Committee for the Economy: Energy Strategy Report

Part of Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:45 pm on 23rd November 2020.

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Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP 3:45 pm, 23rd November 2020

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.