Gas Networks Ireland operates and maintains the country’s gas network — essentially the pipes under the ground and its associated infrastructure above ground. A national asset valued at €2.8bn, it operates one of the most modern and safe gas networks in the world, ensuring the efficient and secure supply to over 700,000 homes and businesses. Covid-19 was significant in the changed demand for energy — a period where GNI’s priority was to maintain a safe supply of gas to homes, businesses and vital services such as power stations and hospitals.
“At times in April gas was being used to generate over 80% of the electricity in the country,” Brian Mullins points out. “The flexibility that gas brings is essential in situations like this. Covid-19 hit many businesses hard and we worked with the Commission for Regulation of Utilities to put in place a scheme which allowed SME customers to suspend their standing charges — this helped to preserve cashflow for 2,500 businesses.” Covid-19 reduced our emissions by effectively freezing the economy. “We need to find ways of delivering emissions reductions on a sustainable basis, which allow our economy to function.”
An end of one particular energy era was reached earlier this month when the final commercial volumes of indigenous Irish gas flowed through the Inch terminal in Cork as PSE Kinsale Energy Limited ceased production after 42 years of service and almost two trillion cubic feet of natural gas —
double the original reserve estimate. Having played a key role in the supply of natural gas from 1978 to 1995, it was Ireland’s only indigenous source of natural gas until 2015, when Corrib was connected to the network.
In charge of key areas including security of supply and managing the response to Covid-19, Brian is responsible for market development and regulatory compliance in Ireland, Northern Ireland, the UK and Europe. Accumulating over 15 years’ experience across a number of roles in both the supply and networks aspects of the gas business, he joined Bord Gáis Éireann on its Graduate Programme in 2004, working initially in the energy trading side of the business before joining the Networks in 2013. He held a number of senior regulatory roles until his appointment to head of regulatory affairs in 2018. With Cork city and its adjacent region undergoing an economic upswing at present, recent developments are very encouraging in terms of new industry and construction activity.
“Cork is a key gas region, with over 83,000 households and over 3,300 SMEs and large businesses using gas everyday. Some of our largest customers are based in Cork, particularly in the pharmaceutical and agribusiness sectors.”
With energy demand set to increase across the country, Cork will be no exception: “Cork is at the centre of many of our initiatives to decarbonise our energy supply. We are progressing a Renewable Gas project in Mitchelstown which will deliver clean energy for over 60,000 homes and sustainable employment opportunities. We also trialled Ireland’s first zero carbon bus with Energy Cork using renewable gas.”
Gas Networks Ireland shares the Government’s vision to decarbonise our society — natural gas is already supporting this with the gas network and new technologies set to play an even bigger role in years to come. “The expansion in renewables in Ireland has been incredible. This has only been possible because we have gas to support intermittent renewable electricity generation such as wind farms. In the first half of this year, gas has at times fuelled over 80% of electricity demand and as little as 20% at other times. We are here when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.”
Without that flexibility, the energy system cannot work. In terms of decarbonising Ireland’s economy, the development of renewables such as wind and solar farms will only address carbon emissions from electricity generation, which represents approx 18% of the country’s total emissions. “The bulk of our emissions are coming from heat, agriculture and transport. The gas network can play a major role in addressing these, through technologies such as renewable gas, hydrogen and Compressed Natural Gas for transport.”
“Our plans would see the gas network facilitating a 33% reduction in Ireland’s emissions. Hydrogen is particularly attractive as a technology for Ireland and developing it will allow us to convert excess renewable electricity into gas.” As we develop more wind and solar, Ireland is likely to have excess renewable electricity at times. By turning this electricity into hydrogen, it can be stored and used in the gas network to provide heat, for transport or in power generation. Renewable gas also offers great potential, with the EU Commission identifying Ireland as having the greatest potential per capita for renewable gas development among the EU 27. “We recently opened the first renewable gas injection point in Cush, Co. Kildare, capable of supplying 11,000 homes. Renewable gas not only provides a clean energy, it also helps decarbonise our agriculture sector. We believe that by 2050, well over half of the gas used on the gas network will either be hydrogen or renewable gas.”
Brexit is an issue which Gas Networks Ireland has been closely monitoring and working on since the UK announced its decision to exit the European Union.
“Our assessment is that the UK’s withdrawal will not impact on security of gas supply to the island of Ireland. Our gas network supplies Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man and there is a high level of interconnectedness and interdependence between Ireland and the UK in energy matters and we anticipate that strong co-operation to continue into the future.” While Gas Networks Ireland is entrusted with ensuring security of energy supply, it does not have a role in exploring for gas or developing new gas fields off our coast. “If others find the gas, we will connect it as we did with Kinsale and Corrib,” he says.