Why a sustainable future energy policy is vitally important
Last month, the First and Deputy First Minister wrote to our new Prime Minister, Theresa May, to advise her that energy would be one of the key priorities for Northern Ireland in the upcoming Brexit negotiations.
As chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee at the House of Commons, I can say that MPs from across the House recognise that energy policy, and electricity policy in particular, is vitally important for Northern Ireland.
The new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has outlined its priority to ensure an affordable, clean and secure energy supply for the UK. Although energy is a devolved issue, electricity policy is inevitably affected by the interconnected nature of markets and infrastructure across the UK, and, as such, the policy decisions that will be made by the new department.
Northern Ireland's electricity sector faces a number of challenges in the coming years. For one, opportunities for economic growth will be dependent on establishing an electricity system that provides cheap, secure and sustainable energy for businesses.
Unfortunately, this has not always been achieved in Northern Ireland, and it is clear we do not have an ideal system today. In our regular meetings with industry groups, we hear important concerns about the region's electricity sector. We were told that energy costs for big businesses were almost 60% higher than the EU average, and that this had - at least in part - contributed to the loss of major employers and was inhibiting economic growth.
We were especially concerned that the System Operator Northern Ireland (SONI), feared it may not be able to 'keep the lights on' beyond 2021 without a new North-South Interconnector, and have been troubled that this vital project continues to be delayed by an ongoing planning dispute.
It is also evident that Northern Ireland is now the only part of the UK not to have a renewables incentivisation scheme, leaving many companies in the renewables industry without the certainty that they need to make investment decisions, and potentially putting in jeopardy the Executive's commendable 40% renewables target.
Many members of the committee - and especially our UUP colleague, Danny Kinahan - were therefore keen to undertake a full inquiry into the electricity sector in Northern Ireland and look at how we, from a UK perspective, could support the development of a cheap, secure and sustainable electricity system for the region.This week, we are in Belfast to conclude our six-month inquiry into the electricity sector in Northern Ireland.
Yesterday, we heard from the owners of the Moyle Interconnector, Mutual Energy, and the owners of Northern Ireland's transmission and distribution infrastructure, NIE Networks. Today we will take evidence from business leaders, including Manufacturing NI and the Energy and Manufacturing Advisory Group.
As with all inquiries, the committee will be taking evidence in public, and this will be streamed through its website at www.parliament.uk/niacom. You can participate through Twitter (@commonsniac), giving your views using the hashtag #electricNI