It is one of the Executive's objectives that 40% of our electricity should be generated from renewable sources by 2020, but what does the offshore leasing round mean for business? Anne Monaghan takes a closer look at its implications
On April 1, The Crown Estate launched a consultation with the renewable energy industry on the design and development of offshore wind and tidal energy in Northern Ireland. The Crown Estate is a significant landowner, also owning much of the foreshore and marine estate in the UK and the 'design discussion' will run until May 31.
Approximately 300 delegates attended the supply chain event in the Ramada Hotel, organised in partnership with DETI and Invest NI, and many of those attending were anxious to find out what the leasing round will mean for them.
The event delivered much more than that, however.
One by one, a range of speakers outlined how and why Northern Ireland is capable of delivering on the afore-mentioned government target.
Joe O'Neill, commercial director with Belfast Harbour pointed to the facilities already available to support the development of offshore wind farms: 100 acres of strategically located development sites including one fronting the deep water channel; two permanent 800T heavy lift gantry cranes (better known as Samson and Goliath); and 7KM of existing quay frontage.
Part of this site incorporates the proposed £40m offshore wind terminal for DONG Energy, but there is plenty of development potential left.
Speaking at the event O'Neill said: "There is a huge benefit financially for Belfast Harbour and the Northern Ireland business community. Up to 400 companies have expressed an interest in the sector".
The consultation process aims to assess the level of interest in offshore wind and tidal projects off Northern Ireland and it is anticipated that by next spring the development leases will be awarded.
If the Ramada event is anything to go by, The Crown Estate, DETI or Invest NI need not be worried about the huge hunger for access to the renewables industry.
Peter Madigan, head of offshore renewables at Renewable UK - which has 660 company members and is the voice of wind and marine energy - stated there has been a four-fold increase in employment in offshore wind in the UK in the last four years.
Paul Brewster from Pure Marine, the only locally-based marine energy company, speaking on behalf of the Marine Renewables Industry Association, agreed saying that the marine energy sector has the potential to emulate what happened in the wind energy sector, which is now a bigger employer than coal and is on target to employ 70,000 people by 2020.
"Look what happened with wind. It is a global industry and the growth potential for marine energy is huge. We need to stimulate a local market in terms of marine energy and that's one message for the leasing round.
Technology is in its infancy and its expensive, but government stimulation is needed."
In terms of the supply chain, a number of areas of opportunity were described, including in instrumentation, for consulting engineers, project delivery and R&D, for manufacturers and installers, in operations and maintenance and in construction and training services. The issue for Northern Ireland business is not how we can benefit from the awarding of the offshore leases, but how much we can benefit.
If there are any gaps in the services needed and the services required, then those skills gaps or training needs must identified and closed - otherwise it could be a case of missing the proverbial tide. One example of a programme currently available is the Energy and Utility Skills National Occupation Standards (NOS), which are the foundation for Levels 2 and 3 Diplomas in Wind Turbine, Operation and Maintenance.
The programme is being run in partnership with DEL, RenewableUK and FE Colleges and more information is available at www.euskills.co.uk.
The message to potential employees is don't miss the boat.
It is a global industry and the potential for growth in the marine energy sector is huge