Time for blue sky thinking
Getting more energy from renewable sources in Northern Ireland is an accepted part of Government ambitions for a greener low-carbon economy.
In July 2009 a wide-ranging draft strategic energy framework was published for consultation.
Formal Executive approval for decisions from that consultation is due this autumn.
At present, proposals to invest in renewable energy face hurdles that lack sufficient coherence to facilitate efficient and timely decision-making. Turley Associates, a firm of specialist consultants, focus on improvements needed to reduce two barriers — the planning system and grid capacity.
Dealing only with electricity supplies, Economy Minister Arlene Foster hopes to see progress towards investment in alternative generation methods which will deliver 40% of all local electricity needs by 2020.
If the 40% target is to be reached, there is little doubt that most of the early investment will be from on-shore wind power supplemented later by off-shore wind power and units harnessing tidal streams around the coast.
How much electricity can be generated using renewable technology, how quickly, and at what cost? At present, decisions are made |individually and sequentially by investors who each separately tackle the preparatory stages. Potential investors make preliminary assessments and apply for planning approval, and then they must tackle the technical questions of links to the Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) grid.
What is lacking is an official agreed sectoral overview recognising the possibility of exploiting economies of scale and a clear plan for investment to allow orderly use of capacity in the electricity grid and sensible decisions on location opportunities. There are good reasons for competent and co-ordinated government actions and a move away from the current laissez-faire approach. Can the Planning Service be expected to deal with 40 to 60 applications, one by one, over the next decade and is the investment in the electricity grid committed so that NIE can deal with this number of connections across the system? Ideally, to improve the economics of these wind-farms, they should be in viable groups and should be permitted to use larger capacity units which call for higher height limits. The special guidelines with Planning Service PPS18 have been improved but applicants still see the process as too constrained. Far from giving greater certainty on where the extra capacity is to be located, the SPG (supplementary planning guidance) published two weeks ago could become an extra and frustrating planning obstacle course.
The lack of an agreed programme to strengthen the NIE grid is a serious concern. Grid capacity has not been increased to cope with wind-farms and this constraint is severe in the north-west of Northern Ireland. The problem has been articulated for some years but officialdom talks about work have still to be completed in designing an investment plan.
The lack of overall agreed grid plans confirms the need for integrated decision making. Another aspect of building a greater reliance on wind-power is that the all-island grid and the grid connections from Wales to Ireland should be finalised.
The delay in securing planning agreement for the new cross-border high voltage inter-connector is now a political and financial embarrassment.
Of course the grid investment will become a cost to electricity users but that factor is an unacceptable argument to justify delay.
The mechanisms to incentivise investment in wind-farms are one feature that is proving effective. The formula for selling renewable energy to wholesale energy suppliers has attracted investors.
The concept of renewable obligation certificates (ROCs) sold at premium |prices means that investors can see a healthy profit.
Interestingly, the ROCs system works without direct government subsidy. Renewable supplies are effectively cross-subsidised by conventional fossil fuel generators.
If Northern Ireland’s strategic energy framework is to be effective, a strong co-ordinating mechanism is needed. The independent behaviours of the Planning Service, the grid company NIE, the Utility Regulator and the Environmental Agency are not combining to create an efficient marketplace.
Legislation to create ministerial authority may be needed.