AS FEATURED IN SUSTAINABLE IRELAND MAGAZINE (VOLUME 8, ISSUE 1 2013)
2012 was a landmark year for renewable energy in Northern Ireland. Big decisions taken about the future of offshore and onshore wind energy projects, and other major planning decisions were the focus of intense media attention. 2013 shows signs of being a similarly busy year. For Brendan Boyd, managing director of AirCore, the prospect is an exciting one.
“It’s always great to see constructive debate about the role for renewables in Northern Ireland,” say Brendan Boyd. “With anaerobic digestion, gasification, tidal, and offshore and onshore wind, there are so many areas of potential development – all of which could be drivers of economic growth.
“Key decision-makers are paying attention to the potential for a ‘renewables dividend’ and that’s great news both for consumers and firms operating in the industry.” Through his Belfast-based company, Brendan plans to invest up to £60 million in developing renewable energy technology in Northern Ireland, primarily through onshore turbines.
With 42 planning permissions obtained and 26 grid applications submitted, he is confident of sustainable growth in the year ahead. “As a firm, we pride ourselves on our attention to detail,” he continues. “We make sure that we have the right people assessing the right sites in order to create a favourable return for our business and for the landowners that we partner with.
“Our target is to secure 100 operational sites and all the indications are that we’re on track to go even further. Two major parts of the picture for companies operating in the renewables sector are public opinion and policy. Brendan explains that both serve a useful purpose in refining and developing business strategy.
“Onshore wind energy has tremendous potential to be a core part of Northern Ireland’s energy mix,” he says. “The Assembly has a target for energy generation, where by 2020, 40 per cent should be provided by renewable sources.
” The willingness to embrace the technology is there – it’s a case of showing how businesses in the sector can help politicians to meet the targets that they’ve set themselves.
“We’ve worked very hard to cultivate excellent relationships with the Northern Ireland Renewables Industry Group (NIRG), NIE and the planning service. “Feedback is extremely welcome – you’re not going to have a business or a brand if you don’t treat comments as a learning opportunity.
“Listening to objections helps you better understand the concerns of stakeholders and means you’re even better prepared for the next application. “So many people across Northern Ireland stand to benefit from a wider adoption of renewable technologies, so it’s important to listen to any concerns they have and put them at ease.”
He feels strongly about the need for the renewable sector to speak with one voice, communicating its benefits in a clear and succint way. “Those working in the industry are the experts, so it’s important that they’re contributing to the public debate and helping policymakers to make informed choices about our energy infrastructure,” he says.
He also believes that the sector has major spillover benefits for architecture, the construction industry and the agribusiness sector. “Therefore, we need to make people aware of that; showing how renewable energy can play a leading role in the rebalancing of the Northern Ireland economy – creating high value engineering and consultancy roles,”he continues.
According to Brendan, one of the biggest drivers of change for the sector will be the approach that developers take to building and maintaining trust with their stakeholders. “The investment timescales for renewable energy can initially seem daunting to people,” added Brendan. “One of our aims has been to build a credible track record, and a thorough approach to the whole development process.
“Having that has made it much easier for us to secure buy-in for our projects. “Our organisation has decades of experience in the planning and construction industries, so we know how to manage a renewable energy partnership. “On average, a wind turbine can be expected to last for around 20 years.
“So when you’re making a case for someone to let their land to you, they need to be certain that they’re dealing with a company that shares their interest in quality and longevity. Rigour has to be the watchword.” As part of AirCore’s site development process the company has looked at over 1100 locations.
“When you’re installing a piece of equipment that will need to generate returns over many years, patience and dedication to finding the right starting location are very important,” says Brendan. “As a company, AirCore is playing its part in putting in place high-quality energy infrastructure for Northern Ireland that will support all our local businesses.
“The sector really does have the potential to shine, as long as those involved are strategic and focused in their approach to new development. “Trust is hard-won, but easily lost, so good practice is essential at all stages.”
Recently, the firm erected its first turbine at Dromara, and with another two sites currently under construction, Brendan sees the company moving to a new level this year.
“Our firm has invested a lot of time in creating the right setting for our planning applications,” he continues. “We expect to build 10 sites in 2013 and we’re confident that we’ll be in a strong position to take advantage of new opportunities.
“Our sensitive local approach marks us out.” Brendan acknowledges that there are many challenges ahead for the industry in Northern Ireland, but remains optimistic that the coming months and years represent an unprecedented opportunity for growth.
“One of the developments that we saw in 2012 was an increased level of cooperation between stakeholders at all levels,” says Brendan. “There’s more of a sense that the process is joined-up and that politicians and those working in the industry are collaborating well.
“That’s crucial to helping support a sector that support an industry that is only going to become more relevant as part of our move away from fossil fuels. If we do it right, Northern Ireland can stand out in Europe as a model of best practice.”