to the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA), €14.75 billion has been invested in wind power since 2007.
Today, due to the climate changing its usual patterns, winds have not been blowing as much as before. Consequently, they are not producing the energy originally hoped for, and are therefore unable to answer to the country’s increase in energy demand.
It seems that Mother Nature is not without her sense of irony. She appears to disagree with the rescue path we have chosen for her.
COP21, better known as the Paris Agreement, was hailed as a real breakthrough back in 2015. It is the first climate change protocol where all 186 countries are bound to report on their progress, Ireland included.
The agreement is meant to entice governments to favour actions to help curb climate change over decisions that would hinder it.
Ireland’s current conundrum is the perfect example of this.
The easiest and quickest solution to increase energy production and avoid potential rolling blackout periods would be to fire up coal and oil power plants. Due to the current situation, their scheduled closures are now being pushed back to help fight the current energy shortage.
However, the government wants to avoid using this resource as much as possible as it would be counterproductive to reducing carbon emissions, and these targets constitute law.
In fact, the Irish Independent reported back in June of 2022 that ESB Networks will be constructing three new gas-fired power plants near Dublin to meet electricity demand. Heading in the opposite direction of environmental policies to push renewable energy sources.
Growing number of electric vehicles
On the other hand, in an effort to reduce carbon emissions, Ireland has seen a big increase in the purchase of hybrid and electric vehicles. With the continuous growth and installation of charging stations across the country, more and more people are getting on board the EV revolution.
For the first half of 2022, the Society of the Irish Motor Industry reported that 13% of new car sales were electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids 7.6%, and 22.5% for hybrid cars. This is double the amount of EVs sales compared to the same period a year ago.
As one can imagine though, replacing petrol with electricity is a tremendous increase in energy demand when we are already in a shortage situation.
What is the Energy Contingency Plan?
The government has prepared a contingency plan in case our winter energy demands surpass the grid's capacity.
Last August 2021, the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities (CRU) dropped the plan to seek an alternative €150m for mobile generators to solve the energy shortage situation. This is what first sparked speculations of potential rolling blackouts in Ireland.
That was followed by Ministers on the Cabinet Committee on Climate Change being advised by Eirgrid of power cut threats and that power cuts in the family home could be a possibility.
Since then, the government has released a few public statements in an attempt to appease power blackout concerns.
Environment Minister Eamon Ryan and Taoiseach Micheál Martin expressed confidence at the time that power outages would be avoided but cannot be “absolutely certain” there will be no power outages.
Instead, the Ministers have announced that in the event of power shortages, Data centres and large energy users would be the first to go off the national electricity grid. Hospitals and private homes would be the last to face power cuts.
Under the contingency plan, the hierarchy would be as follows:
- Large energy users (i.e., data centres)
- Non-critical users (i.e., cement factories)
- Private homes
Rest assured that hospitals and other large consumers often have their own energy contingency plan in case of unscheduled power cuts. They often use their own on-site generators. Most private homes do not have such a backup. That is why they are listed at the bottom of the list as a last resort.
Will I Be Out of Power This Winter?
While all of this is happening, energy distributor EirGrid warned that under the current conditions, it will be unable to meet the rapid increase in energy demand in Ireland.
It said that emergency measures are needed to secure the country’s electricity supply which lead to last year's meeting with the Ministers on the Cabinet Committee on Climate Change.
Meanwhile, the CRU is trying its bit by encouraging consumers to reduce their energy consumption, the government stated that by reducing the thermostat by 1C this winter, consumers can reduce energy demand by 10%. There is no doubt, that a 1-degree difference in home heating can have a big impact on energy demand, but we would like to know where this 10% figure comes from; especially considering that data centres already account for 25% of the grid's total use!
If only we could revert back to that infamous quote, “Talk is cheap because supply exceeds demand”, then we wouldn’t have to worry about power blackouts for the next five winters!
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