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Northern Ireland’s EU energy future discussed, amid talk of UK high-tech border

Northern Ireland could effectively remain part of the European Union for the purposes of its energy connections, a senior academic said today, amid continued controversy over the future of the province and its border with its southern neighbour post-Brexit.

Northern Ireland could stay in the European Union in all but name for the purposes of its energy future, a senior academic today told members of a House of Lords committee investigating the impact Brexit could have on gas and electricity supply across the four nations of the UK.

Oxford Institute of Energy Studies research fellow Malcolm Keay’s comments came as Labour politician Lord Hain suggested Northern Ireland could stay in the EU’s customs union after Brexit, with the Irish Sea effectively becoming a new official border between the province and the rest of the UK.

The fate of Northern Ireland post-Brexit has become a major political talking point because the border between it and the Republic of Ireland would become the UK’s sole land border with the EU after the country’s exit from the bloc, which is expected in 2019.

Hain was Northern Ireland Secretary from 2005-2007, helping steer the peace process when the IRA was decommissioning weapons and Stormont devolution was being restored. The province’s troubled history and tensions between its unionist and republican communities mean issues to do with its status are particularly sensitive, but in key sectors including energy both countries on the island have become increasingly intertwined in recent years.

Since 2007, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have together operated a wholesale market through which electricity is bought and sold through a mandatory pool – an initiative that has brought with it such benefits as cheaper electricity prices and increased security of supply.

This arrangement could now be in peril if the UK does not successfully negotiate some form of special status for Northern Ireland.

Keay today told members of the House of Lords Energy and Environment Sub-Committee: “Although I think it’s unlikely that we can negotiate the UK as [remaining] a member of the internal energy market, Ireland is moving towards a single energy market.

“It makes an awful lot of sense for that to happen on the island of Ireland and therefore it seems to me at least possible that a special case would be made for Northern Ireland, that it could effectively remain part of the EU as far as electricity is concerned.”

Withdrawing from the EU could help the UK as a whole to design an effective energy policy to allow it to meet its own legally-binding climate targets, Keay said, as it would “concentrate minds” in Britain.

He said: “If you look at the island of Ireland, it has a higher proportion of wind power, a proportion which a few years ago the National Grid was saying we couldn’t cope with here [on the UK mainland].

“It does cope with it. It encounters certain difficulties, but it does. Once you start focusing on what you can do yourself in terms of the design of the system, the sorts of market you have, the sorts of ways you reward people that provide flexibility, increasingly it seems there are solutions to some of these problems.”

This relatively positive view was echoed by Lawrence Slade, chief executive of Energy UK, who said there was now a “tremendous opportunity” for the UK to show leadership in energy post-Brexit.

He told members of the committee: “There’s a lot of talk about what we take back and what we remove, but why don’t we look at what we can deliver and what we can show global leadership in?

“If you take offshore wind for example, we’ve shown what can be done if you give long-term viability in terms of helping drive down costs.

“Why don’t you, as part of leaving the EU, actually say we are absolutely committed to creating a low carbon economy and we are actually going to steal a march and we are going to deliver that and put our money where our mouth is and drive that investment forward.

“That is a big opportunity and it would send a message clearly around the world that this country wants to move forwards, wants to develop the skills base, wants to develop the companies and this is how we’re going to do it.”

Several of those who gave evidence at today’s hearing expressed major fears about the viability of funding for future interconnectors and UK gas storage facilities in light of Brexit, however.

Many people whose livelihood relies on trade between the Republic of Ireland and the UK are concerned about the possible threat to the seamless movement of goods and people across that border. There is widespread hostility to the resumption of any ‘hard border’.

Theresa May’s government has previously suggested the answer could lie with a technological solution to border controls, similar to that which exists on the international boundary between Norway, which is not part of the EU, and Sweden, which is.

Under such a scenario, vehicles travelling between Belfast and Dublin, for example, would not have to stop and could be monitored remotely.

Zac Doffman, from UK firm Digital Barriers, told E&T: “Suffice to say, I think we’re in a very interesting time right now with some of these technologies – whether it’s the ground censors or facial recognition, where we’re now starting to push the envelope of what’s possible and that’s really interesting with all the mass migration and border protection-type discussions that are taking place.”

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