As a country, Northern Ireland (NI) has reached significant milestones in the renewable energy sector, which remain unprecedented for its neighbouring nations. However, many internal industry members find themselves concerned about the speed at which Northern Ireland’s industry is developing, arguing that it is simply not happening quickly enough.
A primary statistic that favours Northern Ireland’s success story is a figure produced by the Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency which states that 47.4% of the country’s electricity consumption was provided by renewables between October 2022 and September 2023. 83.8% of the renewable energy Northern Ireland produced in the 12 months was sourced from onshore wind power, followed by biogas at 6.2% and solar at 3.5%.
This number for annual electricity consumption had not yet been achieved by any other UK country. In fact, as reported by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ), the average share of electricity generated from renewables across the UK only reached 41.5% in 2022, more than 5% lower than Northern Ireland’s figure for the following year.
Despite these facts and figures, Northern Irish renewable energy industry members, like RenewablesNI, remain unsatisfied with the nation’s progress. They suggest that a lack of political guidance, resulting from the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and isolation from support schemes such as Contracts for Difference (CfD) has left the country at a disadvantage.
Who’s in charge here?
In February 2022, the NI Assembly collapsed due to a DUP protest over post-Brexit trade rules for the country. Stormont, where the NI Assembly usually sits, has remained empty since that time, leaving the nation with limited governance.
Just before collapsing in December 2021, the NI Assembly published its official Path to Net Zero Energy, which, accompanied by the Climate Change Act passing in 2022, officially set the nation’s climate goals at 100% reduction in energy-related emissions by 2050 and 80% electricity consumption from a diverse mix of renewable sources by 2030.
However, with the NI Assembly no longer sitting, the plan was set in motion and then left to its own devices. Speaking exclusively to Current+, Steven Agnew, director of clean energy expert group RenewablesNI, says: “Absolutely, we need the assembly back. It is bad across Northern Ireland as a whole – for the economy and for people – to have the assembly gone. The sooner it’s back up and running, the better.”
Agnew acknowledges the benefits of “crucial” guidelines put in place before the NI Assembly’s collapse, identifying the Climate Change Act as a key piece, but argues that it has not been enough.
He says: “What has been lacking is the urgency that you would have expected from the Climate Change Act. The Assembly has declared a climate emergency, and the Climate Change Act puts the necessary actions as requirements into law.
“We are still seeing almost business as usual approach from the civil servants. This is probably most prominent in planning, where we are seeing timelines for on average for wind farm development take about three years on average to get consent.”
Experts from RenewablesNI feel as though an absence of active governance has allowed planning processes to fall to the wayside, and they now lack the urgency which is required of a climate emergency.
The group’s concerns about planning processes are explored in its report, co-produced by KPMG, called Accelerating Renewables in Northern Ireland. The report identifies several areas for improvements in planning, with a delayed timeline being the largest, and proposes several solutions, including clearly defined timelines for planning decisions, early engagement between planners and developers and improved education on renewable technologies.
Expansion of the grid is key
Another primary obstacle Agnew identifies is grid connections, a topic that has been previously explored via our Current± Explores: The Grid Connection Conundrum mini-seriesThis is a struggle felt throughout the UK as grid connections are few and far between and all with significantly long waiting periods before a connection date.
RenewablesNI’s Agnew says: “There is so much pressure being put on the grid. We need to see the grid built out, and we need to see it built ahead of time. We are sharing with SONI and NIE, but the pipeline is coming. They want to invest ahead of time, but they need approval to do so from the utility regulator. Across the board, we need to tell the regulator with a mandate to achieve net zero, and that will unlock the investment than the grid.”
There are currently attempts being made to develop interconnectors between Northern Ireland and its fellow UK nations. For example, in May 2023, Transmission Investment applied for a transmission license which would allow for a 700MW interconnector to be constructed between Scotland and Northern Ireland, costing a total of £700 million.
Speaking on the matter, Agnew says: “Interconnection between Scotland and England probably needs to improve before any more connections are made, because I absolutely understand the demand is there in England, but we’re connected into an already constrained Scotland.”
This project, although in its infancy, is viewed as a potential drain on the Northern Irish electricity network, instead of the support system they are intended as. However, considering the only major Northern Irish interconnector currently running is the Moyle Interconnector to Scotland constructed in 2001, new systems will have to be built soon to help meet demand.
The power of wind
If there is one thing that will be able to lift Northern Ireland into a bright, renewable future, it’s the country’s wind power potential. As mentioned previously, 83.8% of the nation’s 2023 renewable electricity consumption was sourced from onshore wind farms.
In addition to this, UK think-tank Baringa published annual reports detailing Northern Ireland’s energy bill savings. In 2022, the group reported that £500 million was saved by Northern Irish consumers and a further £243 million was saved in 2023.
As of September 2023, the country housed 82 sites with 586 turbines, amounting to an installed capacity of 1.2GW. Agnew acknowledges the importance of wind power for Northern Ireland’s renewable energy sector and says: “We have one of the best wind resources in the world. That [wind] is our best resource in terms of energy generation. And wind and solar will be the cheapest form of energy generation in the future, so it’s going to be crucial.”
Head of renewables development at Irish energy provider ESB, David McNamara, also touched on the subject when speaking with Current+ and says: “Wind, given its high load factors, will provide the bulk of the energy. Northern Ireland is facing the same challenges as Ireland in decarbonising its economy and wind will do most of the heavy lifting in this space.”
However, industry members argue that the full potential of Northern Ireland’s natural wind resource is not being fully utilised. Agnew explains: “The 47% of renewable energy is largely from projects that were built in the 2010s. Since then, we’ve seen a significant drop in investment. We had three whole years where there were no large-scale renewable developments connected at a time when everyone else was ramping up, and that’s because of the policy vacuum that existed prior to the Climate Act.
“We were the only part of these islands without some form of CfD-type support to get a guaranteed price for renewable generators. We are expecting a high-level design on that this year, with it operating from 2025.”
Here, Agnew refers to Contracts for Difference (CfD) which is a UK government scheme aiming to incentivise the development of renewable energy production projects and has successfully secured contracts for 11GW of projects at just one of the five auction rounds.
The fact that Northern Ireland has not had access to programmes such as these over the past five to ten years has negatively impacted the nation’s ability to construct new wind or solar farms.
Agnew says: “The CfD will unlock so much latent investment. We have money burning a hole in our pocket for Northern Ireland, we are just waiting on the policy signals. And the CfD is one of the key policy signals.”
What’s at the end of the rainbow?
Behind the impressive figures and statistics, it is clear that Northern Ireland has been struggling. Some aspects of its struggle are universal amongst the UK countries, such as the difficulties surrounding grid connections, but others are unique to this specific nation. The country’s lack of a definitive governing body over the past two years and separation from incentive schemes which the rest of the countries have benefitted from has left Northern Ireland in need of accelerated planning policy and financial support.
There are high hopes set for the future, with McNamara saying: “The energy mixes in both jurisdictions [Ireland and Northern Ireland] is evolving quite rapidly. For example, Ireland will cease using coal at the end of 2025 and become an essentially gas and renewables system. Northern Ireland will be much the same, the only difference being the relative proportions of wind and gas.”
Steven Agnew also shares his view of potential wins and losses in Northern Ireland’s renewable energy future. He says: “From 2030 will start to see offshore wind playing a crucial role in Northern Ireland. We don’t have any offshore wind connected yet, but there are projects in the pipeline. It will be crucial for this alignment that we have the storage solutions, probably including green hydrogen, to make sure that we have the demand for that offshore wind.”
The country wants to move forward with strength in this sector, but it has potentially reached its limit of what can be done without governance. On 3 February 2024, the NI Assembly met again for the first time in precisely two years, making history by appointing the country’s first nationalist first minister, Michelle O’Neill. This shift to a once again governed NI creates hope that the nation’s government will provide the advocational and structural support NI has been lacking these past years and lead it into the future.