The politically sensitive closure of one of Northern Ireland’s main electricity stations has been delayed – but the reasons remain unclear.
In January the owner of Kilroot power station just outside Carrickfergus announced that it would be closing suddenly after its coal-fired power units lost out in the first auction for the new all-island integrated electricity market.
The decision took on added political significance because the closure would make Northern Ireland more dependent on power coming from south of the border and the auction process under which Kilroot lost out was ultimately run by Eirgrid – a wholly-owned Irish state company which both runs the electricity grid in the Republic and has since 2009 owned its Northern Ireland equivalent, the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI).
Dismissing fears that its decision could jeopardise security of electricity supply in Northern Ireland, SONI’s general manager, Robin McCormick, said that it would deliver huge savings for electricity consumers and added: “We are confident that the generators who have been successful in that auction process will provide sufficient and secure generation for Northern Ireland at the lowest possible cost.”
Immediately after that auction AES, the owner of both Kilroot and Ballylumford – the two power stations which supply the bulk of the Province’s electricity – announced that it would be shutting the former plant on May 23 and also closing part of the latter.
However, the company had to apply to the Utility Regulator for a derogation to allow it to do so, and it is now clear that has not been granted.
Kilroot remains in operation and for much of yesterday was providing 20% of power required in Northern Ireland.
In the absence of any ministerial oversight and amid industry rumours that there may be a U-turn from SONI or the regulator, the delay in taking a decision about allowing Kilroot to close is contrary to the position outlined by the regulator in January, when it said that it would be working through the plant closure process with SONI and AES “over the coming weeks”.
However, some five months later there is not even a public timetable for when a decision will be taken. Last week SONI presented the regulator with a report on the issue.
One crucial change since January is that the new integrated Irish electricity market has been delayed from May to October due to “key IT defects”.
The initial proposed Kilroot closure date of May 23 was proposed by AES to coincide with the new market.
That market will have implications for Brexit, requiring some regulatory alignment after the UK leaves the EU.
A spokeswoman for SONI said: “We have completed a holistic system analysis. That report is now with the Utility Regulator. As a process is in place it would be inappropriate for us to make any further comment.”
A spokeswoman for the Utility Regulator said that it was “in a process” and was “working to a timetable shared with AES”.
AES, which owns Kilroot, said in a statement last month that the plant’s units which lost out in the auction for the new all-island market continue to operate providing “safe, reliable and critical energy, pending the decision of the derogation process”.
The company said that it continued to work with the Utility Regulator and SONI “to expedite the derogation process and find the best solution for Northern Ireland during this process”.
Trade union Unite said it had “repeatedly raised concerns in regard to the fact that this decision will leave Northern Ireland’s electricity system hugely reliant on a north-south interconnector which has yet to be built, a Moyle interconnector which is highly sporadic in its operation and totally dependent on external gas supply at a time of mounting geo-political insecurity”.