Business Soapbox: Brendan McGrath
The chief executive of Gaelectric is adamant that the incoming Assembly must remain proactive in supporting renewable energy due to the positive implications that it has on the economy, including creating jobs and foreign investment
Gaelectric has secured planning approval for over 80MW of wind energy developments in Northern Ireland within the last 18 months. This is a very significant milestone for our business and greatly strengthens Gaelectric's platform in the energy market. It also provides a significant boost to Northern Ireland's renewable energy capacity and will generate jobs, support increased workforce skills and provide economic activity to the local areas.
The NI Environment Minister, Edwin Poots, has played a particularly important role in ensuring that development policy allows such renewable energy projects to be progressed at a greater pace, whilst still ensuring effective planning controls and protection of the natural environment.
The incoming Assembly and Executive have a responsibility to further educate the public on the need for, and benefits of, renewable energy. This will help combat nimbyism (not in my back yard), not just in the general public but in all elements of government.
Over the next decade, in the region of €9 billion will be spent importing turbines to the island of Ireland. This presents numerous opportunities in terms of job creation and income revenue streams.
Improved technology in relation to energy production will also become more apparent in the next 10 years. For example, current regulation puts an entirely arbitrary limitation on the height of wind turbines and the rotor diameter distance from dwellings. You will travel a long road before you find such a prescriptive restriction in any other jurisdiction. If the Assembly is to allow wind farm developers to avail of the latest technology this regulation needs to be revisited.
Planning fees have increased substantially (by a factor of 25) in recent years, which places immense economic pressure on wind farm developers. To encourage wind development, these fees should be re-examined and a future reduction considered.
The incoming Assembly should also support the development of industry research on data gaps, through the provision of test facilities and introduction of incentivisation mechanisms.
To facilitate the integration of renewables, enabling technologies such as energy storage should be fostered and encouraged. Gaelectric is leading the field of energy storage with the development of a unique Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES) facility in Larne, Co Antrim. This world leading technology has the potential to help Northern Ireland become the renewable energy hub for Britain, Ireland and Europe.
Arlene Foster, Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, has recognised this opportunity and has been supportive of this initiative.
Given the challenges of reaching a target of 40% renewables by 2020, Northern Ireland is strongly positioned to carve out an opportunity in the area of grid management with storage, which could lead to broader economic benefits such as job creation and foreign direct investment around new grid technologies.
Northern Ireland stands on the verge of becoming the recognised centre for renewable energy innovation in Europe with the related positive economic implications including jobs and foreign direct investment. The outgoing Assembly has been proactive at an Executive and party level in supporting renewables. It will be up to the incoming Assembly and Executive to secure this future.