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United Kingdom

Irish success story hangs in the balance

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Northern Ireland has the potential to be a world leader in reducing electricity costs by adopting a target that could see wind power meeting 42% of demand. The biggest barrier to the plan is potentially the province's environment minister, Sammy Wilson, who denies that man-made climate change is of consequence

Compared to the rest of the UK, development of wind power on land in Northern Ireland has been a success story. The 215 MW of existing capacity generates some 5.5% of the province's electricity, compared with 2.2% for the UK as a whole, including offshore generation. More wind capacity is in the pipeline, with just over 100 MW under construction and due to come online by the end of 2010.

Accounting for around 94% of renewables generation in Northern Ireland, wind is setting the province on track to meet its 12% renewables target for 2012 -- although 15% of the goal is supposed to be met from non-wind sources. But it is the high proportion of projects approved under the Northern Ireland planning process that provides perhaps the most telling contrast with Britain. Project developers across the region have enjoyed a 97% planning success rate to date, compared with 67% for all onshore wind in the UK as a whole in recent years. The difference is even more marked when compared with the abysmal rate of 54% for UK projects determined at local level. These projects, less than 50 MW, tend to be of a similar size to those in Northern Ireland.

Despite the high numbers of projects that emerge successfully from the Northern Ireland planning process, the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) argues that this comes at a price. For decisions announced in 2008, nearly three years had lapsed from when developers first lodged their applications, it points out. Worse, planned changes to Northern Ireland planning policy for wind could bring development almost to a halt.

With some 150 MW of wind already consented and a further 51 projects totalling 1163 MW sitting with the planning service awaiting determination, Northern Ireland may at first appear set to meet its share of the UK's 2020 target of 15% of energy from renewables. Concern is increasing, however, that this potential capacity will fail to be delivered. Over the coming months, the wind industry will discover whether new planning guidance on renewable energy will help or hinder further wind expansion in Northern Ireland (NI). The NI Department of the Environment is to publish its first planning policy on renewable energy in late April or May.

A draft planning policy statement (PPS 18) was released for public consultation last year, along with draft supplementary planning guidance on wind. Andy McCrea of consultants Faber Maunsell says the new guidance should give the Northern Ireland planning service consistency in decision making. "The whole idea now is that they facilitate and encourage renewables; there is a presumption for wind in there," he explains.

The problems, though, start with the supplementary planning guidance (SPG) for wind, he says. One of the main bones of contention is the limit set in the SPG on the maximum height allowed for wind turbines. "This is extremely restrictive on developers," he says. BWEA's Gemma Grimes agrees. "It is going to totally put a spanner in the works. If the measures in the draft are adopted it will spell the death of the industry in Northern Ireland," she warns.

Grimes points out that the draft SPG would not permit any turbines above 80 metres to blade tip height. That means that only machines of 850 kW or less could be built, she says, a size range long abandoned in northern Europe for commercial reasons. Even if such small turbines were readily available, meeting targets with them would mean employing many more single units than using larger machines, incurring extra financial cost and cluttering the landscape.

Total control

Another inhibiting factor for development of wind plant contained in the SPG is the methodology used to assess their landscape impact, Grimes adds. The SPG carves up the six Northern Ireland counties into 130 landscape character areas and assigns capacity and turbine numbers within each area. The result would be extremely prescriptive for wind development -- more so than any other planning guidance across the UK, she says.

BWEA commissioned a review of the draft SPG from Enviros Consulting. This found that if the rules were strictly applied, only 200 MW of additional wind capacity would be built beyond the 450 MW of existing and consented projects. That would be enough for Northern Ireland to meet its 12% target, but not any further goals. The association has also held a string of meetings with the NI government to push the case for wind. "We are doing everything we can to prevent this policy being adopted," says Grimes.

The final decision rests with the colourful environment minister, Sammy Wilson. A denier of man-made climate change, he condemns attempts to reduce greenhouse gases as costly "climate change madness." He expresses no love of wind energy. "The climate change levy and the demand that more power is generated from wind have sent electricity bills soaring," he complained in one debate in the devolved Assembly government.

Meantime, BWEA and its Ireland equivalent, the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA), are pushing for a 42% target for renewables-generated electricity in Northern Ireland. As the NI Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) prepares for a round of consultations on a new energy policy to take the region up to 2020 and beyond, the two associations argue that a substantial target will ensure lower wholesale energy prices and boost energy security in a province that has to import all its fossil fuel energy sources. A 42% target could create £1.2 billion investment in wind energy, of which £300 million would be retained by Northern Ireland businesses, they say.

BWEA and IWEA point out that a 42% target would not be far removed from the Assembly's existing 40% aspiration by 2025. In addition, last year's All Island Grid Study, published by the governments of Northern Ireland and the Republic, showed that up to 42% of electricity on the island could be met by renewables. The Republic of Ireland government has since adopted a 40% renewables electricity target.

DETI is updating its five-year-old Strategic Energy Framework to take account of European climate change commitments, the new EU renewables directive and increasing wholesale fuel prices. In its consultation scoping document, the department accepts that the current low levels of renewables' heat and transport mean that Northern Ireland is likely to need significantly higher levels of renewables electricity to meet its share of the UK's green energy target. This could be close to the 42% penetration demonstrated in the All Island Grid Study, it states. It will set long-term targets for renewable energy following a study into the economic impact of renewables targets for 2020, says DETI.

One market, one grid

Since the creation in 2007 of a single electricity market throughout the island of Ireland, a target for renewables in Northern Ireland similar to that in the Republic makes sense, insists Michael Walsh from IWEA. "It's one market and one grid now," he says. He notes that Northern Ireland energy minister Arlene Foster has shown warm support for increased renewables.

McCrea, too, believes that DETI will adopt a target close to that south of the border. But it will pose challenges, he cautions. "That would give Northern Ireland the highest penetration of wind in the world," he says. "If we get anywhere near 42%, we are in a completely new area that is unexplored anywhere. It is a real challenge for grid operators and grid constructors, who would have to build a huge amount of network requiring major investment -- and there will be a cost to customers."

The All Island Grid Study shows it can be done, says McCrea. "But the study was subject to a whole raft of assumptions." One of these was that there would be a mix of conventional plant on the system more appropriate for high penetrations of variable wind energy, such as fast-start open-cycle-gas turbines rather than the existing prevalence of combined-cycle-gas turbines, which would compete with wind for base load generation. "There are other issues such as how the market would develop in terms of ancillary services," he adds.

Grimes, though, insists that the benefits of more wind far outweigh the costs to consumers of the extra grid investment needed. She points to a study published in January by the electricity regulators of Northern Ireland and the Republic, which finds that, depending on future fuel and carbon prices, high wind penetrations are likely to reduce the cost of electricity on the island of Ireland. "More wind stabilises electricity prices," says Grimes. And it boosts security of supply and reduces the impact of fuel price volatility, she adds. "With rising fuel costs, it is likely we would suffer greater increases in electricity prices if we do not have wind on the system."

Whatever the eventual target for renewables, BWEA and IWEA insist that the Department of the Environment's planning policy must be consistent with the government's overall energy policy framework, particularly regarding the proposal to limit turbine heights. "We believe that the draft SPG should be amended to reduce its prescriptive nature. This will allow individual developments to be considered on their merits," they state.

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