SONI: Acceleration Required to Deliver on Ambitious 2030 Energy Targets

Northern Ireland Affairs Committee visits HQ of The System Operator for Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC) has visited the headquarters of the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI) as part of the Committee’s Inquiry into Northern Ireland’s path to net zero. This followed a January session of the Committee at Westminster in which members sought oral evidence from witnesses including SONI, the Utility Regulator and NIE Networks.

The visit provided an opportunity for key stakeholders to discuss what is needed to accelerate Northern Ireland’s transition to greener energy if Northern Ireland’s ambitious 2030 renewable energy targets are to be achieved.

In December 2021, the Department for the Economy published the Northern Ireland Energy Strategy which set a 70% target by 2030 and was upgraded to 80% by the Climate Change (Northern Ireland) Act 2022. These developments ran in parallel to SONI’s Strategy 2020-2025, which pre-empted these targets and enabled SONI to commence work on its ‘Shaping Our Electricity Future’ roadmap to deliver these once in a generation changes to the grid.

Highlighting the scale of the ambition, Northern Ireland is seeking to double the amount of renewables being used on the grid while simultaneously updating the power system’s existing infrastructure to enable more renewables on the grid. This will require a complex and fundamental overhaul of the electricity system while ensuring crucial security of supply to consumers.

The parties discussed what is required if the targets are to be met by 2030, with SONI noting the following as barriers to be addressed, and key opportunities to accelerate delivery:

 

  • Managing the many and complex short-term challenges of a power system in transition while maintaining crucial security of supply for customers.
  • The need to adopt a plan-led approach, above one which is led by developers, in order to speed up and deliver cost effective development of grid infrastructure.
  • Meaningful and substantial reform of planning policy to ensure the timely delivery of significant network infrastructure.
  • Enhanced engagement with consumers and local communities, supported by appropriate compensation models, where required.

In visiting SONI, the Committee members were given further insight into the efforts being undertaken by SONI and Northern Ireland Electricity Networks to work towards meeting Northern Ireland’s renewable energy targets, the progress made to date, and what requires attention.

 

Managing Director of SONI, Alan Campbell, commented, “We are delighted to welcome the Committee to Belfast to continue our discussions on Northern Ireland’s energy future. Only through increased collaboration, dialogue and strategic action can we hope to achieve the challenging targets which we are collectively seeking to reach.

“Meeting the 2030 target of 80% renewables on the grid will be hugely challenging and complex, and will require innovation and agility in current policy and practice. The opportunity is there for us all to see but we must collectively redouble our efforts if we are to accelerate the change required to succeed.

He added: “There are some tangible actions which can be taken but we must act with urgency in recognition of the narrowing window to 2030.”

NIAC Chair Sir Robert Buckland, noted: “Getting transmission right will be a critical part of expanding the renewable network for the UK to achieve net-zero by 2050. Our visit was essential to build on our understanding of the challenges and opportunities for Northern Ireland’s contribution to decarbonisation and be considered when we think through our recommendations to Government in our report later in the year.”

On 14 March, SONI will also host the UK’s Electricity Networks Commissioner Nick Winser, CBE. Winser has had a 30-year career in the energy sector, having previously served as CEO of the Board of the UK’s National Grid, the Chair of CIGRE UK, and President of the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity. As part of his visit, Winser will deliver the keynote address on his independent report into accelerating progress in grid infrastructure delivery at Northern Ireland Chamber’s Energy Forum in Belfast.

Ahead of the Energy Forum, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chief Executive, Suzanne Wylie said, “Businesses across Northern Ireland recognise the need to increase the rate of adoption of renewable energy. With less than six years left to meet 2030 energy targets, it is important to take stock and continue the discussion as to why we need to accelerate progress to upgrade the electricity grid in support of the greater use of renewable electricity.

“We look forward to facilitating this discussion with important industry, policy and energy stakeholders.”