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 Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 4:15 pm, 23rd November 2020

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.