Renewables is keeping things ticking over for the energy practices at Northern Ireland firms. Matt Byrne reports
Litigation and employment lawyers aside, there are not too many practice areas at firms around the UK that could make the following claim: “Our work levels have increased threefold within the past 24 months.”
The lawyer making this remarkable statement is John-George Willis, head of corporate and one of the driving forces behind the energy, waste and natural resources team at Tughans.
“We formed the team about 18 months ago,” says Willis. “We think we’re parallel with Carson McDowell now and expect to be ahead within a year.”
It is a bold statement, especially for a group that is currently a sub-set of Tughans’ corporate department. Carson McDowell’s energy practice, which features former Linklaters corporate lawyer Alan Bissett, is still widely seen as the leader in Northern Ireland.
“It’s still unusual for firms in the north to have enough work to warrant a separate energy department,” admits Bissett, who concedes that there is currently not a lot of work in the renewables sector, although he adds that “there are signs it’s picking up”.
That upswing in work is bringing with it a requirement to bulk up in related areas, such as planning.
“You can’t get a grid connection offer until you’ve got planning permission, so there’s a backlog,” says Bissett. This explains why Carson McDowell recruited planning and environmental specialist Andy Ryan from CMS Cameron McKenna in 2007.
But Bissett recognises that his team is facing growing competition from local firms such as Tughans and L’Estrange & Brett, along with several of the City practices that have been showing considerable interest in energy projects in the north recently, including Addleshaw Goddard, Camerons and Nabarro. And the hottest area for most firms is renewables, in its various shapes and forms.
“Renewables in particular still have a bit of life in them,” confirms Richard Murphy, the senior associate who heads the energy group at L’Estrange. “They have to grow because they need to hit government targets, such as growing renewables to 20 per cent of total output by 2020 and cutting CO2 emissions by 2050. If they don’t, heads will roll.”
Murphy was seconded to L’Estrange’s Dublin alliance firm McCann FitzGerald a few years ago to learn about the energy market. “We spotted energy as a growth area and realised it would require a two to three-year lead time,” says Murphy. “There’s a real impetus because of policy, that’s the real driver. But to achieve it, it will need financial subsidies to make it viable.”
The viability of renewable projects is the key. Northern Ireland is already well-acquainted with the sight of wind turbines dotting its mountains.
“There are currently 57 planning applications for wind farms in the north,” reveals Willis. To put that into context, he says that is approximately the equivalent of around 1,000 wind farms on the mainland.
More radically, the region is actively examining the possibilities for harnessing the power of the sea, with a major trial of new technology at Strangford Lough in County Down. The lough is already the site of the world’s first commercial tidal power station, which was launched in 2007. Now it is also home to a new experimental tidal turbine, the SeaGen, which should have the capacity to produce 1.2MW of energy.
One of Bissett’s clients at Carson McDowell, Thetis Energy, is also currently looking into the development of marine renewable energy projects, still a relatively new area in Northern Ireland.
Back on dry land the other significant growth area in the renewables field is waste. The key targets for Northern Ireland to hit are to recover 40 per cent of household waste by 2010; to divert 25 per cent of biodegradable waste from landfill by 2010; to divert 50 per cent of biodegradable waste from landfill
by 2013; and to divert 65 per cent of biodegradable waste from landfill by 2020.
There are currently three major waste management projects covering all of the 26 local authorities in Northern Ireland: arc21, covering 11 councils in the east, including Belfast; North West Region Waste Management Group, the only grouping with a cross-border element; and Southern Waste Management Partnership (SWaMP), which represents the southern councils.
Earlier this month, arc21 unveiled its shortlist of bidders hoping to deliver the new facilities (the final three were Greenstar Holdings/E.On Energy from Waste; Sita Holdings UK; and Veolia Es Aurora).
The outcomes from all three projects will be watched closely. Most of the north’s firms with energy practices represented bidders for these projects, which should keep local firms busy for the forseeable future. For these firms, the wind appears to be blowing in the right direction.