Committee for the Economy: Energy Strategy Report

Part of Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 23rd November 2020.

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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.