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Golden opportunity to create green economy

Paul Stapleton


Paul Stapleton, Managing Director, NIE Networks

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'By working from home more and taking advantage of video conferencing we can make sure our travel is kept to a minimum'

'By working from home more and taking advantage of video conferencing we can make sure our travel is kept to a minimum'

'By working from home more and taking advantage of video conferencing we can make sure our travel is kept to a minimum'

In these extraordinary times we could be forgiven for shifting our focus away from sustainability and green energy. Business and society has been stopped in its tracks but thankfully we are now seeing the slow return to a semblance of normality.

The journey has undoubtedly been difficult - and still has a long way to run - and it leaves us with a major challenge to rebuild our economy. But it has also given us a unique opportunity to rebuild our world in a more sustainable and green fashion.

Evidence of how quickly a change in our habits can have a positive impact has been numerous during the recent lockdown period, with a sharp drop in air pollution and the quieter conditions allowing wildlife and biodiversity to flourish.

These outcomes are the result of a significant temporary event which grounded industry and commerce to a halt. But we can still create a more sustainable world under the new normal by retaining some of the positive features and making further small changes to how we live, work and play.

Like so many others, at NIE Networks we have used this time to reflect on what we can do differently to help the journey towards a new energy landscape. The pandemic has presented the opportunity to test just what we are capable of and our adaptability.

By working from home more and taking advantage of video conferencing we can make sure our travel is kept to a minimum, by shopping locally we will cut down on food miles and support our local economy, and by seriously considering how we manage our own energy usage we can cut our own carbon footprint. Utilising the valuable local resources and skills we have and investing in those further, will be a significant factor in driving our economic recovery.

As the custodians of the electricity transmission and distribution network, we had already been working towards the target of net zero carbon by 2050.

In just 15 years Northern Ireland has managed to meet the key target set out in the last Strategic Energy Framework of generating 40% of total electricity usage from renewable sources by 2020 and we are likely to be closer to 50% by the end of this year.

During that time, we have facilitated the connection of what were then alternative, but which are increasingly mainstream, energy sources, such as wind turbines, anaerobic digesters and even hydro generation sources.

There is now an opportunity to take that further and aim to have over 70% renewable electricity by the end of this decade.

Progressing that investment in additional clean energy can make a big contribution to economic recovery and it is encouraging to see the Northern Ireland Executive identifying clean energy infrastructure as a priority area in the plans to restore the economy, as part of a "green recovery". The progress in renewable electricity creates the opportunity to address the further challenge of taking fossil fuels out of heat and transport, something which will also need considerable investment in infrastructure and associated economic stimulus.

Investment in energy efficiency retrofit in existing homes and buildings can have very positive economic benefits as well reducing our carbon footprint.

There is also a need to review building standards so that we future proof new developments. Heat pumps can play a major role replacing fossil fuels in heat, but have had a stuttering start in Northern Ireland in recent years. However, greater understanding of the technology, more willingness to adopt it by local construction companies and upskilling of local installers has made its use more viable.

Meanwhile, the process of decarbonising transport has a more obvious solution; the electrification of vehicles.

For that to be a viable solution there needs to be considerable investment in infrastructure - charging points etc to make it work, along with modernisation of the technology by car manufacturers. On an individual basis, changing to an electric vehicle is a very tangible change consumers can make now.

The move to decarbonise heating and transport in Northern Ireland has already started and, the long term challenge of climate change and the immediate challenges faced by the economy, mean that it is now imperative that we progress quickly on that journey.

The pandemic has been a huge challenge, but it has provided us with a unique opportunity to reimagine how society and businesses use energy in the future. Let's not miss this opportunity and let's progress a genuine green recovery.

Belfast Telegraph