Regional planning and smart metering lead energy actions for 2024

A new Regional Strategic Planning Policy on renewable and low carbon energy will be published in 2024, Northern Ireland’s latest energy action plan has stated.

Released at the end of March 2024, the third successive annual energy action plan was published under the guidance of a minister in place for the Department for the Economy (DfE) for the first time in almost two years.

Alongside plans to deliver a new renewables-focused regional strategic planning policy, actions to be delivered in 2024 include:

  • the delivery of an industry-led green skills delivery plan;
  • the development of a net zero accelerator fund; and
  • the launch of a public consultation on a new fuel poverty strategy.

Launched in 2021, the Executive’s overarching Energy Strategy The Path to Net Zero Energy requires the publication of annual action plans and subsequent progress reports.

Despite the presence of a new Minister in place in the Department, the action plan does not contain any major policy shifts or directions beyond the pathway that had already been outlined within the original strategy.

It is expected that a functioning Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly will now work to reduce previously identified barriers to the overall ambition to reach net zero by bringing forward legislation to improve areas such as planning system reform, as well as providing the political cover for decisions such as the delivery of a renewable support scheme and long-term financing.

Replacing fossil fuels

Significantly, the action plan commits the Department for the Economy to, in 2024, develop a final policy position for Executive consideration and approval on a proposed moratorium and legislative ban on onshore exploration and extraction of oil and gas.

A further action relating to biomethane is more vague, failing to set an identifiable timeline. Following the completion of a call for evidence on feedstock management, production economics, and treatment costs, the Department says that it will analyse the evidence base and liaise with other departments to shape future policy for biomethane production and usage.

In relation to heat, two further actions concern the publication and analysis of the first geothermal demonstrator feasibility studies, helping to inform the next steps and potential future delivery locations. Additionally, the Department intends to publish a call for evidence for hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO) and biofuels.

Improving energy efficiency

In the context of rising energy costs and the broader cost of living crisis, one of the most welcome features of the action plan is the notice by the Department for Communities to launch a public consultation on a new draft Fuel Poverty Strategy to support a Just Transition by December 2024.

In June 2023, the Department for Communities announced that despite budgetary pressures, the Affordable Warmth Scheme, targeted at people on lower incomes and living in private accommodation, would be extended by two years until 2026, with changes to how the scheme is administered. The energy action plan highlights an ambition to develop a replacement scheme for when the current term ends. Pointing to an the delivery of a pre-consultation engagement on a new fuel poverty intervention by September 2024, public consultation on the scheme is expected to be launched by March 2025.

Work by the Department for Communities will likely happen in parallel with the Department for the Economy’s outlined ambition to publish a consultation on the future of domestic energy efficiency support and delivery. Alongside this, DfE has said that it will assess options to scale up the Northern Ireland Sustainable Energy Programme (NISEP) in 2024, by augmenting its existing budget.

For businesses, DfE outlines that through Invest NI, it will launch an energy and resource efficiency support programme for small and medium businesses.

Supporting the electricity grid

In 2024, the Department intends to appoint a contractor to develop and finalise a plan for the design and roll-out of smart metres, following a consultation on smart metering design. Similarly, the Department says it will publish the Smart Systems Flexibility Plan consultation response, which will inform the finalisation of the plan.
In addition to ambitions to publish a call for evidence response and continue delivery of the plan to update Grid Connection Charging Policy, alongside the Utility Regulator, DfE says that in 2024 it will also work alongside the Department for Infrastructure to plan a support scheme to futureproof electrical capacity at key strategic sites along identified key transport corridors.

Finally, in relation to the grid, the Department says that it intends to commission research into the costs and benefits for the consumer for increased interconnection, energy storage options, and the planned increase in renewable electricity generation.

Growing renewable electricity

Ambiguously, the action plan sets out an intention to “identify solutions to rapidly increase the quantity of onshore renewables on the electricity grid”. The first energy action plan published in January 2022 pledged to consult on a renewable electricity support scheme in 2022 for delivery in 2023. The subsequent 2023 action plan pledged to publish the final design of renewable electricity support, along with a pathway and timeline for the support being in place. In February 2023, the Department published a consultation on design considerations for a renewable electricity support scheme for Northern Ireland and the latest action plan says that in 2024, DfE will complete modelling work and financial assessment for a future renewable electricity support scheme.

Plans to publish a new Regional Strategic Planning Policy, dovetail with intended work to identify areas for potential development of offshore renewable energy for Northern Ireland. The Department says that as part of its Offshore Renewable Energy Action Plan (OREAP) 2024 it will complete a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA/HRA) for offshore renewable energy in the marine area.

Growing the green economy

The final two actions of the 2024 action plan represent progress, likely accelerated by the return of the Executive. Following the publication of an energy skills audit in June 2023, the Department says it intends to facilitate an industry-led green skills delivery plan, initially focused on the built environment and utilities.

Additionally, the Department intends to establish a government support fund to facilitate the development of innovative net zero technologies, intellectual property, and solutions through a net-zero accelerator fund in conjunction with the Strategic Investment Board (SIB).

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