Sunday 31 July 2016

Investment in renewable energy will place upward pressure on bills - ESB chief

Pat O'Doherty says ESB will survive to take advantage of new market opportunities

Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30

ESB Chief Executive Pat O'Doherty
ESB Chief Executive Pat O'Doherty

Electricity bills will come under upward pressure because of the investment needed to transform the way we consume power, according to ESB chief executive Pat O'Doherty.

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O'Doherty told the Sunday Independent that the single biggest policy challenge in the sector is to move away from a primarily fossil-fuel-based system in a manner that maintains affordability.

"Looking at all of this technology and all these changes, it's going to require significant investment. And investment has the potential to drive up price, for sure. And the challenge from a policy point of view is to make sure that still delivers security of supply and meets the environmental obligations. But it does have the potential for prices to go up, there is a cost to this."

O'Doherty said that in the short term the prices of oil and gas drive electricity prices here - and that those prices are falling. He said Electric Ireland - the utility company arm of the ESB - was keeping its prices under review.

"At Electric Ireland, we know full well the imposition that the cost of electricity has on consumers. We are one of nine electricity companies in Ireland and we have to be competitive and we will be competitive. We will always be competitive," he said.

O'Doherty was speaking ahead of the 'Powershift' conference organised by the ESB and the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA). He said the conference aimed to create a national debate on energy and electricity, adding that it was important to focus on developing multiple renewable sources.

"I think there's always a danger in focusing on one single technology. I believe there's no single solution and the solution is going to come from a mix of different things. That is really important.

"What you're trying to do is to balance, first of all, the security of the electricity supply with the environmental component of it and affordability. So the danger is that if you throw all your eggs into one basket you might tick one of those boxes but you mightn't necessarily tick the others and you might end up ultimately backing the wrong horse.

"Solar is a component of that and solar with battery storage has the potential to be - the buzzword, of course - a gamechanger. If you think about it, if you in your home could put a solar panel on your roof and stick a battery downstairs, during the day you can generate electricity and store it then, so it's available to use at night time.

"Will it meet all your electricity needs in a home? Probably not, but then you'll use the network to back it up from power sources that are coming in over the network."

The European Union is currently progressing plans to set up an integrated energy market. This will present opportunities for Irish- generated power to be exported to the continent. Imported nuclear energy will also be a feature, O'Doherty added.

"In an integrated market, nuclear is just part of the mix - even if we don't have nuclear in this country - as will renewables in Ireland, which could be exported to Britain or France.

"Even right out in the future, if we crack the technology to get wave-powered electricity off the west Coast of Ireland, you could see us exporting electricity generated from wave."

O'Doherty believes the ESB, which was established in 1927 to develop this country's electricity network, will continue to survive in the new era.

"We've been a big part of electricity in that time, been a big part of enabling the Irish economy and the growth story that is modern Ireland today. And we believe we'll still be around.

"What we'll have to do is change. We've undergone significant change in the last decade and a half, with deregulation of the market. In 2000, we were the only electricity supply company in Ireland. We were 100pc of the generation in the country. We're now between 40pc and 50pc.

"We intend to be around and to enable and to facilitate and to be part of a lot of the changes that have taken place. We've a lot going on in innovation, in terms of the customer, in terms of enabling the customer with new technologies, in terms of replacing fossil-fuel generation."

O'Doherty said ESB is participating and will continue to participate in the export market.

"We're buying electricity from Britain and we're selling electricity into Britain. We have a power station and we have a couple of wind farms in Britain, we're building a renewable biomass plant in Tilbury Docks in London at the moment, and we're building a large 860 megawatt gas-fired power station in Manchester, so we see the two markets [UK and Ireland] coming together as a single market as being an opportunity for ESB."

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