Sustainable Energy Motion 18/02/2013

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I welcome the motion.  When it was first drafted, the word "further" did not appear in the first line.  That is a small but important point, because we need to recognise the work and growth that has been happening in the area.  The inclusion of "further" was critical.  I say that because we need to recognise that the Minister has already done some good work.  I note that the Committee Chairman paid tribute to her for that.  That work has taken place in a holistic way that has seen a range of renewable technology initiatives taking place.  The strategic energy framework (SEF) has been put in place.  Invest Northern Ireland identified wind, marine, bioenergy and resource efficiency as areas in which there could be major growth.

I will mention three specific areas: the first is the skills base that is necessary in the area, which the Chairman mentioned; the second is communications; and the third is the potential incentives, if I get that far.
 
In August 2011, the Department for Employment and Learning published a study that sought to determine the skills required to support the potential economic growth in the Northern Ireland sustainable sector.  It should be noted that, despite the fact that the study concentrated on only a small number of sub-sectors, the report identified a number of major concerns.  Those included a decline in the number of people pursuing high-level mechanical and electrical courses.  That is an area on which the House has concentrated its energies before. 

There is a need for multidisciplinary, skilled workers to meet the crossover of disciplines at all levels.  For example, there is a need for ICT and engineering skills crossover in the development of the smart grid.  There is the possibility that current public sector funding constraints will make additional public intervention and funding courses difficult, hence the need for the Employment and Learning Minister to perhaps concentrate his energies on making bids, where he can, for additional money.
 
An issue that gives me and I am sure many others cause for concern is that any large incoming company will likely have to source many of its initial requirements from outside Northern Ireland.  That says that the skills base in this area is not here and, if we secure inward investment, those jobs are likely to go to people from outside Northern Ireland.  The most promising route to address that appears to be to provide a healthy supply of labour market entrants with STEM subject qualifications in science, technology, engineering and maths.  That is an important piece of work that must be done to underpin and take forward a renewables strategy.  It cannot be down to only one Minister to deliver on this; it is a cross-sectoral issue, and is of particular importance for DEL.
 
Many organisations provide information, advice and support about renewable energy, and communication by government is obviously critical: communication between government and the public, between government and the business sector, and within government.  We must have that cross-sectoral approach, which the Chairman spoke about.  I know that the Minister will want to ensure that communications are effective and that that area will be addressed.  However, communication is two-way.  The public need to seek the information as much as government must provide it, and the business sector also has to communicate with government.  If it is not a two-way thing, and there is a breakdown, we just are not going to get there.
 
It is imperative to communicate with and educate the public.  An enhanced programme for how we do that must be considered.  However it is achieved, there is a need to continue to communicate consistently and effectively across all Departments and with the public and the business sector.