A consultation on Offshore Renewable Installation (OREI) Policy Options for Northern Ireland (NI) was drafted to enable stakeholders to provide input into offshore renewable energy policy development, thus providing the Department for the Economy (DfE) with insight to be analysed and considered as progress is made with regards policy development.
The Energy Strategy for Northern Ireland – Path to Net Zero Energy, published on 21 December 2021 set out the policy direction for increasing renewable electricity across NI, with offshore and marine renewable utilisation a key strategy by 2030 to facilitate the target of at least 70% of all renewable electricity consumption to be provided by a diverse range of renewable sources.
Offshore Renewable Energy Action Plan
The Energy Strategy Action Plan 2022 included action 14, “develop an action plan to deliver 1GW of offshore wind from 2030.” To deliver this action, the DfE established the Offshore Renewable Energy Action Plan (OREAP) Steering Group to oversee development and delivery of the OREAP in conjunction with stakeholders such as the Utility Regulator for Northern Ireland (UR), System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI) and Northern Ireland Electricity Networks (NIEN).
The Offshore Renewable Energy Forum (OREF) was established to ensure the views of those who live near, make their living from, or are otherwise impacted by the Northern Irish marine environment are considered and engaged in the delivery of offshore renewable energy.
Developing Offshore Renewable Energy Projects in NI
Several leases, licenses and consents are first required before the development of offshore renewable energy projects in NI. These and the relevant bodies include:
Seabed lease (TCE)
Marine Licence (DAERA)
Terrestrial planning permission (DfI)
Article 39 Consent to construct, operate or extend a generating station (DfE)
Electricity generation licence (UR)
The provisions regarding offshore energy renewable generation as introduced by the Energy Act 2004 (as amended in 2008) have no practical effect in NI as NI territorial waters were excluded from the geographical coverage, emphasising the importance of an OREI policy regime with powers proposed in the following areas:
Development and implementation of an OREI decommissioning regime
Safety zones around OREIs and prohibition of certain activities in those safety zones
Navigation and extinguishing of public rights of navigation
Consequential amendments to legislation
These areas were previously consulted upon by the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (now DfE) and UR, though significant time has passed since requiring a reassessment of policy options and new public consultation.
The Draft OREAP acknowledges the need for an OREI decommissioning regime, the last phase in a project’s lifecycle, ensuring a site is returned to a similar condition as it was pre-project. The Energy Act 2004 and Scotland Act 2016 require an individual to be responsible for an OREI to prepare and implement a costed decommissioning programme with further arrangements put in place by the relevant bodies to ensure the duplication of decommissioning requirements are not imposed on developers.
The taxpayer risks the burden of costs should a developer/owner fail to arrange for decommissioning. The Secretary of State for Energy is the ‘decommissioner of last resort’ in England and Wales, and steps in to meet outstanding costs associated with the decommissioning of OREIs, with taxpayer intervention a requisite in only the most exceptional circumstances. Scottish Ministers have also implemented a similar regime, and this is the preferred decommissioning regime for OREIs in NI with the framework in NI to mirror as far as possible the policy in GB to ensure a consistent UK wide approach.
The Energy Act 2003 and Electricity (Offshore Generating Stations) (Safety Zones) (Applications Procedures and Control of Access) Regulations 2007 demarcate safety zones, a designated area of water around an OREI, within which certain or all classes of vessels are excluded, and activities regulated. Again, this legislation does not extend to NI territorial waters. The DfE will require a discretionary power to issue notices declaring safety zones around OREI’s within NI territorial waters appropriate for the key stages of the life of an OREI – construction, extension, operation and decommissioning.
Again, alignment with the GB provisions, sections 95-98 of the Energy Act 2004 and guidance issued by the UK Marine and Coastal Act (UKMCA) 2009 is the preferred option to ensure a coherent UK wide approach.
There is currently no legislation in Northern Ireland to deal with the rights of navigation for OREIs. Conversely, Section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989 provides the relevant authority with the power to consent to construction, extension or operation of a generating station. Sections 99-100 of the Energy Act 2004 adds legislation to the Electricity Act 1989 (Sections 36A and 36B) to deal with navigation rights. Section 36A provides the relevant authority the power to make a declaration that the rights of navigation are extinguished, suspended or exercisable subject to certain conditions around the site of a renewable energy installation within GB territorial waters. Section 36B sensibly requires the appropriate authority to refuse a grant to a section 36 consent to an OREI where a generating station shall cause interference to recognised sea lanes essential to international navigation.
Navigation is a reserved matter as per the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and the NI Executive must take legislative action in a manner similar to that in GB, with the consent of the relevant Secretary of State.
While other regulatory options exist, the DfE do not view them as favourable. Given the increasingly tight 2030 targets and the fact that GB policy appears to operate efficiently at present, suggests that this model should be quickly replicated in Northern Ireland.