I preface my contribution with a brief comment on today's events in Washington. I have just watched the live television broadcast of the Taoiseach's address to the joint Houses of Congress. This was a great honour for the Taoiseach and for our country. He did this House and the people of the State proud.
I welcome the Electricity Regulation (Amendment) (EirGrid) Bill 2008. It enhances the role of EirGrid, which is responsible for the transmission of electricity. EirGrid has stressed the importance of ensuring a safe, sufficient, secure and reliable supply of electricity. The east-west connector will make a major contribution to the functions and objectives of EirGrid. We are all agreed on the need for another North-South interconnector. A North-South interconnector was built some 40 years ago close to my home place, but the IRA ensured it was not functional for 30 years. After being blown up, it was left unrepaired until ten years ago. It is now making a significant contribution to meeting our ever increasing need for electricity.
The Bill provides for EirGrid to continue to own and operate the interconnectors provided it has a licence and the authorisation of the regulator. There is a global debate on the provision of energy. It is an issue about which we should all be concerned and the debate should include such issues as the impact of traditional energy sources on climate change and the increasing scarcity and growing cost of these commodities. We must look to alternative sources of energy, as the Minister observed in his opening speech. When the Minister comes to examine the possibility of increasing the electricity generated from wind turbines, I ask that he and his colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance, consider the introduction of tax credits for private individuals who supply electricity to the national grid.
There is some concern about the amount of land being taken up for the cultivation of bio-fuels. We do not want a situation to develop where we have plenty of fuel for motor cars but inadequate food to feed our population or to provide for those in other parts of the world who are more in need of such food supplies. There is also the question of how nuclear energy should be addressed. The use of interconnectors means that some of the electricity supply to the State will be provided by nuclear reactors in other jurisdictions. There must be a comprehensive debate on energy supply into the future.
This Bill has implications for the provision of interconnectors. There are two in the pipeline and we already have the east-west interconnector. We will also have the Meath, Cavan, Monaghan, Armagh and Tyrone North-South interconnector. I recognise the need for and support the provision of interconnectors to secure future supply, increase competition and reduce costs.
The North-South interconnector will run through Cavan and Monaghan in my constituency. While serious concerns are raised with regard to it, the provision of interconnectors to ensure supply is supported. With my constituency colleagues from all parties, I attended numerous meetings during the past six months. Up to 500 or 600 people attended these meetings, which is unprecedented. I have been in this House for 31 years and many of the meetings, which were held in practically every parish in the areas affected by the route of the new North-South interconnector, were the largest meetings I have attended.
While the concept of the interconnector is supported, serious concerns were raised, including with regard to the size of the cables and the level of voltage they will carry throughout the countryside, which is 400 kV. I referred to the impact on the environment and climate change, greenhouse gases and the carbon footprint which would remain. In agriculture the question of pylons on land was raised. It is difficult for farmers to work around these.
Another issue raised was the value of property and land and the implications for applying for planning permission, which will be more difficult. In this context, it is important that whatever happens in any part of the country — not only farmers but also the rural community will be at a loss — this is taken account of and a way is found to compensate these people. The question of tourism was raised, particularly the visual impact on tourists coming to our green isle.
Health concerns were discussed in great detail at all the meetings I attended. People are concerned about the risk to their health. At the meetings I attended, I pointed out that there is no evidence to suggest there is a risk to health. On many occasions over the years, I raised the question in this House of the World Health Organisation's view of electromagnetic fields. The most recent question was tabled on 5 December 2007 and the reply contained the following:
The consensus of scientific opinion to date regarding possible adverse health effects from electromagnetic field (EMF) exposure is that there is no evidence of a causal relationship between such exposure and ill health. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has assessed the many reviews carried out in this area and has indicated that exposures below the limits recommended by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) in their 1998 Guidelines do not produce any known adverse health effects. These guidelines are based on a careful analysis of all peer-reviewed scientific literature and include thermal and non-thermal effects.
I accept this and I am happy to do so. It is unreasonable to raise the issue, particularly where people know the World Health Organisation experts are satisfied there is no risk to health. The Department of Health and Children will continue to monitor the situation but as of now there is no risk to the health of the people. That does not mean there is not a fear of risk. Of course there is a health concern and it does not really matter, if one is lying awake at night, whether there is a real risk to one's health or it is just a fear because the fact that one is worried is enough to damage one's health. It is important that people's fears are addressed and taken into consideration.
On the basis of these concerns, the unanimous view at every meeting I attended was that cables should go underground. The question of alternative sites was raised, as was the question of whether it is possible to put the North-South interconnector under the Irish Sea along the coastline. Every meeting I attended was unanimous in that a feasibility study should be carried out.
I attended a meeting in Armagh which was arranged by me, Dominic Bradley, the SDLP Member of the Legislative Assembly, and officials of EirGrid and Northern Ireland Electricity. I am very grateful to the officials who attended. We had a useful and frank discussion and recognised the need to co-ordinate the approaches of North and South to ensure best practice. Representatives of the people on both sides of the Border in our respective constituencies reiterated the view the there should be underground cabling.
I am glad to see the Minister in the House and I thank him for commissioning an independent study. When the Minister notified us of the establishment of a review group, he pointed out the concerns expressed to him by the people and the concerns and desires of the Members of this House to ensure such a study would be commissioned. On opening the debate on the Bill, the Minister stated:
my Department has commissioned a study to provide the best available independent professional advice on the relative merits of constructing and operating overhead transmission lines as compared to underground cables. The study will focus on technical characteristics, reliability, operation and maintenance factors, environmental impact, possible health issues and cost of both types of electricity infrastructure.
I welcome the Bill which is necessary. I welcome this study and I commend the Minister on establishing the independent review group. We look forward to its deliberations and its report which will be of great interest to the people I represent. I look forward to supporting the Bill.