Energy Institute

The story of electricity in Ireland

Electricity was first introduced into Ireland in 1880 with the installation of the first public electric street lamp outside the offices of the Freeman’s Journal on Prince’s Street in Dublin. The same year the Dublin Electric Light Company was formed to provide public street lighting from three coal-fired power plants. In 1927, the establishment of the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) led to widespread development of new power facilities, starting with the Ardnacrusha hydro plant on the River Shannon in 1929. Due to the Rural Electrification Scheme led by ESB, by the 1960s 80% of rural households had electricity in their homes. Today electricity permeates all forms of energy use, from lighting our homes and powering appliances, to potentially providing low carbon solutions for heating and transport in the future. Going forward, in order to reduce emissions, Government policy aims to increase the share of renewable electricity from sources such as wind, solar, or biomass to 40% by 2020, with this share projected to continue to increase into the future as new technologies such as offshore wind and marine energy become economically feasible.

The first electricity in Ireland was generated from coal. It was initially used for public lighting with the first public electric lamp being installed outside the offices of the Freeman’s Journal on Prince’s Street in Dublin in 1880. In the same year, the Dublin Electric Light Company was formed.

By 1882, the Dublin Electric Light Company operated three coal-fired generation stations in the city. Dublin Corporation constructed a coal-fired power station at the Pigeon House in Ringsend in 1904 using imported coal as fuel. This was eventually acquired by the ESB.

The Electricity Supply Board (ESB) was formed by an Act of the Oireachtas in 1927. The Hydroelectric scheme at Ardnacrusha on the Shannon River was opened in 1929 and the transmission line to Dublin was the spine from which the national electricity grid was to develop. The Rural Electrification Scheme commenced in 1946 having been deferred since 1939 due to the Second World War. By 1965, 80% of rural households were connected to the electricity supply.

Peat harvested in the Midlands supported a peat-fired power station at Portalington (built in 1950). In 1956, a coal-fired generation station was built at Arigna in Co Leitrim, fuelled by indigenous coal. Between 1950 and 1967, sod peat stations totalling 117 MW and milled peat stations with a combined generation capacity of 290 MW were built. These included a number in the western part of Ireland to support a peat industry in the western counties. Following the oil crisis of 1973, additional peat-fired power stations were constructed adding 130 MW of capacity.

Nuclear energy was briefly considered by the Government but was not pursued.

Since the first commercial wind farm was constructed by Bórd na Mona at Bellacorrick in 1992, the development of large wind farms for electricity generation increased rapidly. The installed wind-powered capacity had expanded to 2,400 MW in 2015.

The Single Electricity Market (SEM) was set up in 2007 to combine the markets in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

About two million homes are connected to the electricity supply. However, a portion are vacant at any one time –holiday homes, newly built houses awaiting sale, dwellings vacant but for sale or rent, and those being refurbished by both private and by Local Authorities. The census of 2011 lists the number of “households” as about 1.6 million.

In April/May 2016, the national electricity demand for the previous month was primarily met by gas generation (48.5%), electricity from renewables (23.3% mainly from wind turbines) and coal generation (21.5%), with the balance from peat and other sources.

In 2014, the use of electricity in Ireland was split between different end-use sectors as follows: industry (38.9%), residential (31.9%), commercial (19.1), public sector (7.6%), Agriculture (2.3%) with minor electricity use in transport (LUAS, DART).

Pole rise

ESB archives

19th Century

The history of electricity in Ireland dates back to 1880 when the first electric street lighting was installed outside the offices of the Freeman’s Journal on Prince’s Street in Dublin. That same year, the Dublin Electric Light Company was formed and, by 1882, it operated three coal-fired generation stations located at Fade Street and Schoolhouse Lane in the South Inner City and Liffey Street on the Northside. Regulation of electricity supply companies was introduced in the early 1880s and in 1888 the rules were amended to open up the market to more electricity vendors.

20th Century

In 1904, Dublin’s then local authority (The Dublin Corporation) constructed the Pigeon House power station at Ringsend in Dublin. That station was fuelled by imported coal.

In the early years of electricity, there was no single utility responsible for the generation and transmission of power. In 1922, there were 130 public electric supply schemes operating in Ireland, alongside a number of private schemes. Hydro, coal, peat, gas from coal gasification and wind power were all used to generate electricity, and electricity had found a variety of uses from street lighting to industry to transport.

The development of the unified electricity network began in the 1920s with the passing of the Electricity Supply Bill to form a national system controlled by a single authority. The ESB was established in 1927 to provide a safe, reliable and economic supply of electricity to the community. The utility took over existing power plants such as the Pigeon House station.

The 1920s also saw a major leap forward in the electricity landscape in Ireland, with the construction of the Shannon Hydroelectric scheme at Ardnacrusha, Co Limerick. This was a massive undertaking for the newly established Irish Free State. Built at a cost of £5.2 million (about one-fifth of the state’s total budget) and employing 5,200 construction workers at its peak, Ardnacrusha was the largest hydroelectric scheme in the world, until it was overtaken by the Hoover dam scheme in the 1930s. It had enough capacity to meet almost all of Ireland’s electricity needs for the early years of the Free State. The transmission lines that were established to bring power from Ardnacrusha to the major urban centres became the foundation for the national grid.

In the 1930s, demand for electricity doubled as more and more households were connected to the grid. More power stations were built and there was further investment into the transmission network. The importance of having alternative energy sources became evident when incidences of drought and blizzard damage resulted in brief cases of reduced output.

Negotiations to build a turf-fired power station at Portarlington began despite reservations of increasing costs and uncertainties regarding the quality of turf. During the Second World War, coal quality deteriorated and difficulties in obtaining coal resulted in the rationing of electricity. Towards the end of 1943/44, fuel deliveries were confined to slurry which was almost unusable.

The cessation of war and the resulting upsurge in demand on the existing generation and transmission system led to the creation of the Rural Electrification Scheme, with the aim of delivering electricity to almost half a million rural homes. By 1949, about 284,000 electricity consumers were connected. At this time domestic consumption, although growing, was under 300 million units of electricity, less than the available capacity at Ardnacrusha.


Hydro power plant


The peat-fired station in Portalington was eventually built in 1950.The post-war recovery of the 1950s did not extend to Ireland and emigration surged in 1956. In spite of economic stagnation, demand for electricity continued to grow. Some of the increased demand was due, in part, to the availability of electric space heating and night storage heating. The Ardnacrusha hydroelectric plant had the capacity to meet the growing demand in the first few years, but further additions to the generation plant mix were needed. Extra hydro, peat, indigenous coal and coal/oil units were added in later years. Weather conditions had a significant influence on electricity generation in the late 1950s; heavy rainfall meant a good summer for hydropower and a bad summer for peat. The availability of peat provided a valuable energy source during the 1956 Suez Crisis when oil supplies were curbed. By this time, the potential for development of hydroelectricity had been exhausted and nuclear power began to be considered as an option for generation purposes.


By 1965, 80% of rural households were connected to the electricity supply as a result of the Rural Electrification Scheme. Peak electricity demand exceeded 1,000 MW for the first time in the 1960s due to increasing domestic and general heating, industrial development and higher living standards. By 1966, over half the homes in Ireland had a TV compared to just 20,000 in 1958. Plans were made for a North/South interconnector and new peat-fired units were augmented with oil-fired plants because oil was by then a comparably cheap fuel. Generation capacity more than doubled in the 1960s to meet the increasing demand.

Rural Electrification Scheme, 1954

1970s & 80s

The oil crisis of the 1970s and the economic recession that followed affected both the supply and demand of electricity. With higher oil prices and uncertainties about the continuity of fuel supply, diversification of energy sources became an urgent issue. Two-thirds of energy demand was reliant on imported oil and the oil crisis had a huge impact on the cost of electricity.

The ESB began working towards demand management by promoting domestic space heating, cheap night rates, energy conservation and load-management programmes. The option for a nuclear power station at Carnsore Point in Co Wexford was advanced to the pre-planning stage and a feasibility report was completed for an electricity interconnector with Wales.

By 1978, domestic consumption had passed three billion units and the majority of the natural gas find at Kinsale was allocated to the ESB to meet the expected annual growth of up to 8.5% over the next decade. The Pigeon House power station in Dublin was converted to natural gas as a result of the Kinsale find. Wind and wave power were being studied and the role of combustion turbines were examined as they provided flexibility to meet demands. This was a difficult time to develop long-term plans due to the long lead-times and high capital cost of generation plants and uncertainties about the pace of economic growth. The potential to tap into the UK electricity grid via interconnectors also affected investment decisions.

Electricity demand fell slightly in early 1980 due to the economic recession that followed the second oil crisis at the end of 1979 and there began to be a move away from electricity towards natural gas for domestic heating. But by the mid-1980s, the economy began to improve and the ESB commissioned a major new power plant at Moneypoint in Co Clare. The plant, which started operation in 1986, was fuelled by coal to avoid exposure to a rise in oil prices.

At this time, there was a growing awareness of environmental issues and the impact on air quality of sulphur dioxide from burning of coal. Policies were being put into place to curb pollution, particularly from coal.

Following the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, the Government announced that a nuclear station would not be considered until after 2000. Other long-term sources such as wind, small-scale hydropower, biomass, solar, tidal and wave energy were explored, but none made any significant contribution over the next decade.


Ireland's largest power station, active since 1985


The European Community established a Single Energy Market in 1992 to create an open electricity market that would encourage Europe’s competitiveness. Despite a slowing economy, there were still high levels of growth in electricity demand. To keep pace with growth, demand-side management schemes and investment in local combined heat and power (CHP) units in industry were developed. These measures aimed to reduce the requirement for new power stations as well as reduce emissions, a topic that was coming to the forefront of science during the 1990s. The country’s first wind farm was built by BórdNa Mona with substantial EU assistance at Bellacorrick in Co Mayo in 1992. More wind farms were commissioned from 1997 onward under the Alternative Energy Requirement scheme. By then, a large proportion of Ireland’s electricity generation was fuelled by natural gas, but the decline in indigenous natural gas resources led to the construction of a gas pipeline to the UK to import natural gas. By 1997, domestic electricity consumption was close to six billion units (kWhr) and soon after the market was opened to competing suppliers.

21st Century

Renewable sources continued to make an increasing contribution to electricity generation. Electricity generated from wind exceeded that from hydro for the first time in 2004. In 2007, the All-Island Market encompassing the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was established and, in 2013, a 500 MW electricity interconnector with Britain was built to assist with limited grid capacity and provide the ability to meet increasing domestic demand. European energy policy played an ever increasing role with demanding targets set for power generators to reduce their emissions under the EU-ETS programme which began in 2005.

About two million homes are connected to the electricity supply. However, a portion are vacant at any one time; these include holiday homes, newly built dwellings awaiting sale, houses vacant and for sale or rent, and those being refurbished both private and by Local Authorities. The census of 2011 lists the number of households as about 1.6 million.

In 2014, the use of electricity in Ireland was split between different end use sectors as follows: industry (38.9%), residential (31.9%), commercial (19.1), public sector (7.6%) and agriculture (2.3%) with minor electricity use in transport (LUAS, DART etc.).

In 2016, Eirgrid reported the generation mix for the month of April. It showed gas-fired plants provided 48.5% of all electricity, renewables 23% and a coal-based plant (Moneypoint) contributed 21.5%. The balance came from peat, biomass and other minor fuel types.