Ensuring a reliable electricity supply is vital to recovery
Interview with Eirgrid chief executive Fintan Slye
FINTAN Slye has not had an easy year. Just 12 months into the top job at an organisation that for decades enjoyed relatively little public scrutiny, the convivial Dublin man found himself at the centre of one of the biggest media storms the country has seen in a long time. It can be summed up in one word: pylons.
Over the last 12 months Grid West, Grid Link and the North-South Interconnector, the three innocuously named pylon-based infrastructural projects planned to upgrade the country's electricity transmission system, have generated a level of furore than has only been rivalled by garda bugging scandals and the Anglo Tapes.
Chatting over coffee at the company's offices in the leafy south Dublin suburb of Ballsbridge, home to 350 or so employees, Slye is still reeling.
"It's the speed at which it became a national issue that is the surprising thing," he says. "All of a sudden pylons became a national story, on the front page of newspapers every day."
He produces a printout of a headline from a regional Waterford newspaper that ran in June 2012, espousing the benefits that Grid Link would have for the local community. Compared to the damning headlines that dominated national newspapers just months later, it reads like one of those antiquated advertisements from the 1950s that espoused the medical benefits of cigarettes.
Eirgrid first introduced the idea of a massive 25-year upgrade plan for the country's transmission system in 2008, four years before Slye took on the chief executive role, when the word pylon hadn't even entered most people's lexicon. This multi-billion project is called Grid 25, but most people know it according to three of its major parts – Grid West (a proposed network of pylons connecting Mayo and Roscommon), Grid Link (Cork to Kildare via Wexford) and the North-South Interconnector (a long-delayed project designed to create an additional link between Northern Ireland's electricity system and the Republic's). The organisation is also in the process of taking over the management of energy planning for Northern Ireland.
Public criticism and the surrounding media frenzy about these plans only erupted when the route for Grid Link's pylons were plotted on a map, he says. And boy, what a media frenzy. To cut a long story short, Eirgrid was forced back to the drawing board. It has now commissioned a large-scale investigation into the viability of running the transmission cables underground, a far more expensive endeavour. Overseeing this is an independent committee led by former chief justice Catherine McGuinness.
Dublin-born Slye, an engineer by training, won't be drawn on the gory details. The negative publicity "put us in a very difficult position" is all he will say, while the early months of this year when debate reached a fever pitch were "the hardest part of my job yet", a period compounded by the fact that Eirgrid was embroiled in an extended public consultation process about its pylon proposals which had to be completed before it could actually give any concrete responses – a more in-depth public consultation process than any other ever carried out for an infrastructure project, he points out, which received 35,000 responses.
His preference for pylons over the underground option is still overwhelmingly clear. "We have no vested interest in pylons – we won't own the infrastructure, after all – but it's definitely our technology of choice," he says.
He rubbishes the health risks argument. "There are no health risks from pylons" he says firmly. "Standing over an underground cable actually raises your exposure to magnetic fields more than standing 30m from a pylon does . . . 95pc of what's built around Europe is overhead transmission lines – we're not doing anything unique."
But he also accepts that it's not just an engineering choice. "We discounted underground too early" he concedes.
Eirgrid is funded by consumers, taking around 5pc of every energy bill paid in the state as part of a charge called the Transmission Use of System (TUoS) tariff. This generated revenues of about €542m in 2012. Its responsibilities extend beyond infrastructure planning. It also runs the day-to-day operation of the island's electricity transmission network, the backbone of the system, which transfers bulk power from generators to load centres, and manages the wholesale energy market that buys power from the various generators who bid each day. This is operated on an all-island basis meaning multiple currencies and jurisdictions – the first of its kind in the world.
Much of this is done from its National Control Centre, a secure unit within the company's Ballsbridge headquarters where a round-the-clock team manages the transmission network and matches supply with demand in real time. It looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, all huge screens, flashing lights and binary numbers. There are multiple people trained to operate it even though relatively few are ever needed; Slye himself can even jump in in an emergency.
The transmission system is operated as a web, meaning that if one line goes down another can still supply power. No part of it failed during this winter's bad weather.
The same can't be said for the country's ragged distribution system, the next step down in terms of electricity transportation, the wires that bring power into our homes. These saw major failures during this winter's stormy weather, with thousands of homes losing power.
This is the reason why 19 companies are directly connected to the transmission network rather than, like everyone else, the more vulnerable distribution network. They are the kind of companies that either need huge amounts of energy, or who just can't afford failures in their electricity supply – drug makers, computer chip manufacturers and heavy industry. Their numbers include Intel, refinery operator Phillips 66 and pharmaceutical giants Merck and Wyeth. All are massive employers. Slye is keen to emphasis just how seriously they treat decisions made about the transmission system.
Eirgrid commissioned a survey last year by research firm Indecon to gauge the feeling among major employers and multinationals about the country's electricity transmission network. Twenty-nine firms, who employ a total of 24,000 staff in Ireland and 950,000 worldwide, responded.
Three-quarters described access to a high-quality electricity transmission network as "important or very important" in deciding whether to keep their business in Ireland. Half said that improving the energy grid would have a "major impact" on their business. A quarter described the current transmission system as "fair".
"We regularly meet with large users of power and some are very upfront about it . . . electricity is not the sole determinant for any multinational, but for some it is hugely important" he says.
It has been widely reported that customers' total bills will go up by 3pc to 5pc if underground cables are utilised over pylons. "For some companies, that equates to €1m extra a year," he says.
This has implications for the country's fragile economic recovery, he says. "A sustained economic recovery needs a decent transmission and distribution network. No one will come and invest here unless there is reliable infrastructure and competitive prices . . . it's a relatively fragile economic recovery at the moment. We need to understand the implications for industry and competitiveness."