The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has recently commissioned a study of wider costs and benefits of the extension of the natural gas grid (see here for more information). The WDC welcomes the commissioning of this study, as quality energy networks are important elements of the essential infrastructure required to underpin and stimulate economic development of the Western Region, much of which currently does not have access to the gas network. Figure 1 below show Gas Networks Ireland’s pipeline map, which highlights the lack of connection to towns in the North West.
Figure 1: Natural Gas Pipeline map
The WDC has long advocated the extension of the natural gas network to towns in the North West of Ireland and made the case in some detail the 2011 study Why invest in gas?. A natural gas network is, in many situations, an essential infrastructure without which a region may struggle to develop. Towns connected to the natural gas grid have the reduced energy costs over the longer term resulting in greater competitiveness for businesses, as well as greater attractiveness for new industry which may choose to locate in towns with natural gas.
Where natural gas has become available large users (e.g. Allergan in Westport, Baxter Healthcare in Castlebar) quickly switched to natural gas. As the gas grid expands nationally and more consumers (both industrial and domestic) gain access, the availability of natural gas will be taken for granted. Lack of gas infrastructure may become a disincentive to investment, reducing a region’s competitiveness and increasing existing disparities. As Gas Networks Ireland notes:
Industry depends on natural gas and gas availability is a key criteria for international companies when they are deciding where to invest. Having natural gas supplied to a town enhances its attractiveness and opportunities for growth and job creation. Many large employers in Ireland are also large users of natural gas.
Thus the WDC sees natural gas as a key enabling infrastructure for economic development of the North West. It is therefore useful to understand natural gas connections and natural gas consumption in more connected parts of the Western Region and in other parts of Ireland.
Where is networked gas used?
The CSO provides detailed data on networked gas consumption, by type of user and by county. The map below (Figure 2) shows the locations of residential metered connections across Ireland, and provides a very clear indication of the urban nature of the connections.
Figure 2: Location of Residential meters
Of the seven Western Region counties three (Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim) have no networked natural gas connection and Roscommon only has connections in the Monksland part of Athlone (a total of 72 residential connections and 2 non-residential connections (see Table 1 below, Western Region counties in bold)). Galway, Mayo and Clare have more extensive networks. Both Galway (6,795) and Clare (4,797) have significant numbers of residential connections while Mayo has fewer than 713. Residential connections are most likely to be made when new houses are built, and many of the towns in Mayo were just connected as the rapid housing construction of the early part of the century slowed down.
Table 1: Number of Meters by County for Non-Residential and Residential Sectors 2016
Mayo has a significant proportion of non-residential connections (Figure 1 below); in fact it has the highest percentage of non-residential connections of all counties (with the exception of Wexford where dwellings only began to be connected in late 2016).
The CSO publication shows the proportion of networked gas used in power plants (62%), non-residential (24%) and residential (13%) in 2016. Details of power plant consumption are not available by county but it is interesting to compare residential and non-residential consumption for each county with the proportions of the two different connection types. Clearly non-residential consumption per meter will, in most instances, be higher than residential consumption but, as Figure 3 shows, there is significant variation in this across counties (Western Region counties are in green). This is largely dependent of the type of non-residential users connected in the different counties. The CSO intends in future to add NACE codes to the non-residential connection records in order to provide a more detailed analysis of non-domestic customers. This will be very useful giving better understanding of the types of non-residential users.
Figure 3: Percentage meters which are Non Residential Meters and Percentage of consumption which is Non Residential 2016
While a quarter of meters in Mayo are non-residential, they account for 98% of the consumption. In many more rural counties (Mayo, Cavan, Monaghan, Kilkenny and Tipperary) non-residential consumption can be very significant (over 85% of all consumption in the counties named above). This is in contrast to Dublin, Laois, Meath and Wicklow where non-residential consumption was 51% or less of total consumption.
Figure 4: Natural gas Consumption by County Non Residential and Residential (Gigawatt Hours)
As these are gross consumption figures, and are of course dependent on the number and type of connections, there is very significant variation. Not surprisingly the ‘Dublin Postal District’ has the highest level of both residential and non-residential consumption. This area has more 12,294 non-residential connections (Table 1) which is significantly larger than Cork which has the next largest number of non-residential connections (3,497) and it can be inferred that many of the non-residential connections in this area are smaller commercial premises and not larger process users. This is borne out by average consumption per connection for each county in Figure 5 below. Roscommon (which has very few connections in a very small part of the county (75 in total)) and Wexford, which has very recently been connected (8 connections in this data) have been excluded.
As discussed above, Cork has a very significant total non-residential consumption (3,154 GWh) but only comes in sixth place for average consumption per non-residential connection shown in Figure 3.
Figure 5: Average Non Residential Consumption per meter (2016)
Cavan has only 114 non-residential connections but among them are some very significant gas users. It has the highest average non-residential consumption per connection, and indeed this has grown significantly (by 53%) since 2011. Wexford has a small number of large users (whose consumption justified making the network connection in recent years) while other quite rural counties show high levels of consumption per connection (non-residential). In some cases (Mayo, for example, this is closely associated with high tech industry use of process heat, but significant agri-food processing in other rural counties are likely to contribute to the high average demand per connection. In contrast, Wicklow, Dublin and Meath have generally low average consumption per connection.
While much of the variation in non-residential consumption will depend on types of connections and the type of activity being carried out, residential consumption levels are more comparable and Figure 6 below shows median consumption by county.
Figure 6: Networked Gas Median Consumption by County for Residential Sector 2016
According to the CSO the median consumption can be regarded as typical usage as it is not influenced by outliers in the same way as the average is. Median residential consumption varies from 10,910 in Meath to 6,686 kWh in Mayo (Wexford has been excluded from the chart as it has only 3 residential connections). This large variation suggests that residences in Meath are using 63% more natural gas than residences in Mayo. It is not clear what is causing this variation but lower median consumption in counties like Mayo may indicate a higher proportion of other fuels being used for heating. Given the very significant variation in median use this is certainly an area for further investigation.
Roscommon which only has 75 residential connections in the west of Athlone also shows high median levels of consumption, but this may relate to the characteristics of the housing connected or the greater incentive for larger residential users to switch to natural gas to save on the cost of energy.
The importance of natural gas connections in many counties is shown by the meter and consumption data. Clearly there are some very significant natural gas users outside cities often associated with agri food processing.
The IDA has significant targets for investment in the regions and meeting these targets could give rise to additional commercial demand in urban centres not currently connected. Indeed the IDA strategy notes in relation to its development of utility intensive strategic sites, that these require significant capital investment in utilities including natural gas. The most recent GNI development plan highlights:
Natural gas as a clean, secure, low cost energy source is a key driver of job creation and economic growth. Industry depends on natural gas and gas availability is a key criteria for international companies when they are deciding where to invest. Having natural gas supplied to a town enhances its attractiveness and opportunities for growth and job creation. Many large employers in Ireland are also large users of natural gas.
This regional development effect needs to be measured when assessing the development of a natural gas network. Furthermore, in addition to commercial demand, residential users can be important. The DCCAE study, being carried out by KPMG, is not examining any one particular place, but under the Draft National Planning Framework- Ireland 2040 (NPF) there are targets for significant population growth in larger towns and cities including ones which do not currently have access to natural gas. Both Sligo and Letterkenny (neither of which have networked gas) are targeted to have 40% increase in population by 2040 (both to increase to 27,000) and, given the emphasis on consolidation of urban centres in the NPF, it is expected that this additional population will be accommodated in these towns and should be ideal for compact distribution networks.
With this in mind, it is likely that the important of natural gas as a key regional infrastructure will be recognised in the Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy for the North West Region (which is currently in preparation by the Northern and Western Regional Assembly).
 See Background Notes to Networked Gas Consumption publication (CSO, 2016)