After a tumultuous year, positivity has emerged in Northern Ireland in the form of economic recovery and a clearer roadmap towards net zero carbon, writes Paul Stapleton, Managing Director of NIE Networks.
As lockdown eases and businesses return to a semblance of normality, latest indicators confirm economic activity is ramping up while the focus of governments around the world is honing in on the importance of ensuring we act now to protect the environment for this and future generations.
The European Union Strategy Paper published in July 2020 entitled ‘Powering a Climate-Neutral Economy’ is one such example of the latter, setting out a vision for increased energy efficiency and a concerted shift to electrification or other cleaner fuels.
At NIE Networks, we have shaped our own strategy, ‘Networks for Net Zero’, which sets out our views on the options and pathways for decarbonisation in Northern Ireland.
Crucially, it is centred around the customer and shows how achieving net zero is possible while still supplying end users with competitive energy and helping the economy recover.
The report highlights how electrification can play a significant role in an integrated decarbonised energy system and how the electricity network will support the transition to net zero carbon by securing more energy from renewable energy sources. In essence, how we can replace society’s dependency on imported fossil fuels in power generation, transport and heating.
We are seeking customer feedback on the various themes laid out in the report including how we can facilitate increased renewables on the network and how we can enable uptake of low carbon technologies such as electric vehicles, solar photovoltaics and electric heat pumps.
The report also outlines how NIE Networks will support new technologies such as hydrogen electrolysis and battery storage, as well as the development and operation of new services and markets. And, as a result of the proposed changes to how we operate, NIE Networks’ role will change to a Distribution Systems Operator.
There is a substantial vision set out in the report, one which will obviously require investment but one which should not be a cost burden to consumers. Public funding won’t be required to roll out the vision, rather funding can come from industry – including NIE Networks. Our modelling shows that the additional investment needed in the network can be delivered without substantially increasing prices for customers, because the growth in demand from increased use of electricity (replacing fossil fuels) will pay for the additional investment.
As such, the transition to net zero energy should be seen as an economic opportunity for Northern Ireland, not a burden. As a society, we spend about £2 billion each year on imported fossil fuels. The opportunity we have now is to replace that with indigenous renewable energy that will drive economic activity, create jobs and grow value here in Northern Ireland. We could do quite a lot with £2 billion each year in this economy and that is a big opportunity for Northern Ireland businesses.
However, there is a need for a change in policy to support this.
Many of our existing policies are out of step with our neighbouring regions. For example, if a customer wants to connect to the electricity network in Northern Ireland they pay the full cost of the connection works while in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland a portion of the cost is shared with the wider customer base.
This situation deters inward investment in Northern Ireland and we would advocate for an urgent review of and consultation on the connection policy and charging arrangements so that we can compete on a level playing field.
Similarly, policy choices to support a green recovery must be carried out in a way which protects the most vulnerable in society. To do so, there is an urgent need to advance initiatives for greater engagement with and involvement of communities and customers. Simple, impartial advice mechanisms for information sharing and support for community energy projects are all needed.
If we can do that, NIE Networks’ strategy will be able to play a central role in the journey towards net zero. In doing so help the economy build back better and most importantly, provide customers access to a competitively priced, clean and sustainable energy source.
T: 03457 643 643