Electricity (Supply) (Amendment) Bill 2004 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

There are two issues I will address. As we move forward in this millennium, the cost of electricity across the board is considerable. An issue for certain rural areas, particularly for many on the west coast, is the future of wind farms. This is a controversial issue, particularly in light of the Derrybrien land slide. In recent weeks, we, in north Cork and west Limerick, faced a difficulty in that a number of wind farms — 29 wind turbines — were refused permission because of an EU directive on the protection of wild life and the special protection areas for the hen harrier. Planning permission for the wind farms had been granted after an exhaustive consultation process with Cork County Council but an objection was lodged with An Bord Pleanála which saw fit to turn it down. This is a serious issue. An Bord Pleanála, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resource must look at this issue carefully.

Given our responsibilities under the Kyoto Protocol, we must look seriously at alternative and at green energy. As a result of the level of industrialisation here, we will need far more energy. There is no point in people saying we need to conserve energy. One of the ways to generate that energy is through wind energy. Ireland could benefit enormously from wind energy.

In recent years, we have seen rationalisation in the ESB, including the closure of shops. The incentive for a semi-State agency to continue to operate retail outlets has gone. In the past when people did not have as much access to credit as they do today, through the credit unions and so on, they bought electrical appliances and paid for them in their two-monthly ESB bills. There was no massive outcry when we saw the closure of ESB shops, whose day is probably gone. Perhaps if they operated competitively, they may have had a future.

Since the foundation of the State, the ESB has been one of the great semi-State bodies. Many people, including grandparents and the older generation, tell us about the arrival of electricity. It has been of considerable benefit. The sector has become more regulated. If one travels through rural areas, one will see many pylons. If the company was only now trying to build its stations and substations that extend the electricity network throughout the country, such plans would probably be bogged down in planning issues.

Energy conservation is another issue we need to debate. We need to conserve energy. Private house owners have increasingly insulated their houses to the hilt. Such houses would not have been insulated 25 to 30 years ago and would have required more energy to heat them. Everybody's costs are cut to the bone and there is little scope to invest in energy conservation.

I reiterate the first point I made about the future of wind energy, which I have raised on three or four occasions, one such occasion being a few years ago when the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, held office. Guidelines on wind energy are required. People in my area from north Cork and west Limerick who sought planning permission to construct wind farms were turned down because of the need to protect the hen harrier. That was a disgrace. Wind farms have been constructed in almost every other country on the Continent and there have been few difficulties concerning them. The issue of their construction needs to be thrashed out. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government encouraged people to construct wind farms and did not foresee any contravention of the conservation of special protection areas in its documentation submitted to the county council. I have not had sight of its documentation, if any, submitted to An Bord Pleanála.

We must be mindful that we will have to generate more energy from wind and other green energy sources going forward. Many individuals throughout the country, some of whom grouped together to form co-operatives, having secured planning permission for the construction of wind farms invested heavily in them on the understanding from Government agencies, particularly the ESB, that if they secured planning permission they would have no problem marketing their enterprises. Deputies who represent rural areas where there are suitable locations for wind farms know of people who have tendered for contracts to supply electricity. They have tendered as low as they can economically, but have been unsuccessful in securing a contract in the AER V or the AER VI competitions. We must seriously consider this area. The ESB and everybody concerned will have ensure clear guidelines are issued, which will honestly and straightforwardly spell out for those who intend to invest a great deal of money in wind farms that securing planning permission will not guarantee them a contract to supply energy in the electricity market.

I know of people who started on this course in 1996 or 1997. They invested a great deal of money and thought they had a cast iron guarantee of getting into the market, but they have been left with massive overdrafts and have to make huge repayments to the financial institutions. The ESB and everybody else concerned need to ensure that clear guidelines are issued which point out that there is no guarantee that such investors will obtain contracts. Such guidelines would ensure that people who might rush headlong to invest in such projects would at least know where they stand.

I am pleased to have spoken on the Bill and I commend it to the House.

Like many other Members I welcome the Bill. The decision to allow the ESB overall borrowing limit to increase to €6 billion, for which the Bill provides, is a relatively minor one. If the ESB is to strategically carry out what it should do in the next ten years, it cannot be hamstrung by the amount of money it can borrow. Therefore, I do not have a difficulty with that decision.

I have not had an opportunity to speak on the ESB for a number of years. I remember the fiftieth anniversary of the date of the company's first supply of electricity some years ago. It has been a wonderful company. It has a great safety record in an industry where the activities engaged in are far from safe. It has also been a good employer. Up to a few years ago I genuinely thought it was one of the best companies we had. However, something strange happened five to eight years ago. The ESB management always made great play of being able to strategically measure into the future, in so far as that is possible, the level of capacity it requires. It is close to breaking point at this time in the sense that the capacity it has and the peak demand capacity are almost one and the same. There is no room for anything to go wrong in any of the generating stations at certain times of the day or the week.

Somebody made a big mistake in terms of the investment programme for electricity supply, given that we had to import three major generators last winter or the winter before that to boost output. That is not the way in which a dynamic growing economy should strategically provide for its power base. I heard a major manufacturer say only a few years ago that one of the reasons that company could not locate a major industry in the west was the lack of volume of electricity it could be guaranteed, although I am pleased that deficiency has been rectified. As mentioned by a number of Members, a number of substantial new lines are being built into the west, but the position should not have been allowed to deteriorate to that level.

The ESB has a good international image. Today it signed a contract in Kosovo worth €8.8 billion. I am pleased about that and it is important for the image of the company. However, if the company has not been able to get the delivery of its service right at home, it is difficult to understand how it will get it right anywhere else.

It is against that background that another issue has to be dealt with by ESB senior management. I refer to the small line work carried out on the ESB poles throughout rural Ireland. I am old enough to remember when the ESB poles were erected. I do not know their projected lifetime but most of them were erected 50 years ago. This problem should have been detected ten years ago, or perhaps it was and nothing was done about it, but that is another story. The company now has to carry out major work in that area.

From an industrial point of view, the ESB is not doing well in terms of comparative costs of supply. Some of the figures would lead one to believe its cost base is high compared with other countries. I have a statistic which clearly shows the comparative international industrial price for electricity expressed in US$ or part of a dollar per kilowatt hour. Of a list of approximately ten countries, Ireland ranks second highest at US$0.077, Germany ranks highest at US$0.079 with France ranking lowest at US$0.037. That cost has severe ramifications for our competitiveness.

This leads me to the deregulation of the electricity sector. I understand that full deregulation will occur in 2005 but I am not too sure what that means. Does it mean that some operators will supply power only to larger outfits? Will it mean downward pressure on electricity prices for domestic consumers? In other areas, competition has worked dramatically well and I sincerely hope the same will occur in the electricity sector. In the case of Eircom, however, while there are other competitors, it appears that whoever owns the line is in control. I am not sure what sort of deal will emerge but I understand that the ESB will control and operate the power structure throughout the country. I have no problem with that because somebody must do it, but how will that impact on competitors who will have to purchase electricity? Will such competitors be given an opportunity to generate electricity? I do not think that will be the case, so from where will the competition come?

The ESB must have competition, and quickly. Last year, the regulator granted the ESB a 14% increase in electricity charges and I understand that we are not far from having another increase. At a time when inflation is so low, I do not understand why the ESB cannot introduce lower price increases. I accept that the company must introduce price increases because it did not seek or receive any for years, but how is it that, according to the grapevine, we may be faced with a further increase of 7% or 10%? If that is the case, electricity costs will have become extraordinarily expensive within a two-year period. There is a sense of rip-off Ireland about this. Are these price increases happening because not enough money was invested in the ESB's infrastructure and, all of a sudden, demand is outstripping supply? If the ESB cannot boost electricity generation, there will be a major problem, especially in the industrial sector, but it has not been made clear why such an increase in the price of domestic electricity units is needed. Nobody has convinced me that the ESB is entitled to the sort of increases it has received lately.

The Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, has made decentralisation proposals but I wonder how deregulation will work in the regions. Will there be an element of cherry-picking? Everyone will want to boost the supply for Dublin, Cork and Galway, but what about Ballinasloe or Ballina? In the course of canvassing last week, I came across a young couple who were living just half a mile off the main road. They had been told by Eircom that they could not get a new telephone connection for at least 12 months because they were so far from the main road. Will the same happen in rural Ireland when the ESB is deregulated? If so, we will have to watch the situation closely. The same thing has happened with the postal services, but I do not have time to debate that now.

Either the ESB's planning division identified what should be done and the Government did not agree, or the ESB did not manage to identify what should be done. One way or another, demand for electricity is rising every year. This year, the gap between supply and demand is tighter than ever. If that situation continues unabated for the next few years, we could have a major problem.

It is important to consider the mixture of fuels used by the ESB in generating electricity. I note that in the breakdown, gas accounts for 35%, coal 29%, fuel oil 21.8%, peat 11%, and the rest is just 1%. Wind power does not make that much difference to the general mix. I am an advocate of wind power for a variety of reasons, but some people involved in alternative energy in the west have been bitterly disappointed by the way in which their proposals have been treated. The average investment for a modern wind turbine is approximately €1 million, so one can easily calculate the cost of a wind farm featuring ten or 15 such turbines.

In earlier years, some people got a return on their capital having received planning permission and gained access to the grid. More recently, however, the situation has become worse because while a person may obtain planning permission against all odds and have a contract with the ESB, he or she may be denied the vital step of gaining access to the grid. It is undesirable and unfair for any Government or semi-State organisation to allow people to take a very expensive route, especially individuals or small groups with no large company supporting them, and then stop dead.

If we are ever to have a wind energy policy that works, guarantees should be given by the ESB that once planning permission is granted and the turbines have been built, the ESB will take the power. I do not refer to someone building wind turbines in Letterkenny expecting to be linked to a grid in Sligo. I am realistic enough to know that they must be close to the target grid. However, there should be a binding guarantee on the ESB to take such power supplies, although that is not the case. I do not know who is to blame, but whether it is the ESB or the Government, something has gone wrong.

The ESB's fuel mix to which I referred indicates that there is a major opportunity for wind energy. Having said that, I do not want to see any winding down of peat for electricity generation. It makes sense to employ a mix of fuels because when there is a problem with an oil pipeline in Iraq, for instance, one must have access to natural gas. When there are problems with gas and oil supplies, it is important to have access to coal.

When there are problems with coal and other supplies, it is important we have our own home-grown energy resources. No matter how we do it, such reserves will only represent a small proportion of what is required for the national grid but it is our insurance policy.

There was a great deal of talk about wind energy which has recently died off. The Government and the ESB must make up their minds as to what they want. We know wind energy will not be the cheapest fuel compared with others and if I was the managing director of ESB, I would have to take it into account. However, one can rest assured that whatever fuel is cheapest this year, it will not be so in five years' time, which is why we need a mix of fuel sources. It is within that mix that wind energy should take its place but it is not happening. Many people are angry because they have been let down to the degree that banks have foreclosed on them. They spent a great deal of money building wind turbines because they thought they had access to the national grid but that was not the case and the confidence has now gone from the sector.

Environmentalists in this House and outside it argue that we should not burn peat. However, I firmly believe in proportion and appropriate scale and there is always a case to be made for burning peat efficiently. Some of the Finnish technology which we use here burns peat efficiently and the emissions into the environment are a million times lower than they were. There is room for this activity in the coming years. One hopes that when the bogs begin to deplete, biomass and other sources will replace peat. However, it would be most unfortunate if a decision was taken not to burn peat in the power stations because it forms part of the mix to which I have already referred. It makes great sense to use peat for the next 15 or 20 years, provided the technology is the best in the world and the process is as clean as it can be.

There is no generating station in east Galway but there are bogs to supply the peat in Ballyforan which is part of the Derryfada group of bogs. Peat production has been slow to get off the ground. It was to provide a backup for the power stations in Offaly and Longford and we were told 80 people would be employed in the past two years but it has not materialised. I do not know what sort of tug of war is going on.

Nonetheless, peat can and should be used in the fuel mix because new technology brings it well within the environmental norms. I do not want to pollute the environment and I am satisfied the new technology will prevent power stations from unduly doing so.

Unusually, I have recently encountered fairly long delays in the ESB connecting houses to the network. I assume this is because there were more than 77,000 new connections last year but I ask the ESB management to ensure no one has to wait too long. It is a serious problem for young couples who, having built a house, taken a huge loan and paid money for other items, have to wait months for an ESB connection.

The EBS's decision to close all its retail shops was a wrong move. The company's retreat from many of the towns which were so good to it over the years is lamentable. It seems to have run away in the face of competition, which made no sense when the company was making a profit. The ESB lost many old friends as a result and, whether or not that continues to be the case, it was a bad PR move for the company.

This is an important Bill which provides for an increase in the ESB's borrowing power to €6 billion by amending section 4 of the Electricity (Supply) (Amendment) Act 1954. The current limit of €1.6 billion has remained unchanged for 22 years and is in need of upward revision.

In the context of ESB investment, I am in favour of anything that can promote the balanced regional development of the west of Ireland. However, one must ask questions about the Government's record on the national development plan and whether the west will benefit from this increase in ESB funding as will the rest of the country. We hope so but we were full of hope that the west would get its fair share of EU Structural Funds and that there would be balanced regional development. However, that did not happen.

We hope that, at some stage, gas will come ashore in Erris, County Mayo, as proposed and that the proposed gas-fired generating station at Bellacorrick will be built. This project has been put on the back burner because the gas is still offshore and the case in regard to bringing it onshore is with An Bord Pleanála. However, people expect the project to proceed eventually. The people are disappointed that the Government has missed out on royalties and tax on gas. Many believe we have thrown away a great deal compared with countries such as Norway which has benefited so much from its natural resources. However, there is no point in closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, unless the gas field is a much greater resource than anticipated, in which case we could qualify for a windfall tax. The people of Mayo will use any resources available to them.

In 2001, Rolls Royce Power Ventures Limited announced plans to open a gas-fired power plant at Bellacorrick next to the existing peat-fired station. This was to be a highly-efficient plant which would take its fuel from the Corrib gas field pipeline and generate up to 68 MW which is enough electricity for County Mayo. It would also significantly improve the fragile electricity supply network, enhancing Mayo's capacity to attract new business and industrial development. We have had problems doing just this because we do not have the power, roads, rail or other infrastructure to allow Mayo to be a competitive destination.

The proposed power station would create 130 jobs during the two-year construction period, 15 permanent jobs at the operating plant and a further 45 jobs in companies supplying goods and services to it. I spoke to representatives of Rolls Royce today. The company has had a major revamp and my first impression was that the power plant was very much out of mind but, on further investigation, it still appears to be on the agenda. However, it all depends on the gas coming ashore.

The new gas pipeline will cross the country. The fear is that the gas will be piped out and nothing will be left. At least the power station would be something. We need to ensure there is provision to allow that gas to be used elsewhere. There is a proposal to bring the gas line to Sligo, in which case it could serve the larger areas of population in Mayo. A gas resource in Mayo would be an advantage in attracting industry. Rather than a pipe taking away natural gas, it should serve our area.

That Bellacorick power station is about to close down is a matter of great concern. It has been in existence for 45 years and has been a great source of employment. There is a proposal from private enterprise for a wind farm. The rural community is strong, especially in the west. The Danish approach is to allow wind farms to be run by local co-operatives. That is a model that should be examined by the Government instead of giving it to private enterprise. Communities are capable of doing things themselves. The loss of the ESB generating station at Bellacorick and its supplier, Bord na Móna, which is due to close its operation there shortly, will be a major loss to the area because it employs a workforce of over 250 people. The proposed power station would go some way towards providing employment but it would be very little compared with the gross loss of jobs occurring, which is regrettable.

That is the reason we demand the maximum effect from any gas that may be available and which could be used to produce electricity. An offshore terminal would have provided thousands of jobs for the area and would have been one way of avoiding all the environmental chaos predicted with an onshore terminal. If that is unsafe, the people will demand that gas be brought ashore but that there would be maximum benefit for the people of Mayo. The major issue is that we should benefit to the maximum degree, and anything less is not acceptable.

There is a great deal of peat in the area. North-west Mayo, in which Bellacorick is located, contains approximately 25% of the national harvestable peat resource. Even over 15 years, the life span of the new midland peat stations, the Mayo peat resource which would be used in a new 75 MW station would amount to 10 million tonnes with a harvestable value of approximately 200,000 tonnes. That is a major resource.

The national grid at Bellacorick is on a 110kV line and has limited spare capacity. That line should be upgraded to a 220kV line. The largest wind farm in the world has been proposed for the area, but that would have to feed into a grid which would be incapable of taking the power produced. Some 12 jobs on a wind farm over ten years does not compare with the number of jobs available in Bellacorick. Given that there are replacement stations for other facilities which have been closed by Bord na Móna in the midlands, I do not understand the reason a peat-fired project cannot be made available in Mayo which would employ perhaps 300 people. There is no reason we cannot have wind, gas and peat energy. There is a need to increase our infrastructure to take the power produced.

The west has been neglected when one considers the emphasis on the midlands. Bord na Móna would say there is not enough peat in Bellacorick but that is strenuously denied. There is a need for an independent assessment of the peat available there in order that the idea of a peat-powered facility to replace the Bord na Móna facility could be examined. Our Objective One status could be used to help fund that project.

The midlands population has increased by 45,000 since 1961 whereas in north-west Mayo the population has decreased by more than 8,000. The area is the largest socio-economically deprived area in Ireland, as shown in the 2002 census. The north-west of County Mayo constitutes 40% of the county land area and has less than 20% of its population. That is the area Professor Caulfield has described as being in a demographic crisis. He predicts that the area west of Killala to Newport will be deserted by the end of the century. If that was any other species excepthomo sapiens, there would be an outcry by An Taisce and every other body, but homo sapiens matters as well.

This is an area that should have a facility to employ people as does Bellacorick. The position is that all the areas, with the exception of St. Brendan's village in Mulranny, showed a decline in population. There were two slight blips but the only significant one is in Newport west which is due to infrastructural deficits. This is all about infrastructure and providing facilities and places where people can work and stay instead of having to leave and find work elsewhere. The population is declining. County Mayo is divided in two parts. Castlebar, Newport and Westport and the south and eastern regions in general show an increase in population whereas the other part of the county is in decline.

There is a growing economic divide despite commitments in the national development plan. Therefore, urgent action is required. Bellacorick should be replaced by a peat-powered station capable of providing the same amount of employment. The available resource needs to be examined.

The benefit of natural gas from the Corrib field should be exploited to the maximum degree. Why not bring it to Ballina, Castlebar and the larger urban centres in Mayo? It would appear the Government has no intention of providing gas to these areas.

There is a need for special tax incentives. Such incentives would ensure people come to and invest in the area. Given what is happening in the area in regard to hotels, it is clear there is a major problem in sustaining viable enterprises in the tourism industry, for example, because of the short tourism season.

With proper support Bellacorick should be in production. It is important to have an independent estimate to assess the available resource. Commission for Electricity Regulation studies show that vast reserves of peat remain which could be used by industries clustered around a power plant and create potential employment for several hundred people. A major wind farm would employ approximately 12 people. A gas power plant would employ approximately 15, whereas a peat power plant would generate ten times more jobs and the energy value of peat in the west of Ireland is 7.5% higher than the energy value of peat in the midlands. That would translate into an economic benefit, which should be taken into account.

There is a critical need to provide a replacement for the plant in Bellacorick and what better than a peat power plant? The Objective One status will give us the opportunity to derive the maximum benefit. So much EU money was allocated to Ireland on the back of the low development in the west yet the money has come and gone and the west remains the area of least development. This suggestion is something that should be considered.

The west enjoys some natural advantages. The midlands has about 20% less rainfall than west Mayo during the harvesting season, but Mayo has a major compensatory advantage with double the level of wind evaporation. It would be advantageous to consider this. Bord na Móna has gone to great lengths to break up the bog drains, which does not make sense. If there is to be proper development of bog, it is necessary to retain the drains as breaking up the bog drains makes the peat unusable. Given the present and future demand for power generation in Mayo, and the fact that Mayo has a natural resource that would yield 25% of the national potential for power generation from peat, along with the potential for renewable energy production in its pulpwood forestry resource, it is a mystery that power generation in the traditional sector is at the point of closing down in Bellacorick and that should be examined.

A new peat power plant has the potential to create significant employment, with a potential revenue stream of €40 million a year over the next 30 years from an investment of say €100 million to set up the new peat power station. At the construction phase, 160 workers would be employed for one and a half years. Is that not what using our natural resources is about? There should be positive discrimination in favour of the west. It would mean the national grid at Bellacorick would be improved. It is scandalous that this was not considered as part of the equation. The Minister should give very careful consideration to this.

When all the factors are taken into account, it would be logical to locate a new peat power generating station in Mayo. It is akin to throwing out the baby with the bath water not to use our natural resources. To find work, people have to leave the west to come to an area where the traffic has slowed down to the pace of the ass and cart, because it is over-populated. The net industrial output growth nationally from the mid to the late 1990s averaged 19% per annum, whereas the equivalent figure for the west was just more than 7%. In 2000, the western region accounted for 7.5% of all industrial output in the State compared with 12.5% in the midwest, 26.7% in the Dublin region and 27.6% in the southwest. Does that not mean one should concentrate development, if at all possible in the west, where one can retain the population and ensure that people do not have to leave to find the first job?

I thank Deputies for their insightful and wide-ranging contributions on this necessary legislation for the ESB. The general support for the thrust of the Bill and for the endeavours of the ESB is to be welcomed. I take this opportunity to congratulate Deputy Coveney and wish him every success in Europe.

There have been many changes in the Irish electricity sector in recent years, and this has presented both challenges and opportunities for the ESB and other market players. Deputies Coveney, Ryan and Broughan spoke about the impact of liberalisation on the electricity market. The incremental market opening has introduced an element of choice for consumers. In February this year, 56% of the market was open which means that 14,000 eligible customers are now free to source electricity from licensed electricity suppliers, other than the ESB. The market will be fully open to competition next February, which is a significant advance on the current EU timetable of July 2007 for full liberalisation. The Irish market is the second smallest in Europe, next to Luxembourg and is not yet significantly interconnected. This has been addressed by the recent Government decision to develop two east-west 500 MW interconnectors and this was referred to by Deputies Coveney and Broughan during their contributions to the debate.

The Commission for Electricity Regulation, CER, will gauge the level of private sector interest in the development and operation of the interconnector. In the event of there being insufficient interest expressed, steps will be taken to construct and operate an interconnector which would be underpinned by guaranteed regulated revenue stream and it is envisaged the intereconnector will be in place by 2009.

The question of ESB dominance was raised by Deputy Coveney during the debate. The Minister is aware that the presence of the ESB in the market as a fully integrated utility is seen by some as an inhibitor to the development of a fully competitive electricity market. He has asked me to point out that the ESB has declared its intention of reducing its market share to 60% by 2006, thus making space for new entrants. As the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, stated in his opening remarks, in any consideration of the future of the ESB, he is opposed to the privatisation of the networks. These are critical national assets and should remain in State ownership. The Minister also opposes any privatisation which would result in a private monopoly or near monopoly in the power generating sector.

While the regulatory approach is appropriate and necessary to deal with the position of the ESB in the marketplace as we approach full liberalisation, consideration must be given as to the steps necessary or desirable to address the concerns about dominance in the medium and longer term. It is not the intention to rush towards any sort of a quick fix solution and whatever decisions are taken will be predicated on a rigorous assessment of all the issues relevant to ESB dominance.

On the question of the cost of electricity, determination for that rests with the Commission for Electricity Regulation. Deputies on all sides expressed concern at the rise of electricity prices and these are acknowledged. In terms of a comparison with prices in the European Union, it is worth pointing out that prices for domestic customers are just under the European average, but prices for industrial and commercial users are at the higher end of the scale. However, since the opening of the market, the large scale customers and many small and medium sized enterprises are free to purchase electricity supplies from other companies. Ireland also lacks relatively cheap indigenous resources and must rely heavily on imported fuel supply sources, all of which contribute to higher costs.

The question of closure of the old ESB peat stations, including Bellacorick was also mentioned and was raised by Deputy Ring last night. Agreement to close these stations was reached back in February 2000 and their phased closing is being dovetailed with the coming on stream of two new state of the art peat stations in the midlands later this year. This guarantees there is still a place for this natural resource in our generating fuel mix and ensures it is consumed in the most environmentally friendly and efficient manner.

The availability of generating capacity was also raised by Deputies Eamon Ryan, Coveney and Broughan. I have been advised that the current capacity can be effectively managed to avoid disruption to electricity users. Allowing for outages, typically 4,450 MW of plant is available for dispatch. In addition, the recent competition conducted by the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, facilitates the entry of two new independent generating plants with a combined installed generating capacity of more than 500 MW by 2006.

Several Deputies also raised the question of a published energy policy and the Department is continuing its deliberations on the range of issues involved. The production of an energy policy is a significant piece of work. It cannot be produced overnight and a cast-iron guarantee as to when it will be finalised cannot be given. The Department received 46 submissions in response to the consultation document, Options for Future Renewable Energy Policy, Targets and Programmes. The submissions came from a diverse range of respondents. When all the responses have been fully considered, it is intended that a new policy for the renewable energy sector will be submitted to Government for approval later this year.

Regarding the development of an all-Ireland energy market, which Deputy Coveney and several other Deputies also raised, the Minister hosted an energy industry information forum last March in conjunction with his former Northern counterpart, Mr. Ian Pearson, MP. Those attending the forum agreed that the all-island energy market joint steering group should prepare a strategic framework document. This is under preparation and is expected to be ready to be published for consultation next week. While the document is still in draft form, I can confirm it will focus on what can be practically delivered in this area by regulators, systems operators and the two Departments within the next three to four years.

I thank the Deputies for their many contributions to this Bill. The broad appreciation of the House on the necessity to raise the ESB's statutory borrowing limit is welcome, as is the general consensus on the need for the ESB to continue to invest in the national electricity network. In this regard, the company's ability to obtain keen and competitive funding which will be enabled by enactment of this Bill is of paramount importance. The ESB is, in effect, investing in the future supply of electricity, which is to be commended. I thank the Deputies again for their contributions and I look forward to seeing the Bill go through Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.