Path to net zero – potholes remain in the road to block our path

Before Christmas, the Economy Minister Gordon Lyons launched the long awaited ‘Energy Strategy – the Path to Net Zero’, setting out the long-term vision of net zero carbon and affordable energy in Northern Ireland (NI).

A 22-point action plan for the Path to Net Zero Energy followed last week, stating what actions will be taken forward during 2022 by government, with a commitment to report on progress in early 2023, with seven points focusing on renewables.

A key commitment is to get at least 70 percent of electricity consumption from renewables by 2030, with the decarbonisation of power, heat and transport. Currently 48 percent of NI energy is produced from renewable sources. Landowners and their small-scale renewable generation providing enough renewable energy to power 150,000 homes.

What is clear is that the onus will be on onshore wind in meeting 2030 targets and the land-based sector will be called upon once again. However, we are currently looking at ‘a groundhog-day’ scenario, with many potholes remaining in the road. Namely the barriers we have faced in the last 12 years; planning, incentives and grid.



The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) have commenced a review of strategic planning policy on renewable and low carbon energy. Responses to this issues paper will help DfI progress with this policy area and they intend to issue a draft revised policy document for full public consultation later this year.

What is clear is that NI strategic planning policy on renewable and low carbon energy development, is not currently fit for purpose and outdated. Our experience to date tells us that an urgent overhaul is urgently needed. NI planning policy needs to be aligned with DfE energy policy if we are going to have any chance of meeting targets.


The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) has reservations regarding DfE proposals for a ‘contracts for difference’ scheme, unless it considers smaller capacity generators and is designed specifically with NI in mind, and not simply copied and pasted from Great Britain legislation.

Perhaps we need to think beyond conventional incentives and towards carbon credits. For example, as an alternative way of funding and rewarding the use of renewables and any resulting carbon offset which is achieved by on-farm small scale renewables.

Furthermore, the NI Energy Strategy must align with Future Agriculture Policy, which DAERA are currently consulting on. Specifically, the work stream, ‘farming for carbon measures’ which looks at biomethane and hydrogen.


Capacity - Connecting small scale renewables to the grid has been fraught with difficulties, primarily down to a lack of spare capacity. NIE Networks published a ‘heat map’ which set out an updated illustration of spare capacity on the electricity grid in NI. Access to spare capacity remains a major issue and will remain an inhibitive issue for those wishing to connect small scale renewables to the grid.

Infrastructure resilience – Since 2012 the UFU have called for more investment in the low voltage 11kV network. We proposed the upgrade the low voltage lines to 3 phase, but this was turned down. Concerns remain as to whether the grid infrastructure (specifically the LV lines) will be capable of accommodating the electrification of heat and transport and the pressures this will create. The UFU will be repeating our calls investment in the LV network in our submission for the next regulatory period (RP7).

William Irwin MLA has voiced concerns about significant cost barriers being faced by farmers wishing to connect small scale renewables to the grid. His comment mirrored our concerns not only set out in this article, but what we have been stating for the last 12 years; ‘existing solutions are basically strangled by costs’.

The UFU, in conjunction with Action Renewables, are looking to develop an industry collaboration for negative emissions specific to NI, encompassing engineering, aviation, agriculture, food production and construction. As well as the goal identifying negative emission enablers which are appropriate for NI, it will look at addressing the barriers set out in this article.

Looking forward, inter-departmental government and stakeholder/industry cohesion is critical if we are going to overcome the potholes which will block our path to net zero in NI.