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18 March 2004 Edition

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ESB's double blow to wind power

BY ROBBIE SMYTH

Confusion reigns this week as double standards and double speak are thwarting the development of a vital Irish industry. Communications and Natural Resources minister Dermot Ahern claimed last week that he had no plans for the privatisation of the ESB. Ahern said that "infrastructure such as wires and pipes are critical national assets".

Less than a month ago, the same minister announced the construction of two electricity connectors between Ireland and Wales, costing potentially €400 million. These 'pipes and wires' will be built and owned by private sector businesses.

WIND POWER BAD

The confusion only begins here, as a much larger problem is looming in the Irish energy sector. It's official, wind power is bad for the Irish economy. It will cause blackouts, impede reliability, throwing the whole island power network into chaos and will increase the price of electricity. There, you have been warned. This seems to be the view coming from both the ESB and the 26-County electricity regulator, while the coalition government remains remarkably silent on the issue.

Forget about the decrease in greenhouse gases, or the possibility of not burning as much precious fossils fuels or being able to reduce the 26-Counties' weekly bill of €90 million spent on imported fuel. We can't take the risk of wind power.

It seems in Ireland the government, ESB and other commercial interests don't really want Ireland to have a viable sustainable energy programme. Despite the fact the island has the most favourable wind regime in Europe, less than 1% of 26-County electricity comes from wind power.

In the past three months, a series of actions taken by the ESB and the Commission on Energy Regulation have seriously set back the development of sustainable alternative energy production in the 26 Counties.

FAST TRACK INCINERATORS

At the same time, increased efforts are being made to fast track incinerator-based power stations and develop new power interconnectors with Britain that could lead to nuclear power being sold into the Irish electricity market.

Last December, Electricity Regulator Tom Reeves halted any new wind farms coming onto the Irish power grid. After being advised by Eirgrid, ESB's National Grid company, Reeves announced that he had concerns about the "security and stability of the power system".

The problem, according to Reeves, is the "intermittent nature" of wind power. Depending on the weather, wind power can be either too strong or too weak and this means having other power plants ready to take up the slack.

However, this is not the view of Sustainable Energy Ireland, which argues that "no power stations are able to operate all the time without stopping". It also argues that "high quality modern wind turbines have an availability factor well above 90%".

FIVE YEAR DELAY

At present, wind power accounts for 210 megawatts of power with the potential to increase to 700 megawatts before the end of 2005; but this increase is, it seems, too much for Eirgrid to deal with right now.

The electricity regulator's solution is to develop a grid code for wind power. Eirgrid needs to be able to monitor and gauge accurately the performance of wind turbines and build this information into the procedures for managing the national grid. The ESB has known it has had to do this for the past five years, yet for now there will be a six month moratorium on new wind turbines coming onto the power grid.

However, the difficulties of wind power do not end here. The wind power sector's relationship with rural communities, where many of these wind farms are being sited, has been seriously damaged by the landslides in the Derrybrien area of Galway last year.

An ESB subsidiary, Hibernian Wind Power, was asked just three weeks ago by Galway County Council to "seriously study" the recommendations of reports written by the council into the probable cause of landslides near the sites where Hibernian were installing wind turbines.

THE COST OF WIND

The latest blow to the wind power sector has come from another ESB subsidiary, Eirgrid. Not content with convincing the regulator to halt any new power licences being granted to wind farms, the company's managing director has warned that electricity prices could rise by 15% to 25% if large amounts of wind energy are added to the Irish power network.

There was no mention of the reasoning behind the three years of price increases already being borne by ESB customers. There was an 8.6% increase in 2001, followed by a 9.8% hike in 2002, with a further 5.6% increase in 2003.

Some of these increases were allowed to make the Irish power market more attractive for international companies to come here and build new private profit-driven power stations. Price increases for wind power are not acceptable, it seems.

The reasoning behind this claim is that surplus electricity plants are needed to back up the national grid when wind energy output declines due to adverse weather conditions. The National Grid company has just released a new study on the economic effects of wind energy.

ESB ANTI WIND POWER?

The real question behind all of these issues is why wind power has become so unpopular within the ESB, which is now being split up into ESB networks that run the power network etc, and ESB National Grid, which is the transmission mechanism between the power stations and customers. All of this comes against a background where a survey conducted by Sustainable Energy Ireland found that 80% of Irish people are in favour of developing wind energy.

There are serious problems with the energy sector in Ireland that also need to be addressed but it seems that wind power, which offers the best opportunity for positive environmental and in the long run commercial success, is being deliberately marginalised.

For example, there are 45 wind farms seeking to come onto the national grid right now but they are being blocked by the regulator's moratorium. This is happening in the same week that the ESB has admitted that 10% of electricity being produced is being "lost" during distribution, with consumers bearing the cost.

GREENHOUSE GAS PROFITS

We are, in effect, incurring extra greenhouse gas emissions needlessly, yet environmentally safe power is not allowed onto the power grid. Yet if any of the proposed new waste to energy incinerators were finished today, they would be allowed onto the national grid.

Perhaps the most glaring double standard in the Irish energy market today is that, while wind power operators are being refused access to the national grid, and losing savings up to €20 million a week for the Irish economy, the CO2 producing power stations who have been given allowances to produce CO2 emissions can now trade these emissions for profit under the new guidelines set up by the coalition government to allow a short term meeting of our Kyoto protocol commitments. It seems it is true what old proverbs say about ill winds.

€90 million - the money spent weekly in the 26 Counties on imported fuel

• 1% - the proportion of 26-County electricity currently coming from wind power.

• 5 years - how long ago the ESB knew they had to develop a code for integrating wind power into the 26-County electricity grid

• 6 months - how long more wind power operators will have to wait for the code

• 15% to 25% - the possible rise in electricity prices from integrating wind power into the electricity grid according to ESB

• 8.6%, 9.8%, 5.6% - the rise in electricity prices in 2001, 2002 and 2003 in order to make the business more attractive for private sector investors

• 80% - the proportion of Irish people in favour of wind power

• 45 - the number of wind farms ready to come onto the national grid right now

• 10% - the proportion of electricity being "lost" during distribution, with consumers bearing the cost

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