The Future of Energy in Northern Ireland

May 1, 2014

DETI has recently published “Envisioning the Future: Considering Energy in Northern Ireland to 2050”. The document sets out DETI’s vision of supply and demand of energy in Northern Ireland in the next four decades.

Unsurprisingly, the report concludes that renewable energy will play a far greater role in Northern Ireland energy going forward. However, some of the report’s other findings are more surprising.

Heating

Oil central heating is currently the dominant fuel for space heating in Northern Ireland. Currently gas is not a great resource in Northern Ireland and only two companies provide gas heating. The report notes that gas users use less fuel than those with oil central heating; partly because of the implementation of modern condensing gas boilers. In the longer term the report suggests that the trend towards gas will increase, but that this will be moderated by reductions in demand and a move to renewable sources of heat.

Somewhat surprisingly, it also suggests that electric home heating will increase, putting a strain on the electricity network.

Electricity generation

DETI suggests that by 2050 all coal power stations in NI will either close or convert their premises at the end of their lives to CCGT (combined cycle gas turbine) or OCGT (open cycle gas turbine) plants. However, Northern Ireland’s gas supply relies on imports, so the costs reductions are likely to be limited and the security of supply will be low. Security of supply will decrease further if the projected rise in electric heating of homes comes to fruition.

Renewable Energy

The report projects a substantial rise in the use of renewable energy by 2050. The development of renewable energy is a key objective in Northern Ireland with targets published in the Strategic Energy Framework of 2010 aiming for 40% of electricity production to be by renewable energy by 2020 and 10% of heating to be by renewables for the same period.

The report delves into various renewable energies in detail, but suggests that some will have little or no contribution to energy output in Northern Ireland. These include anaerobic digestion (small scale contribution), hydro (small scale contribution), tidal barrage, wave and geothermal (no contribution due to no significant resource in NI or the territorial waters).

Currently, on shore wind energy dominates demands for renewable energy. This is set to continue until 2020 as various planning applications are currently in the pipeline. However, by this stage, the report suggests that all the best sites will have been used and Northern Ireland will be at full capacity for in-shore wind. It is likely that off-shore wind energy will be restricted to the 600MW output First Flight Wind project off the east coast which is planning to be operational by 2020 and have a lifespan of 24 years. There are various reasons for this assertion such as environmental factors and cost. If these factors change (there are efforts directed as cost reductions), there may be more opportunity for off-shore wind projects provided public appetite is present.

The use of large scale biomass is possible in Northern Ireland; however Northern Ireland has the lowest forest cover of any country in the UK at only 6.5%. As a result importation of biomass is necessary which doesn’t help security of supply. Kedco have proposed a biomass electricity and heat  generating plant with a 25MW capacity at Londonderry Port. In addition, planning permission has been approved for a 15MW plant by Evermore also at Londonderry Port. Moreover, the report highlights that there could be potential for growth at Belfast, Larne and Warrenpoint. However, even at these locations there could be issues in regards to facilities for the importation of bulk materials.

Northern Ireland is host to the worlds first commercial scale grid connected tidal stream installation which has been operating in Strangford Lough since 2008. This 1.2MW output Seagen device is currently the only tidal stream operation in Northern Ireland. There are also two 100MW projects planned at Torr and Fair Head which should be operational by 2020. The report proposes a 400MW output from tidal stream by 2050.

One surprise from the report is the expected rise in the use of solar energy from a 4.2MW output to between 600 and 800 MW. Their investment case is based on the value of the electricity saved and the cost of installation which they expect will reduce.

Conclusions

It is clear that the landscape of energy production in Northern Ireland will change dramatically by 2050. Overall, Northern Ireland’s reliance on imports should reduce, but electricity needs look set to increase. These needs will be met by reliance on imported gas and renewable energy sources. Production of renewable energy looks like it will be relying on a set number of on-shore and off shore wind farms and tidal stream projects. In addition if the DETI’s vision is correct, solar power could provide a far higher contribution to energy needs in Northern Ireland than ever considered before.