5 minute read 3 Nov 2021
Mounting solar panel

Working together to overcome future energy crises

By Siobhán McHugh

CEO, Demand Response Association of Ireland

5 minute read 3 Nov 2021
Related topics Sustainability

CEO of Demand Response Association of Ireland (DRAI) and EY Alumnus, Siobhán McHugh, works at the sharp end of the burgeoning energy crisis facing the country. Recent warnings of potential power cuts during the coming winter and over the course of the next five years have brought home in stark terms the challenges facing our power system. As reported by the Sunday Independent recently, businesses could be given as little as an hour’s notice to reduce their electricity use or switch to generators while family homes will also face the possibility of being disconnected from the network.

Siobhán took up her role with DRAI earlier this year having spent the previous seven years with EY Consulting. “I started my career as an industrial engineer with Aryzta which was then IAWS plc. It was a large energy user so there was a lot of focus on energy usage and efficiency. That gave me an awareness of the whole world of energy.” Whilst discovering her passion for the world of energy at the Commission for Energy Regulation, and after that, at EirGrid, Siobhán cut her teeth on modelling what the future energy system would look like, a model that has come true today.

When Siobhán joined EY, the move gave her yet another perspective on the Irish energy market. “The EY consulting business had less than 150 people when I joined in 2014 and had more than quadrupled in size by the time I left,” she says. “When I joined, I had some really good conversations with people in the strategy and economic advisory space and I realised that my energy skills experienced could be applied to other sectors like transport and aviation and other sectors.”

During her time with EY she mainly focused on strategy, transformation, and major programme delivery in the energy and utilities sector.

I was working at the sharp end of things. The nature of energy as a sector is that there are always new things coming along in terms of policy, legislation and regulations. I worked with clients to implement those changes.
Siobhán McHugh
CEO, Demand Response Association of Ireland

“I worked with some great colleagues,” she adds. “Working with people from different backgrounds and industries was great and I am still in contact with them. Working in EY is a great way to grow your professional network. The EY alumni network is a great example of that.”

That experience has also helped her in her current role with DRAI. “That client facing view has definitely helped. It rounded out experience having come from a regulatory and market operations space. I have now sat at every side of the table. Everyone is trying to achieve the same things together, but they face competing demands and have different objectives to take into consideration. At the end of the day, nothing gets done unless you can appreciate and respect the other’s points of view. When you understand where others are coming from you are a lot more likely to find a way forward.”

The energy crisis has been presented in overly simplistic terms, according to Siobhán. It is not merely a case of putting more generating capacity onto the system in order to meet rising demand peaks. The issue is far more nuanced and complex than that. This is where the DRAI can make impact. As representative body for Demand Response providers across the island of Ireland, the DRAI work to develop flexible demand side technologies that support the integration of renewable generators in the electricity system.

The solution to Ireland’s need for energy supply begins with the increasing amount of renewable power on the system.

“The challenge with renewable sources of electricity is that they are often weather-dependent, and their output can vary – it is increasingly predictable, but not constant,” she explains. “This is important when you consider that the vast majority of electricity that you or I use in in our home or business is generated at the same time as we consume it. So, when our electricity network operators are trying to manage this balance between supply and demand for electricity in real time, variable output from renewable generation can pose a challenge.”

The question is how to respond to that challenge. As usual with complex systems, there is no single answer. Having large scale battery storage facilities is one. Using interconnectors to the UK and, in future, to France is another. A third is to change the equation to where demand as well as supply becomes flexible.

Described in those terms, it almost sounds easy. But it is a frighteningly complex and highly technical undertaking. DRAI members Electric Ireland, Enel X, GridBeyond, Veolia and VIOTAS between them represent approximately 600 MW of demand and embedded generation response across hundreds of industrial and commercial customer sites throughout the island of Ireland.

And when it comes to ways forward, she asks for a rethink on the contingency plans announced for the power system. “Effectively the emergency plans recently outlined are load-shedding – cutting off customers to avoid widespread blackouts on the power system,” she points out. “Properly incentivising customers to voluntarily reduce demand at times of grid stress, in a way that doesn’t harm their business, should avoid the need to enforce involuntary power cuts and help to alleviate tight capacity margin on the power system.”

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By Siobhán McHugh

CEO, Demand Response Association of Ireland

Related topics Sustainability