A History of the Liberalised Electricity Industry in 25 Freebies Part 3: A Coaster Resembling the Cross Section of the East-West Interconnector (circa 2011)

Scroll for more

A History of the Liberalised Electricity Industry in 25 Freebies Part 3: A Coaster Resembling the Cross Section of the East-West Interconnector (circa 2011)


EWIC Coaster


This is the third part of our series A History of the Liberalised Electricity Industry in 25 Freebies. Our object this time is a drinks coaster resembling a cross section of the East-West Interconnector (EWIC), and bearing the logo of ABB, the contractor that built the cable. It is believed to date from 2011, prior to commercial operations commencing on that cable, and would probably have been given out at a pre-launch event at Croke Park.

We are used to seeing undersea electricity interconnectors popping up with some regularity nowadays, with NEMO Link the latest to be commissioned in Ireland or Britain, and IFA 2, ElecLink and North Sea Link in construction at the time of writing; but at the dawn of the liberalised electricity there were far fewer interconnectors.

There was a 2GW cable under the English Channel between Sellindge in Kent and Calais dating from the 1980s, some onshore connectivity between Scotland and England that was deemed to be interconnection, some similar connections between Northern Ireland and the Republic (Tandragee-Louth and a couple of smaller links), and that was it. Oh, and there was technically another very old 160MW cable from southern England to France dating from the 1960s.

Remember this was before the Moyle Interconnector appeared in 2001-2002. The island of Ireland stood alone and unintegrated out on the Atlantic fringe. In this era of relentless expansion of networks, and relentless integration we forget how recently Ireland was still entirely unconnected. That narrative of exponential growth in network effects has been challenged somewhat with Brexit, but generally still holds.

ABB has been heavily involved with interconnection over the years (e.g. to connect North Island and South Island in New Zealand in the 1960s), and the “HVDC Light” technology referred to on the coaster is an evolution of that earlier HVDC technology. The sponsor of the EWIC project was Eirgrid Interconnector Limited, a subsidiary of semi-state entity EirGrid.

EirGrid plc was hived-off from ESB under unbundling legislation between 2001 and 2006. It was to be the independent system operator, estranged from the network assets and unsullied by considerations of kit and who owned it. But physical toys are awfully tempting, and before long EirGrid was desperate for assets that it could stroke.

This drift back into its old ways was only really possible with an interconnector, and lo and behold the EWIC project was born: 186km of undersea cable between Rush in County Dublin and Prestatyn, North Wales capable of transmitting 500MW. As the CER said at the time: “The Government and the Commission are convinced that the interconnector will bring long-term net benefits to the Irish consumer, particularly in terms of enhancing security of electricity supply, developing competition and enabling the integration of Ireland into a wider regional electricity market.”

After much consenting effort and two years of onshore works the first cable was unreeled into its trench in early 2012, and by Q3 2012 it was ready to commission. Capacity was sold to an eager market from June 2012 onwards; all seemed well; and then the bombshell news: there was reportedly a problem with the cable causing electrical interference with telephone lines and broadband signals in North Dublin. Worse still those pre-existing telephone cables seemed to have priority and couldn’t be ignored…

Back to the drawing board. Capacity auctions were cancelled, and already purchased capacity languished, unusable, and EirGrid Interconnector Limited swiftly had to get the contractor – ABB – back to install additional equipment to rectify the problem.

By May 2013 all was fixed and flows recommenced. So now the pan-Ireland Single Electricity Market could participate properly in pan-European market coupling? Sort of. The SEM rules at the time were fundamentally quite out-of-sync with the “target model” being pushed in Europe, and intraday trading was still impossible. The latter was rectified in 2012 with SEM 2.0 which delivered something that could loosely be described as intraday trading, but better alignment didn’t occur for a further eight years and took the form of I-SEM. ABB, incidentally, was very embedded in all of those projects too, but on a systems and software side.

We can expect far more interconnection. Interconnection usually makes sense, but more importantly it is in vogue at the political level: the European Commission’s TEN-E strategy envisages a “Northern Seas Offshore Grid” consisting of seventeen Projects of Common Interest that can be funded under the Connecting Europe Facility. Interconnection is at the core of the project to create a common European electricity market where a supplier in Florence can buy from a generator in Cork without the two ever realising, with no middle men, through the power of the all-conquering Euphemia algorithm.

That algorithm is now king, like the “electronic brains” that Isaac Asimov imagined in the 1950s that would centrally plan whole economies. We have ceded decision making to it, with its comfortingly anthropomorphic name, rather than risk messy human trader decisions and the invisible hand. Hopefully it treats us benignly. It is of course still at the mercy of the data that we feed it.

Philosophising aside, where are the people that gave out this coaster today?

Well ABB is still in the business of interconnectors, supplying the some of the projects mentioned above: IFA2 and North Sea Link, as well as some that weren’t mentioned. Some of the technology developed for interconnection has been applied to the massive expansion of offshore wind over the last fifteen years too.

EirGrid is also back for more with the far more ambitious Celtic Interconnector being heavily promoted at present.


Back to Part 1 and Part 2