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Rabbitte to request Chairperson to convene Expert Panel at an early date

electricity pylons

Dublin, 29 January 2014

Yesterday, in response to EirGrid’s recent public consultation process, I announced that I have appointed an independent panel of experts, to be chaired by Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness, to decide terms of reference for comprehensive, route-specific studies of fully underground options for both Grid Link and Grid West.

Studies of the overhead and underground options will then be published side-by-side, in objective and comparable terms, before proceeding to the next stage of public consultation on those two projects.

The two studies will take account of environmental (including visual amenity) impacts, technical efficacy and cost factors.

The independent panel will have power to commission its own work if there is any perceived deficiency in the studies presented.

Three matters have subsequently arisen which I believe need some clarification.

First, I would stress that the expert panel will not be asked to express a preference or to make any recommendations in relation to overhead or underground options. Rather, they will be asked to ensure that the underground studies are complete and objective, and are comparable to similar studies of overhead options for the two projects. In effect, the panel will certify the integrity of the process, with the commissioned material being put out for public debate and, ultimately, for consideration and decision by the planning authorities.

Second, I would emphasise that the electro-magnetic fields (EMF) issue will not fall under the remit of the expert panel. Responsibility for this rests with the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government. Minister Phil Hogan agreed yesterday that he will engage expert assistance to review and report on international developments in the scientific literature on potential health effects of EMF emanating from transmission grid infrastructure. It is anticipated that this study will provide the best available information on:

  • published, peer reviewed scientific literature relating to non-ionising radiation and associated epidemiological matters,
  • work carried out under, and findings of, relevant international bodies, as well as
  • relevant international and national standards and guidelines covering the period 2007 to date.


The study will serve as an update on a report, “Health Effects of Electromagnetic Fields”, which was produced by my Department in 2007.

In that regard, I want to emphasise that the best advice available to EirGrid and to me is that there have been no developments since 2007 which would give cause for concern regarding the health effects of EMF.

Therefore the issue of placing an expert in this area on the McGuinness panel does not arise.

Third, as I’ve said, my response yesterday was to the Grid Link and Grid West projects. The arrangements relating to the North South transmission line are different for several reasons. The reality is that planning for this project has been underway for the last 10 years. A planning application has already been submitted for the part of the project in Northern Ireland and that planning process is in train.

Detailed studies have already been conducted for the project, most recently by the Independent International Commission of Experts appointed in July 2011, arising from a commitment in the Programme for Government. And a route-specific underground analysis was conducted by PB Power, which found that the cost of undergrounding would significantly exceed the cost of the more usual overhead cables. The PB Power analysis was considered and confirmed by Independent Commission, who estimated that the cost of undergrounding would be at least three times that of overhead cables.

The North-South transmission line is a critical and strategically urgent transmission reinforcement and is of critical importance in the broader North-South context. This is because, as well as reinforcing the grid in the North East region of the State, the transmission line will be a vital link in maintaining the security of electricity supply for Northern Ireland into the future.

I recognise, however, that the public would be reassured if they knew that the overhead and underground options for North South have both been investigated and that the already published studies are sufficient to enable a similar comparison be made by Bord Pleanála when they come to decide on the merits of this planning application.

I am meeting the chair of the independent panel, Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness, this coming Friday to discuss the work programme for the panel. Before yesterday’s Cabinet meeting the Taoiseach asked me and I agreed that I would ask Judge McGuinness to consider what work if any her panel might usefully undertake to establish that there has been parity of treatment between the North South project, in terms of the work undertaken to date, and Grid link and Grid West, in terms of the studies that are now proposed. This is of course a matter for decision by Judge McGuinness and her colleagues.

I am attaching to this statement a summary of significant factors relating to the North South project.
ENDS


Appendix

The North South Transmission Line

Strategic importance

The North South transmission line is a high capacity line linking the existing substation in Woodland, Co. Meath with a planned substation in Turleenan, Co.Tyrone. It is a critical and strategically urgent transmission reinforcement. The Ireland and Northern Ireland electricity markets are merged and form the all-island “Single Electricity Market” (SEM). While established and operating outside the context of the Good Friday Agreement and its attendant institutions, the SEM is perhaps the single most significant example of smooth and seamless North-South cooperation, at legislative, governmental and regulatory level, in the joint management of a key sector of our economic and industrial infrastructure.

The transmission line is vital in giving an infrastructural underpinning to the SEM. While there is an all-island market in place, lack of interconnection curtails the full benefits of that market being realised.

Currently there is only one high capacity transmission line between the electricity transmission networks of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The benefits of this arrangement are restricted by the significant risk of separation and consequent destabilisation of the two systems; by the physical capacity of the existing line; by planned and unplanned outages; and by the need to allow for unexpected changes in generation and demand. These risks will be significantly reduced by construction of the second North South transmission line, which will provide a separate power flow independent of the existing transmission line.

Further, the reality is that the SEM is not delivering full benefits to consumers and cannot do so unless the North South transmission line is delivered. This is because, without the line, the least cost generators cannot run and more expensive generators have to be scheduled. The cost of less expensive plants not running, called constraint cost, is shared equally across all consumers on the island. The associated constraint costs are adding €20m to €30m to all-island consumers’ bills for every year of delay to the project. Neither Grid Link nor Grid West is as critical to the proper functioning of the SEM or to the security of the all-island electricity system.

AC/DC technology
The Irish electricity system is an alternating current (AC) system. That is to say, power is generated, transmitted, distributed and, ultimately, consumed on an AC basis. It is possible to underground an AC cable for a short distance (a few kilometres), to cope with areas of high amenity, for example. But, if a power cable is to be undergrounded for any greater length, then the only option is to convert the power to direct current (DC).

This requires, at a minimum, the installation of converter stations at both ends of the undergrounded line, each of them larger than Croke Park’s pitch and nine storeys tall. It also means that, if it is decided now or in the future to make a branch from the DC line, to meet energy needs along the route of the line, then another converter station must be installed, at a cost five times more than branching from an AC line.

In addition to these considerations, installation of DC power gives rise to operational difficulties. In other words, it is one thing to ship power from one grid to another grid via a high voltage DC cable. It is, however, quite another matter to install a DC transmission line as the North-South ‘spine’ that is intended to lead to a single, integrated, all-island AC transmission and distribution system.

A power system is like a living creature with the AC lines and cables acting as its nervous system. Any problem or disturbance, like a lightning strike or generator trip, is instantly felt throughout the AC system and it naturally responds to keep the system stable. This natural behaviour of AC systems is how it is possible to provide electricity, with millions of constant changes, reliably to customers. The larger the AC system, the more stable it is and the less reserve, (which costs money) is needed. DC connections are operated by computer based control systems and are very effective at moving power but they do not have the natural response to problems that AC systems do.

Between Northern Ireland and Ireland there is already one AC connection and engineers must keep enough reserve available to protect consumers if this line has a fault: a second AC line would remove this need and allow the two systems to act as one, delivering important potential efficiencies and savings for customers. While a new DC connection would allow extra trade, it would not allow the two systems to act as one and so the major benefits of lower reserves and increased security would not be fully delivered.

Northern Ireland’s supply needs
The construction of the North South transmission line is also of critical importance in the broader North-South context. As well as reinforcing the grid in the North-East region of the State, with the attendant benefits for industry and consumers, the transmission line is a vital link in maintaining the security of electricity supply for Northern Ireland into the future. Northern Ireland is facing an increased risk to security of supply from 2016 onwards if the North South project is not delivered. Thus, further delays to its construction are a security of supply issue for Northern Ireland as well as an issue of increased costs.

It needs also to be borne in mind that the North South transmission line will cover 100km of line south of the border and 40km north of the border. The project requires a common engineering approach and, therefore, any decision to elect for an underground option south of the border would impose a similar solution north of the border, and the attendant additional costs on Northern Ireland consumers.

Previous Studies
Planning for the North South transmission line has been underway for the last 10 years. A planning application has already been submitted for the part of the project in Northern Ireland and that planning process is currently in train.

Detailed studies have already been conducted for the project, most recently by the Independent International Commission of Experts appointed in July 2011 which reported in February 2012. EirGrid has taken full account of the contents of those studies in finalising the planning application which is expected to be lodged shortly with An Bord Pleanála. The project is an entirely alternating current (AC) overhead design.

The report of the Independent Commission arose from the commitment contained in the Programme for Government to review the case for, and cost of, undergrounding all or part of the proposed Meath-Tyrone transmission line. An earlier route-specific underground analysis was conducted by PB Power, which found that the cost of undergrounding would significantly exceed the cost of the more usual overhead cables. The PB Power analysis was considered and confirmed by Independent Commission, which estimated that the cost of undergrounding would be at least three times that of overhead cables.

While numerous other studies had already been completed internationally with regard to undergrounding generally, in 2009 the then Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources commissioned an independent study on Comparative Merits of Overhead Electricity Transmission Lines versus Underground Cables. That study was conducted by international consultants Ecofys, and it concluded that underground cables do not compare favourably to overhead lines in terms of adequacy of the electricity transmission system.

The study also noted that internationally, overhead lines are the standard choice for high voltage transmission connections. This remains the case today in that high voltage lines which are an integral part of transmission systems, such as the line planned for Meath-Tyrone, are almost always overhead as indicated in the table below.

Country400kV Overhead Line (km)400kV Underground Cable (km)% Cable
Austria2783551.94%
Belgium133500%
France2136130.01%
Germany20237700.34%
Great Britain117502291.91%
Ireland43900.0%
Netherlands2061301.43%
Spain19567550.28%
Sweden1070080.07%
Switzerland178080.45%
Source: ENTSO-E
Note: Since the figures above were compiled a small section of 400kV network has been implemented in Ireland related to the East West Interconnector in Woodland.



The Independent Commission reviewed the various reports relating to the Meath-Tyrone project, as well as international projects which the members considered were pertinent, and also reviewed previously published studies on the underground versus overhead issue.

The report noted that new high voltage direct current (HVDC) technology was a feasible technical solution, implemented as underground cable, for the Meath-Tyrone project but estimated that the cost of implementing the project as an underground cable option would be three times the cost of the classical overhead line option. In addition, inserting a DC line into a single, meshed AC system would have system operation implications. The Commission did not recommend any particular technical option but provided its own assessment of the feasible technology options available for consideration for the project in the context of changes in technology, suppliers and costs in recent years. The Commission noted that there is no single ‘right’ solution and that technical solutions must be project specific.

Finally, it is worth noting that, as an interconnecting transmission line between two EU Member States, the project has been designated by the European Commission as a Project of Common Interest (PCI) and therefore deemed subject to EU Regulation No. 347/2013. Article 7 of the Regulation states that “projects of common interest shall be considered as being of public interest from an energy policy perspective, and may be considered as being of overriding public interest”. It places an obligation on the Member States involved, in this case Ireland and the UK, to consider the project to be of the “highest national significance possible and be treated as such in permit granting processes”. It further requires that “all authorities concerned shall ensure that the most rapid treatment legally possible is given” to the any applications for consent.



 

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