Increased partnership between industry, planners, politicians and the public, more infrastructure investment and the revival of the north-south electricity inter-connector are vital to ensuring the success of Northern Ireland's renewable energy sector, a major conference in Belfast has heard.
The annual Northern Ireland Renewables Industry Group (NIRIG) event was told that 2013 saw the highest levels of wind energy ever recorded in Northern Ireland, culminating in 506MW of electricity generated at 6.30pm on December 17, the first time that wind has contributed more than 500MW to energy needs in Northern Ireland, and represented 36% of total electricity needs at that moment.
However, delegates were warned that significant challenges remain.
Late last year it emerged that parts of Northern Ireland's electricity network were becoming overloaded.
The grid was built in the 1960s to transport electricity from three power stations to homes and businesses, but was not designed to cope with power coming back in the opposite direction, causing problems for renewable energy producers.
While there is an array of savings and subsidies available for renewable energy production, smaller projects are finding it difficult to take advantage.
The packed event at the Hilton in the city centre, tackled themes of partnership for progress, partnership for markets, partnerships for grid and partnership with communities.
Gary Connolly, outgoing chairman of the Northern Ireland Renewables Industry Group (NIRIG), which represents the collective voices of Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA) and RenewableUK in Northern Ireland, said that Northern Ireland needs world class infrastructure to attract world class players
"We have multinationals and big names here who have invested and want to invest further, and we need to make sure the enablers are in place to make sure they stay here and do not take their investments elsewhere," he said.
"We need Northern Ireland Electricity to develop infrastructure, we need the Utility Regulator to ensure that short term costs equal long term benefits and we need the public on board.
"We need to improve public awareness about the renewables sector, because we are in a negative place as far as the public is concerned."
Another speaker was Jenny Pyper, new chief executive of the Northern Ireland Utility Regulator.
She is a former director of energy policy in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment where she managed policy and legislative responsibilities in relation to the electricity, gas and renewable energy industries in Northern Ireland.
"I am struck by the opportunities which exist for infrastructure investment and the benefits that can bring to communities in Northern Ireland," she said.
"The Utility Regulator has facilitated £1.3bn of investment in energy and water networks since 2009. But we do need a second inter-connector to get the maximum benefit for an all-Ireland market and there is a real need for further strategic energy infrastructure investment.
"We need political leadership and we need clarity from the industry."
Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Arlene Foster was another speaker.
She said that it was important not to lose sight of the wider economic benefits offered by the renewables sector, which she said are often left out of public debate.
"There are currently 230 companies here across the spectrum of renewables contributing millions of pounds to the local economy," she said. "Whilst onshore renewables will deliver most of our target of 40% of energy produced from renewable sources by 2020, we have a good mix of technologies.
"Northern Ireland can be seen as a world leader in research and development in the renewables sector, particularly in tidal and marine schemes, evidenced by the fact that the RenewableUK Wave & Tidal conference is coming here for the first time next month, which will be of benefit to the wider business community.
"But the lack of the inter-connector is having a negative effect on costs for consumers. I understand that we are losing £7m per annum while the inter-connector is not running and we cannot talk about addressing fuel poverty while there is no progress on this issue."
The Northern Ireland Renewables Industry Group (NIRIG) welcomed comments made by the minister, the contribution that the renewable energy sector is making and the growing importance of the sector.
Patrick McClughan, who was recently elected chairman of NIRIG, succeeding Mr Connolly, and who is commercial manager for Gaelectric Developments Ltd, said it was good to see optimism from key decision-makers about the contribution wind can make to Northern Ireland's electricity supply and economy.
"There is a clear desire to work with the industry and its representative body NIRIG to maximise the benefits from our fantastic wind resource by ensuring security of supply which will in turn release other economic benefits," he said.
"Whilst policy challenges remain, the strong commitment from both industry and Government at the highest level will assist in overcoming these."
The Enterprise Minister added that she would back a plan to secure millions of funding from the European Regional Development Fund to strengthen Northern Ireland's electricity grid.
Other speakers at the event included Maf Smith, the deputy chief executive of Renewable UK; Seamus Hegarty, senior development and project manager with Energia Renewables; Robert Wasson, asset management director with Northern Ireland Electricity; Mervyn Adams, senior consultant with ESB Wind Development and David Manning, the director of corporate affairs with SSE Ireland.