The lights go out over Ireland

The countdown to blackout chaos
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The Independent Online

The Republic of Ireland is facing a California-style electricity crisis that could mean a sputtering supply within six months and complete failure in two years.

Sources in the industry warn that emergency measures drawn up by the Irish government over the past 12 months make good sense, but come far too late to solve a problem that has been brewing for years. Even if power stations were built now to cope with future demand, they would not be ready for at least four years. Projections in an official consultation paper in May last year show total supply levels outstripped by demand by 2004.

But the problem could occur far sooner, forcing businesses and homes to endure surprise blackouts and California-style measures to curb overall consumption. That scenario, say insiders at ESB, the Republic's state electricity company, is the direct result of recent emergency measures.

With the weather forecasters predicting a long, cold winter on the island, the ESB announced last year that it would be cancelling all planned maintenance on its power stations, to ensure the supply remains constant throughout the period.

That move in itself revealed a major weakness of the present network; a healthy grid will usually operate with a 20 per cent excess of supply so power stations can be taken off-line for servicing. ESB's decision has been interpreted by energy analysts as a sure sign that the Irish grid is already operating on a very thin margin of surplus.

But a worse situation could arise in six months when the power stations start to suffer the strain of lack of proper maintenance. "Power stations are not built to withstand 365-day-a-year operation, but that is what they will have had by then," said a source at the ESB. "It is a given that you are going to see forced shutdowns for some of them."

The problem originated with the ESB's historic strategy of building gas-powered stations, a decision that made sense over the past decade, when natural gas prices were favourably low. Now the price of gas has soared, having 90 per cent of the Republic's electricity reliant on it has become cripplingly expensive. To add to the ESB's woes, the country's own supply of natural gas, farmed outside Cork, is expected to last only 12 months.

The Irish government, which has rejected wind and nuclear power ideas, is looking at two possible solutions. One involves an expensive plan to bring power from Scotland. The other centres on a home-grown company, called AuIron energy.

The company hopes to exploit lignite reserves discovered in the Eighties and use them to power a station. "There is a supply down there that could last 100 years," the chief executive, Neill Arthur, said. "The situation in Ireland is bad, but it has been on the horizon for years. You are asking for chaos if you don't use a wide range of fuel types, and have indigenous resources."