When I speak to people on their doorsteps, one of the most frequent problems they raise is the high cost of heating and lighting their homes. When I speak to business people, they highlight the difficulties their companies encounter because of exorbitant energy prices.
Expensive electricity, oil and gas lead to fuel poverty and make it difficult for our economy to compete with the rest of the world. So it’s all the more disappointing that the Executive isn’t taking action to drive down costs and fend off an energy crisis.
To take one example, parts of the province have an apparently abundant supply of shale gas. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, David Cameron spoke about the potential of hydraulic fracturing to transform the UK’s economy. Northern Ireland could be at the forefront of this ‘fracking revolution’. The consulting firm, PWC, estimates that shale could be worth £80 billion to our economy.
There is a huge opportunity to provide cheap energy for everyone here, but instead of a sensible debate and a positive, ‘can do’ approach from the Assembly, we’ve heard a lot of scare-mongering and not many facts. Positive stories from communities in the US and elsewhere have been largely ignored, along with solid scientific evidence. It’s a disappointing attitude to an issue which could be critically important for Northern Ireland’s future.
Likewise, the poultry industry has said for years that it needs an incinerator to turn chicken and turkey waste into cheap energy. The Executive turned down an application to build a plant near Glenavy, but it didn’t propose an alternative site, despite the fact that the project had the potential to generate a third of Northern Ireland’s green energy target.
Repeatedly, plans to generate cheaper power have been stalled or stopped by bureaucracy and the planning process. Where positive developments do take place, it’s often down to the resourcefulness of businesses. For instance, Bombardier are developing a major facility to create electricity for its factory in east Belfast.
The key to tackling this issue is a new attitude: doing our best to keep projects on track, finding suitable sites quickly, solving problems, rather than allowing them to bring things to a grinding halt and always keeping a focus on lower energy prices and creating jobs. If the Executive doesn’t adopt this ‘can do’ approach, Northern Ireland’s energy problems will get worse rather than better.