Committee for the Economy: Energy Strategy Report

Part of Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:45 pm on 23rd November 2020.

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Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:45 pm, 23rd November 2020

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.