Northern Ireland is enjoying the increased contribution from wind farms and solar energy on a scale well above what was expected less than a decade ago.
However, the story of that success has not been without deficiencies. The Northern Ireland Audit Office has critically reviewed the way in which local policies to encourage an appropriate supply of electricity from renewable sources have evolved.
The Audit Office, although careful in its criticism, has demonstrated that the successful evolution of increased supplies of electricity from renewable generators has lacked the level of seamless professional co-ordination that should be expected from such a public sector service.
A number of critical issues have been revealed by the Audit Office whose reputation for careful quantitative analysis stands it, and the public, in good stead.
Perhaps the unintended consequence of the exploration of the outcomes, the mechanisms and the objectives of the agencies involved in the largely successful increase in the supply of renewable electricity is a matrix of several policy strands, each of which gives rise to retrospective critical review.
That also points to the absence of adequate co-ordination and policy oversight in a form that ensures the sustainable provision of electricity from renewable sources.
Too many agencies are involved and have functioned without clear lines to give cohesion and clarity to ensure that central responsibility has been delivered.
Some of the critical comments from the Audit Office might logically ask whether the matrix of policy ideas could, or should, usefully have been explicitly attributed to the NI Authority for Utility Regulation. The Audit Office Report makes compelling reading. However, readers are asked to pick up the differing roles of the NI Environment Agency, the (UK) Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, the (UK) Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for the Economy, whose predecessor was the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the NI Department for Infrastructure. In addition, the terminology of the electricity sector is heavily in evidence. Central to the discussion is the creation and delivery of Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs), whose existence gives rise to the flow of payments, critical to the incentives to underpin the profit making possibilities of renewable electricity.
An additional layer to the complex organisational local energy structure is created by the inheritance of two different scales of incentives for renewable electricity: first a scheme launched in GB, then a separate similar scheme in Northern Ireland. Over time the two schemes have developed in parallel but with differences.
With hindsight, the question may be posed, was it necessary to have two strands of policy making that were allowed to diverge significantly, at times, making the Northern Ireland scheme significantly more attractive to investors than the comparator. Even in 2020, does the evidence support differences in the level of subsidy from ROCs affecting, in turn, the sales of NI ROCs mainly to English generators?
In the forthcoming NI strategic energy policy review, there is an opportunity to reconsider how NI relates to energy policy in GB and also to maintain a degree of integration with policy in the Republic of Ireland.
The Audit Office has identified a series of weaknesses in renewables policy in recent years.
The Audit Office concludes that the Department for the Economy has responsibility to ensure that the ROCs scheme delivers value for money.
There is currently an ongoing review of strategic energy policy in Northern Ireland. That review is likely to be wide ranging and slow to offer results. Perhaps the DoE might accelerate its work on better development of renewables policies, taking account of any consequences from Brexit.