By Brian Alexander, Renewables Business Development Manager, PAC Group
Northern Ireland stands on the cusp of major changes in how we generate our power, as global forces converge to shape a very different way of how we produce electricity for our homes and businesses.
A legacy of under-investment has created problems that put at risk the ambitious aim to generate 80% of our power from renewable sources by 2030 and have a net zero economy.
Support from the Executive is desperately needed for NIE to have the resources and capacity to deliver on their own targets for upgrading and improving the infrastructure of the grid countrywide.
As well as the upgrading of the infrastructure at PAC we would be calling on NIE and the Executive to create a regulated industry body that protects not only the consumers but the companies providing the services. As with all innovative developments in industry it is important the regulations and guidelines are put in place, at present there are none in Northern Ireland. Whilst at PAC Group we operate very strict testing and quality control processes to ensure the longevity of a healthy operating system.
However, these are issues that can be resolved relatively easily with investment and education if the will is there from all.
The Ukraine crisis and other factors brought the price of energy into sharp focus for everyone, including individuals, investors, and business owners. At PAC Group we’ve seen an 80% increase in enquiries for both commercial and domestic applications and installations. The days when you could get a grant to assist with installing a solar photovoltaic panel are long gone. However, return on investment is now down to five-six years from what it would have been more than a decade ago with panels having a standard 25 year guarantee.
Of course, the rise in energy prices has been a factor in those applications, and while the energy cap will have helped to a degree, the reality is that power remains an expensive component in costs. At PAC Group, we have seen the difference it can make, with one recent installation reducing monthly bills by more than half, and sometimes even more.
While there is much discussion around the System Operator for Northern Ireland, NIE and politicians about interconnectors bringing in power from Scotland and elsewhere, with a combination of solar and wind we generate we can work towards almost complete self-sufficiency.
With a willingness amongst consumers, combined with the targets set in the Climate Action Plan, we need a serious discussion about the capabilities of the existing grid and when the Executive will offer support to NIE to deliver on the plan. Even NIE would agree that Belfast and Greater Belfast is desperately needing switchgear upgrades, and they are dealing with poor overall fault levels.
As a result of the difficulties NIE is being forced to tell some installations that whilst they are fully installed they cannot be switched on until 2025. This is unacceptable and we cannot expect our national grid operator to be able to provide a service to the country under these extreme resource and capacity constraints.
It is not the only case, unfortunately. There are other major sites facing similar problems. The need for investment in the grid as well as having the staff in place is clear to everyone involved. If the Climate Action Plan is to become more than a piece of aspirational paper, there will be an urgent need for significant investment.
There also needs to be a re-examination of the application process and the consideration of specific sectors, such as agriculture. Many farmers have a single-phase system when they need a three-phase with a higher-capacity inverter. It is clear that if a business has electricity bills in excess of £700 per month there should be allowances made to enable them to install the appropriate equipment and connect to the grid. For the agricultural sector to be competitive within the market they must find a solution to continually rising energy bills.
NIE are aware of these issues, however, they are hamstrung by the need for a financial injection from the Executive to jump start even more sustainable solutions into life.
The willingness is there, the understanding is there, but action is not being taken by our elected representatives who are still not working after nearly a year.
Where there is this vacuum, more people are involved in installing systems, and some companies say that they can install a PV system without the need to go to NIE. If you are storing all that is generated, that may be fine, but for all others, the connection to the network is needed. If NIE is not aware, the local grid may not be capable of taking over-generation.
Worse still, it can raise safety issues. For example, if there is a power cut and NIE is not aware of a property that is generating power the repair teams’ lives will be at risk. That is why the application process has to take place.
There is a way that this confusion can be avoided, with the creation of a feed-in tariff that is higher than the current rate. That would create an incentive to comply and reduce the need to seek electricity from outside Northern Ireland.
We can solve the various conundrums. We can move the climate agenda beyond the lofty statements and plentiful printouts of policies. Yes, it will require money, and it will require effort by all in the sector.
We may not be the ones sitting around the decision making tables, but we can become energy self-sufficient, we can be economically stronger, and we can play our local part in reducing carbon levels.