"The Irish are renowned worldwide for their friendliness. However, despite that reputation for affability, we seem to prefer living as far away from one another as possible."
So says Marguerite Sayers, Managing Director of ESB Networks, the electricity distribution operator in the Republic of Ireland, explaining one of the challenges of delivering electricity infrastructure in Ireland.
Ms Sayers explains that Ireland’s scattered population made the electrification of rural Ireland, which took place between 1946 and 1976, a phenomenal undertaking. "It has been described by historians as 'the quiet revolution', given the lasting societal impact the arrival of electricity had on lives in homes, farms and villages across rural Ireland."
ESB Networks has been building on that proud legacy, in an understated but determined fashion. "Today, about one third of Ireland’s population live outside of cities and towns, which creates challenges for ESB Networks. As such, Ireland has four times the European average of length of network per capita," says Ms Sayers.
ESB Networks has invested €6bn in the electricity system in recent years, driven by Ireland’s commitment to source 40 percent of electricity requirements from renewable sources by 2020. "Part of this project focused on our low voltage network, converting 50,000 km of 10kV network to 20kV operation. As well as doubling the capacity of the network, the conversion resulted in energy loss savings equivalent of taking 15,000 cars off the road and constitutes the single largest energy efficiency project ever undertaken in Ireland."
ESB Networks has to-date connected more than 3,000MW of renewables to the system (which has an annual peak load of circa 5,000MW), much of this onshore wind farms located in remote locations on Ireland's western seaboard. Ms Sayers outlines the on-going European Union collaboration – primarily through Horizon 2020 funding - for many ESB Networks projects. "With a current TSO operational limit in Ireland at 60 per cent instantaneous penetration renewable generation, we are part of the EU RESERVE project that is exploring how to stabilise the electricity system for up to 100 percent renewables."
The ESB Networks control centre
Through a separate EU project, EvolvDSO, ESB Networks is developing the tools to accommodate the growing distributed renewable energy sources in the generation mix, and the increasingly proactive demand for electricity.
Ms Sayers goes on to explain that, as we reduce electricity generation emissions, the electrification of heat and transport will be key to Ireland's transition to a low carbon future. "We are working on trials to assess the impact this increased electrification is likely to have on our low voltage system. The Plangrid EV project, again funded by Horizon 2020, looks at distribution grid planning and operational principles for mass electric vehicle roll-out while enabling distributed energy resource integration."
And staying with mass EV roll-out, Ms Sayers outlines the separate SUCCESS project which concentrates on the potential cyber risks posed by the public charging network and how the network can remain secure.
A wave of world-class companies have located to Ireland with the confidence that the electricity infrastructure will meet their needs. This has enabled Ireland to become a world leader in industry and technology, transforming beyond recognition the rural, agrarian society of 70 years ago.
"As we look to a low carbon future powered by a smart electricity grid, we continue to serve our 2.3 million industrial, commercial and domestic electricity customers with pride," Ms Sayers concludes.
The quiet revolution continues.