Beyond RHI: A look at the energy outlook for Northern Ireland
When you think of ‘energy’ in the context of Northern Ireland for that matter it is likely that your mind immediately turns to the Renewable Heat Incentive.
After all, it’s hard to avoid the scandal that sounded that surrounded the botched roll out of the imitative and led to our ongoing spell without a working government.
RHI has featured heavily in the news of late and if you’ve been following the ensuing enquiry it has revealed in embarrassing detail the dysfunctional nature of local politics. There have been tales of secretive meetings, drunken arguments, political backstabbing and even a threat to break a finger thrown in for good measure.
However, behind all this grandstanding and blame dodging, Northern Ireland has significant issues in regards to energy that are not being dealt with.
Ireland faces a number of inexorable geographical issues when it comes to energy security.
There are little fossil fuel resources that can be used in energy production and we therefore rely on imports of coal, natural gas and oil to keep power stations running.
We are geographically remote, sitting as an island, off an island, on the far west of Europe, which makes supply via interconnection with other countries tricky.
Furthermore, the island is split into two politically distinct areas that for a long time had little co-operation with each other and developed separate energy markets.
In the past 10 years however, significant efforts have been made to increase energy security by integrating the Irish energy markets into an all-Ireland, Single Electricity Market (SEM).
These arrangements have relied on EU rules and were recently further strengthened in order to comply with new EU legislation. Which begs the question, what happens after Brexit?
Governments North and South have committed to keep arrangements as they are, but it strikes me as a similar issue to the Irish border - just because both sides want things to stay the same, it doesn’t mean that it will be possible.
The SEM relies on close regulatory alignment and tariff free markets, should the UK crash out of the EU in a no-deal scenario, serious questions will be raised as to whether this is possible.
On top of this, the latest figures from the grid operator predict Northern Ireland will be running at an electricity deficit after 2020, that is, supply will not match demand, ‘we can’t keep the lights on’.
This figure as well did not not consider the operator of Kilroot power station suddenly announcing their intention to close the station following a failure to secure favourable tariffs.
They wanted to close Kilroot by May 23rd of this year, however the plant is currently still open, against the will of its operator, while the Utility Regulator decides whether to allow the plant to shut early as they (a decision is expected in the next few days).
All this means that NI will likely be at least partly reliant on electricity generated in the Republic of Ireland in the near future, which increases the pressure to ensure the SEM remains feasible.
All this is not to say it is all doom and gloom when it comes to the future of energy in Northern Ireland.
While Ireland’s geography provides fundamental challenges in fossil fuel power generation, it also provides fundamental opportunities in renewable energy.
Ireland is one of the most suitable areas for onshore wind power generation globally. It’s windy here - but not too windy.
From April 2017-March 2018, NI generated 35% of its electricity from renewable sources, most of that coming from wind. In fact, the climate-sceptic DUP had quietly overseen a boom in green energy on purely economic concerns.
We have the ability to further develop wind power as a sustainable, local resource; in fact, we have the potential to be world leaders.
Ulster University are leading the SPIRE 2 project, looking at how energy storage could be the answer to issues of variability in renewable energy output, which could be hugely important in helping renewables overtake fossil fuels as our main source of energy.
With the correct backing in the Assembly we have the opportunity to both ensure Northern Ireland’s energy security as well as help protect the environment.
Of course, that would require an Assembly to be up and running in the first place.