Posted on Monday 10 September 2018 by John Mulgrew
With a dedicated framework for energy provision in Northern Ireland coming to an end soon, John Mulgrew takes a look at the state of power generation in the region
It feels like the future of energy provision in Northern Ireland is at somewhat of stalling point as is its political counter-part at Stormont.
Northern Ireland’s energy sector remains floundering without a fresh dedicated framework – something which was promised a couple of years back, but has since failed to materialise with the ongoing deadlock at Stormont.
The last published framework began in 2010, and carries on until 2020.
As part of the framework back in 2010, the then employment minister, Arlene Foster, said that “without reliable and affordable energy, economies and communities will cease to function”.
“Within Northern Ireland we are dependent on imported fossil fuels for most of our energy needs.
“That is why, looking to 2020 and beyond, I believe we must seek to shift the balance with regard to Northern Ireland’s energy mix.”
Northern Ireland is closing in on a target of 40% consumption from renewable sources by 2020, but there’s still appears to be a need for some form of more traditional, yet modern, energy provision – transitioning to a lower-carbon economy.
Speaking to Ulster Business about Northern Ireland’s energy provision, Robin McCormick, general manager at SONI (System Operator for Northern Ireland), said:
“We are at a very important stage of transition for the electricity market on the island of Ireland. We will see the new Integrated Single Electricity Market (I-SEM) go live in October 2018.
“The new market will ensure greater competition and downward pressure on wholesale prices – which is good news for consumers.
“The delivery of the second North-South interconnector remains a key strategic priority for SONI, in particular to enable the efficient delivery of I-SEM.
“The project is also essential for long term security of supply. We work with The Utility Regulator to protect and to improve Northern Ireland’s electricity security.”
And following the proposed closure of AES’s Kilroot station – which is still up-and-running – and a cutback in output from Ballylumford, eyes have turned to getting the North-South interconnector shovel-ready, and giving a green light to the £280m gas-powered Belfast Power station on the Harbour estate.
However, following a High Court challenge to the go-ahead for the Arc21 incinerator, civil servants are not getting major, regionally significant schemes over the line, for fear of further legal challenges.
And that’s impacting both the interconnector, and the huge Belfast Power station.
Ciaran Devine, founded of Evermore Energy with his brother Stephen in 2000. It’s already invested £83m in the company’s Lisahally power station in Londonderry.
It’s also planning the £280m station in Belfast, which Ciaran has said could meet half of Northern Ireland’s energy needs, at its peak.
“We’re very proud of the Lisahally Power Plant and the fact that it brought significant investment and job creation to the North West, where we grew up.
“But we don’t want to stop there. We’re passionate about playing a major role in the transition to a low-carbon economy here, and the Belfast Power Station is a central part of that.
“When we looked at Northern Ireland and our energy mix, we knew it had to change. Wind has played a huge role in making our supply more diverse, but it can’t do it all on its own.
“Solar is progressing and is coming down in cost, but it’s still some way off from playing a major role here.”
“So it’s clear that, in order to meet demand in the coming years, we need new long-term, sustainable solution – and that’s exactly what we’re providing with the Belfast Power Station.”
Robin McCormick says that while the North South interconnector “was approved by the Department for Infrastructure (DFI) in January 2018... that approval is currently subject to a judicial review, on the grounds that the decision was made by the Permanent Secretary and not a locally elected minister”.
“We have pressed Government and political leaders to ensure that this situation is clarified urgently. The current DfI decision making uncertainty is affecting planning decisions elsewhere in relation to other major energy and infrastructure projects.
“We are hopeful that, in the absence of a restored Executive, measures will be put in place by the Secretary of State to resolve this issue soon.”
Speaking about the impact of the deadlock impacting their own scheme, Ciaran said:
“Obviously the lack of a Stormont Executive has been frustrating, and is now starting to impact significant projects in terms of planning, but we’re hopeful steps will be taken soon to allow these important decisions to be made. We have some major announcements to make over the next few months that mean as soon as the plant receives planning permission, we can hit the ground running with construction.
“That’s when the real economic benefit will be felt, as along with the substantial investment, we’re expecting to create over 350 jobs during build-out and 50 full-time roles when the power station is operational.”
According to Robin, one of the growing strengths of the energy market here, despite a lack of clear strategy in the coming years, is the increased use of renewable generation.
“One of our great achievements in recent years has been our ability to connect sources of renewable generation and to utilise them on the system,” he said.
“For the 12 month period April 2017 to March 2018, 35.2% of total electricity consumption in Northern Ireland was generated from renewable sources located in Northern Ireland.
“We are closing in on the 2020 target of 40% consumption from renewables. In 2018 alone, we achieved a record with renewables providing 65% of electricity demand; this is world leading. We want to take that higher to 75% and we are working with the renewables industry to make that happen.
“This is an exciting and challenging period of change for the electricity industry and SONI. We will continue to lead in the delivery of key electricity infrastructure projects and we look forward to delivery of I-SEM and through it, help to keep electricity prices as low as possible for NI business and consumers.”