Action needed to ‘keep Northern Ireland’s lights on’ beyond 2021

Ballylumford power station is nearing the end of its operational lifespan
Ballylumford power station is nearing the end of its operational lifespan

Northern Ireland could struggle to “keep the lights on” beyond 2021 unless decisions are taken to secure sustainable electricity supplies, a new report has revealed.

With the main power stations at Kilroot and Ballylumford nearing the end of their operational lifespans – relying largely on imported gas, coal and oil – the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster has heard evidence describing the proposed new North-South Interconnector as “essential”.

South Antrim Ulster Unionist MP Danny Kinahan sits on the committee.

He said the problems for the energy sector were worsening due to a lack of ministers at Stormont to “take strategic decisions”.

“I have long argued that the previous economy minister was complacent regarding the long-term future of Northern Ireland’s energy supply, indeed such concerns were considered ‘alarmist’ by minister Hamilton,” he said.

“In their evidence to the committee the CBI noted that the lack of long-term certainty regarding our energy supply has hindered our ability to attract foreign direct investment,” Mr Kinahan added.

The report, which is published today, states: “Of all the evidence we took during the committee’s inquiry, one of the most clear and consistent messages we heard was that the new North–South Interconnector (cross-border overhead power cable) was essential for ensuring security of supply in Northern Ireland.

“The then minister for the economy, Simon Hamilton MLA, described it as, ‘perhaps the key piece of new energy infrastructure in Northern Ireland’.

“SONI’s [System Operator NI] evidence was particularly striking ...’without the second North–South interconnector, as [the system operator] SONI cannot be confident that we can ‘keep the lights on’ beyond 2021.”

The report goes on to say that the interconnector proposal “has near unanimous support from across the electricity sector” in Northern Ireland.

“We recognise that there are objections to the new interconnector regarding its likely impact on the landscape.

“However, the evidence we have received strongly suggests building the interconnector underground would be financially and technologically impracticable,” the report adds.

• In his evidence to the Westminster committee, the then minister for the economy, Simon Hamilton, said he had no concerns about security of supply up until 2020.

The committee’s report states: “He also told us it was not necessary to be ‘alarmist’ regarding security of supply concerns beyond then, but that he was mindful of the importance of the issue.”

The reports adds that Mr Hamilton believed Northern Ireland “could be in a far worse position,” as the new interconnector, the proposed new power station at Belfast Harbour and other options mean ‘we will look back and say we were worrying about nothing’ in years to come.