SONI publishes Northern Ireland Affairs Committee renewable energy inquiry evidence

Monday 29 January 2024

Northern Ireland’s Transmission System Operator, SONI (System Operator for Northern Ireland), has published its written evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s inquiry into Renewable Energy and Net Zero.

In its response, the grid operator highlights the significant progress that has been made to date in decarbonising the power system but points to the challenges that lie ahead in meeting Northern Ireland’s 80% renewable energy target.

To facilitate the use of more renewable electricity, the grid must be upgraded at an unprecedented scale, both in how it is operated and the physical infrastructure that supports it. The grid operator’s submission highlights the significant scale and complexity of doubling the amount of renewable electricity on the grid while managing the short-term challenges of ensuring consumers always have a secure, reliable supply of electricity.

In addition to highlighting the challenges in meeting the 2030 targets, SONI’s submission also notes the significant progress made in Northern Ireland so far. In 2021, SONI increased the proportion of electrical demand which can come from renewable sources at any one time, known as System Non-Synchronous Penetration, to 75%, up from 50% only a few years previously. This is amongst the highest levels in the world and few other power systems yet have this capability.

In its evidence, SONI highlights several critical areas for reform if Northern Ireland is to meet its 2030 targets:

Timely delivery of the significant programme of network infrastructure required: to ensure the grid can handle more renewable electricity and new renewable generation can connect to the grid, a significant programme of physical network infrastructure (pylons, overhead lines, underground cables, substation extensions) must be delivered by 2030. To ensure this takes place, SONI recommends:

  • Meaningful and timely reform of the planning system;
  • A coordinated and whole system effort to increase awareness and understanding of the need for grid infrastructure with consumers and local communities;
  • Use of more anticipatory investment in network development;
  • A consistent approach to compensation for landowners, set at a regional level in line with best practice elsewhere;
  • Exploration of other policy options to promote community and public acceptance, such as community benefit initiatives;
  • A timely extension of the Utility Regulator’s statutory remit to account for Northern Ireland’s climate legislation and associated legal targets.

Movement to a more plan-led approach to grid development, working collaboratively with industry: currently, SONI must approach connections to the grid and plans to increase grid capacity reactively in response to demand from developers. This can be inefficient and contribute to increased costs and timescales. By shifting posture to more of a plan-led approach working with industry, government and regulatory partners, SONI can increase grid capacity in a more strategic, proactive and timely manner through more anticipatory investment while reducing costs and timescales for grid connections.

Acknowledging the short-term challenges of managing a power system in transition: there are short-term challenges with integrating and utilising renewable generation while ensuring a secure, stable supply of electricity which need to be carefully navigated. SONI’s priority must be to maintain security of supply for consumers. It is important the operational challenges and risks to fundamentally changing the electricity system at pace is acknowledged and understood. In addition, the timely delivery of a new renewable energy support scheme and the appropriate market incentive mechanisms will be crucial to ensuring the right generation is delivered in the right place and at the right time.

Having access to sufficient skills and resources: the scale of transformation in the electricity system is unprecedented and timebound. Therefore, it is important that the key parts of the system, including the Transmission System Operator, are properly resourced to deliver on its obligations. In addition to having the resources in scale, the availability of a skilled workforce to deliver the energy transition is also a crucial dependency.

SONI’s Head of Communications and Engagement, Gareth Brown, said:

“SONI welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s (NIAC) Inquiry into Renewable Energy and Net Zero in Northern Ireland. The Inquiry offers an important opportunity to consider the progress that has been made, the measures required and the challenges that need to be addressed to meet the 2030 targets and Northern Ireland’s future net zero ambitions.

“The 2030 targets are hugely challenging and unprecedented in both scale and complexity. Meeting them will require a continuation of the close collaboration that has delivered the progress made to date alongside timely reform, innovation and agility in both policy and practice.

“While we must recognise the scale of the challenges ahead, which are faced by all countries seeking to decarbonise their energy systems, it is also important to acknowledge the significant progress Northern Ireland has made. In 2021, for example, Northern Ireland reached a major new milestone in being able to accommodate 75% of electricity on the grid coming from variable renewable sources at any moment in time. We are amongst the only power systems in the world to achieve this level to date.

“The substantive policy direction and the required measures to deliver Northern Ireland’s renewable energy targets are largely in place. The key focus now needs to be on removing the barriers which risk falling short and proactively identifying opportunities to accelerate delivery. As Northern Ireland's Transmission System Operator, SONI is committed to working collaboratively to meet this challenge."

You can read SONI’s written evidence here.