Q&A: Northern Ireland at the crossroads in renewable energy

30 Dec 2016

Image: BMJ/Shutterstock

Jenny Pyper, CEO of Northern Ireland’s Utility Regulator, gave TechWatch a Q&A on the market forces at play that impact renewable energy adoption.

Jenny Pyper joined the Utility Regulator as chief executive in 2013. The Utility Regulator is responsible for regulating the electricity, gas, water and sewerage industries in Northern Ireland, promoting the short- and long-term interests of consumers.

A graduate of Queen’s University Belfast, Pyper joined the NI Civil Service in 1985. She was appointed to the senior civil service in 2004 as director of energy policy in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and went on to hold posts in the Department for Regional Development and the Department for Social Development.

In her latest role, she spoke with TechWatch about the shifting landscape as NIRO (Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation) subsidies close to new applicants in 2017. She also discussed the target to have 40pc of Northern Ireland’s energy coming from renewables.

Six years ago, in September 2010, less than 10pc of the energy supply in Northern Ireland came from renewables (as reported by the BBC). Northern Ireland has come a long way, though there is still a lot to achieve.

What types of renewable energy are in greatest supply in Northern Ireland?

It’s onshore wind, mostly, with smaller amounts of hydro or tidal energy, biomass and solar.

Have the incentive schemes done their job?

They’ve been a great success in the past five to seven years. There has, however, been a disproportionate growth in microgeneration of power. This puts pressure on the grid – pressure that may not have been planned for.

The grid is currently saturated, partly because of the growth in renewables. While a small-scale wind farm may be a good proposition for farmers, it doesn’t generate enough power to enable large power producers to turn down their plants, because a baseline supply always needs to be there, and that’s the aim we’re all ultimately trying to achieve. So we have to meet that balance.

What about creating energy just for your own use?

Self-generating renewable energy is a great proposition, but most people want to sell their excess energy back to the grid. That means they require an uplink.

It sounds like NIRO has been massively popular, if the connections are all being used.

Absolutely. The availability of the NIRO has resulted in a rush to get in the queue before it closed. As long as suppliers were in the queue before March, they can still get connected. But there is uncertainty for renewable energy moving forward, with the closure of that subsidy programme.

‘There is uncertainty for renewable energy moving forward, with the closure of that subsidy programme’

Jenny Pyper, Utility Regulator

Jenny Pyper, CEO, Utility Regulator. Image: TechWatch

What is needed to progress this situation?

We need more investment in the grid. We need new infrastructure. In particular, we need to see the completion of the project for a new interconnector to the Republic of Ireland.

Right now, one main interconnector exists between NI and the Republic, allowing energy to flow between the Single Electricity Market. A second interconnector not only facilitates the flows of electricity, it also contributes to the efficient working of the market.

When will that happen?

The target completion date is 2019 – it’s in planning at the moment. This is a huge priority, to ensure the sustainability of energy supply and to make sure we have a much more efficient market.

Are there interconnectors elsewhere?

We have an interconnector with Scotland, enabling power to flow freely between here and the UK, and this flow is determined by pricing and market conditions. In general, the goal is for electricity to flow freely throughout Europe.

How do we make the most of the fluctuating supply of renewables?

There are some very promising projects in energy storage happening. The Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES) project in Larne and at Kilroot power station by AES.

At AES, there’s a 10-megawatt battery storage installation, currently trialling with the system operator. The wind doesn’t blow all the time, so battery storage is particularly valuable to manage fluctuations in supply and demand of energy, and to plan for peak demand.

Say, for instance, at Christmastime, when all the shops are open late and everyone is using more power in their homes. Having energy stored keeps the grid stable. That way, when it’s very windy, we can store some of the excess energy to be used during peak demand.

Similarly, the Gaelectric CAES project in Larne involves compressed air that is stored underground. That energy supply can be renewed when wind is high, and then slowly released into grid when it’s needed.

What are your targets? And, more importantly, are they achievable?

We have a very strong policy target of 40pc of our energy coming from renewables by 2020. And, yes, that number is completely achievable.

Right now, we are sitting at 33pc of our energy installed from renewables. At full capacity, these producers can meet 40pc of our supply. While our target is within our reach, we will not get beyond that figure without additional investment and policy drivers.

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland