Committee for the Economy: Energy Strategy Report

Part of Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:15 pm on 23rd November 2020.

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Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin 4:15 pm, 23rd November 2020

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.