HC Deb 24 February 1999 vol 326 cc373-4
2. Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

What actions she has taken to improve the working of the energy market in Northern Ireland. [71199]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

Discussions are taking place with the Government of the Republic of Ireland on north-south gas interconnection. The regulator has recently invited applications for gas licences for areas outside Greater Belfast. The regulator is now concluding his generator contract negotiations, and liberalisation of the electricity and gas market is proceeding.

Mr. Quinn

Does the Minister realise the tremendous work that is being done by a team of civil engineers, led by Professor Adrian Long, at Queen's university, Belfast, to investigate alternative energy sources? Northern Ireland has a great opportunity to be in there at the beginning of development of alternative energy sources. Will the Minister consider asking his officials to start discussions with that important, internationally recognised team on whether there is greater potential for Northern Ireland to benefit from such alternative methodologies?

Mr. Ingram

I am aware of the work that has been done, and we take a close interest in such research and development activity, which is critical to the economy of Northern Ireland. The Government have established a target of 45 MW of renewables plant by 2005 and, in pursuit of that objective, the Government have made two non-fossil fuel obligation orders, requiring Northern Ireland Electricity to purchase some 32 MW of power from renewable sources. Obviously, any local research and development activity hopefully will be exploited.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

My colleagues and I appreciate the Government funding that has provided electricity and gas interconnection. Does the Minister agree that that will help to drive down energy prices? Does he further agree that, if Northern Ireland as a whole is to benefit economically, the gas should be distributed more widely than to the Greater Belfast area? Will he seek to bring that about?

Mr. Ingram

We inherited a botched electricity market in Northern Ireland, with a structured system resulting in high prices, making Northern Ireland way out of line with elsewhere in the UK. We have had to address that and, as the hon. Gentleman outlined, we are trying to encourage more electricity into Northern Ireland through the interconnector with Scotland and to encourage more gas, both north-south and east-west.