Committee for the Economy: Energy Strategy Report

Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 23rd November 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin 3:30 pm, 23rd November 2020

I beg to move

That this Assembly welcomes the special report of the Committee for the Economy on considerations for the forthcoming energy strategy; supports the development of an ambitious, target-driven energy strategy that will decarbonise the energy sector by 2050 while minimising the cost to the consumer; and recognises the strategy’s potential to boost our economic, health and social well-being into the future.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes. Please open the debate on the motion.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

The Committee recently undertook a micro-inquiry to seek views from stakeholders on what they wanted to see in the energy strategy being developed by the Department for the Economy. That is in the context of the British Government's legislative target of net zero carbon by 2050. The energy strategy will determine the future priorities and potential changes needed to achieve that and other targets. During the inquiry period, earlier this year, the Committee asked stakeholders a range of questions about what they would like to see as the key elements of the energy strategy, what the future holds for the renewables industry and whether there would necessarily be a difference in the price of energy for business and consumers in the future. The Committee received over 180 responses from across energy organisations, consumers, individuals, businesses and academics. I put on record my thanks to those who took the time to respond.

The Committee has produced a special report summarising the themes that have emerged. It has shared the inquiry report with the Economy Minister, and it is that report that we are discussing today. In addition to the inquiry, the Committee heard evidence from departmental officials on the energy strategy and has, on the whole, relayed its encouragement of the process for the development of the new energy strategy, the progress of which the Committee will continue to monitor regularly.

Through the micro-inquiry, the Committee identified issues that will need to be addressed in the energy strategy. We are about to go through a massive upheaval of the whole energy system through the electrification of heat and transport systems, and it is important that stakeholders are involved in shaping the design along with government. <BR/>First, the energy strategy must have a statutory footing and binding targets that are clear, measurable, ambitious and in line with both the Programme of Government outcomes and the UN sustainable development goals. From looking in more detail at the current targets, we see that there may be scope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45% by 2030 on the basis of the Climate Change Committee's (CCC) recommendations, with a view to assessing the feasibility of a 70% reduction by 2030. The energy strategy should implement policies towards those targets while moving towards a target of net zero carbon before 2050. To that end, consideration should be given to establishing an NI climate Act along the lines of those already designed in Scotland and Wales.

The Committee is alive to the fact that the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) family expenditure survey shows that households in the North spend a higher percentage of their income on energy than those in other regions. More than one in five households here is in fuel poverty, so they cannot afford to spend more on energy bills. To tackle that, we must turn our attention to enhancing the existing energy efficiency schemes to ensure that homes and businesses are as energy-efficient as possible. That will lower consumption and, therefore, bills. In that regard, it is crucial that energy efficiency targets be identified and set, together with new building regulations that future-proof the energy efficiency of new developments. Above all, the most vulnerable must be protected during the energy transition.

Investment is urgently needed in a number of areas. With regard to transport infrastructure and the rise in the number of electric vehicles, there is clearly a need for investment in car-charging infrastructure. That, along with a modal shift to encouraging walking, cycling and using public transport, will have a significant impact on carbon emissions. Investment is also required in the electricity grid, with the successful deployment of large-scale renewables projects. That is becoming urgent, as it is needed to allow renewable energy to enter the system.

Careful adjustment is necessary for the planning system to succeed in allowing forms of energy production such as wind turbines and energy storage areas. Additionally, smaller companies wishing to install renewable energy technology may need to access funding support schemes to help to cover the initial outlay and to reduce financing risks. The ability to store energy will play a significant role in bringing more renewables on to the system. To that end, we need a separate action plan to encourage large-scale storage, localised storage and biogas. In relation to the natural gas network and its expansion, hydrogen is increasingly seen as a green fuel for the future that could replace natural gas. We note that plans are under way for gas networks to transition to hydrogen over the coming three decades.

Some sectors will be able to make a bigger contribution than others to lowering carbon emissions; for example, agricultural practices. The main opportunities for reducing emissions from agriculture are evidenced in crop and soil management and measures to reduce livestock intensity. However, there is a role for increased energy efficiency. To achieve all that, we need the local workforce to develop a suitable skill set to take forward new technologies and infrastructure.

An effective strategy should identify key areas of work for government, local government, educators, businesses and communities and, preferably, should be co-produced to maximise the available expertise and ownership of the changes to take place. There is so much to do. As, I am sure, you will recognise, the energy strategy has the capacity to be one of the biggest issues that our economy can gain from right now. The energy strategy has a considerable role to play in making the North a place that is investable, particularly through having the levers to keep manufacturing facilities here and being able to expand them. The Committee's primary concern, while meeting the carbon net-zero target, is to make energy affordable, so that businesses and consumers can thrive and enjoy higher levels of health and well-being. We have to get this right.

I will now make some remarks on behalf of Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin made submissions to the DFE call for evidence and the Economy Committee's micro-inquiry. Tackling the climate emergency is one of the fundamental challenges of this century. It is an issue that we have discussed a number of times in the Chamber. In January, the first motion that Sinn Féin brought before the Assembly was to declare a climate emergency. Since then, a climate change Bill has been submitted with cross-party support. That is an important basis for dealing with the challenge of climate change. However, the strategies underpinning the legislation will be key to achieving the targets. The energy strategy is one of the most important. It cuts across Departments and sectors. It is also a real opportunity to lay down a marker about the approach that we want to take to the decarbonisation of our economy and society.

Sinn Féin believes that the energy strategy must be based on a number of principles. Foremost of those is a just transition. As we seek to move rapidly away from fossil fuel dependency, there is an opportunity to tackle the economic status quo that has caused and exacerbated the climate crisis and to reshape our economy, creating a fairer, more equal and sustainable society. The COVID crisis has brought into sharp focus economic inequalities. As we plan our recovery, it is critical that a just transition approach is core to economic rebuilding. The second is public and community ownership of energy and renewable resources. Across the island, we have the resources that can be harnessed to provide the energy that we need. Communities and the public should have the opportunity to benefit directly from those abundant resources. Democratising our energy market not only gives communities a financial stake but increases the awareness and buy-in from the public towards the goal of decarbonisation. The third is rural and urban equality. Tackling regional imbalances in energy supply must be part of the energy strategy. On the basis of the principles of just transition, the barriers faced by rural communities — for example, the lack of public transport — must be taken account of. The fourth is a green new deal, which was a commitment in 'New Decade, New Approach'. As I have said, it must be one of the key facets of our economic recovery strategy. The potential of our renewable resources provides huge opportunities for the creation of green-collar jobs through investment in research and innovation, infrastructure and skills development. Finally, the climate does not recognise borders, so, on this small island, there needs to be strong cooperation. Our energy market is already integrated, and we must ensure that our energy strategy takes account of that. It must harness modern technologies to assist in achieving our emissions reduction targets. An energy strategy based on those principles, with ambitious targets that are reviewed regularly and sectoral plans, would go a long way to achieving the progress towards decarbonisation that we need to see in the short, medium and longer term.

I thank those who shared their views with the Committee. The report is available on the Committee's web page on the Assembly's website. I encourage anyone with an interest in the subject to read it and to continue to engage with the development of the energy strategy. I commend the motion to the Assembly.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP 3:45 pm, 23rd November 2020

As a member of the Economy Committee, I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue.

There is no doubt that energy affordability and security of supply are key issues, and we must ensure that they are kept high on the agenda. The cost of electricity to consumers continues to be a real challenge to domestic and commercial energy users. Energy has been an important issue in the Committee for some time, and the micro-inquiry has been an opportunity for stakeholders in the sector to have their say and to engage on this important issue.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges for businesses and domestic consumers. While having a strategy in place to ensure that we have a sustainable energy future is important, it is paramount that our short-term challenge is to ensure that energy is affordable. The manufacturing sector has huge challenges with energy costs. Its high energy costs are very challenging for the sector in being able to compete globally in the world marketplace.

Wind energy has been the main source of renewable energy in Northern Ireland, which we all seem to be proud of, and it has achieved its renewable target of 40% by 2020. That was heavily incentivised through the renewables obligation certificates (ROCs) scheme, which has now closed. However, I question the total cost of the scheme, which providers have been tied into with 20-year contracts.

There are, of course, drawbacks with wind energy as wind is not consistent, and many wind turbines are producing surplus amounts of energy, which could be transferred to battery storage units for later use or to be fed into the grid system. However, there are many major challenges in getting sufficient battery capacity to deliver that.

Connections into the grid continue to be a challenge for wind turbines due to weak infrastructure in some parts of the country. There is a problem with most of the generation being in the west of the Province while there is greater demand for supply in the east of the Province.

The gas network needs further support. More needs to be done to encourage consumers to connect to gas. Suppliers such as Phoenix Natural Gas continue to encourage uptake within the greater Belfast area, which ranges from 30% to 60% where networks exist, and gives consumers more value and cleaner energy. Approximately 70% of households across Northern Ireland still have oil-based heating systems, and the current price of home heating oil is relatively cheap in comparison with just a number of years ago as it has an average price, as I understand it, of £235 for 900 litres. It is important to have a mix of energy sources to ensure that no one is left in fuel poverty and to ensure that costs are kept competitive for domestic consumers and businesses.

I recently had a discussion with Phoenix Natural Gas about the use of hydrogen to replace natural gas. I believe that that will work within the existing network and will produce cleaner and more efficient energy. Hydrogen energy has also been described as the main driver for decarbonising the global economy. We have an opportunity here to become a world leader in hydrogen production and technology. Wrightbus is involved in development work on hydrogen buses, and I understand that Dublin is slightly ahead of us — it is hard to believe, but that is true — as it is trialling hydrogen buses. That presents an exciting opportunity for Northern Ireland. However, it will require significant investment, and I know that the Prime Minister has committed to investing in this new technology. There is the potential to create many jobs in hydrogen technology, in the aerospace industry and in advanced materials sectors and supply chains.

There is a role for education in a future strategy to encourage energy efficiency through focused education. We now have the green light for the development of the North/South interconnector, which went through in September. That will help to improve network stability and security of supply for energy users in Northern Ireland.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister, and I know that she is committed to bringing forward a fit-for-purpose energy strategy for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank Committee members and the Committee Clerk for the work that has gone into producing the special report and their ongoing commitment to a new green future for Northern Ireland.

I stand here thankful that, finally, in 2020, we have got to the point where, despite some politically charged rumblings, I have heard our Economy Minister and our Environment Minister speak in the Chamber about the need to protect our environment and tackle climate change. In the context of the debate, I particularly welcome the Minister's recognition in her road map, which was published in June, of the central role of the green economy in rebuilding the Northern Ireland economy.

An effective energy strategy must have ambitious targets to tackle decarbonisation in heat, power and transport. It must be recognised that, when it comes to power, we have made some excellent progress. Fifteen years ago, 3% of our electricity consumption came from renewables; today, it is 47%. That is a great leap forward and a success that we should build on. It is good news not just for the environment, with 9 megatons of carbon saved in the last 20 years, but for consumers, with £135 million saved on consumer bills since 2000. I welcome the Minister's commitment to build on that success by setting new ambitious targets for emissions in Northern Ireland, which, she said, should not be below 70%.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I appreciate the Member giving way. The Member is right to note the massive progress that has been made through not only the contribution that Northern Ireland has made but through the contribution, more generally, throughout the West. Does the Member agree that it cannot be right that there are countries in the world that are still building coal-fired power stations?

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

Yes, I agree, and I have to ask that question, but we are looking at what we are doing here in Northern Ireland. It is good news that has to be commended and welcomed as much as possible.

The suggested target of renewable energy for Northern Ireland of 80% by 2030 would have the effect on the reduction of carbon emissions of every household turning off the electricity for 1·5 years. The key success to our increase in renewable generation has been the increase in onshore wind. The Northern Ireland renewables obligation (NIRO), which was the main support stream for encouraging increased renewable electricity generation, spurred that on. However, the scheme closed in 2017. Any future targets must be accompanied by credible incentive schemes in order to spearhead movement towards our ambitious targets.

However, it is not all good news. Successive Executives have failed to produce a coherent plan to realise the benefits of offshore wind, while all our closest neighbours have shot forward in that area. There must be continued engagement with partners across Government and businesses, including the Crown Estate, to address barriers and ensure that Northern Ireland has the potential to benefit from future seabed leasing rounds.

We need to consider the clear targets on heat that were set by the Government in Dublin to have 500,000 greener homes and 400,000 heat pumps installed by 2030. That goes beyond the structured thinking of just looking at heat, power and transport. It will require us to look at changing behaviour, and a model should be taken from the EU clean energy package's ambition to see citizens put at the heart of the future of energy. That behavioural shift will be key to any effective energy transformation.

We need to keep an eye on emerging transport technologies, which has been alluded to by my colleague. While hydrogen will be the key to unlocking the greener transport system, any energy strategy must have the flexibility to deal with new technologies that we may not have fully considered today. That will not only make the strategy more effective but will add to the longevity of it. I also welcome the work that the Minister for Infrastructure has been doing to develop a green transport strategy, particularly the groundbreaking cross-border work with Minister Ryan that I hope to see much more of.

A new green economy is not only central to protecting our area for the next generations but it is now clear that it is central to the recovery of our economy from the pandemic and will be a key driver for growth in the future. I know that the Committee will continue to work to make sure that any energy strategy realises that potential.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I welcome the report and thank the Chair and members of the Committee for it. It is entirely timely.

I need to make a declaration: I was formerly the chief executive of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, and I was heavily involved in the renewable energy sector. It always struck me that, when I asked businesses in the sector from across these islands why they did not want to invest more heavily in Northern Ireland, they said that there were four reasons that prevented a greater output of renewable energy. The first was the monopolistic position that was, very clearly, held by the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) and EirGrid, the large costs that were involved in connection and the lack of investment in the grid.

The second was the role of the regulator and the fact that, in many cases, the Utility Regulator seemed to prevent moves towards best practice, including in renewable energy. The third issue was the question of whether the Department for the Economy was fit for purpose and whether it had the breadth and scope to deal with the issue of renewable energy. Unfortunately, from what we have picked up from the RHI inquiry and other evidence that has come to light, the Department for the Economy was not fit for purpose and could not deal with that issue. We hope that that has changed.

The final issue was the lack of ambition in Northern Ireland to get to the point at which it could be a leader not only on these islands but globally when it comes to renewable energy. Thanks to our geography, we have an abundance of wind energy. We have the ability to have an abundance of offshore wind energy. We have the ability, because we have suitable scale, to be a gateway between the Republic of Ireland and the rest of our nation, the United Kingdom. In the wider energy field, we have the ability to connect to the new developments that are going on in Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, and to the very large offshore wind energy fields in the North Sea. All of those things point to how Northern Ireland could be more ambitious.

I thank Dr Archibald very much for the report. My issue is that it talks about 2050. Our Prime Minister is talking about electric vehicles (EVs) being rolled out and being the only vehicles allowed on the road by 2030. That is much more ambitious. That is what we should be aiming for. To decarbonise energy, we need to get to the point where we send a signal to everybody in Northern Ireland who wants to invest in green energy that we are the place in which to do so. How can we do that? One example is biogas and the move towards hydrogen. We have a surplus of biogas. We have heard on numerous occasions about the problems that we have with anaerobic digestion and the waste that comes from our dairy and poultry businesses. We have a real opportunity to strip out that biogas and transform it so that we become a hydrogen economy. We can do that because we have the scale to make it work effectively in Northern Ireland, but there must be a signal to the market to make that happen. That ambition must be part of a strategy to try to make it happen.

The issue with the grid is significant. Many of us will have had many constituents complaining that, when they tried to connect low-energy wind or anaerobic digestion to the grid, they discovered that they were being charged three or four times the rate that they would be charged in the south of Scotland. It is even more galling that the exact same contractors who do this in the south of Scotland are charging three or four times as much in Northern Ireland.

There are also issues with planning. How can it be that, after this length of time, we do not have a planning process that is fit for purpose? I say to the Committee Chairman and the Minister: let us have some ambition in Northern Ireland and set ourselves a target not of 2050 but of 2035. It is ambitious, but it is doable. Let us do it.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance 4:00 pm, 23rd November 2020

On behalf of the Alliance Party, I welcome this special report and its contribution to the debate on our energy future. I thank Dr Archibald, the Committee and all its staff for the work they have put in on this. It is a really informative document on the choices and issues that we face in energy policy.

When it comes to energy policy, we must always pursue an evidence-based approach. This is a huge issue that affects our everyday lives. We face a climate crisis right now, and we must act to reduce emissions, protect the natural environment and make our ways of living more sustainable for future generations. Northern Ireland has done well in the past in increasing our energy efficiency and, especially, our renewable electricity generation, but we must not consider this to be mission accomplished. We can, and should, be out front, as others have mentioned, leading not only in the UK and Ireland, but in the world, and we have the potential for this. I echo Dr Aiken's point: I see the Department setting an ambitious target for renewable energy generation. Ultimately, we want 100% of our electricity to come from renewables. I note that Scotland is aiming for 100% by the end of this year, so this is clearly doable.

Time is short, so I want to highlight some of the key points made by respondents, if I may. They highlighted the need for energy issues to be interconnected through partnership across government. Departmental silos will harm our ambitions for a better future. Departments, especially Finance, Economy, DAERA, Communities and Infrastructure, must ensure that close and functional working relationships are the norm. Many have already pointed towards a green new deal. The transition to a greener economy must also be clearly interconnected with the relevant skills training. We must not leave people behind as the deindustrialisation of the 1970s and 1980s did, causing massive ongoing impacts on our community today.

One particular area that the report and respondents noted in the decarbonisation of heat was the issue of fuel poverty. That has been a persuasive issue for this part of the world, and must always be a key priority for policymakers. We must make sure that, as we invest in the future of green energy, the costs do not fall on the vulnerable. So much more could be done in home insulation. As communities spokesperson for the Alliance Party, I know that our housing stock does not perform particularly badly, but many of the poorest live in poorly insulated private rental homes. Our entire housing stock will need to be looked at, and serious amounts of easy-to-access funding provided to people to live them to adequately heat and light their homes.

Our public buildings, too, will need improvement. That is why the Departments of Education and Health, which own a huge portion of the public buildings of Northern Ireland, need to be brought in. Let us not forget the roles of the Department for Communities and Department of Finance with the number of publicly owned homes. There are many opportunities in the decarbonisation of heat already, and more needs to be done in integrating these into plans and planning regulations for the future. This will require investment in our energy infrastructure and breaking down barriers that prevent necessary and eco-friendly projects from progressing.

Energy storage will also be key. In particular, as the report highlights, we should be looking at our mix and at whether offshore wind and other marine technologies could play a considerable part in this.

Finally, there is transport. As has been mentioned, we are a heavily car-dependent society. Until COVID, private transport was having a renaissance, more out of necessity, but, when things start to return to normal, major investments in transport will be needed. That needs to be taken into electric vehicles and a hydrogen infrastructure for cars. It should absolutely mean that public transport runs on electricity or clean energies, certainly not petrol or diesel. With the Department for Infrastructure and Northern Ireland Water, we have an opportunity in Northern Ireland to consider whether there are options to develop hydrogen production. As we know, that needs a steady volume of water and, given that Northern Ireland Water is one of the highest users of electricity, it is in their interests to be part of that process. We may even be able to resolve the ongoing issue of the cost of running a water system and keeping it at the required standard by bringing energy production options into consideration through Northern Ireland Water.

Energy policy affects us all, so we have to get this right and ensure that everyone in our society is invested in this. Northern Ireland deserves clean and healthy air, a protected environment and a sustainable and secure energy supply. I look forward to the Department's consultation on an energy strategy, taking into consideration this report in order to secure it.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I welcome the micro report and thank the Committee for its work. Energy will always be a massive piece of the economy portfolio. I also pay tribute to the Minister, who has met me on the issue.

Let us face it: energy is a massive issue for any devolved jurisdiction, simply because we all pay for it. The problem that we have in Northern Ireland is that our heavy industrial users pay more for energy because of the network charges and everything that goes with them. That has been a massive problem over the years and has led to job losses not only in my constituency but across Northern Ireland. Energy costs have been ranked in the top five reasons that businesses have left these shores. They are therefore a massive issue, and I thank the Committee for keeping it on the boil.

I must speak about my constituency and Wrightbus's work with hydrogen. There are massive energy issues, but carbon is not necessarily the issue, as a good bit of that has been resolved through the use of renewable energy. Where the use of carbon has to be fought is in the areas of transport and heat. By bringing in hydrogen and producing hydrogen buses, two birds can be killed with one stone. Growth can be created in the transport sector that reduces carbon, but wind is also being utilised, and that cannot currently be done, as it cannot be put into the grid because of the inertia issue. We can produce as much wind as we like, but, unless there is a system to back it up and the inertia to keep the energy stable, it cannot be used. There are many ways to do that. Battery storage can be used to contain the energy produced, or that energy can be converted into hydrogen. That hydrogen can then be put into our bus stock and heavy goods vehicles, I suggest. I suspect that batteries are the way to go for small cars, but hydrogen is most definitely the way to go for buses and heavy goods vehicles.

There are times in the energy sector that you stay still and watch and monitor what happens across the world. With hydrogen, I suggest to the Committee and the Minister that now is not one of those times to stop and look. We should go for it, as we have the tools and wherewithal available, and Wrightbus is in the lap of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. One of the outcomes of producing hydrogen is oxygen, and there is a world shortage of oxygen. Northern Ireland not only could be one of the higher producers of hydrogen but could resolve an oxygen problem. Does the Member think that there should be investment in hydrogen production on a massive scale?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I entirely agree with the Member, I really do.

You can have all the energy strategies and plans in the world, but, unless you have a system operator that is fit for purpose, you will fail. What do I mean by that? The system operator here is the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI), and it has massive issues with independence and governance. That hurts Northern Ireland and will hurt Northern Ireland in the future. SONI has been before the Economy Committee only once. I must applaud my colleague Christopher Stalford, who tore them to pieces over the problems in SONI.

I will pick one example, as I know my time is short. SONI's owner is EirGrid. I have no problem with who owns SONI or with who owns the owners; it is the transparency issue that I have a real problem with. Since EirGrid has owned SONI, there has been a sifting of £12 million out of SONI to EirGrid for cross-charging. EirGrid will not tell us what it is for, what it was charged on or what it paid for, and it hides behind its statement of accounts to Companies House. EirGrid uses a model, FRS 101, to justify that secrecy and lack of transparency. If we do not have a system operator that functions properly, is fit for purpose, is at full capacity and is truly and properly independent, we will fail, no matter what strategy we put in place. No matter what plan we have for the future, if we do not have a fit-for-purpose and fixed SONI, we will fail. We will all pay, every one of us, but mostly our businesses and heavy industry users. That will be catastrophic for jobs, business and the economy.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

As other Members have done, I thank my party colleague the Chair of the Economy Committee for bringing the inquiry report to the Assembly for debate. Any energy strategy must be placed firmly in the context of the global climate and biodiversity crisis, and, therefore, for us in the North, the strategy must be an ambitious exercise in decarbonisation and radical climate action. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported that two thirds of all fossil fuels that we know to exist must remain in the ground if we are to avoid irreversible climate change. Therefore, it is madness that we would even allow exploration for further fuel reserves in the North. Ireland's fossil fuels must remain in the ground. That is the view of the Assembly, as expressed clearly and loudly in a recent debate on fracking and petroleum licensing. It is a view that must direct the action, strategies and policies of the Economy Minister.

The Climate Change Committee requires at least a 35% reduction by 2030 to contribute to the fifth carbon budget, and we have modelled for a reduction of up to 45%. That 45% reduction should be the lower limit of our ambition; in fact, given our abundance of renewable resources, it is decidedly unambitious. As other Members have pointed out, the Scottish Government, for example, have committed to 75% reduction against the 1990 baseline by 2030 in their Climate Change Act; in fact, we in the North still do not have a climate Act and are the only jurisdiction in these islands with that dubious claim. That is, again, recognition that we need to catch up. A bespoke climate change Act must be devised and implemented as a matter of urgency to codify targets and lay out clear emission reduction milestones. It should also codify sectoral sub-targets for emission reduction.

To decarbonise rapidly, we must also tackle the issue of demand. The energy strategy should lay out clear sectoral energy-efficiency targets bound by an overall efficiency target, and it must do so in a way that is consistent with just transition principles. Any move to decarbonise cannot disenfranchise workers or their families or make their lives more difficult; otherwise the policy will be resisted and fail. If planned properly, though, a just transition could, in fact, positively transform the lives of people, rapidly reducing emissions while creating high-quality and secure green-collar jobs and warmer homes for all through retrofitting and other measures. It could develop more efficient ways of moving around through investment in active travel and public transport, helping to create a healthier lifestyle. It can produce a world-class digital and physical infrastructure, with an abundance of renewable and more affordable electricity from our common wind and tidal resources.

The Kilroot coal-fired power station, for example, must be closed by 2025 at the latest. However, in line with just transition principles, that should be done only with the necessary employment supports and retraining offers in place for workers and in full cooperation with trades unions. The closure of Kilroot should not leave any worker unemployed or any family worse off.

For both moral and practical reasons, we need an energy strategy based on the principles of just transition. The requirement to urgently transform our society and our economy away from fossil-fuel dependency and wastefulness presents an opportunity to tackle the economic status quo that caused the climate crisis in the first place. As we confront the climate crisis, we must also reshape our economy to create a more democratic, equal and sustainable society. That must be the guiding principle at the heart of any energy strategy.

An energy strategy should, as others have said, be rural-proofed and must take account of the specific issues facing rural areas that result in more carbon-intensive lifestyles, such as sparse connections to the gas grid, poor investment in renewable infrastructure and extremely limited public transport.

We must grow the economy through a green new deal. By 2016, more than 50 renewable energy companies were active in the North; as of March 2020, that figure stands at just five. Less than 1% of the private-sector workforce is employed in the green economy, which is accountable for 1·6% of the total turnover. Given the vast economic potential of our renewable resources and the opportunities for high-skilled jobs, high-value research and innovation, retrofitting and construction of green infrastructure that stem from them, that is a stark policy failure. Prioritising the green economy should guide energy strategy policy. An 80% target for renewable electricity by 2030 could result in £1·1 billion of new investment in the North. Climate change does not recognise borders. To be effective, the island of Ireland must operate together where possible to ensure maximum efficiency gains —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member needs to wind up on his remarks, please.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin 4:15 pm, 23rd November 2020

— and most appropriate use of resources. I welcome this strategy and the shift in policy that it represents.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

Like other Members, I welcome the motion. As an Economy Committee member I thank all of the members who played their role in bringing the report to the House, and I thank the Clerk and the Assembly staff for the way in which they conducted themselves on this and all of the matters. As Members have said, energy has a huge part to play in a very significant and large Economy Department. I thank them for that.

The micro inquiry received a large range of responses from across energy and business organisations, consumers, individuals and academics. There was a lot of good engagement, and it brought together this important report, though, of course, the report is just the beginning of a discussion of the ideas that were brought forward. We know that, as that report has been provided to the Department for the Economy, the energy strategy itself will determine future priorities and the potential changes needed to achieve the targets in it. Whilst we want to see progress as soon as possible, we recognise that there are time frames to be met, and we hope that the energy strategy can be put out to consultation early in 2021.

There is no time to stand still, and we need to continue to make progress. I welcome the fact that the Minister has said that this is one of her priorities. She has, of course, announced the 2030 renewable electricity target as being at least 70%. I, like many other Members, have met many people across the sectors who have welcomed that. There will, of course, be those who say that we need to be more ambitious, but it is welcome that we have that target in place.

We got a range a views on what would or should be the key elements of the energy strategy. It is clear that there is strong support for the principal focus of the energy strategy to be the 2050 net zero carbon emissions target that the UK has adopted. All of the actions in the strategy should, at the very least, promote and be very consistent with the aim of meeting the 2050 target. It was highlighted that this should require cross-departmental working. We all acknowledge and reflect on the fact that all we do in the Assembly requires a certain level of that.

As has been highlighted by other Members, consumers and affordability are key issues. I welcome the fact that the responses brought that very much to the fore, because all of us who represent constituents want to ensure that whatever comes out will tackle fuel poverty and benefit the consumer and businesses.

The infrastructure element is important. There was a strong recognition that we need to see more investment in public transport systems as a way to reduce energy consumption. There was also an important view, which I share, that we need to see more investment in the electricity grid and the realisation of strategic infrastructure in a timely manner. That is crucial as well.

On a final note, promoting the energy strategy and increasing public awareness were important points to come out of the micro inquiry as well. We want to encourage stakeholders to be fully aware of the energy strategy and of the draft energy strategy and of how their role as businesses and consumers is important to its success. It is important as well that we see the involvement in this of communities at every level in our constituencies and Northern Ireland, because this will impact all of us. We all have a role to play.

I look forward to seeing the outcome of the debate on the energy strategy. We look forward to seeing the consultation. There will be many more discussions to be had in the Chamber around all of the details, but this is an important discussion that we are having today. As I said, I very much welcome the motion.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I apologise to the Chair and to Members who have spoken thus far on the report for not being in the Chamber for most of the debate. It is important work. The Committee Clerk and staff are to be congratulated on the work that has been done on what is proving to be a more important issue each time that we debate it. Of course, we have to move beyond debate to action and to seeing change in how we produce, manage and invest in our energy and, in turn, ensure that that investment is for the benefit of all the people whom we serve.

With the ongoing economic crisis caused by COVID-19 not only here but across the island, these islands and globally, eyes are turning to how we will come out the other side of the economic disaster. Over the weekend — perhaps, over a longer period — we heard talk of higher taxes. I do not object to higher taxes, but I want to know whom they will tax at a higher rate, because experience tells us that it is not always those who can afford to pay most. We hear talk of public-sector pay freezes and cuts to public-sector spending. They are issues of great concern, particularly to those in lower income brackets. When they hear politicians and Assemblies talk about climate action, climate change and new energy strategies, they are quietly concerned and ask themselves, "Who is going to pay for that?". Will the new energy cost those people, as consumers who are trying to run a family home, a small business or even a large business, more? Will they or their family have to do without other things as a result of a new energy strategy?

That does not have to be the case; in fact, green energy and tackling climate change can be an economic driver, if used properly. If we can invest in programmes that create green energy, jobs and sustainability, why would we not do that? That is the factor and the prism through which all of this has to be looked at. A number of Members have said that the consumer is concerned. Let us allay that concern by saying that we see this as an economic driver and a way forward for change. We, as a society, could be energy providers across these islands, if we invest properly. We could lead the way in how we retrofit our homes. Recently, the Minister for Communities announced a programme of building new social houses. Those houses can and should be built to the highest standards in energy efficiency. I know that the Housing Executive does not build the social housing currently, but those involved in building social housing are fitting out their properties to high standards, which means that there is less cost in heating them, but improvements could be made.

I cannot speak on energy without plugging my Bill, which I propose to bring forward in the near future. It is out to public consultation. That Bill looks at how we allow for the microgeneration of green energy, where we allow farmers, individuals and communities to produce energy and then sell it back to the major producers, and calls on the producers to have a fixed price for it and to ensure that they purchase at least 5% of their energy from those producers. That allows for the production of energy to be brought down into communities.

Last week, we had a well-intentioned debate on how certain elements of agriculture produce harmful greenhouse gases. It is an important area to focus on, but, rather than simply focusing on how agriculture produces harmful gases, we should look at how we can support agriculture to produce energy. If we can get our farming community involved in the production of energy, as many are, along with others, they will not see this as an attack on them. They will see it as an opportunity. Many small businesses and individuals could also produce energy. Hopefully, we will hear more about the Bill during the consultation.

I welcome the report. It is another example of how Committees in this place do important work. They do not always attract the headlines, but they do important work behind the scenes. A lot of work is done in our Committees. I congratulate everyone involved in formulating the Committee report.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I find this to be a useful report, although I have to say that it tends to gather information rather than make clear recommendations. I would prefer to have seen clearer recommendations. The motion mentions a wish for ambitious targets. I did not get that in the report. I will illustrate what I am talking about. On the available options, the report mentions that some want 70% renewable energy by 2030, some want 80% by 2030, some want 100% by 2035, some want net zero by 2040, and others want 100% renewable as soon as possible. I do not know what the Committee is recommending. It just reports a series of figures. It would be better if the policy could be further developed with clearer targets. I recognise that this is a cross-cutting issue, so it is not just for the Economy Committee.

There are two sides to reducing our hydrocarbons. Yes, it is about replacing hydrocarbons with renewable energy, but it should also be about reducing energy demand in the first place. I would like to have seen more references to the green new deal scheme. Interestingly, on Friday, I visited a new development that is destined for social housing. It has triple glazing — not double glazing — and a heat ventilation recovery system. All that is built to a high standard. I suspect that the energy loads for those new tenants will be very low. By designing our houses in that way from the start, we can considerably reduce our energy demands.

Members mentioned retrofitting. We need to look at building control standards for our new buildings. Do we need to increase those? It is most efficient to build in that way from the beginning rather than having to come back in five or 10 years' time and add further insulation. I urge that we look at our new builds to see whether we need to increase that efficiency from the start. It is difficult to retrofit some houses, and it can certainly be expensive. However, we need to look at retrofitting insulation to bring about improvements.

Like others, I welcome the change in the Housing Executive. That may enable more houses to be built in a much more efficient way and to a higher standard, for the benefit of tenants. We have to recognise that there may be a slightly higher rent in the new houses because they are built to a higher standard, but look at the total cost. What will the energy bill be? Look at the quality of the environment in which individuals will live. Damp should be a thing of the past. There are thermostats to regulate heat to reduce bills further, so it is possible to improve heating standards.

Bespoke schemes have also been mentioned. I am conscious that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom — I dare say that it also applies if you take in the Republic of Ireland — with some of the lowest levels of government support to market new energy schemes. I suspect that that is a sad reflection of our past in terms of the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme and other forms of renewable energy; indeed, the Northern Ireland Audit Office reported recently that some turbine owners were being paid up to £100,000 a year above what they needed. It is important that we learn lessons and that we deviate from schemes that are applicable elsewhere with great caution. We must make sure that we build in contingency plans from the start in primary legislation, so that any rates that are set can be quickly adapted if that is needed.

Transport is another important area. Yes, the number of electric cars is increasing, as the Prime Minister has just indicated. However, equally, as others said, we need to get into hydrogen. A hydrogen hub needs to be created for Northern Ireland to support our buses and HGVs. For heavy goods vehicles that travel longer distances, hydrogen seems to be the only way to go.

Already, many other countries are taking a step ahead of us. China, in particular, is investing heavily in that, and I urge Northern Ireland to catch up and create its own energy hub for hydrogen.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green 4:30 pm, 23rd November 2020

The Green Party also very much welcomes the motion. We are encouraged by the vast range of views and positive suggestions given by organisations to the energy strategy micro inquiry. We would now like to see those carefully analysed in order to extract the enormous amount of value and level of expertise that has been given to us in the report. Whilst we are hearing the strong common theme of interconnectivity from Members, we feel that there is a gap in the responses, because most are about energy. We heard in the debate that energy is only half of what we should be thinking about. Rather than the focus being singularly on energy, it, rightly, needs to extend to the green economy and to how all the things that are suggested in the micro inquiry can be used to generate more and better jobs, more savings and better and healthier lifestyles while giving us the tools to begin to combat and redress the damage that we allowed to happen to our environment before we reach the point of no return.

We know through previous motions and debates that the House has recognised that we are in a climate crisis and that decarbonising is urgent and essential. If the primary role of a Government is to work for the betterment of its people, one of the primary purposes of an energy strategy should be to provide a healthy, robust and sustainable economy in which all people can thrive.

The Green Party sees that future through a climate change Act, transforming and growing Northern Ireland from a fossil-fuelled driven economy to a green energy economy. With the level of renewable electricity that is being produced and managed, Northern Ireland will become a world leader in the technologies of renewable electricity and smart grid.

A green economy provides for a range of really transformative policies that will help us to rebuild society in a sustainable and ethical way, including, but not limited to, decarbonising our energy systems in order to prevent the worst of climate change and the immense monetary costs that global warming would bring to the people of Northern Ireland. It would also include opening a new range of quality jobs and economic opportunities for the people of Northern Ireland; providing a solid base for our economy to grow and compete on the European and world stage; preserving the biodiversity on which our planet and we depend for our existence; and providing a Northern Ireland that will sustain and nourish our children and their children, physically and economically. However, we really need to focus on the priorities. The proposed energy strategy process of which this micro inquiry report and debate are part, will take another year to be enacted. Only then will the required actions begin to be planned and deployed, which is likely to take another two years post-November 2021. We simply cannot wait another three years, particularly as the existing strategy is 11 years old.

The Economy Minister acknowledged that in her presentation at the energy forum on 29 September. In her responses to my questions for written answer, she said that she would not wait on the energy strategy to take urgent action. I ask the Minister to clarify what exactly those actions are and when she will be carrying them out.

Whilst the Green Party is not in the Executive, nor do we have members on the Economy Committee, I am confident that, as a party, we can offer some very valuable advice on the priorities and actions that should be taken. I am delighted to have the opportunity, through the motion, to put some of them on record. My party's view is that those actions should be based around four key themes. The first is electric vehicle-charging infrastructure. It is obvious that we in Northern Ireland are being left behind GB and ROI in the uptake of electric cars, with the main issue being the absence of adequate charging infrastructure.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I certainly will.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Does the Member accept that the reluctance to buy electric cars may be more to do with the initial funding that is required to buy them but that there is emerging evidence that the running costs over a number of years can be cheaper? However, with a 300-mile radius, that is perhaps more than adequate for most people in their daily commute.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I accept those points, but I have had conversations with electric vehicle owners who have given them up because of bad infrastructure, so that issue needs to be tackled. The existing charging network is outdated, not reliable and needs to be urgently upgraded and extended. We suggest that the Minister for the Economy and the Minister for Infrastructure work together with the owners and operators of the existing network to find a way to get more investment and unlock the potential of electric vehicles in Northern Ireland, because, if we do not build it, they will not come.

Another key area is building regulations, and that has been mentioned. Today, we still build homes that are not adequately insulated and which use fossil-fuel boilers for heating, and we heard a little about that during Question Time. We suggest that we need to move quickly to change the building regulations so that we design and build for the future zero-carbon world. We urge the Minister of Finance to produce immediately the technical documentation on the requirement for any new buildings being erected to be nearly zero-energy buildings. We need this as soon as is physically possible so that the regulations work seamlessly with the Communities Minister's announcement about the Housing Executive and the proposals to build more homes where they are needed. Let us not be content with another issue that we know needs addressed failing to be delivered on time. We are already behind. Until these measures are made and mandated, all we will continue to do is stack up more problems for the future.

Another key area, as has been mentioned, is the grid investment.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

Another one is connecting to the grid, and Mr Aiken made a point about costs. We support the motion and thank the Committee very much for bringing it to the House.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I call the Economy Minister, Mrs Diane Dodds. The Minister will have 15 minutes.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Apologies for my coughing fit earlier. Rather than anything more sinister, it was because I have a dry throat and, possibly, if a politician can say this, because I was talking too much.

I welcome the opportunity to respond to the motion, and I congratulate the Economy Committee on producing the report. It is an exceptionally important issue. I also thank the individuals, academics, organisations and businesses that helped to provide the broad scope of views contained in the report. My Department has engaged with many hundreds of stakeholders in the development of the energy strategy to date, and it is encouraging to see consistency in the themes being raised in the report. I am struck by the positivity and ambition that come through from our stakeholders, and I would like to use today to discuss how the energy strategy can help to take advantage of the opportunities that are open to us.

Many in the Chamber have spoken of the importance of the energy strategy. I agree. Developing a new energy strategy is one of my top priorities. The strategy will set out the vision for our energy system to 2050, and a major programme of work is ongoing to deliver that. It is important to highlight that our strategy will be a living, breathing document. Once published, it will be regularly monitored, reviewed and updated to ensure that it is future-proof and able to respond to developments. Our future success will be built on many people working together, and a collaborative approach has been taken to developing the strategy.

My Department's call for evidence received over 160 responses from a wide range of organisations and individuals. There were also a number of stakeholder events across Northern Ireland. Five working groups comprising more than 70 individuals from over 30 organisations have been established and are working on developing policy options. That is being supplemented by additional research and inputs from academics and international experts. In developing the strategy, my Department is therefore drawing on an extensive network from across government, the energy sector and a wide range of stakeholders. The report presented today by the Committee will be considered alongside the evidence that has been gathered to date. That will contribute towards the policy options and future scenarios being developed, which will form the basis of the public consultation in March 2021.

The report correctly highlights the need for a joined-up approach across government. I completely support that view, and I am delighted that the energy strategy is now providing that leadership. The energy strategy government stakeholders group brings together central government, local government and the Utility Regulator to ensure that the policies and programmes being taken forward at this time across government are aligned and joined up. There is also significant membership across the five working groups from central and local government, alongside industry and stakeholders, to ensure that the development of policy involves all those who have a role in delivering it from the outset. I welcome the fact that the Department for Infrastructure is leading on the transport theme in the energy strategy, which demonstrates that a cross-departmental approach is being taken. I want this to be a true, Executive-wide energy strategy, and that is reflected in our approach.

I agree and recognise that there is a need for clear and ambitious targets. We continue to work within the context of net zero emissions by 2050. That will guide the focus of the strategy. I am also working closely with the Environment Minister to ensure that any future targets on emissions reductions will be reflected in the energy strategy. The Committee Chair referred to the need for measurable targets. That is a key part of the ongoing work. I have already made a strong statement on my ambition for the strategy to contain a target of at least 70% of our electricity consumption to come from renewable sources by 2030, which is one of those immediate actions that the Green Party leader referred to in her contribution. That provides a clear signal to the industry and wider stakeholders to allow them to begin to plan investment now in advance of the strategy being published.

However, if we are going to meet ambitious targets that will be in an energy strategy, the Executive will need to reflect it as one of their top priorities. I expect to see a prominent role for the energy strategy in addressing climate change and growing a green economy in a new Programme for Government. We will also need to ensure that the ambition within a new energy strategy is backed up by funding to reflect its importance for society, the economy and consumers. There are many steps that we will need to take to decarbonise energy, but our first priority has to be energy efficiency. I welcome the fact that this has been identified as a priority in the report. Energy efficiency can play a vital role in driving down emissions, helping to tackle fuel poverty and providing positive health outcomes. Energy efficiency and retrofitting are also widely being recognised as an important policy lever for green economic recovery, with significant potential for job creation going forward. It reassures me to see that many of the report's findings align closely with the work currently being taken forward to develop policy options in that area.

We will need to look at ways to decarbonise heat, power and transport. Our success at achieving and exceeding 40% renewable electricity targets demonstrates what we can achieve with a clear target and supporting policies. Our renewables base is a fantastic asset to have, particularly as the electrification of heat and transport will feature in our future energy mix. I see a clean, indigenous renewables base being key to our future energy mix. Every kilowatt-hour of energy that we generate from indigenous renewables is a kilowatt-hour that we are not importing fossil fuels. However, I am also clear that there is no single solution, and we will need to deploy a range of technologies and approaches and make use of our other assets, such as our agriculture base and modern gas infrastructure. The options consultation in March 2021 will outline short-term, low-regret options, as well as the long-term potential scenarios that we can achieve our aims.

I want to specifically highlight the crucial role of consumers in this energy transition. Consumers are at the heart of the strategy and will be involved in its development and implementation. We need to enable those consumers who want to be active in generating and trading energy while also protecting others, particularly the most vulnerable.

We need to rethink our relationship with consumers and make that a two-way engagement with the energy sector that brings citizens on the journey with us. The provision of a one-stop shop to provide information, advice and support to consumers came through strongly in our call for evidence. My officials are looking into options for a single delivery body as part of the strategy development.

Costs are, of course, key for consumers. A long-term energy system based around clean, indigenous renewables that makes use of our abundant natural resources can be cheaper, but there will be investments, with associated costs, along the way. That is why an evidence-based approach is being taken to the development of an energy strategy, to identify the most cost-effective options for domestic and business consumers.

I also want to use the energy strategy to grow a green economy. When I published the medium-term plan for rebuilding a stronger economy in June 2020, which has been referred to in the Chamber today, I identified clean energy as a priority for future investment. We currently have a low-carbon, renewable energy economy made up of 3,500 businesses, around 5,400 jobs and £270 million of exports. It could be so much larger. In the context of our response to COVID, there are real opportunities for economic recovery through decarbonising energy as part of growing the green economy across Northern Ireland. I see those opportunities to lead the way in green hydrogen production and to have a world-class manufacturing base contributing to supply chains for, for example, offshore wind, hydrogen buses and electrolysers; innovative pilot projects in new energy technologies that can be scaled up and deployed across the world; and significant capital investment in buildings and the new infrastructure needed to generate and distribute low-carbon energy. I also see opportunities for energy entrepreneurs and business start-ups to develop skills in green energy technologies, low-carbon buildings and transport.

I am excited by the developments in the hydrogen economy to date. There is a range of potential projects that can showcase our ability to develop cutting-edge hydrogen technology in Northern Ireland. That was mentioned by Kellie Armstrong and Paul Frew in particular. I am delighted to have been able to provide funding to Northern Ireland Water to trial an innovative commercial-sized electrolyser as part of its waste water treatment works.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Minister for her remarks. She will be aware, as will anybody who has visited one of Northern Ireland Water's waste water treatment plants in particular, that many of them were built with or provided with anaerobic digesters that, owing to Northern Ireland Water's contracting arrangements, they have never been able to use and have never been able to use for renewable energy.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I am aware of a number of problems that are associated with the energy sector. What I want us to focus on, however, is the potential going forward. This is an exciting new development in the field of hydrogen energy, and, if we can make it work, not only will we save for Northern Ireland Water but we will be at the cutting edge of how to take the sector forward.

The Northern Ireland Water trial could be part of a portfolio of projects that leads to a real stimulus to grow a local, world-leading hydrogen economy. There has also been reference made in the Chamber today to the work of Wrightbus and the need for that hydrogen hub at Ballymena. I have met colleagues there on a number of occasions. I assure the House that we are exploring the issue. I am also exploring the potential for further funding from central government for that.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Minister for giving way and for the interest that she has shown in that issue. Wrightbus is in my constituency of North Antrim. Can she assure the House that she is aware of the concerns raised by the general manager, Buta Atwal, and Jo Bamford, who presented to the Infrastructure Committee a couple of weeks ago, and their frustration over the lack of progress? They are businessmen. They work in a business environment. They do not, thankfully, work at the pace worked at in this Building or in any other bureaucracy. Can you assure us that there is a degree of haste in trying to bring forward some of those schemes?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I would, of course, like to see the schemes come forward at pace. I received the latest submission from Wrightbus just last week, and I have asked Invest Northern Ireland to look at it with Wrightbus. These are exciting opportunities for Northern Ireland. We have also done some work with the local council to see whether we can have a hydrogen academy on the site, as we believe that that will grow the skills base for Northern Ireland to become a leading-edge contributor in that sector of the economy.

To conclude, I welcome the report by the Economy Committee and the opportunity afforded to me to respond to today's motion. I am excited by the opportunities that will come through a new energy strategy. The report is a welcome addition to the evidence that has already been gathered. I look forward to the publication of the options and the consultation next March, so that we can take this forward and lay down a road map for Northern Ireland's energy needs into the future.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am delighted to wind up on behalf of the Economy Committee today's extremely important debate. As the Chair and other Committee members have indicated, we are keen to engage with the Minister to ensure that Members' and stakeholders' views on the shape of the new energy strategy are acted on. I thank the Minister and all the Members who contributed for their participation today. I also thank the many stakeholders who contributed their views to the Committee's special report, as well as the Committee team for its work behind the scenes.

The forthcoming energy strategy is a key part of our interlocking network of policies. It will help us to bring our economy into recovery and to build it back better than before. The energy strategy will take us decades into the future and will be a key determinant of how we respond to the climate emergency, as well as creating thousands of new jobs in related sectors.

As my party's economy and energy spokesperson, I will now speak on behalf of the SDLP. Today, my party launched an energy policy that is radical, exciting and forward-looking. Northern Ireland can be a world leader in restructuring the energy market to eliminate carbon emissions. We have the right weather conditions and geography to take advantage of the necessity to reform the energy market through wind, geothermal and tidal power, as well as having a role for solar and hydro. Not only can we be self-sufficient in electricity production, but we can use the surplus energy to become global leaders in the essential new technologies of battery storage and green hydrogen.

Northern Ireland has academic researchers and businesses engaged in developing those technologies, promising jobs and wealth for our society. Although we are still blighted by the COVID-19 crisis, it is essential that we consider our economic and social recovery. Investing in green infrastructure provides the basis for future economic growth and jobs in the near term. That is why we want to fast-track investment in electricity and broadband.

We have to move and move quickly. Northern Ireland, particularly my city of Derry, has a serious problem with air pollution that is literally killing hundreds of people prematurely every year. Air pollution is recognised as a major factor in COVID-19 mortality. As well as moving ahead with electric cars and hydrogen-powered buses and trucks, we must act against the burning of coal and wood, promoting instead clean energy sources. Those can also combat fuel poverty, given that coal is an inefficient and expensive means of home heating. We must make progress on the green new deal to bring our housing stock up to the highest standards of energy efficiency and decentralised renewable energy generation. Those policies would create substantial numbers of new jobs, as well as cutting our carbon emissions.

The motion is timely, and I am delighted at the level of debate and the contributions made by Members across the House. There were high levels of synergy around key areas, and I will now reflect the contributions.

Gordon Dunne rightly stressed the importance of energy affordability and security of supply. As well as those key themes, he highlighted the challenges related to weak infrastructure. He said that the gas networks need to be expanded and spoke of a need for a mix of energy sources. He highlighted the opportunities in hydrogen energy and the importance of ensuring that there is a fit-for-purpose energy strategy.

Pat Catney welcomed the cross-party support for bringing together an ambitious energy strategy. The growth of renewables in Northern Ireland is to be applauded, and that success augurs well for the future. He said that targets must be followed by good incentive schemes to support consumer engagement. Pat also mentioned that a lot will be reliant on behavioural changes in communities, and that shift will be important.

Steve Aiken talked about his previous role in the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, in which he outlined the barriers for Northern Ireland in relation to energy. He spoke about monopolies the role of the electricity regulator and whether the Department for the Economy is fit for purpose, on the basis of previous renewables schemes. He also spoke about lack of ambition. We need to stretch ourselves and be more ambitious. He emphasised that we should be recognised as leaders in the energy sector. He spoke in depth about biogas and our biogas surplus but said that we have planning challenges. I agree with him that about that and that we need to be more ambitious. He said that we should look to realising some of our ambitions by 2035.

Kellie Armstrong welcomed the report and called for an evidence-based approach. She said that we could and should become world leaders, and that was a common theme among Members. She endorsed the points made by Mr Aiken. She warned against departmental silos, and that was another theme that many Members raised. She said that the green new deal needs to be interconnected and that there is a need to develop a skills base, which, I know, the Minister is supporting and championing in order to deliver for our economy. She talked about the important part played by the housing stock and the need to look at whether there is adequate investment in heat and light for homes, particularly in the rental sector. Our social housing stock is very good, but our rental sector can have poor energy usage and high energy costs. Kellie also talked about high private car dependency in Northern Ireland, the need to transition to public transport and how we have fallen back on that a little because of COVID-19.

Paul Frew welcomed the report. He said that the big issue facing us is the high cost, particularly for industrial users. That is close to my heart. We are not competitive when it comes to energy costs for our manufacturing sector, so any energy strategy must address that. He spoke of his constituency, Wrightbus and hydrogen development. Close to Mr Frew's heart, as always, was the system operator, and he talked in depth about that and the transparency required in the relationship between SONI and EirGrid. He said that, no matter what we do, if we do not get that right, there will be poor outcomes. He said that we needed to be sure that the system operator functions properly and is fit for purpose. I hope he is happy that I have reflected exactly what he said.

Philip McGuigan discussed the energy strategy in a global context and spoke of the need for radical climate action.

He also pointed out that Northern Ireland does not have a climate Act, unlike the other three nations in the United Kingdom, and that we needed to act on that very quickly. He spoke in depth about a just transition — it was the key theme of his address — and outlined the health benefits of decarbonisation. He was also very much aware of the need to rural proof any kind of energy strategy that comes along and to make sure that there is an all-island approach to energy within this small island.

Gary Middleton welcomed the wide engagement in bringing together the report. He said that it was an important discussion and talked about there being no time to stand still. He also emphasised the need for cross-departmental working — again, no silos. Fuel poverty was highlighted in his address, as well, as was the fact that the benefit to consumers was very important for business and domestic consumers.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party


He said that more investment was required in the electricity grid.

John O'Dowd said that the importance of energy is growing each time that the issue is discussed. He discussed the cost of energy transition and the fact that tackling climate change should be an enormous economic driver.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

I say sorry to the Members whose comments I have not reflected. Thank you.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Thank you very much.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly welcomes the special report of the Committee for the Economy on considerations for the forthcoming energy strategy; supports the development of an ambitious, target-driven energy strategy that will decarbonise the energy sector by 2050 while minimising the cost to the consumer; and recognises the strategy’s potential to boost our economic, health and social well-being into the future.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I ask Members to take their ease for a moment or two, please.

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)