Posted on Thursday 6 February 2020 by Ulster Business

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Paul Stapleton, managing director of NIE Networks, sits down with Ulster Business to chat about the future of energy here, huge investment across Northern Ireland and the responsibility of keeping the lights on for almost two million people

In the last three decades, Paul Stapleton has already seen significant sweeping changes across the energy industry, and is now helping lead the charge towards a carbon neutral economy with an ever-increasing focus on green power.

He is now at the helm of NIE Networks – an organisation responsible for the electricity network here, delivering reliable power to 885,000 businesses, homes and farms right across Northern Ireland.

“Our role is to provide a safe and reliable network – keeping the lights on 24/7, 365 days a year,” Paul told Ulster Business.

And part of that responsibility and ability to ensure strong and reliable electricity flow is an investment of around £100m each year, working towards a 2050 ‘net zero’ carbon emissions target and embracing the key changes and evolution in power here.

“Many different players need to work together to ensure the electricity system of the future can achieve what it needs to achieve in terms of zero carbon and remaining economically efficient, and reliable, at the same time,” he says.

“We are the custodians of the electricity network – everything between where power is generated and up to and including the meter in your home or business.

“Our network is connected to 885,000 customers – that’s every home, every farm, every business, and every organisation in NI. It’s a regulated utility business, and commercially, everything is regulated by the Utility Regulator.”

Paul’s been in the energy industry for his entire working life. The Limerick man joined ESB in 1991 where he held a number of senior management positions, before taking up his current role in May 2018.

He’s taken over NIE Networks as it’s hitting record performance targets, with those likely to improve further still this year.

“The network is in as good as condition as it ever was, and we are giving a good service in terms of continuity of supply.

“In 2019, we achieved a ‘customer minutes lost’ average of 83 minutes, which is the lowest in our history. But we will continue to look at improving further. Where faults do occur, 90% are fixed within three hours and 100% within less than 24 hours.

“We operate in business cycles around regulatory price controls. We are now just over two years into a six year price control.

“There has been some downsizing, cost-reduction and efficiencies, while we are gearing up to deliver a significant capital investment programme. We are investing more than £100m a year in upgrading, refurbishing and maintaining the network.

“The focus in present terms is about delivering for today and looking to enhance our services to customers.”

But it’s the future of NIE Networks, power generation, and a new Strategic Energy Framework, which will become the focus for Paul and his team in the coming years.

“A lot of my focus is about planning for the future, as well as the day-to-day,” he says. “The longer term horizon is now looking out to 2050,” he says. “The UK Government has enshrined in legislation the target that the economy will be entirely carbon neutral.”

For Northern Ireland, it’s already broken recent records in terms of the move towards green energy. “There is a huge amount to be done and it’s a very challenging target,” he says.

“It’s a huge change and transition. But I think all the scientific evidence regarding climate change suggests it has to be done, and maybe has to be done sooner.

“The headline target was that we would hit 40% from renewable sources by 2020. We actually achieved that target and are now at 45%. That is very significant progress. It puts us ahead of GB and the Republic of Ireland.”

NIE Networks has invested around £365m in the network to facilitate this generation. In the last few years the number of power generators connecting to the network has grown to 23,000, whereas two decades ago it was reliant on the three main power stations here.

“The bigger challenge is how do we use that green energy to displace carbon? That brings in transport and heat, and that’s something where the electricity sector will play an important role.

“As we all start adopting electric vehicles, as I think we all will in the next decade, we have to make sure people have the ability to charge them, at home and in public spaces. It’s our role to connect the chargers and to make sure we have a network which has the capability to meet the demands.”

But Paul says there’s significant positivity out there, with a younger generation in Northern Ireland and throughout the world embracing the small everyday changes that have to be made in order to tackle an international problem.

“We are in the policy framing stage and 2020 is going to be key. There is a call for evidence now from the Department for the Economy to inform the development of a new Energy Strategy for Northern Ireland and I would encourage anyone who has any interest in energy or climate change to contribute into that.

“Hopefully that will lead to the development of clear policy initiatives, targets and measures for Northern Ireland and that will set the context for the market to respond.

“I think there is economic opportunity for Northern Ireland, but there will be some downsides. We need to minimise the downsides and maximise the opportunities.”

NIE Networks is currently examining its role in the future energy market in Northern Ireland. That includes looking at how it can make the distribution network more open and accessible in order to allow burgeoning technologies, such as battery storage, heat pumps and electric vehicles, to be introduced and operate in a sustainable way.

“We see our role as evolving. Historically, we were somewhat passive – we provided an infrastructure which shipped electricity from A to B. Now, we need to be much more proactive and we are part of an overall system.”

That includes a role in balancing when green energy is available and when it is required and in high demand on the distribution system. “All of that needs a more connected and dynamic distribution system – rather than just being seen as a physical infrastructure,” Paul says.

“We need private investment and developers who are willing to invest in new solutions, whether it’s wind, solar, electric vehicle charging or heat delivery. All of those need policy directions, but they also need a network to connect to, so we have a major role to enable all of that.”

Paul says most businesses and individuals now know that they “have to get on this journey” in order to play their part in tackling climate change, reducing their carbon emissions and improving energy efficiency.

With Brexit, there have been concerns over the future of the all-island energy market. But Paul is confident that it will be secured, despite the UK’s exit from the EU. “That continuing is really important for businesses in Northern Ireland. Currently, all sides in the Brexit debate seem comfortable that the Single Electricity Market (SEM) will continue, so we don’t see any specific threat around that.”

As part of NIE Networks’ Northern Ireland-wide investment in infrastructure – of around £100m a year – it has recently completed a £500,000 investment in the Cathedral Quarter area of Belfast – where our interview took place – which is home to many of its best known pubs and restaurants. “That gives us a more resilient and reliable supply, as well as capacity for the future,” Paul says.

Some of the other latest investments include projects in Enniskillen in advance of a new public realm scheme, along with another in Newry.

“Right across Northern Ireland we are continuing to invest,” Paul says. “There is a lot going on. There’s a lot to do today, challenges, to keep efficient supply for the economy, but equally we need to plan for the future.”

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