President Michael D Higgins’ first job was as a clerk with the ESB, working in a payroll office in Galway in the early 1960s. With President Higgins taking his first steps into the world of trade unionism, Irish people applied for electricity by pledging that they would not fall below a minimum level of usage. That minimum level, used as a measure of qualification for supply, was two volts in one socket. Over fifty years later, with Higgins well into the fourth year of his first term as president of Ireland, there have been vast changes to the volume of electricity required and the array of electronic equipment used in Irish homes, according to Marguerite Sayers, managing director of ESB Networks. Speaking at the National Power and Electricity Summit, which took place last month, in Kildare’s Carton House, she said that ESB Networks, now more than ever, is being challenged to adapt and maintain the supply to people, when they want it and for what they want it for. Ireland is now at a crucial turning point in relation to energy and electricity consumption and has committed to delivering 40 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2020. In 2027, ESB Networks will celebrate 100 years of serving Irish electricity customers and the Irish State and is aware of its evolving role as a service provider. Sayers highlighted the three key areas the organisation must address to deliver the required service in a quality manner: the serving of existing customers, anticipation and provision of future requirements and the delivery of service at an acceptable price for customers.

Serving of existing customers

The first major change, since the majority of Irish homes were connected to the network, is the growing requirement Irish people now have of energy and their electricity supply, according to Sayers. The second change is the reliability of the system, as the public has an increasing impatience for disruption, so service continuity is paramount. The third change, one that is now crucial to all service providers, is access to information. “People want to know how they can get supply, how they can and cannot get connected and they expect this information through a range of platforms,” she explained. The continued delivery of necessary infrastructure is a massive part of how ESB Networks intends to serve its existing customers, the ESB Networks MD continued. Well-planned infrastructure means less congestion on the network and improved service levels. “A major issue for ESB Networks, when planning infrastructure improvements, is that there are only a small number of people who are aware of congestion and the negative impact it has. This makes it difficult to convince the public of the need for essential infrastructure reinforcements and improvements.” According to Sayers, the current approach of planning, implementing and building followed by public engagement is no longer working. “A different, inclusive approach is required to explain to people where the points of congestion are and why changes to the existing infrastructure are necessary,” she said. Moving to a process whereby the problem is identified and explained to the public and a workable solution is then debated between ESB Networks and its customers is a vital shift that will enable it to maintain and improve services for existing customers. Automation is hugely important to ESB Networks. Through its control centres, it controls a large quantity of its distributed network. Two systems are used: a SCADA system, which remotely controls its switches and relays information back to the main control system, and an Outage Management System, which identifies any faults on the system. A combination of the two systems enables the early identification of any system issues, faster response times and minimum delays to restoration. “Due to the high volume of network In Ireland, it’s ahead of its European counterparts in the area of automation,” said Sayers. “Improvements in automation have meant that Ireland now has a healthy geographical spread of down-line switches out and around its network that are controlled from ESB Networks’ two control centres. This is an essential aspect of smart networks and ensures continuity and minimal disruption to services.” The future requirements of the industry predominantly involve ESB Networks’ traditional role of providing distribution infrastructure and building transmission infrastructure, she said, adding that the challenging aspect of providing large infrastructure is the long lead-times involved between planning, consultation and delivery. “Anticipation is vital; ESB Networks can find itself planning over a decade in advance to have infrastructure in place. This advance planning means plans are susceptible to the arrival or departure of major industries, which can affect the demand for power,” said Sayers. “A second element is the departmentalisation agenda. Departmentalisation has changed the industry hugely; the arrival of renewables connecting in to the system at different points has led to variable flows at different times and at different places,” she continued. “This is an area where ESB Networks needs to continue to adapt. We now find ourselves with a much more dynamic network, with low flows in various directions depending on whether the wind is blowing or not.” The distribution of renewable energy is positive in many ways, but she stressed that ESB Networks must continue to ensure that it does not impact negatively, due to the possibility of voltage rises, on existing customers.

Smart meters in Ireland by 2020

Smart meters have been a topic of public debate for some time. Smart Energy GB’s smart-meter rollout, one of the UK’s largest technology and infrastructure projects, will see 50 million smart meters installed in more than 26 million UK homes. A key idea behind smart meters is that the tariff structures impact positively on customer behaviour. ESB Networks is now moving into the first stage of the procurement of smart meters and the EU intention is that 80 per cent of Irish premises will be fitted with such meters by 2020. “Interestingly, the demand for smart meters has also been consumer driven,” according to Sayers. “Consumers expect that the service provider is aware of any disruption at their premises without the need for the consumer to contact its provider. Currently, ESB Networks doesn’t have the facility to obtain this information. From a network perspective, this instant notification, an awareness of each situation at premises level, would be a direct advantage of a nationwide installation of smart meters.” The difficulty with this project, she explained, would be the need to replicate the telecommunications network that is currently in place. As a result, ESB Networks sees the installation of the 2.3 million meters as the easy part – the challenge lies in having to communicate with all of the meters on an ongoing basis and the massive telecommunications structure that this would require. Energy efficiency is becoming increasingly important to customers in their own homes, and smart meters may be a way for ESB Networks to facilitate the change required to enable individual premise to become more energy self-sufficient. By 2027, it is expected that Irish consumers will reduce consumption by 2.5 per cent by using smart meters and real-time information. “Overall, by way of anticipation and the provision of future requirements, ESB Networks is focused on a number of areas: attempting to continue to facilitate decarbonisation by connecting renewables to its network, its smart grids agenda, automation, continuity and better energy efficiency,” according to Sayers.

Delivery of service at an acceptable price

The final area is the need to balance serving the needs of customers and what will be required in the future, along with making sure that an undue financial burden is not placed on customers. Over the next 12 years, ESB Networks is set to invest up to €10 billion in further developing the electricity system. It is through their electricity bills that customers will ultimately pay for these services, developments and reinforcements. The organisation has set itself a target of delivering €1 billion in savings by 2027, through smart investments in its system; it plans to pass on these benefits – economic and environmental – to its customers.