James Tobin has worked for ESB for 16 years, joining as part of the company's Graduate Development Programme in 2006.
Tell us about yourself?
I’m a father of three, husband of one, and my interests are more sport related than anything else. I have been working with ESB for over 16 years, having joined as a Graduate with ESB International in 2006. I worked in many diverse roles during that time, mainly within the generation side of the business. I have been lucky enough to have gained valuable experience while working on some international projects during that time.My 14 months working in Kulim, Malaysia, are a particularly fond memory for me. I then moved across to the Engineering and Major Projects business area, working as project manager for a number of renewable energy overhaul projects.
How long have you worked in this role?
I began my role as BESS (Battery Energy Storage Systems) Project Manager in September 2021, after completing my role as Project Manager for ESB’s Dublin Bay major overhaul in 2021. BESS is a new technology for ESB and I’m enjoying learning the ways in which it interacts with the grid differently to traditional thermal plants. BESS is primarily concerned with offering the grid system services to stabilise, whereas the thermal power plants are more concerned with supplying generation capacity to the grid.
Can you tell us about the battery storage projects you are currently working on?
ESB have five BESS projects in total. Aghada I (19MW) which is commercially operational, Kylemore (30MW) which is expected to be commercially operational in early 2023, Poolbeg (75MW), South Wall (30MW) and Aghada II (150MW) which are all on schedule to be commercially operational next year ahead of winter 2023. By the end of next year, ESB expects to have over 300MWs of battery capacity, making it the largest battery portfolio in Europe
What are the key challenges when working on such projects?
The project completion timelines, particularly in the current global supply chain environment where it is challenging to confirm manufacturing and delivery timelines of key plant and equipment. There are a number of commercial challenges too with delivering projects in a very competitive energy market. Projects are generally bid into competitive auctions, meaning each project has a tightly defined business case through its construction phase and operation lifespan.
Learning to deal with a new technology always takes time. Issues tend to arise at commissioning with new technology that are hard to foresee, and we have found that to be the case on some of our projects to date. We had a lot of new learnings from the first project at Aghada, which were carried forward to Kylemore that made commissioning for that project much smoother. The expectation is that we should have an even smoother commissioning experience next year with the next three projects as they come online.
There is a lot of talk about energy security at the moment. How will these projects and your work fit into this?
The BESS projects aim to provide system services but if required, can provide additional capacity for short durations at peak periods such as the daily evening peak between 4-7pm. In supplying system services, the batteries are in effect lying in wait for a sudden change in grid frequency. The batteries have the capability to export full power in a tenth of a second to give an almost instantaneous response, stabilising the grid, and allowing larger power generators the time to come online and deliver the necessary power. The batteries can also be deployed to import electricity at times when there is high wind but relatively low consumption. In this way, the batteries can be used to keep wind farms on the grid and ready for increased demand as the day goes on.
How does your work align with ESB’s Net Zero Emissions to 2040 strategy?
The BESS projects are a key component in the suite of different measures and projects being undertaken by ESB to achieve our Net Zero by 2040 strategy. Energy Storage is considered to be very important for a power generation future based on renewable energy. In the journey towards Net Zero, Energy Storage systems offering systems services will be key to safely and reliably transitioning from a grid with reliance on power from fossil fuels to a grid solely powered by renewables.
In a future Net Zero environment, Energy Storage of long duration is likely to be in a different form such as hydrogen. That said, it is likely there will still be a need for shorter-duration Energy Storage, such as that delivered by the BESS projects, to deliver highly responsive and reliable system services in much the same way they are needed today.
What advice would you offer someone who is considering a career in the energy market now?
What is currently happening to the energy market right now is somewhat similar to what phone apps did for the software market. There is a boom in the industry right now, and the scale and number of projects coming down the line are like nothing I have ever seen in the industry since I started in ESB.
The scale of change to achieve a future energy market powered by renewable energy is huge, and the ESB Net Zero by 2040 strategy is a significant part of that drive.
The reach of that change is also so significant. There will be great engineering projects which require a high variety of skillsets from project managers, to engineers and technicians, to specialists and consultants. But there is change coming too commercially, and legally, for example. Commercially, contracts are now more sustainability-focused, trading markets more nuanced and focused on environmental sustainability, and project funding models more diverse. Legally there is a huge new area opening up in ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) that is concerned with how organisations like ESB impact the planet and society,and how they are governed.
There really is a great opportunity for anyone who is considering a career in the energy market and I firmly believe that those opportunities will remain plentiful into the future and post-2040.