In the latest RenewableUK blog, former head of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, Steven Agnew, introduces himself and sets the scene for renewables in Northern Ireland as he takes over as the Head of Northern Ireland Renewables Industry Group (NIRIG).
My career in politics began as the Research Officer for Northern Ireland’s first Green Party MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly). One of my earliest memories was working on the All-Island Grid Study. I couldn’t have known it then, but the lifespan of that document and my own political shelf life were to be inextricably linked.
As a result of that study, ambitious targets were set for renewable electricity on both sides of the border. Northern Ireland aimed for 40 per cent - just below the maximum the report said could be achieved.
Bearing in mind that at that stage the proportion of renewable generation was at seven per cent there was little expectation of the ambition being achieved.
Despite this, I am delighted to say that Northern Ireland reached 44% renewable electricity generation for the 12 months to June 2019. My role now, as the new Head of the Northern Ireland Renewable Industry Group (NIRIG), is to secure a strategy to take us to 2030 and beyond.
When I was elected as an MLA in my own right, I made getting on the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee one of my priorities. As a Green it was expected I would go immediately for the Environment Committee. However, I felt it was the Department for Enterprise (DETI) which had the most power to take action on climate change, including as it did, responsibility for energy policy.
I remember the committee being briefed by DETI on energy policy for the first time. I was keen and had a list of at least ten questions that I’d have to whittle down. While it would become clear that I was one of a small group of members with a genuine interest in energy, it was common that MLAs would ask questions regardless of their interest or expertise. This was aptly demonstrated by one MLA who asked the Department’s Head of Energy “the electricity on this here North/South interconnector, does it ah…, does it flow both ways?”
It was through my work on the committee that I got to know NIRIG, and my predecessor Meabh Cormacain. I often remarked the more I learned about energy, the less I felt I knew. I am hopefully beginning to turn the corner from ignorance but there is no doubt a lot I still have to learn.
NIRIG is the voice of the renewable electricity industry in Northern Ireland. Or at least it should be. As an Assembly Member, I felt there were too many voices in the sector, meaning politicians and policy makers received mixed messages. It is vital that the industry speaks with a clear voice about our priorities.
When the Department for the Economy launches its new energy strategy, the key question to the sector will be “how can we achieve this?” NIRIG needs to provide that answer. The Republic of Ireland has been decisive in setting a target of 70 per cent electricity generation from renewables by 2030. It is not surprising the lack of government in Northern Ireland means we are lagging behind. That may be the reason but it cannot become the excuse.
Climate change is finally at the top of the policy agenda. With the urgency that the latest IPCC report brings, the story told by Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough, by the young and the old, by the climate protesters and the pension fund managers, this looks like being a trend rather than a fad. Renewable electricity has been the leader in reducing carbon emissions with nine million tonnes of carbon saved in Northern Ireland since 2000. That success will likely mean the greatest burden of climate targets falling on the energy sector, but it is a challenge the industry is ready for.
So, as the All-Island Grid Study becomes obsolete having done its job, I stepped out of politics hopefully having done mine. It is time for a new strategy, a new pathway and a new sense of urgency; both for the energy sector and myself. As often is the case with new challenges I am both daunted and excited.