It its latest Winter Outlook the operator of the country's electricity grid has warned that the balance between supply and demand is still tight.
There's still an ongoing risk of power cuts or blackouts this winter, according to the latest outlook from Eirgrid.
However the risk is less pronounced than last year when all of Europe was reeling from the effects of the war in Ukraine and wholesale gas and electricity prices were close to record highs.
Here we take a look at what blackouts are and why Ireland could be at risk of one over the coming months.
What is an electricity blackout?
A blackout is the most serious form of electricity outage.
It is a total crash of the electricity grid due to a mismatch between power generation and power consumption and usually results in power loss to a large region.
Blackouts are different to the types of outages that might occur during a storm, for example, when strong winds might knock down an electricity pole near your home and a repair crew arrives to fix the damage. In these cases, the power outage is confined to a small part of the overall electricity grid.
Why are we at risk?
The demand for electricity in Ireland has grown hugely over the past few years. The reasons are manifold:
- A growing population
- The growth in the number of data centres
- An increase in the number of electric cars
- An increase in the number of heat pumps, which run on electricity
- The electrification of our public transport system
- A lack of investment in the national grid
- A rapidly growing economy
At the same time as our demand for electricity has been growing, we’ve struggled to keep up with supply.
Although wind output is growing, it's highly volatile and on some calm days it can provide less than 10% of our electricity needs. There has also been a lack of investment in off-shore wind and other renewables such as solar.
This means we still need to rely heavily on gas, coal and oil-powered generators for when the wind doesn’t blow on land.
However many of these generators are ageing and are set to close down over the coming years. And some have aged quicker than expected as they have had to be turned on and off regularly in recent years depending on when the wind was or wasn't blowing (which they weren't designed to do).
Meanwhile the closure of the country's final two peat-operated power plants in 2020 to help us meet our climate targets restricted supply further.
Realising things were getting tight, Ireland's energy regulator (the CRU) has been trying to procure emergency temporary electricity generation over the past two years but it hasn't been as big a success as forecast. Many developers felt the terms on offer weren't competitive so didn't bother bidding to build new generators, while some of those who did agree to develop new electricity generation facilities pulled out at the last minute due to supply issues.
It means as we head into this autumn and winter when energy demand usually shoots up, the CRU has some concerns around blackouts as supply struggles to match demand.
Will a blackout occur?
It depends and no one can say for certain whether it will or won’t happen.
It’s important to remember that the job of Eirgrid and the CRU is to prepare for worst-case scenarios - “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail” as they say.
So just because Eirgrid and the CRU are warning about possible outages, it doesn't mean they’re likely to occur.
Based on estimates from Eirgrid in its latest Winter Outlook, customers could see a loss of electricity for up to two hours this winter. However last winter this metric was four hours, and no blackouts occurred, despite electricity demand reaching record levels on several days last December.
What's more, over the coming months some emergency generation is due to come on stream such as gas-fired generators in Huntstown, Co. Dublin, and diesel units in Shannonbridge and Tarbert. The ESB has also agreed to keep the coal-powered Moneypoint plant, which was due to close in 2025, open until 2029. These measures will help lessen the threat of a blackout.
If blackouts do occur this winter it’s highly likely that they’ll occur during a very cold spell in December or January, during calm weather when there is little wind output, and between the peak hours of 5pm and 7pm when energy demand is usually at its highest and when there'll also be no solar output.
This is why the Government is encouraging households to use more of their energy at off-peak hours. However, it’s possible we could see blackouts outside of these times.
A complicating matter is that Ireland can't rely on imports from the UK as much as it used to.
The East-West Interconnector is a deep undersea electricity cable that runs between Ireland and North Wales allowing Ireland to export electricity to the UK during times of high supply and import electricity from the UK during times when demand here is high. However the UK, like most countries, has been going through its own energy crisis of late and hasn't been able to export as much electricity to us as it usually can.
The margin between supply and demand this winter may be tight at times particularly over the 5-7pm evening peak. However, this winter, we do have more capacity becoming available to us over the coming months. This includes the Temporary Emergency Generation units that will gradually become available to us from next month. This is an insurance policy that will only be used if required to secure electricity supply.
EirGrid CEO, Mark Foley
The war in Ukraine
Unfortunately the war in Ukraine rumbles on but the conflict isn't likely to materially affect the risk of blackouts in Ireland.
Ireland uses gas to generate around 50% of our electricity so a shortage in gas would have an impact on the supply of electricity and increase the risk of blackouts.
But the greatest threat of a blackout this winter isn't from a disruption in gas supply due to the war (besides, none of our gas comes from Russia - it mainly comes from the UK).
As mentioned, we simply don't have enough generators to meet demand. Even if we had all the gas in the world, we'd still have a heightened risk of blackouts.
As former head of ESB International Don Moore has said: "I think it's important that people understand that we don't have one crisis, we actually have two. One crisis, the public are very familiar with and that's because very high gas prices are feeding into very, very high electricity prices, and that's directly as a result of the war in the Ukraine. But there is another crisis, which is entirely homegrown, and that is insufficient gas-fired generation on the system."
What happens in a blackout?
In short, the electricity over a wide area goes out.
Eirgrid will try to manage a blackout so that it only impacts households as a last resort.
If the electricity grid comes under severe pressure, large electricity users such as data centres and big businesses will first be asked to stop using electricity (as many will have their own back-up generators). The expectation is that this intervention alone should be enough to protect households and smaller businesses from blackouts this winter.
After that, Eirgrid will call on emergency generators to power up.
Strategic users such as ports, airports, hospitals, water installations and prisons will also be protected as much as possible.
However if all the stars badly align and we have very cold weather for a prolonged period of time coupled with little to no wind output, and no imports available from the UK, households could ultimately find themselves in the dark for a while also.
However it's unlikely a blackout will last for only a short period of time.
How to prepare for electricity blackouts
Although the risk of blackouts this winter is still quite small, it’s greater than it's been in recent years.
To help prepare:
- Keep a small supply of candles and matches to hand - though be mindful of fire safety. Invest in a few torches with batteries too.
- If you have a spare phone, keep it fully charged (but off) and placed somewhere easy to find.
- Remember to keep any power banks you have fully charged. This way, you'll be able to charge your phone in the event of a blackout.
- Investing in flasks so you can store boiled water and keep it hot is a good idea. Drinking hot water, tea or coffee is a way to keep warm if the heating goes off.
- Our increasing reliance on smartphones and devices means many of us don't know our friends' and family's phone numbers by heart. So keep your key contacts written down in an easily accessible place in case your phone runs out of battery.
- Your Wi-Fi and TV will be down. So no harm in having a few shows downloaded on the laptop or a good book to keep you occupied! However your broadband and phone should still work.
- ATM machines may also be affected while payment systems may go down so having a small amount of cash on you is not a bad idea. However most shops are unlikely to sell you anything if their tills aren't working.
During a blackout:
- Keep your fridge and freezer closed. Your appliance should keep cold for a few hours at least. However, place a towel underneath your freezer just in case.
- Turn off any appliances that were on to prevent a surge when the electricity comes back - but you can keep the odd light on so that you know immediately when electricity has been restored.
- Stay at home and don’t venture out if possible. It’s likely street lights and traffic lights will be out of action, making travelling more dangerous.
Switch supplier to save on your winter energy bills
It's not just blackouts that consumers are concerned about, but also high energy costs. However discounts are available to those who switch.
Here at bonkers.ie, you can easily compare gas and electricity prices from Ireland's main suppliers in just a few clicks. You'll be able to compare deals against your current plan and see what savings you could make.
If you need any help with the comparison and switching process, check out our Quickstart Guide.
Let's hear from you
Are you concerned about blackouts this winter? Do you have any other tips to help people prepare? We'd love to hear from you!