Posted on Wednesday 24 February 2010 byUlster Business
Our dependence on fossil fuels can’t carry on indefinitely. Are we in Northern Ireland building a strong enough renewable energy sector to offer a viable alternative and is government policy doing enough to encourage the sector’s development? Symon Ross reports…
While the Copenhagen Accord on climate change reached late last year was short of what many campaigners had been hoping for, the high profile of the event at least confirmed that the question of global warming is now high on the world agenda.
Whether or not you agree with the science of global warming, what cannot be argued with is the fact that fossil fuels are a finite resource. Oil and gas reserves will run dry and that means renewable energy will have to make up a far greater proportion of our energy needs in future than they do today.
According to recent statistics released by the Utility Regulator, around 10% of electricity distributed in Northern Ireland came from renewables in 2009, including landfill gas and biomass.
That leaves us some way short of the target of 40% renewable electricity by 2025 in the Executive’s Strategic Energy Framework. When looking at total energy use rather than just electricity, the dream of a renewably powered Northern Ireland looks further off still.
“Overall Northern Ireland would be at the bottom of the renewable energy league for Europe. Of all the energy we consume about 2.5% of that comes from renewable energy sources. That would be at the bottom of the EU 27,” says Michael Doran, director of advisory group Action Renewables.
“DETI do now have an appreciation that renewables will be an important part of the mix. But my only concern is that they are relying too much on onshore wind. There’s still a lack of drive within government departments to find renewable energy solutions.”
Despite lagging in many respects, Northern Ireland does at least have a number of local manufacturers successfully tapping into the growing renewables market at home and abroad.
Former shipbuilding giant Harland & Wolff has diversified into renewable projects, completing 90 wind turbines for two offshore wind farms last year, helping develop the prototype wave-energy generator Wavebob and assembling the marine turbine unit now installed in the tidal waters of Strangford Lough.
A host of local firms also manufacture, export and install solar products (Kingspan Renewables, Willis Renewables, Solmatix), wave and tidal generators (PureMarine Gen) and wind turbines (Vertical Wind Energy, Limavady Gear Company, B9, J.A Graham).
Incentives blow by
It is from wind that the Executive foresees much of its 40% target being achieved.
However, Tony Gordon from Co Antrim-based vertical axis turbine maker Vertical Wind Energy believes that farmers and non-domestic users in Northern Ireland are less likely to help achieve this goal by installing their own wind turbines.
That is because feed-in tariffs - payment incentives for generating carbonless electricity - were introduced this week in the UK but not in Northern Ireland. The Executive did not sign up to the 2008 Energy Act that created legislation for these payments, so there will be a lengthy delay even if it does decide to implement them.
“We have one of the best wind profiles in Europe and we are largely a rural population so all the points for stack up hugely in Northern Ireland. Not having this sort of incentive package is crazy really,” said Mr Gordon.
“Nobody is addressing it or taking ownership for it. I can think of at least two companies that would benefit greatly from this here. It is a great sadness we can’t sell into Northern Ireland.”
VWE’s sales office is in the Northeast of England and it is planning one in the Republic because its incentives are better than in Ulster. Mr Gordon believes failure to catch up will create risks for the burgeoning renewables industry here.
“There’s not going to be a huge amount of incentive to create new products and new businesses if there is no market here. There’s potential for manufacturing jobs and technical creativity that go into these things - we’ve got great universities here in NI, great minds, and there’s a real danger those skills are going to be wasted,” he said.
Last year a coalition of industry bodies and environmental campaign groups under the banner Green New Deal called for a new approach to tackling climate change, recession and rising energy prices. The group highlighted that 99% of Northern Ireland’s energy is imported and fuel bills account for around 10% of the province’s income. They believe investment in green buildings, power generation and transport infrastructure could give a country the competitive edge as it emerges from recession.
Nigel Smyth from the CBI, part of the coalition, believes renewables are an insurance policy against very high fossil fuel costs and carbon prices.
“The renewables sector offers significant potential for growth in the future, with hundred’s of companies already operating in this space. Clearly some technologies have good short-term opportunities including large-scale wind, energy from waste plants and biomass. These need to be encouraged, with the biggest barrier at present being planning policy and guidance,” he said.
“Progress has been achieved over the last twelve months but if the Executive’s Programme for Government 2025 target for greenhouse gas emissions is to be achieved planning policy must be more favourable to these investments.”
Mr Smyth believes more needs to be done to encourage and support research into relevant low-carbon technologies - including wave and tidal energy and micro generation - fast-tracking existing technologies to full deployment, enabling public procurement to aid technological demonstration and making sure the right skills are in place.
“Northern Ireland’s tradition of innovation will hopefully ensure that local companies take advantage of these emerging opportunities,” he said.
In the corporate sector there are some firms not directly involved in renewable energy production that have spotted the business benefits of aligning themselves with the sector.
Wrightbus is making energy efficient buses in Ballymena, while Fermanagh-based Balcas has enjoyed huge success with its wood pellet fuel under the Brites brand. Elsewhere, building materials maker Brett Martin is installing its own wind turbine and twelve firms including Glen Dimplex, the Carvill Group and Gilbert-Ash are associate members of Action Renewables, meaning they have committed to investing in renewable energy technologies.
However, many firms, large and small, still only pay renewable energy lip service.
“Generally the uptake is very low and in my opinion that’s because they don’t see any leadership from government,” says Michael Doran.
“What is having a detrimental effect on the market here is for companies who are renewable energy manufacturers or installers, they don’t know what’s coming round the bend. It is hard to do business planning in that environment.”