Richard Lowes, Senior Associate at the Regulatory Assistance Project and researcher on the University of Exeter’s report on energy governance in Northern Ireland for the decarbonisation transition, discusses simplifying the complex governance of energy in Northern Ireland in order to guarantee the quick adoption of energy efficiency.
Calling Northern Ireland’s current energy governance structure “extremely complex”, Lowes points to the fact that building control, a key tenet of transition governance, is connected in some way to almost every government department. Transport faces a similar problem, and Lowes also notes that it “opens up wider questions around legal authority” due to the fact that the Executive would require an agreement from Westminster should it attempt to change the local tax regime for petrol or diesel vehicles.
“This isn’t to say that it is any less complicated for the UK Government but it goes to show that if you want a coherent policy, which is what is needed at a time of rapid transformation, this complexity may make life difficult,” he says. “It is very complex; possibly too complex.”
Coherence and complexity were cited as the top issue hamstringing energy transition governance in the interviews conducted as part of Lowes’s research on energy governance in Northern Ireland. Commissioned by the Northern Ireland Executive, “with the complexity of the different organisations involved and the relationships between them meaning that coming up with a specific programme could become quite complicated”. Concerns over leadership and where the responsibility for the energy transition lies sprang from this. With the research conducted in 2020 and published in 2021, Lowes does caveat that there have been developments in the past year with the publication of an energy strategy, but states: “Nonetheless, even with stakeholder engagement, it is not clear if there is an owner for certain issues and without an owner, you are unlikely to get the transformative policy that you need in time to meet goals for decarbonisation.”
Lowes remarks that his reported concerns over lack of capacity and expertise are now being addressed but does point out that concerns over a lack of whole-system thinking remains due to the siloed nature of the work being performed.
There was unanimous support among interviewees for a simplification of the decision-making process involved in the energy transition, and there was also seen to be “a need for better energy leadership” and an updating of the Utility Regulator’s statutory duties to reflect the need for decarbonisation, which clash with its requirement to expand the gas system. Reform suggestions arrived at via the research include: the incorporation of many energy and climate policy issues into one government department; the founding of an oversight body similar to SEAI in the Republic with responsibility for programme deliverance; the adoption of a Northern Ireland carbon budget, with the UK’s Committee on Climate Change providing advice; and placing a duty on all departments to consider climate and energy transition as part of their policy development.
Sounding an optimistic but cautious note, Lowes concludes: “Northern Ireland is very well placed to benefit from the energy transition and from decarbonisation in general owing to its potentially excellent renewable energy resource and the way it might be able to leapfrog some of the issues we are facing in the UK around the gas grid. Significant energy governance reform could drive that. We caution that if this doesn’t take place there is a real risk that the economic benefits of energy transition won’t be realised and goals for decarbonisation will be missed.”