Up to four thousand jobs could be lost in the small-scale renewable energy sector if Northern Ireland fails to find a replacement for Renewable Obligation Certificates or ROCs, which won’t be available to sustain new installations after March 2017.
Michael Doran, the Director of Action Renewables, issued the warning following the revelation by DETI that there is no guarantee that solar panels or small wind turbines will receive support under the GB Feed in Tariff system which has been set up as a substitute for ROCs.
While the large scale renewable sector appears much better protected, there are fears it too is facing the risk of lower investment and a loss of employment from the ending of the ROCs scheme
Those latter concerns surfaced at a recent energy conference.
The event at Riddell Hall was organised to consider the implications of Electricity Market Reform, the initiative by the Department of Energy and Climate to reduce the money it is spending to support the greening of the UK economy.
From April 2017 large-scale wind farm developers will have to bid against their counterparts in Great Britain for Contracts for Differences or CfDs, which are essentially the replacement for ROCs. While the industry here insists it can successfully compete, there is a concern that, at the very least, fewer turbines will be erected than was once expected.
The Conference heard that such a development could have serious implications for our attempt to woo large US investors, which are increasingly seeking to power their production with green electricity.
The Managing Director of generation and supply company Energia Tom Gillen told delegates that US giant computer firm Apple had insisted that its new data centre in Athenry in Co Galway be wholly powered by renewable electricity.
Media reports suggest that the data centre will require 300 MW of capacity to support its iTunes, Maps and Siri services.
While the company has not indicated what source of renewable generation, it favours, onshore wind looks a probably contender. That could mean investment of over £300 million in wind farm development.
Despite the availability of such a blue chip customer, it appears subsidies will still be important. Apple says generation proposals must be eligible for the Republic’s REFIT system of support.
The implications are obvious. If Northern Ireland is to in a position to attract similar high tech companies which wish to de-carbonise their production, it needs the guarantee of subsidies to underpin new wind farm proposals. And right now that is far from certain.
One solution being canvassed is the securing for Northern Ireland of a guaranteed proportion of CfDs. That would not be possible however under the existing EMR proposals.
Another option in theory would be to adopt the REFIT regime which obtains in the Republic. But in addition to the technical and financial difficulties involved, that plan would be fraught with political problems.