The Northern Ireland Executive is drawing on advice from the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) and the action plans that are being prepared.
The target is that by 2050 Northern Ireland should successfully plan for an 82% reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases.
A major part of the transition for the economy is that, by 2050, the energy sectors should be adapted to join other regions in recording ‘net zero carbon energy emissions’.
That change will be extremely testing and, already, the early steps in the transition are under way. 2050 may seem a distant target but the scale of the changes, the need for new legislation and regulation, and the restructuring of parts of the economy, present a series of matrices that mean that planning the future of energy policies is already an urgent and complex series of decisions.
The Executive has issued an analysis of the questions raised in thinking about future energy strategy. Energy strategy for Northern Ireland should now be compulsory reading for people and interest groups who appreciate that a ‘business as usual’ assumption should not be made.
This consultative document, designed to precede formal decisions on energy policies which are to be published before the end of 2021, is an impressive review of many aspects of a very wide range of decisions for Government, statutory agencies, consumer interests and businesses as well as the Utility Regulator.
Passive behaviour, waiting for other people to make decisions, without a clear 10-20 year roadmap, risks serious damage to the economy if plans for net zero carbon emissions are incomplete or faulty.
Some of the piecemeal issues, which are sometimes quoted without adequate context, would emphasise actions such as ending the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity, phasing out central heating for houses which use gas and/or oil, and ceasing to rely on (or use) petrol or diesel to fuel vehicles.
All of these changes form a small part of the planning to cope with net zero carbon emissions.
Understanding the causation and the remedies is now an urgent political task.
The Energy Strategy makes difficult reading. However, it makes one claim that will be a serious test of the outcome of the transition to a zero emissions policy.
The CCC believes that the cost savings from replacing fossil fuels will cancel out the investment costs of the change.
That is an ambitious claim. It serves to emphasise the scale and complexity of the actions which are needed and the need for immediate preparatory steps. Growing a green economy is the theme of the measures under consideration. It is, however, an umbrella to capture major changes in the ways in which we decarbonise the economy.
The preparatory framework to reshape our energy policies asks how we adjust to a society which decarbonises power, decarbonises heat and decarbonises transport.
Decarbonising power means the phasing out of the use of fossil fuels to be major generators of electricity.
Kilroot, Ballylumford and Coolkeeragh will need either to close or to transition to alternative fuels or technologies.
A critical factor is that natural gas is also no longer to be a primary source of power.
The new energy strategy will place even greater reliance on the input from renewable sources of energy, expanding the share of energy coming from on-shore (wind and sun) as well as opening up the prospects of off-shore investment.
From today’s dependence on renewables to provide generally over 50% of electricity, the strategy examines, and supports, a shift to 70% of local consumption which, allowing for the inherent flexibility of weather conditions, means that the plan envisages the prospect of up to a peak of 80% from renewable sources.
Even the prospect of a larger scale contribution from renewables means that the infrastructure to cope with that change and the financing of incentivising the investment needed, poses significant policy questions.
The electricity grid must plan to cope with increased loads and create the flexibility that will allow more generators to connect.
Key to the adjustments to reach net zero carbon energy by 2050 are estimates of how energy requirements will be met.
Measures to encourage greater energy efficiency will be essential. Second, as usage of fossil fuels diminishes, the changed energy economy will depend on increased electricity capacity from renewables.
The increase in available electricity will not mean that the Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation will be extended.
New capacity is likely from more on-shore wind (and solar) farms joined by off-shore marine platforms.
Investment will be incentivised possibly by the extension to NI of the ‘contracts for difference’ financial framework that is currently available in GB.
The complete recasting of energy policies will be accompanied by measures to decarbonise heat and transport.
Householders should anticipate steps to phase out oil boilers before they are later made illegal.
In their place there will be heat pumps, and decarbonised and biofuel gas boilers. The change in transport will draw on the extended use of electric vehicles. Government will work to ensure that a national network of electricity charging points is created.
The Executive has published an impressive well researched agenda. It is formidable. Missing so far is a clear step-wise delivery plan.
This is no longer a debating challenge: it is time for implementation.