When Eirgrid’s €500m overhead power line to connect Munster and Leinster is built, it will have the scope to create a much more efficient electricity grid and integrate more renewables, such as wind, according to the project’s manager John Lowry. But before that, the State-owned company is still engaging with the public as part of its consultation process to come up with the best route for the power line.
Eirgrid first announced the €500m Grid Link project in April of last year to connect Leinster and Munster with a new 400kV overhead circuit. The move is part of Eirgrid’s €3.2bn Grid25 strategy to upgrade Ireland’s electricity transmission grid by 2025.
The Grid Link project came about after the State-owned company detected gaps in capacity in the south and east of the country, with the proposed lines set to go through Carlow, Cork, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford and Wicklow.
"It’s a 400kV circuit that is connecting stations at Knockraha in Co Cork to Great Island in Co Wexford and up to Dunstown in Co Kildare," explains Lowry.
Consulting with the public
"We carried out our first consultation in April and that fed back into the second phase of the project, which was all about identifying the constraints in that study area."
He describes such constraints as including population and settlement patterns across the region, how the land is used, biodiversity and the overall landscape.
Eirgrid mapped out all of this information right across the study area to create a constraints report.
"We went back out in August to consult on that aspect of the project. We are trying to engage as many people as we possibly can, so they have the opportunity to influence the outcome," says Lowry.
"That was the second phase of the consultation and that took us up to October. Our technical, environmental and design engineers take all of that information away and what we have to do now is identify the appropriate corridor options," he explains.
Typically, these will be 1km-wide corridors. And while an overhead line is a fairly narrow piece of infrastructure, Lowry says that within that 1km-wide corridor Eirgrid will refine that down further to define the actual route of the circuit.
"The next stage of the project is about identifying the various corridor options in which the infrastructure may occur."
He says Eirgrid will hopefully have this information available by early this summer.
However, there will be two more consultation phases to get through before Eirgrid’s engineers and experts will assess all of the information, including consultation feedback, to identify what Lowry terms as the "least constrained corridor and the least constrained route within that corridor".
He concedes that the process to find the optimum solution with the least impact is a lengthy one.
"The challenge for us is getting this right and part of getting it right is listening to the public. The farming community is obviously a big stakeholder," he adds.
To date, Eirgrid has run more than 20 information days and has set up four information offices in the south and east of Ireland as part of the consultation process.
"When we go into the next phase of our consultation we will be having a series of open days across the region," says Lowry.
So when is construction set to start on the Grid Link project?
"It will be developed over eight to 10 years. We are in the second year of it, as it were. We would hope to submit for planning to An Bord Pleanála within 2015. That’s largely due to the amount of engineering work and environmental assessment that has to be carried out and the amount of consultation that we are carrying out before then," explains Lowry.
He says the aim is that the infrastructure will be ready by 2020.
As for the jobs that Grid Link will create, Lowry says there are already about 40 engineers and experts working on the project.
The construction phase, he says, will create several hundred jobs.
"More importantly, it is what happens after that. Once this project is energised by 2020 there’s the indirect potential for jobs," he says, pointing to how electricity infrastructure is a key factor for foreign direct investors.
For instance, he points to how Intel’s Leixlip campus consumes the equivalent electricity to Galway City.
Lowry says the Grid Link will become an attractive proposition for future investors when looking to the south and east of the country.
Integrating renewable energy
Ireland has a national target of achieving 40pc of all electricity need from renewables, mainly wind, by 2020.
"In order for us to do that we need to build the infrastructure that will support that large amount of renewable energy on the system," he says.
Currently, however, Lowry says that the amount of wind that’s currently on the system is quite high.
"The maximum demand on the system on a winter’s day is about 5,000 megawatts (MW). We have approximately 2,000MW of wind available on the system.
"We can cope with 50pc of our energy needs being fed from wind at any given moment, provided the wind is there. This is very sizeable and we really are world leaders in this area. What we are trying to do is push that boundary even further, up to 75pc by 2020," he adds.
However, he says the main figure to remember is 40pc – that Ireland has the capacity for 40pc renewables by 2020.
So where does the Grid Link come in to help meet that target?
"If you think of the national grid as one big organism, this piece of infrastructure, when it is built, will help create a much more efficient grid," explains Lowry, giving the analogy of a new motorway.
"You are moving traffic off the rest of the network, creating greater capacity. In electrical terms, the Grid Link project is like a motorway. The existing network is there but the demand on that is reduced as a result. Therefore you have more capacity, which means that more generation can be integrated into the system."
As for the main challenges with the Grid Link, Lowry says they include environmental and technical engineering issues. And, from the public’s perspective, he says the big one is the impact that the Grid Link will have, such as in visual terms.
"They are large pieces of infrastructure of infrastructure. We can’t get away from that. Unfortunately, they are necessary to develop the network that we have. The challenge for us is to listen to people’s concerns and to try and minimise the impact as much as we possibly can," he adds.
Join some of Ireland’s leaders and international experts at the Green Growth Forum that will take place at the Convention Centre in Dublin this Friday, 25 January, to look at how Ireland can be a leader in the low-carbon economy.