I thank the Chair for the opportunity to appear before the committee to address the matters raised recently on television concerning ESB Networks operations. ESB has always been a company that strives to do the right thing. For over nine decades we have worked in and with communities enabling development and better standards of living. Over that time, we have evolved our work practices, adopted new technologies and dealt with the legacy of older technology in a proactive way. Notwithstanding the fact that in recent years we have made significant progress on the safety and environmental issues raised, we recognise that we can do more. I would like to address a number of the significant matters raised in the recent programme. At the outset, I note the Chair's advice.
The 3,000 staff of ESB Networks install, operate and maintain the electricity distribution system and install and maintain the electricity transmission system. We use our network of over 180,000 km of lines and cables to connect and provide services to 2.3 million customers in homes, farms and businesses throughout the length and breadth of Ireland. Our role is connecting people and businesses to the electricity they need. ESB Networks also has a key role supporting the national climate action plan. We work to create a brighter future for the communities we serve and lead the transition to a low carbon future powered by clean, renewable electricity. This involves connecting more renewable generation so that 70% of electricity comes from renewables by 2030. We also distribute that clean electricity to facilitate the decarbonisation of heat, transport and industry.
The programme raised the issue of fluid filled cables. Without wanting to minimise in any way the challenges we face relating to legacy fluid filled underground cables, they were for many years the technology of choice for electricity networks in cities all over the world. That leaves ESB, along with the many worldwide utilities operating city networks, with the ongoing challenge of managing fluid filled cables for many years to come, although these cables now make up less than 1% of Ireland’s underground cable network. The fluid is an essential component of the electrical insulation of the underground cables in question and the fluid is readily biodegradable. Notwithstanding this, we know it is important to minimise and eliminate the leakage which can occur, for example, as a result of damage from construction activity or deterioration of the outer casing of the cables. We have taken many concrete steps to improve, and our current performance in 2019 is comparable with that of our international peers and comparators. Those concrete steps include replacing almost 20% of underground fluid filled cables so far, thereby removing the source of 40% of the historical leakage, and investing in specialist detection equipment that allows us to track down leaks more quickly. Our current rate of fluid leakage is in line with international comparators at 10 cu. m per year. We have reported the rate of fluid usage in underground cables annually to our sectoral regulator, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, since 2007.
Our records show five occasions over 26 years, since 1993, when cable fluids spilled into water. In each case we notified the relevant local authority, Waterways Ireland, or both, and immediately mobilised an environmental response. However, we acknowledge and accept that a greater and more systematic level of liaison with the relevant local and other statutory authorities on cable leaks would be appropriate. That is happening.
SF6 gas is a standard insulating gas used in switchgear all over the world. It is specified by the international manufacturers of modern switchgear because its properties make it particularly good in providing the insulation and arc suppression required to safely operate high voltage switchgear. At ESB Networks we comply with the requirements of the EU F-gas directive and have reported our annual usage of SF6 gas to the EPA since 2006. One of the characteristics of SF6 gas in switchgear is that a certain level of leakage is anticipated. Until 2019 ESB Network’s SF6 gas usage was higher than that of peer comparators. It was primarily an issue with HV switchgear at our Moneypoint transmission substation. Now that the switchgear has been de-energised, taken out of service and replaced, our SF6 gas usage will be significantly lower. This was a major project started some years ago and it has now finished. The switchgear has been de-energised in the last month or so.
It is important to address the aspects of safety culture raised in the programme. For many years the ESB has invested in an open culture to encourage employees to identify and report safety issues or potential safety issues of which they become aware. We believe they are a leading indicator, increasing people’s involvement in safety issues and cumulatively reducing the likelihood of injuries. ESB Networks has over 3,000 highly trained and very committed employees who, between them, raised over 4,500 good catches in 2018. We acknowledge and appreciate the commitment of all those who openly raise safety suggestions, believing this to be the key to a continuous safety culture. For example, the decision to replace the hand-held propane gas blow-torch referenced in the RTÉ television programme came about as a result of our employees identifying issues and reporting incidents in their use. After a review process, that model of torch was replaced. We have a well resourced safety organisation which audits, reviews and supports safety performance in dealing with any issue or incident raised in the normal course of daily operations. Our safety and environmental systems are audited annually and accredited to OHSAS 18001 and ISO 14001 standard.
The ESB has a very clear policy on speaking up. We provide comprehensive support for employees who feel the need to speak up, including a 24-hour confidential helpline that can be accessed by phone or online and an opportunity to directly contact the ESB’s group internal auditor. ESB Networks is an open organisation. The issues highlighted in the RTÉ television programme had been identified as part of our safety and environmental reporting systems and many had already been the subject of internal review, investigation and action. With the disclosures from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, any concern raised that had not been investigated within ESB Networks was assigned for investigation. The investigations were carried out by people with the appropriate expertise from areas of the ESB outside ESB Networks or using external specialist expertise, where appropriate. At the request of ESB‘s chief executive, we are also commissioning an external review of the potential for environmental impact of ESB Networks operations to ensure our internal assessments are comprehensive.
I would like to address aspects of security and the reliability of the Dublin city network raised in RTÉ’s television programme. The Dublin city electricity network, including the underground fluid filled cables in question, has been designed, configured and operated to provide a high level of security and reliability typical of any modern city. The high and medium voltage network is monitored 24/7 in real time using a modern operations management system. Accordingly, customers in Dublin, whether domestic or business, enjoy a reliable, resilient and high quality electricity supply. The ESB has always been a company that strives to do the right thing. Throughout our history we have evolved our work practices, adopted new technologies and dealt with the legacy of older technology in a proactive way. Notwithstanding the fact that in recent years we have made significant progress in safety and environmental performance, including in dealing with the issues raised, we recognise and acknowledge that there are a number of areas where we could and should have done more. We recognise the opportunities for further improvement into the future. My colleagues and I will be happy to address questions committee members may have on these or relevant matters.