How does energy factor into new industrial strategy?

02 February 2017 - by Gráinne Walsh

The Department for the Economy has announced its new industrial strategy. Where does the energy sector fit into this?

Last week, as the Northern Ireland Assembly wound towards its latest dissolution and the previously unforeseen gauntlet of an election campaign, the Department for the Economy launched Economy 2030, the newest industrial strategy to emerge from the Executive.

Described by its departmental authors as ‘an ambitious, long term [sic] vision to transform Northern Ireland into a globally competitive economy that works for everyone’,the new vision is based on five priority pillars for growth, namely: accelerating innovation and research; enhancing education, skills and employability; driving inclusive, sustainable growth; succeeding in global markets; and building the best economic infrastructure.

According to the Minister for the Economy, Simon Hamilton, Economy 2030 – which arrived within days of Whitehall’s own equivalent – will “offer enhanced investment and support to those market opportunities that are most likely to lead to strong and sustained economic growth.

Support, he said, “will be strongest for those sectors and sub-sectors where we are already world class and where we can become world class.

What, then, of the energy sector? The present issues around the RHI may have coloured public sentiment to government intervention in this area, but a focus on how, where and when energy may be delivered is a matter of priority. Such considerations are built into the last Executive’s Programme for Government.

While the UK Government was confident enough to commit £28 million to energy innovation, local pledges have been somewhat less specific. That said, Northern Ireland seems willing to learn and willing to invest in necessary upgrades, citing Scotland as a leading example in renewables and acknowledging the centrality of energy systems to our lives. Essential services, employment, technological advancement; all hinge on the effective operation of this one strand.

The departmental response is to promise a new energy strategy that addresses both our short-term and medium-term needs, positioning Northern Ireland to meet future challenges up to 2030 and beyond. How that strategy will look remains to be seen, of course, the so-called ‘energy trilemma’ – which the new document does not fail to reference – being the term coined to describe competing economic, social and environmental demands.

The challenge for our policy makers and politicians alike is to deliver an energy strategy that balances the trilemma – delivering a secure, sustainable and cost efficient energy system. While it can be done, a complex public policy and regulatory arena, long characterised by multijurisdictional working, has been complicated even further by the UK’s pending withdrawal from the European Union.

If you want to understand more about the challenges facing the energy sector locally, across Ireland or in the wake of Brexit, please feel free to get in touch with me or my colleague, Matthew Coyle.