Last week the NI Department for Infrastructure published an 'options paper' which sets out the key issues raised by consultees.
In March 2016 the NI Department for Infrastructure issued a call for evidence as part of its proposed review of strategic planning policy for renewable energy development in NI. Currently the primary policy for renewables development is set out in Planning Policy Statement 18. The options paper follows up from this call for evidence.
Whilst generally permissive in nature, there is a consensus amongst renewables developers that elements of the policy are not fit for purpose. Likewise those wanting a more cautionary approach to renewable energy development (and particularly wind energy) would say that the policy was too permissive.
Since the policy was developed the industry has moved on. The rise in large scale solar and move toward larger wind turbines, amongst other issues inevitably requires a reconsideration of policy.
The responses of the paper inevitably range from the very much pro-renewables to groups or individuals advocating a much more cautionary approach.
The paper does not reach any conclusions but serves as a useful indicator of the issues that the Department will consider as it develops new strategic policy. The emerging themes noted are also of little surprise. Issues raised include;
The paper acknowledges that views expressed were "wide and varied" but the overall sense seems to be of an emerging list of potential restrictions rather than a loosening of policy. However as this is simply an options paper it is hard to say whether the direction of travel will be to more prescriptive policy.
What both sides of the debate do seem to agree on is that more and better guidance is required. In particular more clarity on the weighting of economic benefits is needed and the use of financial incentives such as community funds.
Strategic planning policy for renewables is a significant issue and improved clarity will be welcomed.
This is of course only one piece of a larger jigsaw including grid connection and future subsidy schemes (if any) that the NI government must grapple with if new renewables development is to take place in NI.
In the short term the focus is on building out those schemes that are approved and can still avail of subsidies under the NI Renewables Obligation.
There remains in the longer term an appetite for new development and so the outcome of this review is important to allow longer term strategic investment decisions to be made.
NI plc must make a decision whether new renewables development remains a valuable part of the local and wider economy. If the direction of travel is not spelled out soon, business will go elsewhere - many are already looking south of the border. It would be disappointing if further opportunities were lost in this region.
Unfortunately the Minister has indicated that new strategic policy is unlikely to emerge until 2018. This suggests more detailed consultation documents will emerge next year which will at least signal the intended direction of travel.
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