Northern Ireland

Parts of Northern Ireland's electricity grid overloaded

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Media captionParts of Northern Ireland's electricity network are becoming overloaded meaning those wanting to become green power producers are being told they cannot.

Parts of Northern Ireland's electricity network are becoming overloaded.

It means that those wanting to become green power producers are being told they cannot.

The present electricity grid was built in the 1960s and 1970s to transport electricity from three power stations to homes and businesses.

The grid was not built to cope with power coming back in the opposite direction.

That is exactly what is happening as businesses and homes embrace the savings and guaranteed green subsidies which renewables offer.

It has led to areas of Northern Ireland where the grid is at saturation point or approaching it and it will be impossible for small-scale projects to get the go-ahead until substations and lines are upgraded.

The biggest problems are experienced in the west - demonstrated clearly on a heat map produced by NIE.

Image caption David Dunlop wanted to install a 50 kilowatt solar array at his Bushmills caravan park

Michael Atkinson from Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) said the uptake of small scale generation has been unprecedented.

"The government incentives introduced back in 2010 were potentially quite lucrative for some of these developers and they naturally did wish to embrace them," he said.

"Unfortunately, the join-up between the government incentives and what the network was actually physically capable of doing wasn't fully taken account of at that time and that has resulted in us getting into some difficulties now."

David Dunlop owns Ballyness Caravan Park in Bushmills.

He wanted to install a 50 kilowatt (kw) solar array (group of solar panels), but has been told he can only go ahead with 20 kilowatt because his local substation cannot cope with more power.

"It's a bit annoying when the government is really pushing for carbon reducing renewables and then when you try to do it you are held up at every opportunity," Mr Dunlop said.

He said he believed the 50kw installations would have shaved a third off his £30,000 electricity bill.

Roger Latimer, from Seskinore Farm Meats near Omagh, wants to power his business with solar panels - any excess electricity would be transferred back onto the grid, but he has been told the lines in his area are saturated and he can't go ahead with his small scale renewable project.

"This is small scale business… we are looking to reduce our costs, beef's going up, it has to go up, so we have to look at how we can be more efficient and this is what we are met with," he said

Image caption Michael Atkinson of NIE admitted many connections will not be able to go ahead

Gary Hawkes, from the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU), said farmers and small businesses were encouraged to take up small scale generation but their plans are now pointless.

"They are being quoted 7km of upgrades plus substation upgrades and that's actually infrastructure upgrades for NIE and so they are getting quotes three or four times their project outlay which makes it unviable," he said.

Decisions about spending on upgrade work are made by the Utility Regulator - last month it approved £2.3m for work on 40 substations.

But Michael Atkinson from NIE admitted that many connections still will not be able to go ahead.

"To be realistic about it, effectively the network is being re-engineered or reverse engineered in these areas and there's a limit to how much the network is going to be able to cope with, without significant investment."

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