Posted on Monday 14 February 2011 by Ulster Business

solar panels

We often hear that Northern Ireland has tremendous potential to produce Renewable Energy, but what does that actually mean in terms of numbers? How do we currently use energy and how could we produce more? Action Renewables director Michael Doran looks at the evidence

We currently import approximately 95% of our total energy requirement. Virtually all of that is made up of traditional fossil fuels, including oil, coal, and gas. The remaining 5% is made up of various energy sources, including electricity produced from wind turbines and heat produced from wood. We are already generating nearly 10% of all of our electricity from wind. The Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment, DETI, published the Strategic Energy Framework document in September 2010, which stipulates targets of 40% renewable electricity, and 10% renewable heat by 2020. It is important to understand the difference between Renewable Energy and Renewable Electricity. The two are frequently confused and it is common to hear people talking about "our 40% renewable energy target for 2020". Electricity is only about a third of the total energy that we consume, while another third is heat for buildings and the remainder is made up of transport fuels. To reach those targets we need to increase our production of renewable electricity by a factor of four and our renewable heat by a factor of six. Is this feasible? For electricity it is possible, but only achievable if we spend up to £1bn on grid improvement. Our existing wind turbines, which are all sited on land, have, at specific times, already produced up to 50% of total electricity consumption, for limited periods. However, to quadruple the 340MW that is already installed, we will need to go offshore. The offshore installations can also include both wave and tidal production. But to improve the grid onshore or to extend it offshore will both cost money. Considering that DETI have allocated £10m to energy infrastructure over the next four years, that money does not appear to be coming from Government. There is also likely to be a delay in extending and adapting the grid to accommodate the Planning process, so work is unlikely to start before 2014. We need to find innovative ways of incentivising private investment in energy infrastructure, in a way that balances risk against return in a measured way. Is it possible to hit the renewable heat target? Again, DETI have a set a challenging target. There are plans to introduce a "Renewable Heat Incentive" later this year, which will effectively pay the owner of a unit, producing heat from a renewable source, an amount of money related to the capacity of the unit. While the actual amount has not yet been determined it will have a significant impact on the uptake of renewable heat. Renewable heat may be created from a range of energy sources including solar radiation from solar panels, biomass, usually wood and renewable electricity. Solar panels usually produce hot water and biomass is generally used for heating systems for buildings. The most obvious problem with heat from biomass is where the fuel will come from. If we assume that most of the renewable heat is going to come from biomass then we need something of the order of 550,000 tonnes of material to hit the 10% target. As we now only produce about 180,000 tonnes indigenously, there is a risk that we will end up importing biomass in the same way that we already import fossil fuels. This may address fossil fuel depletion, but we will simply replace dependency on imported fossil fuels with dependency on imported biomass. In terms of uptake of renewable energy, within business, we are at the bottom of the European league tables. Our production and use of renewable electricity is good, but our adoption of other technologies and fuels is poor. To produce more we need to:
  • Educate people and businesses on the implications of continuing on our current high fossil fuel dependency route.
  • Upgrade the grid to accommodate increased levels of renewable electricity generation.
  • Find innovative ways of financing the upgrade of the grid.
  • Ensure that the Renewable Heat Incentive is launched this year with a clear time commitment.
  • Continue to invest in R&D, particularly in marine energy. We have a history of low levels of R&D in Northern Ireland, that has recently been addressed by Invest NI but we need more.
  • Recognise that current levels of biomass production are inadequate to meet future demands and to promote the establishment of significant areas of forestry and energy crops.
We have the potential to produce more electricity than we consume. We live on an island with massive wind and marine energy potential and could be a net exporter of electricity. We have the best growing conditions for woody biomass in all of Europe. We have traditional engineering skills that could be utilised to support our Renewable Energy sector. We have the potential, if we have the will and the vision.

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