Renewable energy policy in Northern Ireland is guided by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s Strategic Energy Framework, published in September 2010. Its starting point is that dependence on fossil fuels undermines security of supply and contributes to climate change.
The era of cheap energy “is past” and the department warns that all consumers must realise that investing in new infrastructure will be costly. Failure to take action “would lock Northern Ireland into potentially even higher costs in the long term”. On a positive note, a shift to renewable energy would also create economic opportunities for the region.
A target of sourcing 40 per cent of electricity from renewables was set down. Northern Ireland Electricity estimated that upgrading the grid to meet this target would cost around £1 billion. Research commissioned by DETI indicated that an extra cost of £49-83 per household per annum, based on 2010 prices.
Costs would increase as generation and grid infrastructure was deployed but the relative costs – compared to fossil fuels – would be reduced if the price of fossil fuels went up.
Onshore wind is (and remains) the most established large-scale source of renewable energy although there will also be a continuing requirement for a “responsive conventional generation portfolio” to back up this intermittent supply.
An Offshore Renewable Energy Strategic Action Plan was published in 2012 and envisages 900MW of energy from offshore wind and 300MW from tidal resources by 2020. The Crown Estate has subsequently leased seabed zones off the coasts of County Antrim and County Down in addition to the 1.2MW marine turbine between Strangford and Portaferry (pictured).
Indigenous and imported biomass could have a “significant role” in the technology mix by offering a predictable and reliable load. The strategy estimated that this could provide a 300MW contribution by 2010. Energy-from-waste infrastructure and a large scale biomass power stations were both proposed.
Oil would continue to be a major domestic fuel source “for many years” but renewable heat technologies (e.g. woodchip burners) could provide an alternative choice for consumers, especially in rural areas. The renewable heat incentive was introduced in 2012 and the aim is to generate 10 per cent of the province’s heat output from renewable sources by 2020.
The Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation has been in place since 2005 and rates are amended annually. Electricity suppliers are obliged to produce a certain number of certificates (ROCs) – as a proportion of the amount of electricity which they supply to customers in the region – or alternatively make a payment to the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) which oversees the scheme.
Responsibility for the policy rests with Arlene Foster (DUP) who has been Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister since 2008. The Assembly’s Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee is chaired by Patsy McGlone (SDLP) and the other party spokesmen on economic matters, including energy, are Phil Flanagan (Sinn Féin), Danny Kinahan (UUP) and Trevor Lunn (Alliance). Energy policy also relates to the responsibilities of the Department of the Environment (planning), the Department for Social Development (housing) and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (bioenergy).