"The electrification of heat and transport is a practical and economic solution to enormous reductions in all of our carbon footprints"

Ellen Diskin, PR5 Project Manager at ESB Networks on the challenges facing Ireland’s energy market within the next 5 years

15th January, 2019
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What's your name?

Ellen Diskin

What’s your current job?

I am Price Review 5 (PR5) Manager in ESB Networks. That mightn’t mean much unless you “live in” the energy industry though!

ESB Networks is the network infrastructure business within the ESB. Unlike the other parts of the ESB, the networks business a natural monopoly. (In this we are more like other network infrastructures – roads, gas, water; it makes more sense to have one good network, when and where Irish people need it, than a proliferation of different networks filling our streetscape and our landscape, duplicating the same set of fixed costs with each new entrant).

However, because ESB Networks is not in a competitive segment of the electricity industry, our prices are set by the regulator, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU). The price setting process is called the Price Review. It happens once every 5 years. First ESB Networks has to develop 5 – 10 year capital investment and operational proposals, demonstrate that they are based on customers’ economic and social needs and expectations, demonstrate that they are efficient (value for money) for a coming 5 year period. Then CRU assesses this, decides “what’s in and what’s out”, and sets prices based on what remains in.

As PR5 Manager, I am responsible for managing this process within ESB Networks.

How long have you held the position?

Since last November. Prior to that I was ESB Networks’ Regulation Manager.

Can you describe your daily work routine?

It would be hard to call it a routine to be honest! Because my job is about working with teams from right across ESB Networks as they build investment and operational proposals, my day can be incredibly varied.

Typically I start early – I haven’t the patience for traffic, and I have two small kids who rise with the birds. Early morning in the office is usually a time for catching up on notes or actions from the previous day, preparing for what’s lined up for the day, swapping notes and sharing out actions within my own team . Most of my day will be spent in meetings with people from across networks, from investment planning or asset management engineers to HR to finance to customer service to telecoms and IT infrastructure planners…

As a business with one opportunity to secure funding for a 5 – 10 year horizon, we are dedicating a huge amount of effort to teasing out what are the greatest priorities for our customers, and analysing what the best solutions are or are likely to be considering the range of uncertainty and technological advances in recent years and expected over the coming ones. So at the moment a lot of my time is spent organising workshops, knowledge sharing and customer engagement activities. This is fascinating, a great way for me, my team and the business to listen, learn and talk…but it is making for a very, very busy January!

What is your professional background?

I trained as an electronic engineer, spending most of my summers during college doing internships and support jobs in photonics labs in Ireland and France. After graduating I worked initially (and very briefly) in telecoms transactional software, before joining the ESB.

Since joining the ESB 10 years ago, I have worked in network investment planning, R&D, regulation (twice), and operations. I love the variety that a career in the ESB offers. In R&D I discovered my “techie” side, and in Regulation, I had the privilege of working with policy makers in Ireland and Brussels. This has been fascinating and challenging, over a period of change in energy markets aiming to achieve decarbonisation, energy security and affordability, with the Third Energy Package (2020 targets) and now the Clean Energy Package (2030 targets).

I spend two years in operations, in and out of the control room 20+ times a day planning and authorising all planned and fault operations, and taking and making up to 90 calls a day to coordinate with operators and supervisors out in the field. It was a brilliant experience, with a direct and constant responsibility for keeping the lights on for customers.

Since leaving operations I still provide overnight and weekend cover as The High Voltage System Manager. While I cannot say I look forward to calls at 2am (when something unexpected happens on the network), how close this keeps me to the reality of system operation.

Tell me about yourself away from work?

I have two beautiful children aged 1 and 3; a pair of bright, bubbling, headstrong little characters! It does mean that we are at that stage where there’s not too much space for anything else. Life away from work is split between the playground, long walks with the double-buggy, grandparents’ houses and wherever else we might be able to get a bit of fun and air.

Having the kids has filled me with a new found respect for and gratefulness to my Mam and Dad! And the kids themselves teach me something new every single day. It’s funny, it feels like my eyes were never quite open until they arrived.

I love reading and music. Music these days is mostly just the four of us crashing around the piano playing twinkle-twinkle, Let It Snow or Baby Shark. (That one comes with dancing too). As for reading, I’d read anything. At pretty much any time. One of the best features of our buggy is that you can kind of balance a book across the top bar of it and still reasonably easily and safely manoeuvre the buggy.

Tell us something very few people know about you?

My Mam says I have the memory of an elephant…my husband would caveat that with “provided I remember to look or listen in the first place”. The reality is that I seem to remember enormous amounts of detail about things that make an emotional impact. For example, little bits of September 17th 1995 (Dublin won the All Ireland) are burned into my memory. I have pictures in my mind of going to an event in the Phoenix Park with my nana earlier that day (she got a bird feeder with a little toy robin on it), the taste of UHT milk from those tiny little containers you get with tea / coffee from a stall, the shiny white shoes I was wearing and feeling my face slowing burn as the sun split the rocks. But for the life of me I remember nothing of the football!

You are speaking at the forthcoming Power Summit in Croke Park. What is the focus of your talk?

As I mentioned, across ESB Networks we are spending 2019 working hard to develop investment and operational plans that bring us through to New Year’s Day 2026. At the Power Summit I will speak about some of the key priorities and changes that we are working to build into our plans, as we plan to support smart and sustainable growth and development in Ireland through a period of technological, environmental and social change.

This year our focus is on establishing and supporting customers’ priorities through extensive public engagement; selecting and prioritising the right solutions to address new challenges in our environment, for example climate change, greater social and economic reliance on technology; and on transferring a range of new solutions developed through our Innovation Strategy into business as usual solutions for the coming investment cycle.

I hope to be able to give a sense of some of this at the Power Summit, and look forward to it as an opportunity to further the conversations on these topics that we need to have, to deliver the right thing for customers in our Price Review 5 submissions at the end of the year.

What do you see as the main challenges ahead for Ireland’s energy market within the next 5 years?

I think that climate change creates a few challenges – the challenge to adapt to a changing environment, but also the challenge to create a more sustainable, low carbon society.

That latter challenge is one for all of us, not just for the energy industry. As a society, we need to be able to adopt new technologies in our lives and businesses. For example, the electrification of heat and transport is a practical and economic solution to enormous reductions in all of our carbon footprints. But for that to happen, in the energy market we are going to have to adapt to support a very different profile of customer needs.

One challenge that I think we perhaps overlook, is the impact of demographic trends and the pace of social and economic change. In the energy industry, particularly my part of the energy industry, we have an obligation to think long term, accounting in detail for how much energy use used. But if infrastructure delivered in the coming 5 years is to support Irish social and economic development for decades to come, then we need to be thinking less about how we use energy today, and more about how our children will use it, and how we will use it as we become parents and grandparents.

The Project Ireland 2040 work that has been done, hand in hand with ESRI projections, give a sense of this. The dependency rate in Ireland is going to increase – we are going to be a nation of both younger and older people. This is going to increase our reliance on a whole range of in-home technologies to make our lives more secure, safer, and more connected. Every plan that ESB Networks makes for PR5 (2021 – 2025) will have to have an eye to these trends, and how they influence the profile of use of and reliance on our infrastructure.

Can you comment on Brexit and the possible outlook for Ireland’s energy market?

I don’t know that I could make particularly educated comments, but I can certainly offer a nugget of insight. Over the years that I have spent travelling to Brussels to contribute to the development of energy policy and legislation, there have been countless occasions where colleagues from the UK were the first to recognise common challenges and opportunities with the Irish.

Quite apart from the single electricity market on the island of Ireland (a leading example of market integration in Europe), our similar environments, cultures, geography and history have conspired to deliver electricity networks which are quite similar in the UK and Ireland. Post Brexit, the more closely integrated that the UK can be with the EU’s single energy market initiative, the better for all of us. I cannot predict the future, but my sense is that from a technical, economic, security, decarbonisation and customer point of view, the UK energy industry will seek to remain very, very closely aligned with EU energy policy and regulation.

Ellen Diskin is speaking at the National Power Summit at Croke Park on January 31st. Full details are available at www.powersummit.ie

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