After more than a year's freeze on all new connection offers to wind projects, regulator Tom Reeves is directing transmission and distribution system operators to resume issuing offers. But, ESB National Grid and ESB Networks will initially only issue offers to 34 developers with a total 381 MW whose applications were complete when Reeves first imposed a moratorium on all new connections in December 2003.
Moreover, under new rules all projects awaiting connection will be dealt with on a group rather than on an individual case-by-case basis. This means taking account of the effect that a group of generators as a whole would have on the network. The aim, says the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER), is to speed up the issuing of connection offers and maximise the amount of wind that can be connected to the system. The first 34 projects will be known collectively as gate 1 and will be split into seven geographical groups for processing. The CER expects to start consultations with the industry soon on criteria for inclusion into the second round of processing -- or gate 2.
However, developers claim that the new rules could cause further delays to wind projects instead of the intended effect of speeding up the process. They argue that by lumping together a number of projects which would normally expect to connect into the distribution system, ESB will create the critical mass requiring a new transmission line with all its attendant planning problems and delays.
One of the affected is Airtricity, whose Tournafulla project is to be processed in gate 1. According to the company's Patrick O'Kane, it could take ESB up to three years to build a new transmission line to connect Airtricity's and other projects in the group to the power system. Yet planning permission for the project is due to expire before then, he says. Other developers voice the same fear that time is running out to build their projects before their consents expire.
In the past, some developers have opted to build their own transmission lines to link their projects with the existing system, claiming they can build lines both faster and more inexpensively than ESB. This may no longer be an option under the new rules. Giving ESB sole rights to build transmission lines not only adds to delays, but is anti-competitive, argues another disgruntled developer. He would have preferred to construct his own underground line to link up his gate 1 project. Although more expensive, undergrounding does not require the same lengthy consents process as for an overhead line and would allow him to build his project before the site consent runs out, he claims. But ESB, which is obliged to pursue the least cost option for constructing transmission lines, would not consider burying lines. "The CER has taken away any leeway or freedom we had to build our own lines and given that power to ESB," he says.
O'Kane echoes his concerns. "We can build a transmission line for half the price quoted by ESB," he says. "We want to retain that option." He adds that a number of developers have already gone to the trouble and expense of obtaining planning consent for distribution lines for their projects. Under the group processing approach, those consents could now be worthless, he says.
From the CER, David Naughton maintains the commission is aware of the industry's concerns, but stresses that no final decision has been taken to revoke the rights of developers to build their own connections. "We want everyone to have fair and equal access to shared assets," he says. He concedes that ESB is arguing that developers should not be allowed to construct their own lines until the finer details of group processing have been worked out through consultation. "This is a prominent issue that we want to have resolved," says Naughton. "We hope to consult on this at the same time that we go out to consultation over the terms for gate 2, which should be in the next month or so," he says.
Naughton defends group processing as the quickest way overall of dealing with the large queue for connection applications. It will save time for most applicants, and because it will prevent the proliferation of lines, it will therefore be easier from a planning perspective. The commission is well aware that time is short for some projects' consents, he says, but no-one will know what method of connection will be adopted by ESB -- or how long it is likely to take -- until gate 1 developers receive their connection offers. This is expected to take between two to five months.