The goal is a key plank of a new energy strategy, which aims to shift the province away from a near 100% dependence on imported fossil fuels for its energy needs. It will require a four-fold increase in current levels of renewable generation. The strategy also confirms a 10% renewable heat target.
The new aim brings Northern Ireland in line with the Irish Republic, which adopted its own 40% target in 2008.
The strategy document, A Strategic Energy Framework for Northern Ireland published by the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment (DETI), notes that more flexible conventional generating plant will be needed to complement an increase in variable wind generation.
The 40% target will also require further development of the electricity network. The planned additional north-south interconnector with the Republic will also facilitate growth in renewables.
Wires operator Northern Ireland Electricity estimates that some £1billion of grid investment will be needed. The combined cost of new renewables plants together with grid investment to meet the 40% target could eventually add between £49 and £83 on household electricity bills.
Over the past five years renewable capacity has nearly trebled and Northern Ireland is on track to meet its existing target of 12% renewable electricity by 2012.
Today, renewables supply 10% of the province's electricity, most of it from 308 MW of wind farms. Onshore wind will continue to be the leading renewable technology. However, minister of enterprise, trade and investment Arlene Foster wants to see a diverse mix of renewables. Offshore wind, marine technologies and bioenergy are also expected to contribute.
The DETI expects to publish soon an Offshore Renewable Energy Strategic Action Plan. This will include the launch by seabed owner The Crown Estate of a competitive call for offshore renewable projects in late 2010 or early 2011.
From trade body RenewableUK, Gemma Grimes, Head of Onshore Renewables, calls the new target "challenging but deliverable". She is particularly optimistic following recent changes to the supplementary planning guidance for wind farms in Northern Ireland.
The increased target had been threatened by proposals in a previous draft of the planning guidance which would have limited the numbers and heights of wind turbines. "All explicit references to height restrictions and wind farm sizes have now been removed," says Grimes.
The document now leaves the size of wind farms and wind turbines to be determined between developers and planning officers on a case by case basis, Grimes says.