Boost to the economy is blowing in the wind
With oil prices soaring consumers and businesses alike are waking up to the many benefits renewable energy has to offer
In the past, it's fallen foul of naysayers and not-in-my-back-yarders, but the renewable energy sector in Northern Ireland, after a faltering start, continues it's onward march.
With oil - and therefore petrol, gas and electricity - prices soaring and jittery markets over unrest in the Arab states, consumers and businesses alike are starting to realise that our reliance on fossil fuels needs to stop.
More incentives are now being offered to householders and companies prepared to 'go green'.
With new announcements in the sector almost daily, commentators are predicting that Northern Ireland, surrounded by waves, buffeted by the wind and with a struggling farming community in dire need of diversification opportunities, could become a UK if not European leader in the market.
Many innovative ideas have hit the skids in recent years because of tight planning legislation here. It was argued that the very things that made the perfect sites attractive for wind farms were also what made them attractive to visiting tourists -their wild, rugged and beautiful setting.
However, supporters point to Spain and other parts of Europe where fields and mountains are covered with acres of turbines and tourism and farming is unaffected.
And many more investors are finally seeing the potential of green energy and see the market as a way to save the economy, save money and save the planet.
Business groups and politicians are even getting in on the act.
One of the most promising developments for the sector has been the adoption of the 'Green New Deal for Northern Ireland' into the Draft Budget, which aims to slash billions of public spending over four years.
The Green New Deal group - a coalition of 40 organisations and individuals from across the public, private and third sectors - last year published a business plan initially targeting 100,000 homes over the first three years and 500,000 in the next 10.
The plans, which could go live as early as October 2011, will include cavity wall and loft insulation, newer boilers and solar panels, costing the householder £800 but meaning eventual savings of £300 a year, even in the first year.
The group has asked for a £72m investment from the Government, which will result in a £181m injection from the private sector and predict the plans could help cut a total of £52,000 of energy costs and prompt up to a 25% reduction in carbon emissions as well as leading between 2,400 to 3,500 direct jobs, excluding the supply chain and knock-on roles and positions.
On a smaller scale, many investors are getting wise to the benefits of renewable energy and recently Belfast-based firm Simple Power pledged to invest over £50m in wind energy here over the next five years, producing more than 50 MW of wind energy annually by 2015.
Paul Carson founded the company in early 2010 and first saw the benefits of green power through his work with the award-winning consultancy firm Strategic Planning.
"We first realised the potential for single wind turbines a while back, but we realised that dealing with planning was going to be an issue," he said.
"I was well placed to offer advice about planning but initially these two areas of work were separate.
"The big change came with the Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster helping introduce the Renewables Obligation Certificate to Northern Ireland, which places an obligation on UK suppliers of electricity to source an increasing proportion of their electricity from renewable sources."
A Renewables Obligation Certificate (ROC) is a green certificate issued to an accredited supplier for renewable electricity distributed to customers by a licensed electricity supplier. One ROC is issued for each megawatt hour of renewable output generated.
The Renewables Obligation (Northern Ireland) Order came into effect in April 2005 and capability was rolled out in April 2010.
Mr Carson says he hopes his first turbines go live in spring 2012.
"Arlene Foster kick-started a big industry with huge potential," he said. "Basically what we do is lease land, mainly from farmers, for 25 years, at no cost to the farmer, we pay for everything, sort out the planning permission, materials and infrastructure. installation and maintenance, provide the farmer with an annual income which will rise year-on-year with inflation - all we need is a tiny parcel of land, only about a quarter of an acre.
"Electricity is generated and goes into the supply chain. So there are plenty of winners. This business cannot work without farmers and landowners and then if you think about the boost to the construction industry, crane hire, transport and shipping companies to get the turbines to their location and set up, there are huge benefits to everybody.
"We are looking at 200 sites in construction terms in the next few years, right now we are looking at between 50-70 sites."
While he is excited about the future, Mr Carson is keeping a level head about Northern Ireland's role in the renewable revolution.
"We will build a very strong renewable sector but I think it is too much to say that we will be a world leader. However it will be good for this wee country.
"Where our strengths will lie will be in taking the existing technology and making it better through research and development, building on Northern Ireland's history of being innovative.
"We can't just stop at wind, our firm is called Simple Power because we are interested in anything at all that creates energy and will look at any opportunity.
"Planning is still key. The bottom line is that for a wind turbine to produce efficiently, it must be near the top of a hill. We need good, clean power. We need to balance the environmental impact of wind turbines in a picturesque area with having power stations in a not so nice area, but spewing out C02 - the impact of turbines is so much less - go to Europe and see the animals grazing around them, people taking pictures, you won't get that at a power station."
Irish renewable energy group Gaelectric, has secured full planning approval for a 42 MW wind farm in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty at Dunbeg in Co Londonderry.
The £58m, 14-turbine project will generate enough renewable power to meet the demand of 24,000 homes.
Gaelectric successfully appealed to the Northern Ireland Planning Appeals Commission which overturned an earlier decision to refuse the plans. Environment Minister Edwin Poots said:
"Reaching the 40% renewable energy target by 2020 is not just a desire for the Northern Ireland Executive, it is an imperative."
Danish giant DONG Energy has signed a letter of intent to use Belfast Harbour as a base for constructing thousands of giant turbines for off-shore wind farms.
The Harbour is set to fund and build a new £40m, 450-metre quay and 50-acre building space on the Co Down side of the harbour.
The massive project is expected to create up to 300 full-time jobs on completion and 150 construction posts during building.
Over the next 20 years 11,000 offshore wind turbines will be built in UK and Irish waters at a cost of around £100bn, with almost a quarter of the planned structures within 150 nautical miles.