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How Northern Ireland will power into 21st century

Within the next three decades coal fired power stations will have ceased to exist, development of on-shore wind farms will slow down and every home will have a solar panel.

These are some of the conclusions of a major report published by DETI earlier this month.

The report sets out DETI's vision of how energy supply and demand will look in Northern Ireland in 2050, unsurprisingly; it concludes that renewable energy is expected to play a greater part in all of these.

Supporters of green energy may be disappointed to learn that one of the biggest changes is likely to be the switch to natural gas. Although new gas power plants are likely to be much more efficient in the future, the fact remains that Northern Ireland will continue to rely on foreign imports of gas to meet its electricity needs. Security of supply will become even more important as the use of natural gas for home heating is also expected to rise. One positive result of this is that consumers in Northern Ireland are expected to slowly reduce their dependence on oil and this should lead to lower heating bills.

Renewable energy is sometimes seen as a solution to energy supply, however not all technologies are expected to be adopted. DETI does not see any future for wave power, tidal barrage or geothermal technologies. The expansion of hydro power and anaerobic digestion is also seen as being limited. In contrast, DETI anticipates that tidal stream could generate up to 400MW by 2050 despite the fact that there are currently no tidal projects in the planning system and the only existing project is the 1.2MW Seagen device located in Strangford Lough.

In comparison, on-shore wind development is likely to increase significantly until 2020 at which point all of the best sites are likely to have been used. Combined with the 600MW First Flight Wind off-shore wind farm which is currently being planned off the East coast, wind energy will clearly make a major contribution to generation in the future.

While great for the environment the increase in wind will also have implications for security of supply as Northern Ireland will become more dependent on the weather which is generally unpredictable. The compressed gas energy storage facilities which are currently being developed by Gaelectric and BGE in Larne will go some way to alleviating this by providing storage for wind generated electricity, however there is limited scope to extend this capacity. Therefore reliable base load generators will continue to be required.

Biomass generation does offer a partial solution to this, although the lack of forestry in Northern Ireland means that fuel will need to be imported.

The developers of the Evermore power plant in Foyle Port should be commended in particular for finding a robust solution to this issue. The report indicates that Biomass plants may be feasible at Larne, Belfast and Warrenpoint ports, however otherwise the scope for future development will be limited.

It is clear that the Northern Irish energy landscape is set to change over the next three decades as coal is phased out and emissions standards tighten. Nevertheless the report indicates that the future will not be drastically different from the energy profile of Northern Ireland today. Reliance on natural gas and wind energy will increase and some other renewables such as solar will play a prominent role in energy generation. However in the absence of any major technological innovation the future is not unrecognisable.

It is clear that the energy landscape is set to change over the next three decades as coal is phased out and standards tighten

Belfast Telegraph