What do offshore wind in Northern Ireland and Greek mythology have in common? North Channel Wind project director Niamh Kenny argues that the gods might be against us but eternal hope may see us through.
When Zeus and Prometheus created humans as a plaything for the gods, they were particularly careful to avoid giving these new creatures any tools which would enable them to rise up and challenge Mount Olympus. But even gods are flawed and eventually human beings surprised them with their intellect, cunning and eternal hope.
With conviction and optimism comes the ability for humankind to overcome almost anything, including the biggest existential threat of modern times, which is climate change.
So, what has all of this got to do with the development of offshore wind in Northern Ireland? As with the best Greek myths, the answer is everything and nothing. The Government of Northern Ireland set a very ambitious target of 80% of all electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Northern Ireland has substantial carbon reduction targets to meet which are legally binding and as part of this aspiration the new Energy Strategy targets 1GW of offshore wind in Northern Ireland from 2030. A recent report published by RenewableNI demonstrated that 1.5GW of offshore wind in Northern Ireland could generate enough electricity to power 1.6 million homes and offset 49 million tons of carbon dioxide. This gives us hope that with the right policy and regulatory framework, significant de-carbonisation of the Northern Ireland economy can be achieved.
Northern Ireland has proven that it can deliver renewable capacity at scale if provided with the right market conditions. In 2005 the Northern Ireland Renewable Obligation (NIRO) scheme was established and by 2016 renewable generation peaked with 400MW of capacity coming online in just one year. The capacity installed between 2005 and 2016 means that up to 48% of all electricity consumed in Northern Ireland comes from renewable sources. However, the installation of new capacity has largely stalled due to regulatory and policy delays including no new support scheme, planning challenges and grid delays.
In the case of offshore wind there are a range of additional challenges which need to be overcome. The Department for the Economy is leading the charge with the publication of the draft Offshore Renewable Energy Action Plan (OREAP) and the establishment of a steering committee and working groups focusing on the key priority areas. Principal among the issues being worked on by this group is the development of a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). The SEA will consider all of the constraints in Northern Ireland waters and will seek to establish areas where offshore renewables including fixed and floating wind, wave and tidal could be located. Many of the other actions required to move the industry forward rely on the publication of the SEA in the first instance, so this is a key priority.
One such action is the design of a bespoke leasing round for Northern Ireland, which The Crown Estate (TCE), manager of the seabed in Northern Ireland, is working on in parallel. This is very much on the critical path timeline for offshore wind to contribute to the 2030 targets. If there is no leasing round in place by 2025, it is highly unlikely that any projects could be operational by 2030, and if this slips further then it creates a genuine crisis for Northern Ireland in terms of meeting its legal obligations around carbon reduction. The publication of the SEA is a critical step to inform the spatial planning piece of the leasing round. In addition, TCE will need for Northern Ireland to have a Decommissioner of Last Resort Strategy, which will require new legislation. The failure of the Assembly to sit could therefore have an immediate and dramatic impact on Northern Ireland’s ability to reach it’s RES-E targets and to balance its carbon budget.
Zeus withheld fire from his new human race to prevent them from evolving and threatening the status quo. Northern Ireland should not be held back from achieving its ambitious electricity targets, which will enhance energy security and ultimately reduce costs for consumers.
The recent KPMG report Accelerating Renewables in Northern Ireland estimated that the status quo, or business as usual, would result in just 725MW of additional renewables commencing generation by 2030. Whereas under an optimised pathway over double this amount – 1,600 MW – could be realised by 2030, exceeding the 2030 target and delivering huge benefits to the environment and economy. Let’s not let red tape and regulatory delays be our Greek tragedy.