AS FEATURED IN SUSTAINABLE IRELAND MAGAZINE (VOLUME 8, ISSUE 4 2013)
Gemma Scullion has worked for local renewable energy company Air Core since July 2011 as its project co-ordinator. In this time, she has seen the renewable energy industry in Northern Ireland change rapidly.
The past two years have been a particularly dynamic period for the renewable energy sector. While Air Core’s company aim of developing 100 single 250kW wind turbines by 2017 has remained the same, the continuing challenges that the industry faces has meant that firms operating in it have had to become versatile with their strategies and business approach to meet challenging targets and secure sustainable growth.
In 2010 when the small to medium scale wind energy development industry took off in Northern Ireland there were some teething problems. The DOE planning service and their statutory consultees were inundated with hundreds of applications. Being such a new industry, many stakeholders, including some of those submitting the applications, did not have a clear understanding of how proposed developments would impact specific areas. In some cases, there was a lack of understanding as to what was required to ensure these met the planning criteria to allow permissions to be granted. This meant that some applications were in the system for up to 24 months.
Three years on from this, a combination of a more responsible approach to development and an extremely proactive approach to wind turbines from the planning service has meant that applications demonstrating they meet the essential criteria are moving through the process within target times.
Air Core understands the importance of trying to consider all stakeholders’ needs and interests when developing wind energy sites. In order to ensure the swift progress of our applications, we have a strict set of internal site criteria. This has helped us to refine our approach from over 1300 sites to just over 80 planning applications. By pre-identifying potential issues and submitting as much additional information with the application as possible, we have been able to secure a high level of approvals.
Many applicants believed that securing planning would be the main challenge in completing their developments. However, it’s now clear that the 11kv and 33kv network regulations have the potential to restrict the future connection of generators to local networks.
Air Core remains committed to careful site selection. This involves careful analysis of the areas of the proposed development and looking at how many similar applications are pending. Such work helps establish the restrictions already on the local network. This approach has helped the company now accept twenty five grid connection offers – and each and every application helps us better understand specific local challenges.
For those who have obtained firm connection offers, it’s no secret that the wait from obtaining planning permission to getting a turbine commissioned can be a long one. There are a number of steps to be completed with NIE to allow a turbine to be constructed. The volume of applications for renewable energy projects has also put NIE resources under pressure.
Air Core regularly meets with NIE to discuss applications. This allows us to identify issues at an early stage and try to resolve these with solicitors, our landowners or other third parties as quickly as possible to reduce the construction timeline. This approach has led to the commissioning of two of our turbines sites over the last year. While we wait for NIE works to be completed on over 20 additional sites we have continued with the construction of foundations so the turbines can be erected immediately, and anticipate that we will be building out the majority of our portfolio in 2014.
Air Core continues to hold a close working relationship with NIRIG (Northern Ireland Renewable Industry Group), Planning Service and NIE. Currently we are reviewing how the introduction of new the single planning policy statement could impact on future growth of the industry, how DETI’s review of the ROCS levels in 2014 will reflect the market and how the Utility Regulator’s decision to cap NIE requested price increases impact the market. These are challenging times for the small/medium scale industry but by identifying and proactively engaging with these issues, Air Core has been able to secure ongoing growth and continue to be the market leader.