There is little doubt that Northern Ireland has the potential ability to generate over 20% of the electricity demand from renewable sources, mainly from wind farm generation. The official target is to do this by 2020.
However, there is considerable doubt about whether the ‘will’ and decision making at official levels is sufficiently motivated to deliver this in a timely sequence.
The decision making reaches across the island and into links with Great Britain.
There are major questions on grid related investment to give capacity to adequately use wind energy through trading using national inter-connectors.
Important for Northern Ireland are the (still unseen) plans for major grid investment from Tyrone to Cavan and other links across Tyrone into Donegal. Officials have long acknowledged these needs... but no action plan has been published.
On Tyrone-Cavan, NIE says a planning application will be submitted in the late summer.
On other internal adjustments, NIE has a legal obligation to make requested connections but it adds that, on an ad hoc basis, this can be time consuming in terms of planning and wayleaves. The draft Strategic Energy Framework from Department of Enterprise Trade & Investment (DETI) acknowledges that strategic strengthening of the grid is vital to ensure security of supply.
These red tape answers lack an urgent delivery plan. NIE Energy, DETI and Department of Environment (Planning) have built a formidable obstacle course. The Planning Service waits with its controversial subjective planning criteria if perchance NIE and DETI make proposals.
Whilst there is a need for key grid decisions, there is still some ability to add more wind farms to the current electricity grid. How much capacity could be added needs to be clarified (and then increased).
Within the current constraints, potential wind farm investors are unhappy and frustrated when they make applications for planning approval.
The complaints come in two forms. First the planners take too little account of the economics of proposals and unreasonably frustrate the viability of projects. Second, the planners are using unspecific criteria on location and proximity which are too restrictive and as yet, there is no agreed specific policy guidance.
There is tension between economics and planning. The best economic performance (and one that gets results with fewer windmills) comes from taller windmills (up to 120 metres). Planning conditions have, too often, sought to allow units that are only 80 metres high.
The smaller units are less economic and mean a larger number of units per MW and are less readily available as other countries are now opting for larger units.
Projects, after submission, are being squeezed by a bargaining process where planning constraints trim projects and squeeze viability. If planning guidelines were set by mutual agreement with the industry (for space, location and height), then applicants would have criteria against which judgments could be made when investments were planned, not after proposals have been costed.
Gaelectric director, Mike Denny, explains the frustrations. ‘We submitted our first wind farm application in January 2006. Since then the company has applied for planning consent on an additional eight projects, totalling 150mw. As yet no projects have been formally decided. Gaelectric is ready to invest £250m.’
Airtricity director, Mark Ennis, has also experienced both delay and scaling down of applications. It has unhappily withdrawn two major projects.
Gary Preston, development head of TCI Renewables, has eight wind farm applications awaiting planning decisions.
He comments: ‘The system places long delays in the determination of applications and can often bring planning and development issues to the table many months after (original) submission.’
If there is a serious intent to expand renewable energy sources, mainly from wind farms, the present aspirational language must give way to deliverable and scheduled operational plans.