Ahern's favoured approach is for "merchant" interconnectors to be built and owned by the private sector. But he is already planning a fall-back position: "In the event that the market does not respond, I will ask the CER to host a tender competition for construction, management and ownership of regulated interconnectors," he says, referring to the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER). The minister is bringing forward a bill to allow for an interconnector that is not owned by state-owned system operator ESB, but that will be regulated by the CER.
The minister says he is confident that construction of the sub-sea project could get underway by 2006. He sees the extra 1000 MW as enhancing security of supply, increasing competition and integrating Ireland into the European market. At present levels of demand, a 1000 MW interconnector would represent 20% of the Irish electricity market. The wind community has long argued for a link with Britain as a necessary pre-condition for significant development of Ireland's offshore resource.
Another initiative is a renewables development Group to be chaired by Ahern's department. This will give the industry, the CER and network operators a permanent forum to solve potential market constraints, he says. "The recent problems with grid connection for wind generators indicate clearly that all segments of the energy sector must begin dealing with the issues surrounding [renewables] now. The transmission system operator, the regulator and the renewables industry will have to focus to greater extent on facilitating the real potential of renewable energy."
Ahern reports further moves towards an all-island energy market, for both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. And he announced his decision to expand the CER to a "three-person commission" which is able to focus more on environmental, consumer and competitiveness issues"
The Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA) welcomes Ahern's initiatives. "It is one of the most positive announcements coming from the government in a long time," says IWEA's Tim Cowhig. The interconnector will help the industry make the country a major player in onshore and offshore wind, he says. Cowhig hopes that one of the three-member commission will have a primary responsibility for wind and other renewables.