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NIE Networks: heading towards a greener energy future and net zero

With a new Energy Strategy due from Stormont next year, aimed at how best to create a greener future for Northern Ireland with the goal of a net zero carbon target by 2050, Randal Gilbert, head of network strategy for Northern Ireland Electricity Networks, speaks about what’s needed to get us there, and the part his organisation can play along the way


Randal Gilbert

Randal Gilbert

Randal Gilbert

For Randal Gilbert a long-awaited new Energy Strategy, Climate Change Act and a focus on the decarbonisation of both heat and transport, are at the core of the required thinking needed to ensure Northern Ireland’s greener energy future.

The head of network strategy for Northern Ireland Electricity Networks (NIE Networks) believes that it’s about a change in thinking for everyone here, with a long term goal of hitting a net zero target by 2050.

NIE Networks is the owner of the electricity transmission and distribution networks in Northern Ireland, transporting electricity to over 880,000 customers including homes, businesses and farms.

Employing around 1,200 people, it contributes almost £150m to the economy each year, and has invested over £365m in the network over the past decade to facilitate renewable generation.

“We have done some strong work in examining and building on what we see as key elements of the energy strategy, going forward,” Randal says.

That includes working directly with the Stormont departments to help develop policy options for setting ambitious decarbonisation targets for the power, heat and transport sectors over the next 30 years against the backdrop of UK net zero legislation..

NIE Networks is actively consulting with key policy makers and stakeholders on Northern Ireland’s energy future as one of four members of the Energy Strategy Electricity Stakeholder Group, a group led by the Department for the Economy.

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And for Randal, the key areas of focus include securing a new Energy Strategy, a Climate Change Act, a focus on the decarbonisation of heat and transport, a commercially viable electric car network and pushing forward with the new North-South Interconnector – thus enabling further accommodation of renewable generation and more efficient operation of the market.

“Firstly, In Northern Ireland, we need a specific Climate Change Act and sectoral climate reduction targets,” Randal says. “That allows us to develop sectoral but coordinated strategies and outline clear pathways going forward.

“Secondly, the cornerstone of the energy strategy must be a focus on energy efficiency. The most valuable unit of energy is the one not consumed and this presents quite a significant challenge for Northern Ireland.

“We need to ensure that new housing stock is as energy efficient as possible through setting new standards, and retrofitting those already built to a standard compatible for low carbon heating solutions.

“It is critical that those changes are made and that we have near zero energy buildings which are future proofed with low carbon heating,” Randal says.

NIE Networks is actively contributing to the Department’s ‘Northern Ireland Strategic Energy Framework to 2030’, which will define the government’s approach to the evolution of the energy sector here over the next decade working towards a 2050 net zero economy.

As distribution system operator, NIE Networks is working collaboratively with other stakeholders to generate a range of different energy pathways to 2050 by assessing the potential future deployment of various technologies such as renewable generation, electric vehicles, photovoltaic cells, energy storage and demand management technologies.

While Northern Ireland’s green credentials have come a long way in the last decade through the decarbonisation of power production, there remains significant work to be done.

Approximately 65% of Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions come from power, transport, residential and industrial demand such as heating. Therefore renewable energy alone will not deliver Northern Ireland’s contribution to the UK net zero by 2050 decarbonisation targets, so collaborative working is needed to develop complementary energy strategies.

However, more than 45% of the total annual electricity consumption in Northern Ireland is now being generated from local renewable sources. NIE Networks has led the way in connecting that renewable generation to the network with over 23,000 customers in Northern Ireland now generating energy from renewable sources.

The decarbonisation of heat remains one of the most significant challenges for NI, and electrification has a significant role to play in decarbonising the sector. There is a current high reliance of customers on fossil fuels with a predominant reliance on oil, a relatively young natural gas network and a significant proportion of NI customers with no access to natural gas as an interim step.

Randal also says a crucial step to conservation of energy and greater efficiency is the phased roll out of smart metering. “Smart meters allow customers to assess and manage their energy needs more efficiently and it’s something which we’d like to see in homes and businesses across Northern Ireland.”

As for electric vehicles, with only around 3,000 in Northern Ireland, Randal says it’s a “chicken and egg” situation, and that people aren’t buying them in large volumes due to the lack of charging infrastructure and there isn’t the commercial interest from companies to enter the infrastructure market whilst numbers remain low.

“We need an appropriate funding structure to make sure electric vehicle infrastructure is provided and is commercially viable,” he says. “The barrier is the commercial one - it isn’t presently commercially attractive to invest in that infrastructure. That is something we feel needs some urgency from the Government departments in Northern Ireland, to attract players into that market.”

And a key issue for Randal and NIE Networks is getting the final green light for the North-South Interconnector – which would see enhanced connectivity between the power grids between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

“That will have huge benefits for us, allowing the increased connection of renewables to meet targets, having a more secure grid and better access through the I-SEM for greater competition in electricity, making it a better deal for customers,” he says.

“We launched our consultation ‘Greater Access to the Distribution Network’ in 2019, seeking input from our stakeholders and customers on exactly how our future model and operating structure will evolve.

“Our Innovation Strategy will be centred on meeting the low-carbon future challenge head on by seeking to provide, faster, cheaper and smarter connection solutions.”

Essentially, energy efficiency should become part and parcel of everyday life here – at home and at work, as well as getting around.

“As NIE Networks makes plans for the future of the network we will ensure a customer centric approach that minimises costs for customers while providing a system that is flexible, reliable and cost effective.”