Brian Gillan, Head of Business & Corporate Banking First Trust Bank
The energy market in Northern Ireland is almost unrecognisable compared to a decade ago. Renewable technologies now deliver more than 25% of the total energy we consume - an encouraging milestone in meeting the Government’s renewables target of 40% by 2020. The latest UK Environmental Accounts statistics show that low carbon and renewable energy activity generated almost £2 billion turnover in Northern Ireland in 2015 with over 5,500 people employed full time in the sector and in the last ten years, we have also seen how businesses in the sector have scaled up from small to medium sized companies, employing more people, particularly in rural areas and equipping them with a range of new skills. Environmentally, economically and socially, it’s clear that renewables is a key growth sector.
Those in the renewable sector have had to navigate a range of changes of late including the closure of Northern Ireland’s Renewable Obligation (NIRO) scheme - the main support mechanism for new renewable electricity generation - while also considering upcoming reforms to the Single Electricity Market (SEM). Our SEM, the wholesale electricity market operating in Ireland and Northern Ireland, is set to become an Integrated Single Electricity Market (I-SEM) by the end of the year. This new arrangement is designed to integrate the all-island electricity market with European electricity markets in accordance with EU regulations to enable the free flow of energy across borders.
From supporting businesses working solely in the renewable sector to those modernising their operations with green technology, in First Trust Bank we have seen first-hand the commitment of companies here to helping achieve Northern Ireland’s ambitious energy targets while making their own businesses more efficient.
While financial backing is ultimately the key service provided by banks, advice from those who understand the complexities of the sector and its unique challenges is essential to understanding commercial requirements and offering the best possible support.
With the closure of the NIRO, we partnered closely with customers working towards its deadline to assess their project plans, development team and timescales and helped secure the financial documentation required to secure sign-off. The pricing and projection side of the renewable sector can be complex, but the expertise in our business and corporate team means we have a clear understanding of the challenges brought about by the range of processes in place such as Power Purchase Agreements and GB’s alternative Feed-in-Tariff system.
Similar to the growth we have seen in other sectors, the continued success of NI’s renewable sector relies upon collaboration and innovation. Not just between the financial sector and customers - but between the supply chain, businesses, government and industry as a whole. We appreciate how important it is to have partnerships with the organisations that understand the intricacies of the energy market and so work closely with them where possible.
While Northern Ireland’s renewable targets for 2020, as laid out by the Strategic Energy Framework, are ambitious, there is an appetite to push these even further as evidenced by the Department for the Economy’s report, ‘Envisioning the Future: Considering Energy in Northern Ireland to 2050’.
At First Trust Bank, we have seen a significant growth in project approvals in the last 12 months across a number of fields including anaerobic digestion, wind power and the supply chain. There is also an eagerness among businesses to advance their green agenda and take greater control over their energy needs while improving efficiencies. We envisage this trend, particularly amongst manufacturing firms such those in the agri-food sector, will continue.
What is obvious is while there is an appetite for growth, renewable companies are dealing with a lot of unknowns including how I-SEM will operate and how Brexit will impact the energy market. Against this backdrop two of our renewable customers, wind energy provider Simple Power and biogas firm Willsborough Ltd, share their thoughts on the current renewable landscape and their respective business journeys.”