Northern Ireland electricity grid can now be run from state-owned Dublin control room

Northern Ireland’s electricity grid can now be operated from an Irish government-owned control room in Dublin, it has been confirmed.

Thursday, 11th April 2019, 12:59 pm
Updated Thursday, 11th April 2019, 1:02 pm
SONIs general manager, Robin McCormick, in the Belfast control room. But the grid can also now be operated from Dublin
SONIs general manager, Robin McCormick, in the Belfast control room. But the grid can also now be operated from Dublin

Several industry sources have told the News Letter that technical changes to allow Northern Ireland’s grid to be controlled from Dublin have been put in place without publicity over recent years.

The System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI), which runs the grid in Northern Ireland, confirmed that the grid was operated from both Belfast and Dublin “on an economic basis for the benefit of customers in both jurisdictions”.

One industry source said that the move made practical sense and was an outworking of the single electricity market on the island of Ireland.

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But the history of electricity in Northern Ireland makes the development politically sensitive.

In 1974, electricity workers at Ballylumford power station cut electricity supplies as part of the Ulster Workers’ Council strike and it was the threat to turn off electricity entirely which saw Stormont’s power-sharing Sunningdale Agreement administration collapse.

In 2009, SONI was sold to Eirgrid, the Irish state-owned company which runs the grid south of the border, while Arlene Foster was Stormont’s energy minister. The following year, also during Mrs Foster’s tenure, another Irish government-owned company, ESB, bought Northern Ireland’s entire electricity network of pylons and cables. It also owns one of the main power stations, Coolkeeragh.

SONI is now facing a strike by members of the Prospect trade union, mainly over pay. However, some staff have also raised concerns about SONI’s independence from Eirgrid.

The News Letter asked SONI whether it was possible for Eirgrid control room staff in Dublin to dispatch electricity generation north of the border and whether Eirgrid staff would be brought in to help run the system during the industrial action.

SONI said in a statement that its operational licence “contains conditions to ensure our independence” and insisted it was “compliant with this requirement”.

It said that the wholesale electricity market has been operated on an all-island basis since the Single Electricity Market was launched in 2007 and “the dispatch and scheduling of generation is done on an economic basis for the benefit of customers in both jurisdictions, undertaken on a shared basis via the two control centres in Belfast and Dublin”.

SONI said that the trade union was “committed to maintaining security of supply in the actions planned” and “on this basis, SONI has made arrangements to ensure that the industrial action would have no impact on the integrity of the Northern Ireland electricity system”.

It urged the union to call off the strike and enter into talks.

Professor Jon Tonge, who has researched the collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement, said that although Harold Wilson and Merlyn Rees had never really believed the agreement would work, they had been willing to give it a chance but “once the lights were literally going to go out was when they called time on it”. “Electricity was everything in 1974,” he said.

“The electricity workers were literally pulling the plug on a country – that was the crucial moment when they paralysed Northern Ireland.”

The University of Liverpool academic said that control of electricity had been a “toxic” issue at that point and the fact that things have changed so radically “speaks volumes” about wider political changes.

“Dublin is in one aspect literally controlling the north. That speaks volumes for the change in all-island relationships. In 1974, even broader economic cross-border activity was sometimes seen as threatening.

“But we have seen a thawing, not just politically but societally – the two business classes barely recognise the border. There has been a withering of the border which is reflected here in an all-island electricity system where in effect power is conceded to the south – quite literally.”

The Northern Ireland Utility Regulator said that its immediate priority was to ensure that services are maintained and consumers protected. The regulator said it had formally sought information from SONI on the nature and implication of the industrial action. It said that as yet it had not been informed of “any intention for Eirgrid staff to be used to operate the SONI control room”.