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Upgrading the power system for a cleaner, energy future

By Alan Campbell, Managing Director, SONI

As we embark on the second full year of Northern Ireland’s new Energy Strategy, it goes without saying that the scale of the transition in our energy and environmental systems is, by necessity, existential in nature.

By 2030 80% of the electricity we consume will need to be generated from renewable sources and looking at the data we are approximately halfway there.

Clearly an important part of achieving these collective ambitions is increasing the amount of renewable generation through, for example, onshore and offshore wind and solar farms. Progress in this area is something we can see every day as more and more wind turbines appear across Northern Ireland.

However, getting that new renewable generation from the wind turbine in Fermanagh to the living room in Armagh is an equally important but understandably sometimes less understood question.

This is where the transmission system, or the grid as it is better known, comes in – the overhead lines and pylons we see every day to the point we almost forget they are even there.

The System Operator Northern Ireland (SONI) is the transmission system operator for Northern Ireland. We manage the generation and the demand for electricity second by second via the grid to get electricity from where it is generated to where it is needed.

Like any piece of public infrastructure, the grid was built at a moment in time and for an electricity system largely based on fossil-fuel generation. To facilitate a different and more disparate type of generation, which can be weather dependent, the grid needs to be significantly strengthened and made more resilient. In addition to our role in managing the grid in the present, SONI also has the responsibility of facilitating this major infrastructure upgrade.

The more renewable generation we require in the form of turbines and solar farms, the more, or different, grid infrastructure we need to transport it in the form of underground cables, overhead lines and pylons.

Our roadmap for readying the power system for this major transition is set out in a document called Shaping Our Electricity Future, and the major grid projects are set out in a 10-year plan entitled the Transmission Development Plan for Northern Ireland.

This will be the largest body of work that SONI has undertaken and will match rural electrification in terms of its long-term impact on consumers and society.

We know this transition will have a major impact on our local communities – they need to be part of this change. As such, our three-part Grid Development Process, which goes far beyond the statutory consultation requirements of the planning system, puts local communities at the centre of our future proposals for the grid.

In 2022, we embarked on a pilot project to use more innovative, participative, and deliberative models of community engagement through a Citizens Sounding Board for our Mid Antrim Upgrade Project.

As we continue this crucial body of work in the coming years, SONI will continue to listen to the needs of local communities to understand what more we can do to ensure they have a central role in a cleaner energy future.