The current uncertainty surrounding the future of the Kilroot and Ballylumford power stations exposes a serious flaw in the energy security policy for Northern Ireland, and is something that was not foreseen when Northern Ireland signed up to an all-island energy market.
When the Ulster Unionist Party led the first periods of devolution nearly twenty years ago, one of our priority areas was to increase competition in our energy sector and ensure Northern Ireland had adequate reserves of electricity generation available to it.
Accordingly, the then DETI minister Sir Reg Empey (with the support of the Executive) wisely issued a ministerial direction to enable the expansion of the natural gas network to other areas of the province, and in particular to Londonderry to facilitate the operation of a new gas-fired station at Coolkeeragh.
The ministerial direction was required because of opposition from the NI civil service.
Shortly thereafter we encouraged the mutualisation of the Moyle electricity interconnector, and later the gas interconnecter.
These measures assisted in providing alternative generation options for NI customers and started to break the disastrous availability contracts which had been put in place during direct rule and resulted in us having the most expensive electricity in western Europe.
Since then, the entire Northern Ireland transmission and distribution assets have been acquired de facto by the Irish government; a situation which many believe to be anti-competitive and injurious to Northern Ireland.
If Kilroot and Ballylumford stations are allowed to flounder, competition will be further depleted and we run the risk of returning to the bad old days of energy insecurity.
Add to this the ridiculous notion of building a new mega power plant on the Belfast harbour estate – the most expensive commercial real estate in Northern Ireland, and the NI consumer will end up paying for new energy infrastructure, new transmission and distribution networks, and the costly decommissioning of two existing power stations which could still have a considerable working life ahead of them.
A key component of energy security is to have a multiplicity of feedstocks.
We have a good wind network now, but wind energy is sporadic and cannot be stored. To depend largely on gas exposes us to the dominance of Russian and middle Eastern suppliers.
Coal power may be unfashionable but it provides us with an alternative that should be retained in the national interest.
Many other European governments have prevented the closure of their coal stations, including the environmentally conscious German government.
We should allow the closure of Kilroot at our peril !
I am pleased to see the DUP MPs acting quickly to initiate a new enquiry into our energy market by the NI Affairs Committee.
This should be accompanied by a pausing of the current bidding process and a moratorium on any planning decision for significant new power stations in Northern Ireland.
As consumers, we have already overpaid for our existing power stations and transmission infrastructure.
We should seize this opportunity to ensure we have not to pay again.
David Campbell, former UUP Chairman, Co Antrim