At 7 am on the morning of the 11th day of December in 2020 I stood in the cold and dark looking out over the river in Shannonbridge – waiting for the phone call to go on the radio and for a sunrise to emerge from the gloom in the local area.
This was the final day of operations for Shannonbridge power station – built by the state in 1965 and one of several electricity generating units developed all over the midlands for one very good reason – to create and sustain economic development and employment in one of the most barren stretches of our country.
For six decades these peat- and sod-burning power stations in Shannonbridge and Lanesborough had given very decent jobs to the people of Roscommon, Offaly, Longford and Roscommon, but in the course of just about ten days, both were to be closed down and the workers made redundant.
I remember that morning’s edition of Morning Ireland very well. I was in Shannonbridge to speak to former staff members and the local community about the impending closures. Like everyone else in the midlands, I was blue in the face listening to the experts telling us that fossil fuels had to go, that the train for decarbonisation was coming through and could not be stopped. We all knew very well the toll that the burning of fossil fuels was causing and the undeniable need for decarbonisation in our world. We didn’t really need to listen to speakers at an eco-conference in Glasgow to realise it, but it was the immediate backdrop to the closures that was on my mind that day. The ten days leading up the closure had been a tortuous time for EirGrid – the state agency responsible for overseeing our national energy supplies. The system to keep the lights on was already under threat and they had issued a severe warning that the country may see a number of power outages throughout the winter after the peat plants had shut down. Those words came after the all-time record demand for power, set in 2010, has been broken twice in the same week and the system went to amber – within hours of knocking out the whole country with power cuts.
In the end these crisis moments came and went largely because Eirgrid and the ESB were able to reopen other power stations that had been closed or shut down for service or repairs. But there was I on Morning Ireland listening to appeal after appeal for the lifetime of the two existing midlands power stations to be extended by even just a couple of years in a bid to ensure that the lights did not go out.
The message coming back from those in authority was that there was no need to extend the lifetime of the peat-burning units. ‘Fossil fuels must go’ was the cheerleaders’ motto and there could be no “fooling ourselves” in Shannonbridge or Lanesborough that keeping those two small power stations online would really help solve the problem facing the country. Therefore, the stations were wound down, even though thousands of tonnes of peat lay out on the bog, already having been harvested and stockpiled. The gates were closed and the locals were effectively told ‘move on’ and ‘nothing to see’ as the era came to an end.
The problem was the situation was even more serious than anybody knew that day – and the scenario affecting the nation’s critical energy supplies was about to get even worse in the next 10 months.
In the last few weeks the nation has woken up to the reality of just how bad things are. We have now been told that the state faces the reality of keeping the coal and oil-burning electricity plants we still have operating well beyond their scheduled closing dates to avoid power cuts. We’re told that all sorts of temporary solutions are going to be needed to keep the lights on in the years ahead.
In September, EirGrid warned us that that rising demand and power plant closures could leave the country with an energy shortfall of 1,050 megawatts (MW), one-fifth of its peak requirements, by 2025. This is incredibly serious for industry, but when they told us that in a bid to head off any crisis, the energy watchdog – the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities – is actually in talks with the owners of these gas- and oil-burning electricity generators about keeping them open well beyond the scheduled closing dates in 2023 and 2025, you will forgive me if I displayed a wry smile.
The ‘saviours’ of the nation’s power problems are of course not running on fresh air. The two stations that are now to be kept going much longer include two of the country’s highest carbon-emitting power plants, the ESB’s facility in Moneypoint, Co. Clare, which burns millions of tonnes of coal and produces up to 800MW of electricity, twice the capacity of most gas generators, and Scottish Southern Energy’s old 600MW Tarbert unit, which burns millions of gallons of oil.
I have to admit I looked at the statement from the regulator with some amusement. It stated that the intention will be “to extend the operation of the older, more carbon-intensive units” before admitting that closing some of the other older generators between 2023 and 2025 could give rise to “significant risks to system security” as replacement electricity plants may not be ready on time.
This situation now facing the nation and its energy supplies would actually be funny if it were not so serious. Everybody has long admitted that the power stations closed at Shannonbridge and Lanesborough were well short of their lifetime projected use and could have operated for at least another 8-10 years –yet here we have a new scenario where Tarbert in Kerry is due to close in 2023, while Moneypoint is scheduled to shut two years later and – the best part if you’re really interested in the decarbonbonisation agenda – is that extending their lifetimes of both of these will most definitely put paid to Government efforts to cut carbon emissions by seven per cent a year between now and 2030.
The truth is that after closing our two peat-burning stations, the fuels that are to burned to operate both Moneypoint and Tarbert will now emit more than twice the carbon produced by natural gas in this country. On top of that, the experts who know something about energy costs worldwide insist that that using coal and oil could drive up electricity charges, depending on what happens to the world market demand and the possibility of even further spiralling carbon taxes.
All of which brings me back to the bridge in Shannonbridge and that cool and dark December morning when the plug was pulled last year – and leaves me with four very serious questions for somebody with responsibility to answer: 1) Did anybody really consider the short to medium term implications of taking down two relatively new power plants when the national grid was already struggling last year? B) Notwithstanding the pressing concerns over global warming and much more, were the decision-makers blinded in their race towards the elimination of fossil fuels here in the midlands and the mad drive towards decarbonisation to the point where they didn’t actually see the reality of what was coming down the line? c) Isn’t what is happening totally hypocritical by the policy makers (burning twice as much coal instead of peat)? and d) Has anybody in authority the courage to stand up now and admit we actually made a mistake and we really do need these two power stations back in production with biomass and peat for at least a few more years until we can again stabilise the nation’s energy needs?
Let’s wait and see if anyone is brave enough to admit it.