Ireland's risk of energy shortfalls rising - grid operator

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's risk of electricity shortfalls over the coming years has increased over the last 12 months but it would still take an "extraordinary confluence of events" for blackouts to occur this winter, the country's electricity grid operator said.

EirGrid has been flagging increased tightness between supply and demand in Ireland since 2016 and stepped up its calls a year ago when it warned that the country's large number of power-hungry data centres would fuel demand going forward.

With older power plants becoming increasingly unreliable at a time of rising demand and the failure of some planned capacity to be delivered this year, EirGrid's chief executive said he could not rule power cuts to homes and businesses this winter.

"We have a tight winter, let's be clear," Mark Foley told national broadcaster RTE on Thursday after it published its annual assessment on the future needs of the energy market.

"It will take an extraordinary confluence of events for the lights to go out, for example a very, very cold winter, no wind on a very, very cold January evening, the UK being in a similar situation or a major fossil plant failing."

EirGrid added that demand had also fallen recently due to lower than expected economic growth and the impact of soaring energy bills.

Its report estimated that electricity demand will rise 37% by 2031, driven by increased economic activity, higher levels of electrification in the heat and transport sectors and in particular greater data centre demand.

Data centres and other new large energy users are forecast to account for 28% of all demand in Ireland by 2031, higher than previously expected and up from 17% this year. Criteria for new data centres has been tightened in the last year and EirGrid's estimate is based only on currently contracted projects.

Foley said that Ireland should be able to meet the increased demand through new generation but warned that the system should also have been able to accommodate the 9% growth over the last five years rather than finding it so stretched now.

"I think we'll be in a better position next year," he said.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Toby Chopra)