One of the most important challenges for any economy is knowing and understanding future trends and global opportunities. I have already identified the areas where I believe Northern Ireland can be a global leader. I have established an Economic Advisory Group to give me independent advice on where we should concentrate our efforts if we are to maximise the economic potential of this small, but industrious, part of the world.
Given the focus on climate change and carbon emissions in economies all over the world, finding clean, secure and affordable alternatives to fossil fuels has never been more important. In Northern Ireland, we already have 47% of our electricity mix coming from renewables. We have been successful in utilising our world-leading indigenous sources of wind and solar already, but we can also be global leaders in emerging technologies and energy sources, such as hydrogen.
Hydrogen itself has been around for a long time, with hydrogen fuel cells predating the internal combustion engine. Throughout a lot of the 20th century, hydrogen was a constituent of ‘towns gas’ which fuelled towns and cities across the UK and Ireland.
As one of the most abundant elements in the universe, hydrogen is clean burning (so releases no carbon emissions) and can be made by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen in an electrolyser. The hydrogen can then be stored and used for zero-carbon power, heat or transport. There are also a range of beneficial uses for the oxygen that is produced.
As we continue to plan for the post-COVID economy, we need to identify significant growth opportunities, and with the UK legislating for net zero carbon by 2050, interest in the hydrogen economy is accelerating.
Here in Northern Ireland, hydrogen could help us fuel a clean, cutting edge economic recovery. By acting on this opportunity quickly we can stay ahead of the curve with a green recovery that gives us a clear economic advantage.
We are uniquely placed to use renewable electricity to produce green hydrogen. This would make use of the wind that is available when the demand for electricity is lower (mainly during the night) and the wind turbines are switched off – an opportunity cost.
Northern Ireland already has exceptional manufacturing supply chains in the engineering, advanced materials and transport sectors which are well placed to take advantage. By turning to hydrogen development, our businesses could use their existing expertise to feed into local and global supply chains for hydrogen production.
The real potential is for Northern Ireland to become a centre of excellence for the ‘hydrogen economy’, with local manufacture of electrolysers, hydrogen fuel, and hydrogen-fuelled vehicles for which there will be a rapidly growing demand world-wide.
This would potentially create thousands of new jobs in hydrogen technology, in the aerospace and advanced materials sectors and their supply chains.
As Economy Minister, I believe in a green recovery and on pioneering the opportunity that hydrogen presents. I will work with colleagues around the Executive table, working in particular with colleagues who lead on climate change, transport and water (where the oxygen produced in electrolysis has excellent potential).
My officials in the Department for the Economy are exploring and supporting a range of existing and potential projects that will showcase our potential to develop cutting-edge hydrogen technology in Northern Ireland.
We are working with the UK Government to make sure Northern Ireland can make the most of UK-wide funding and support, and are producing and resourcing a new Energy Strategy for Northern Ireland, ‘joined up’ with input from across government, which will develop policy for the role of hydrogen in achieving net zero emissions.
Despite the enormity of the challenge that COVID has caused for our economy, it is also an exciting time as we seek to identify new opportunities for growth as we lay the foundations for the economy of the next century.
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