Will we see a green industrial revolution?

Boris Johnston has set out an ambitious ten-point plan for ‘a green industrial revolution’.

The Prime Minister’s blueprint aims to kick-start the UK drive to achieve net zero by 2050, focusing on clean energy, transport and innovative technologies, specifically clean hydrogen, carbon capture and storage (CCS), zero-carbon transport and offshore wind.

In doing so, the UK government hopes to create and support 250,000 ‘green’ jobs. Coupled with the one-year Spending Review 2020 delivered by the Chancellor last week, the government has pledged to invest £12 billion in green technologies. Rishi Sunak’s plan will lead potentially to three times as much public investment by 2030.

On first sight, this looks to be very positive news for the renewables sector until you reconsider this from a Northern Ireland (NI) perspective.

Firstly, the Economy Minister has declared her intention to close the NI Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme (New Decade, New Approach). Thereby sending contradictory signals in terms of reducing carbon emissions and hence at odds with the policy focus and intentions of the Prime Minister.

When the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) presented to the NI Affairs Committee in 2019, it was recognised by the chair of this influential body, that RHI tariff cuts had forced NI poultry producers to switch from biomass to fossil fuels.

The closure of the NI RHI scheme will lead to an increase in carbon emissions at a time when we are looking to reduce them and with no replacement scheme likely to be available in the near future.

Secondly, there is the matter of reputational damage. The small-scale renewables sector experienced significant reputational damage on the back of the public scrutiny of the RHI scheme. This has been exacerbated by the press fall out this year from the NI Audit Office Report in the Autumn of this year.

Thirdly, there is the matter of our own Energy Policy here in NI, the Strategic Energy Framework Directive expired in December 2019 and the new policy will not be implemented until 2022 at the earliest. A three-year gap whilst we tread water.

Consequently, here in NI, not for the first time, we are lagging behind Great Britain (GB) in terms of energy policy and the hangover from RHI means that we will struggle to make effective roads into meeting future environment targets, without some clear sky and innovative thinking from local policy makers.

For the ‘green industrial revolution” to be likely in NI we need to widen the policy scope.

First and foremost, the NI RHI should remain open and be aligned to the GB, closure could do more harm than good on many fronts as set out in this article.

Secondly, the two headline technologies in the Prime Minister’s plan are clean hydrogen and CCS, yet the latter is a long way from being ready. The policy focus should be widened to the role of biomethane and its place in the decarbonisation of the gas grid which is currently dominated by primary fossil fuel sources.

In other words, biomethane needs to be considered in the drive to achieve carbon neutrality. Biomethane can be used to generate green hydrogen and hydrogen can be used to generate biomethane, which I have mentioned in previous commodity watch articles.

In his Spending Review speech to Parliament last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer acknowledged that in the future, UK farmers will be rewarded for the delivery of public goods, including environmental services and benefits.

The UFU have already engaged the Anderson Centre with carrying out a body of work into what future support would be like for our dairy farmers in a post-Brexit landscape.

Cast your minds back to the commodity watch article I wrote for this paper in August 2020 titled “Future of small-scale renewables” and future of direct support for the NI dairy sector.

AD technology is evolving and the UFU have long advocated a micro-scale ready-to-use solution. There is a body of work currently underway for example, looking to ‘nutrient recovery’.

In the future, rather than receive a government-provided financial incentive for producing energy, the farmer could receive a direct payment based upon the efficient use of nutrients. Micro-scale AD could be one such solution and deliver on the above. The Department for the Economy needs to confirm its commitment to our own green industrial revolution. Should this happen, the sector which has been vilified by some could play a central role in the future of NI agriculture and concrete our role in the wider economy, playing a significant role in a greener future.

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