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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 30 Apr 2008

Vol. 653 No. 3

Electricity Regulation (Amendment) (EirGrid) Bill 2008: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

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.

I welcome the Bill. I also welcome the new North-South interconnector and the necessary enhancement of supply and expansion of the electricity grid in Ireland. EirGrid and Northern Ireland Electricity, NIE, are planning to put in place a North-South 400 kV interconnector running from County Tyrone to County Cavan. EirGrid has a second stand-alone proposal to erect a new 400 kV pylon-supported power line from Woodland County Meath to Kingscourt in County Cavan.

I have met with representatives of EirGrid and made clear my support and that of Sinn Féin for the development of the power network on an island-wide basis. However, I cannot support EirGrid's and NIE's fixed determination to use overground pylons and wires for the entire length of these routes and to rule out the underground option. I have met with EirGrid representatives, including its chief executive, and discussed with them all of this in some considerable detail. We have exchanged a considerable amount of correspondence on the matter.

On 4 January, Sinn Féin elected representatives from both sides of the Border met in County Monaghan to plan an intensified and co-ordinated cross-Border opposition to the above ground proposals in line with the clearly stated views of the communities they represent. Sinn Féin members of county and town councils in counties Meath, Cavan and Monaghan and councillors and Assembly members from counties Armagh and Tyrone joined me and Newry-Armagh MP, Conor Murphy, the North's Minister for Regional Development, at that meeting in Castleblayney.

Monaghan county and Carrickmacross town councillor, Noel Keelan, who represents Sinn Féin on the County Monaghan anti-pylon committee, stated our intention to complement in every way possible the community-led campaign of opposition that has manifested itself across the entire length of these proposed new power lines. We are at one with campaigning communities across all affected counties and will continue to use our considerable political strength north and south of the Border to enhance this community-led effort to secure a rethink of the approach to these planned power lines by both Eirgrid and NIE.

In February, Bairbre de Brún, Sinn Féin, MEP, received from the European Commission a response to a question she tabled in the European Parliament on the undergrounding of power cables and, in particular, the need for guidelines on best practice regarding the installation of high voltage wires in residential areas. The Commission stated it will issue no such guidelines. However, Bairbre de Brún has pledged to continue to raise this issue with the Commission. I believe that not only must she do this but that the Commission must address this issue.

I have noted that one of the documents emanating from the European Union and referred for scrutiny earlier this year related to the number of hours in a working week that employees of the overground pylon-supported power lines may work while directly under the particular power lines. It is interesting that the Commission is considering the introduction of a tachograph for employees subjected to emissions from the power lines but will not address the issue of the potential hazards they represent for people who spend not alone the greater part of their working lives but the greater part of their leisure and sleeping time within close proximity to them.

It would appear that despite the clearly expressed opposition of thousands of families living close to the proposed routes of these power lines and their support pylons, EirGrid remains fixed on its overhead approach to these projects. Communities the length of the proposed power lines are vehemently opposed to the installation of unsightly pylons and rightly fear for the health of all exposed to high voltage power conduits. They are fearful for themselves, their families and for the children of these communities.

As I pointed out in an Adjournment debate last December, it is essential we recognise the reality of the outworking of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006 which the Minister and I opposed and voted against. This legislation facilitates the forcing through of such projects, regardless of the expressed wishes of communities. Real fear and absolute opposition to the overground approach has been voiced along the entire route through counties Tyrone, Armagh, Monaghan and Cavan and over a large swathe of County Meath. Very large public meetings have been held in several centres. The concern knows no political boundaries as has and will be demonstrated here and people of all opinions and none are coming together as concerned communities endeavour to ensure that EirGrid and NIE take an underground approach.

There can be no question that there is significant information on record. Eminent professional and well-researched opinion stating there is every reason for genuine health concerns is indisputable. These communities are also conscious of the visual impact on their environment of the proposed unsightly string of pylon structures stretching some 130-plus km along the length of the two routes suggested.

We need to respond to the concerns of communities, families and citizens directly affected by the EirGrid and NIE proposals. We need to restore access to the proper planning process. I recommend a revisiting of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act by the Minister and his Green Party colleagues in Government to ensure delivery in this regard. We need to ensure there is compliance by all wishing to see major projects undertaken and to ensure that communities and citizens have the right to engage as objectors in the normal course. As I stated already, the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act should be repealed.

I urge the Minister to listen to the many thousands of voices of concern at the EirGrid and NIE power line proposals. This is not an argument against development as made clear in my opening statement in the course of this contribution. It is less an argument against North-South development. The contrary is the case; I totally support and welcome all such initiatives. It is an argument for a better way and the Minister should prevail upon EirGrid and NIE to take that better way.

I close by citing directly the submission made to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources by my colleagues, councillors Jackie Crowe and Noel Keelan of Monaghan County Council, Paddy McDonald of Cavan County Council, Michael Gallagher of Meath County Council, Paul Corrigan of Armagh City and District Council and our party activist in County Tyrone, James Gildernew. They make the argument reflective of what communities are saying. It is a universal position. The EirGrid-NIE consultation process was grossly deficient; route options are unsatisfactory with repeat intrusions to within, in some cases, 50 m of private dwellings and livestock holding areas.

Drumlin landscape would be severely affected by the presence of overgroundpylon-supported power line infrastructure along all of the routes under consideration. Their presence would be no more acceptable across the rolling farmlands and scenic river valleys of the southern reaches of the proposed new power lines.

Genuine concerns are repeatedly raised with us regarding the health risks that arise from 400 kV overhead lines located in close proximity to homes and schools. The basis for these concerns is contained in the many studies carried out that show an increased risk of cancer-related illnesses, such as leukaemia, from the electromagnetic fields that overhead lines create. Underground cabling presents no comparable threat. It has never been proven satisfactorily that EMF exposure is not harmful. We should note that the Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament has unanimously recommended that the Scottish Parliament adopt a precautionary approach to any and every overhead power line proposal that presents because of its concerns at the health effects associated with living in close proximity to high-voltage overhead transmission lines.

Tourism will be greatly curtailed if the landscape is blighted with these pylons. Householders and landowners will see the value of their property drop significantly. Planning restrictions will result from the sterilisation of land over a radius out from these pylons. These are all farming counties highly populated with livestock and wildlife habitats. Many farmers in Monaghan, Cavan and Meath are participating in the Rural Environment Protection Scheme, REPS, and are looking after the environment for future generations. The proposed pylons would represent a blot on the landscape and would be in total contradiction to the aims of the scheme.

Underground cables have lower transmission losses than overhead lines because, due to thermal reasons, underground cables have a larger conductor and therefore significantly smaller losses. Studies on several 400 kV transmission grids show that the characteristics of underground cables can in many cases be beneficial to the overall performance of the network. Disturbance of underground cables occurs less frequently than for overhead lines. Overhead cables are affected by severe weather. Only outside influences can disturb and damage underground cables. Underground cables are low-maintenance compared to overhead lines.

Underground cables — at installation — cost more than overhead lines but the fact that they are low-maintenance, have lower transmission losses, have a longer lifespan and no environmental impact, including visual intrusion, leads us to conclude that the initial additional outlay will be offset over time by the many advantages, not least of which must be the peace of mind of our fellow citizens whose understandable and justifiable health concerns will have been met.

I appeal to the Minister, while we await the outcome of the review he has commissioned, to give serious consideration to the views expressed by this Deputy and others over the course of the remainder of this Second Stage debate. I appeal to the Minister not to allow a situation where crass euros and cents would be the sole determinant factor in regard to what means will be employed by EirGrid and by association by NIE. There are many issues that must be taken into account. We should be looking at the whole life cost over the projected life expectancy of these new interconnectors, power lines, or whatever terminology the Minister wishes to employ. I contend that the cost over the life expectancy, be it 40 years or whatever the case, by comparison between overhead and underground will show, at the very least, a balancing of the books and for the peace of mind, something one cannot translate on to a balance sheet, of the people who will be directly affected by having to live in close proximity to the current choice of EirGrid and NIE, we have a bounden responsibility. If we were among those families to be affected we would be as vociferous and as determined as they have shown themselves to be. I appeal to the Minister to act responsibly and to respond to the all-elected view, and the opinion of the people of the affected areas, the affected counties and constituencies and use his office to give direction to EirGrid to proceed by underground cabling.

I wish to share time with Deputy John Cregan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this very important debate, one which has a huge effect on the people I represent. This Bill is the first step in expanding the functions of EirGrid, in line with the Government's energy policy framework. EirGrid's current statutory functions as transmission system operator include the operation, planning and development of the Irish electricity transmission system; the independent operation of the single electricity market in co-operation with EirGrid's Northern Ireland equivalent, NIE, and the critical task of monitoring and reporting on security of electricity supply and generation adequacy.

This Bill expands the statutory functions of EirGrid in relation to interconnection. It provides that EirGrid may construct, own and operate an interconnector subject to the grant of the appropriate licence and authorisation by the regulator. The issues of climate change and energy security are huge issues for all of us going forward. The Bill provides generally for future interconnection. Greater interconnection between member states is a key priority for the European Union to ensure the effective operation of the internal energy market. The importance of the east-west interconnector project has been formally recognised at European level and it has been designated a "project of European interest", which is the category of projects with the highest priority at EU level.

We in Ireland, as an island nation on the very west of Europe, must support the progressive development of European regional electricity markets underpinned by greater interconnection. This work is a natural progression from the development, in co-operation with the Northern Ireland authorities, of the all-island energy market.

The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, along with its UK and French counterparts, is working towards the development of a regional electricity market as part of the EU Commission's plan to develop regional energy markets. This will be underpinned by greater interconnection. As the Minister, Deputy Ryan, said, the current focus is on the delivery of the second North-South electricity interconnector and the new east-west electricity interconnector no later than 2012. This Bill is a vital measure in the delivery of the Government's energy policy. I look forward to hearing what other Members have to say about this whole area and what solutions they believe offer the best way forward.

Eirgrid is planning two major projects to facilitate cross-Border sharing of electricity — the Cavan-Tyrone 400 kV power line, the new North-South interconnector, and the Meath-Cavan 400 kV power line. While this Bill is not specifically for these two projects, it cannot be debated without analysing them as they are all part of the wider debate.

I welcome Minister's commissioning of the independent feasibility study. I had spoken to the Minister on numerous occasions about having an independent feasibility study carried out. I recognised the real need for this and considered it important that all stakeholders made submissions so that a full examination of all sides of the debate are taken into consideration. I look forward to its publication and it would be unwise and unhelpful at this stage to pre-empt its findings. Having said that, we must take into consideration the real concerns of people living in the areas which will be affected by the interconnector. The concerns of those who are worried about their future or the health of their children are genuine.

As my constituency colleague, Deputy Rory O'Hanlon, noted, fear of a health risk causes problems. If people lie awake at night worrying about what might happen, it will have an adverse effect on their mental and physical well-being. No one should experience the stress of lying in bed at night thinking about cancers or illnesses being visited upon one's children. Parents have a duty of care to their children and would not deliberately put their children at risk. Their fears must be meaningfully allayed. As Deputy Johnny Brady stated and my constituency colleague, Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, reiterated, peace of mind is vital — there is nothing more valuable to a person.

As a Deputy from a rural, agricultural constituency, I am aware that farmers are deeply concerned about the possibility that their property will be devalued. They are also worried they will be unable to provide sites for members of their family for residential or commercial purposes. It is my understanding that planning permission will not be granted within 200 m of an overhead 400 kV line, thereby eliminating the roadside frontage suitable for planning applications. Despite this restriction, EirGrid proposes to place lines 50 m from existing dwellings while its northern counterpart proposes a distance of 60 m. If this is an all-island plan, why are conditions different, North and South? Should we not sing from the same hymn sheet?

The devaluation studies carried out in the United Kingdom in 2007 indicated that the value of detached properties less than 100 m from overhead lines was 38% lower than comparable properties. In addition, members of the farming community will face unwelcome intrusions on to their land. The nature of the drumlin landscape makes it troublesome to work the land, not to speak of constructing power lines on it. People are genuinely considering selling their property and relocating, thereby ending farming and agricultural activity. Surely we must do all in our power to encourage farmers, rather than placing impediments in their way.

People are reasonable and recognise that an interconnector is needed as part of the all-island grid required for future economic development. They want competition and cheaper electricity prices. Businesses and potential new businesses have genuine concerns about spiralling energy costs. If we are to be competitive and continue to attract industry, we need to ensure our energy costs are as competitive as those of other countries. We cannot afford to have companies relocate because we have priced ourselves out of the market causing business to lose interest in Ireland as a location for economic development. It is imperative we get this project right in order that it can set a precedent and act as a blueprint for other projects coming down the line.

On tourism, the area I represent is scenic and has a natural beauty. While we cannot boast of fine weather, we have a clean, green, unspoilt image. Our main tourist visitors are fishermen and people with a genuine interest in visiting natural, scenic landscapes. Construction of high voltage lines would negatively affect our area's tourism. Our heritage is linked to our tourism potential and is a priceless non-renewable asset which plays a vital role in ensuring we all enjoy a high quality of life. It is our duty, as caretakers of this asset, to protect it for the generations to come. We will not be thanked if we destroy the special character and nature of a unique landscape in the name of progress.

The meetings I attended in my constituency were the largest gatherings of people I have witnessed in public forums. Those attending were genuinely worried about their communities. They were not professional protestors or rent-a-crowds but people forced into action by a real threat who conducted their business in a professional and business-like manner. They are committed people who have spent endless hours in a voluntary capacity researching this issue and examining solutions, for which I commend them. I regret that EirGrid did not consult them in a meaningful manner. This aspect of the process must be rectified with immediate effect.

In all urban areas where space is at a premium and land is very expensive all cables are placed underground. While the cost of this project in the initial stages may be high, legal challenges and a lack of co-operation could add to the cost and delay the project for years. In the long run, undergrounding these cables will generate cost savings, for example, by reducing our carbon footprint by 3% in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol. This step would assist our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint and enable us to be viewed as a world leader in this area.

I look forward to the publication of the study. We can have economic progress but it must not be at any cost. We need to consider the value we place on our children, land, heritage and environment. I hope we can progress in a spirit of co-operation and with meaningful dialogue. I also hope the fears and concerns of the communities in question are treated with the seriousness they deserve. We need to be a competitive and attractive location for industry to further enhance and develop the economy. The Bill will facilitate further economic progress and I am pleased to support it.

Deputy John Cregan: I welcome this important legislation and compliment EirGrid on its work since its establishment as a State body. As Chairman of the Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, I recently took the opportunity to visit the company’s premises with committee members. I acknowledge the hospitality and welcome we received from EirGrid. The valuable briefing we received will stand members of the committee in good stead in the future.

I commend the Minister on the work he is doing and thank him for his excellent co-operation with the joint committee, which he frequently consults and informs. It is important that the Minister and his office have a good working relationship with committee members. While I did not come to the House to throw buíochas at the Minister, it is important to recognise this excellent relationship when I have an opportunity to speak in the House on legislation, which comes within his remit and that of the Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.

Thanks to sound Government policies in recent years, the economy is booming. We must be in a position to guarantee electricity supply to industry and domestic users throughout the country.

I will discuss briefly the main provisions. The Bill will expand the functions of EirGrid, the licensed electricity transmission systems operator, to include the construction, ownership and operation of an interconnector, subject to the granting of relevant licences and authorisations by the Commission for Energy Regulation, the energy regulator for gas and electricity. It will provide in primary legislation, for subsidiaries of EirGrid, for an increase in the amount of money EirGrid may borrow and for its total capital expenditure. Consequently, it will also amend the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 in respect of interconnectors.

I will refer briefly to the most important sections of the Bill. Section 2 sets out the functions of EirGrid in relation to the interconnector and provides that the company may construct an interconnector subject to the authorisation of the Commission for Energy Regulation. It may also transport electricity across and maintain an interconnector, subject to licence. The section also provides that EirGrid may own an interconnector and may not lease, sell or dispose of the interconnector without the consent of the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, with the approval of the Minister for Finance. The company, in performing its duties under the legislation, may also carry out additional activities.

There are many other important sections to which I will not refer. I compliment all involved on the progress to date with the provision of this east-west interconnector. Much reference has been made during this debate to the North-South interconnector with which I am familiar because we have had much deliberation in the committee on that issue. I listened to the concerns of the lobby groups which united in that part of the country to request that this be done underground rather than overhead. I again welcome, as other speakers have, the fact that the Minister in his wisdom has agreed to appoint international consultants to examine doing so. I understand that the Governments of Norway and Sweden have recently taken decisions and signed an agreement whereby all future power lines will be put underground and not overhead. I came across that recently and it provides food for thought.

Spoken like a man who expects something next week.

I will return to the promises made. A Government decision on 4 July authorised the Minister to request the commission to arrange the design of a competition to select a developer to construct a 500 MW electricity interconnector with Great Britain at the earliest possible date before 2012. It also authorised EirGrid as the transmission system owner to expedite the selection of a sub-sea route and other sites for the construction of an interconnector. The interconnector will be owned by EirGrid to ensure this strategic asset remains in public ownership. That is very important. Such a strategic asset should be in public ownership.

Since the Government decision, EirGrid and the commission have been steadily progressing the interconnector project and a detailed project plan has been developed to ensure delivery by 2012. The sooner we get this the better because at peak demand times EirGrid is under pressure to supply electricity throughout the country where and when it is needed.

EirGrid has selected Woodland in County Meath as the connection point for the interconnector on the Irish transmission system and has also secured a connection point from the UK national grid located in Wales. Work on marine surveys to determine the most suitable route for the under-sea cable to link these points is under way and the surveys are targeted for completion shortly. In December last year, EirGrid issued an invitation to negotiate documents to five pre-qualified tenders for the design and construction of the interconnector. Tenders are to be submitted by mid-May 2008 and EirGrid is targeting the end quarter of 2008 to announce a successful bidder. EirGrid is also targeting quarter three of 2011 for the completion of works and quarter one of 2012 for the completion of commissioning and testing and the start of commercial operations.

To oversee and ensure the delivery of the interconnector to schedule, a high-level co-ordination group has been established to continuously monitor progress on milestones and address obstacles to progress. The group is chaired by Mr. Michael Tutty, commissioner of the Commission for Energy Regulation, with representation from EirGrid and the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.

The interconnector will bring many benefits to our country. It will enhance security of supply. There is significant capacity available in the UK electricity generating market to provide security of supply via the interconnector to Ireland. In addition, the UK is developing interconnectors with mainland Europe to further contribute to security of supply and market integration. That would give us that vital link to Europe as well as the UK.

The interconnector will provide a fully dispatchable source of energy supply that will also provide the capacity and stability required to increase the extent to which renewable generation can be accommodated on the system. The interconnector will provide a mechanism by which such wind-generated electricity could be exported in the event of surplus energy generation. This is a very important point because we do not have an abundance of storage. It is important to have an output for what we can generate during off-peak times. I welcome that wind energy can be exported in this manner through the interconnector because many wind farms are coming on stream throughout the country and I am a major supporter of them. They can be of great benefit in supplementing the other forms of generation and I welcome that this will give the wind farm industry an outlet for the export of electricity when that is necessary.

The interconnector will lead to greater competition in the electricity market by allowing third party access in a fair, consistent and transparent manner. This will assert downward pressure on electricity prices and I welcome that — it is a true saying that competition is the life of trade. A third party competing in the electricity generation market would be very welcome. Competition can only lead to a better deal for the consumer.

The interconnector will diversify the fuel sources used to generate electricity on the Irish system. The environmental benefits will include greater potential to export wind power, reduced need to carry a reserve and reduced carbon credit payments. I very much welcome the Bill. I look forward to its safe passage and to it going to the committee for Committee Stage for further deliberation. I commend it to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill. The construction of the interconnector is a key priority in the energy White Paper and the programme for Government and I agree that there is a need to prioritise it. However, the Minister is using this Bill to give additional functions to EirGrid. On past record, EirGrid has shown tremendous capacity to delay projects over the past few years. If the Minister expands EirGrid's functions, will we create another monstrosity like the NRA, the HSE and others that has no direct responsibility to the Minister? Will the Minister be in total control of this agency and all the functions it will perform at all times? I am sure the Minister has found the delay and inability to get information from the agencies I mentioned distressing. In this House we cannot get answers to questions on those agencies from the Ministers responsible for them. That is unsatisfactory. I hope the additional functions being given to EirGrid under this legislation will not lead it to replicate the difficulties in those other agencies.

Practically all the personnel in EirGrid and CER are former ESB people. That is important because in the ESB structures they were important professional and technical people who administered the ESB and delivered a very important service to the country down the years. It worries me that Mr. Tom Reeves, the chairman of CER, has publicly stated his difficulty on renewables, and wind energy in particular, which would be close to the Minister's heart.

The programme for Government clearly states that by 2020 a total of 30% of our energy needs will be supplied from renewable energy. If a person who is in a strategic position with regard to the delivery of an ambitious project is publicly resistant to its being achieved, how can we be in a position to deliver on the specified target? This is important.

Energy projects take a long time to go through the planning process. An example of this occurred in County Galway when two hen harriers delayed a project for nearly two years. It was not known where they were or whether they were on the hillside at all, but it was supposed that they were there and that the project would have an impact on them. Deputy Ó Caoláin mentioned earlier the importance of the implementation and strengthening of the strategic planning infrastructure. I wholeheartedly agree that instances such as this should not delay important projects to the extent they have. It is on the record that many wind energy projects throughout the country have been delayed unnecessarily for such reasons.

There is much bureaucracy involved in getting access to the national grid. It is unbelievable. Without the most dogged determination on the part of the people concerned to advance their projects, they would fade away. Other fainter-hearted people might say it was impossible, drop the idea and go elsewhere to get their projects on stream. It is necessary for the Minister to eliminate such impediments to projects that are important for the country.

The announcement about the interconnector was made in 2006, yet two years on we are only at the elementary stages of the project. Let us compare this to the interconnectors from northern European countries such as Norway and Sweden to mainland European countries. A major project of 700 MW which has just been completed was carried out from start to finish in three years. For some reason we cannot compete with this. I blame the bureaucracy. With the additional functions we are giving to EirGrid we are compounding that difficulty.

The three important issues in this context are competitiveness, security and environmental sustainability. I will give an example of a project, and if the Minister can tell me this is competitive and will result in cheaper electricity, he should say so. I put down a parliamentary question to the Minister about this issue. A recently established energy company called Gamma, at Tynagh, Loughrea, County Galway, which is a mile from my home, has obtained an incredible contract to supply electricity to the national grid with payment for the full capacity output even if only a quarter to a half of the total output is drawn down. If competitiveness was a priority, surely nobody would have agreed to this. At any given time we could be paying full price for one half to three quarters of the capacity of the station, with energy being taken into the national grid and not used. How can we have competitiveness in energy supply in this context?

Customers are paying for this electricity with spiralling prices, as was pointed out by a Government backbench Deputy a few moments ago. Yet we are now going to obtain electricity from the UK, where the unit cost of electricity is lower than it is here at present. We must ask ourselves why we are putting all our eggs in one basket with one interconnector. Could the Minister tell me whether there will be a proposal, at the same time or immediately after, for an interconnector with mainland Europe? It is important that we do this. Can the Minister guarantee that we will have cheaper electricity as a result of the Bill? This is important for manufacturing and for domestic supply.

Within the next couple of months there is a great danger that the Minister's colleague and fellow party member, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, will have the responsibility of implementing the European habitats directive, which will prevent the domestic harvesting of peat in certain areas. The derogation that was there for the last ten years will cease at the end of this year. I ask the Minister to intervene with his colleague, at this crucial time of escalating costs and energy scarcity in certain areas, to request an extension of the derogation for a further period. I refer to the cutting and harvesting of turf for domestic purposes in County Galway. Certain areas in the west have been designated for protection. We have had controversies in the House in the past about the implementation of this directive. I ask the Minister to intervene with his colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to request that he seek an extension of that derogation for a certain period of time until the current energy crisis is over. Many people who were accustomed to using turf had turned to oil or gas but the prices of these have now become prohibitive.

We need consistency of supply in Ireland and under this proposal we will be getting energy from the UK. It is a little ironic, when we see that a portion of British electricity is produced through nuclear energy and that the Government of which the Minister, Deputy Ryan, is a member has on numerous occasions objected to all that went on at Sellafield, that under this provision we will import electricity generated in such a way. It is a typical example of an Irish solution to an Irish problem that we close our eyes and do it. I wonder where the Minister, Deputy Ryan, stands on the question of the generation of nuclear energy in this country. I would greatly appreciate it if, when the opportunity presents itself, he would indicate without ambiguity the position on nuclear energy potential in Ireland.

There is a gas interconnector with Northern Ireland and from Northern Ireland, through Scotland, into mainland Europe. A few years ago during the winter difficulties that arose in the Ukraine with Russia there were headlines in the newspapers announcing a gas shortage and that we would be cut off. Was it not obvious that we, at the periphery of Europe, would be the first to be sacrificed in the supply of energy from so far away? In the contract that will obviously emerge for this interconnector and the supply, apart from the cost per unit, although I hope the costs do not finish up like those in Tynagh to the Gama group, does the Minister have a facility to ensure that if we provide the interconnector, we are guaranteed a supply at a reasonable arranged cost? Deputy O'Hanlon mentioned that due to the difficulties in the North there was one interconnector out of commission. What, if any, safeguards are there against such eventualities for any reason, apart from terrorist acts? From a commercial perspective, what guarantees on continuity of supply will be sought by the Minister or will it be the function of EirGrid to do that and the Minister will state, as the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government do in the case of the HSE and the NRA, respectively, that the agency is responsible and will take the blame? Some day down the road will the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources state that the matter is the responsibility of EirGrid and one cannot blame him? If this Bill is to be successful, the additional functions given in it should be clarified so that at all times the Minister, unlike the Ministers to whom I referred, will be responsible and in total control.

We hear many Deputies, particularly from Cavan Monaghan, speak about the North-South interconnector and the difficulties regarding power lines and the grid in those areas. Those difficulties arise throughout the country. In Galway, there is a proposal from Cashla in Athenry through to Connemara and EirGrid vehemently resisted for a long period even a slight movement of the line left or right, as the case might be, at the request of the local people. EirGrid stated that it could not be done and then suddenly stated it would reinvestigate the matter and it has been agreed. If there will be similar difficulties in this case to those many speakers outlined, it will be delayed far longer than we anticipate. We are two years down the road already and we have not started whereas other countries can provide such infrastructure, from planning to output, within three years. I hope that in this Bill the Minister is not creating another monster that will come back to haunt us all in the future.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. In terms of the electricity market, it is crucial that a company such EirGrid is a strong independent State company developing to meet the electricity needs of the country for the future.

It is vital that we facilitate the early delivery of the east-west electricity interconnector. I mention that in particular because others have concentrated on the North-South one. The east-west interconnector comes through my constituency and will arrive on shore in Rush in north Dublin. It is particularly welcome and necessary.

EirGrid has grown into an important supplier of electricity in the Irish market and expanding its functions is not only necessary but urgent. As the Bill outlines, EirGrid will have responsibility for the operation, planning and development of the Irish electricity transmission system.

I welcome the fact that the regulator must license all interconnector operations. We all have heard of the controversy in counties such as Meath and Cavan. The fact that there is a regulator gives us a degree of comfort that all regulations will be in accordance with best practice.

The supply of power is vital and the fact that EirGrid will have a borrowing limit of €750 million will enable it to deliver what we expect will be the best service.

Although it might not be commonly known, the towns at the northern end of my constituency of Dublin North, Balbriggan and Skerries are at severe risk of blackouts due to under capacity given the considerable growth in the constituency not just in the residential sector, but in the business and industrial sectors.

I welcome the establishment of an all-island single electricity market. It will bring price competitiveness into the marketplace. We cannot underestimate the strategic role EirGrid will play in providing us with increased capacity and also ensuring that competitive prices apply.

I welcome the Minister's commissioning of a study to provide independent professional advice on the relative merits of constructing and operating overhead transmission lines compared to underground lines. It does not necessarily affect me in my constituency but given the level of people's fear, that study will give us answers on reliability, the operation and maintenance factors involved, the environmental impact and any potential health issues, and on the costs of both types of electricity infrastructure.

I look forward to the development of the east-west interconnector because the country, not just my own area of Dublin North, needs it. We need to provide security of supply quickly.

Wind energy in this country has lagged behind other forms of energy supply. Communities need to look at the benefits of wind energy not just to the communities themselves, but to the country as a whole. A few years ago I was in Gran Canaria in a small community that was a residential and industrial area combined. The community had its own wind energy system that supplied local houses and businesses. It was a great opportunity for a small area to be self-sufficient in electricity supply. I watched a programme about the development of a new wave energy programme in Carlingford Lough. Given that we are an island surrounded by water and heavy seas, there is no reason we should not have more wind energy programmes so we can become self-sufficient in energy.

The access provided by the British energy interconnector will have huge benefits. It will guarantee our supply and it will ensure that price competitiveness is always there. Deputy Burke seemed to be very negative about the east-west interconnector and the fact that it only connected to Britain. He fails to recognise that Britain is being connected to mainland Europe. If we are connected to the British system, then equally we will be connected to the European system and that is all the more reason to become proactive in developing the east-west interconnector. This Bill underpins the ability of EirGrid to develop that programme urgently.

Irish businesses and household consumers demand competitiveness. They want to be able to buy their electricity at the same price as their colleagues in the North of Ireland and across the water. I do not have any reservations in saying that the east-west interconnector is timely and I want to see it onshore as quickly as possible. Half of Ireland's electricity needs are currently supplied by gas. That should be rectified and the progress of EirGrid and the ESB is vital in that respect. The east-west interconnector will enable us to have less dependency on gas supply. It is vital for the guarantee of supply and price competitiveness.

The renewable aspects have been dealt with in the Bill and everybody agrees we must make up for lost time on those issues. A recent study showed that business people were concerned about energy supply during normal trading hours. Businesses expect us to be progressive. We have come a long way in the last ten years in building our economy so that we can advance that. We can ensure that foreign businesses will not question their commitment due to concerns over power supply. We need to get to grips with the energy situation.

Our communities have failed to grasp the nettle on wind energy. Many communities have objected to An Bord Pleanála, which has resulted in some projects being abandoned, while others have been seriously delayed. As an island nation, we need to be aware that if we suffer blackouts, we will be looking to blame people. The little project in Gran Canaria for 2,000 houses and a small industrial estate was self-sufficient with a few wind turbines. We should be looking to such models. I welcome the approval from the local authority for the very first wind energy turbine in my constituency. The company involved will be supplying its own power. It is a regret that it was not able to supply local residents because connecting to the grid would have delayed its own project. The company wanted to contribute to the local community by putting in a second turbine, but due to planning restrictions a second turbine would have resulted in a much longer delivery time. Communities must look at their individual cases and allow wind turbines to go up provided there is a local gain to be made and the particular community can tap into the system for a cheaper supply of power.

The Government's target of achieving 33% of our electricity consumption from renewable resources by 2020 is necessary. There is a target of 15% for 2010 and few people in this House would argue against it. The recently published all-Ireland grid study pointed to a possibility that 40% of electricity might be provided by renewable sources by 2020. The overall reduction on other forms of energy is vital.

The Government decision in 2006 to appoint a Commission for Energy Regulation allowed us to proceed with the construction of the 500 MW interconnector at the earliest possible date, which will hopefully be 2012. The Government believes it is a national strategic asset and retaining it in public ownership is essential. This Bill allows for that and I cannot see why anybody should object to it. It is necessary that the supply of power is controlled by the Government so we do not allow monopolies to occur in the future.

A high-level co-ordination group has been established under the chairmanship of the regulator and I understand that representatives from the Department and EirGrid are involved. Work on this is progressing well. The design and construction of the interconnector are far advanced. I believe that by September of this year, a successful bidder will be announced. Speaking as one who has problems within the constituency, it will be very welcome news when we know that the tender has been agreed and that the construction can proceed.

The selection, planning and foreshore permissions are issues in my own area. In respect of the consultation in which EirGrid has been involved, I thank it for going out and talking to the community where there were concerns about digging up roads and going across fields. EirGrid has talked to the local people and is not endeavouring to ignore the wishes of local people, which is to be welcomed. As we all know, quite often, local people see problems that perhaps consultants working from drawings, papers or maps may not. I wish to put on record my appreciation of EirGrid for consulting people in Rush in north Dublin and seeking their views. This is an acceptable outcome in terms of the roads that will be dug up and the fields that will be crossed. All of those issues have been resolved satisfactorily.

I understand the Bill provides for future interconnection and makes some minor amendments to the Electricity Regulation Act 1999. It effectively inserts a new subsection in the 1999 Act to provide that a person operating an interconnector without the appropriate licence is guilty of an offence and is liable to a fine or a term of imprisonment. This ensures that there is consistency in respect of offence provisions for other licensable activities. I understand that it is already an offence to supply or generate electricity without an appropriate licence.

The Bill further clarifies the position of interconnectors with respect to the transmission system. Section 2(a) of the 1999 Act provides that the cost of interconnecters would be recovered through the transmission charges. The Bill provides that those costs are only recovered in the case of a regulated interconnector such as the east-west interconnector, which we have discussed.

I will conclude by talking about the issue of food.

The Deputy has two minutes left.

I have much contact with farmers within my constituency who point out that the transferring of the growth of food products to energy sources is causing problems for them in terms of the cost of products, fertilisers, etc. Equally, the ordinary citizen has seen an increase in the cost of food, primarily because of lack of supply. If there is one thing that should bring about the rapid introduction of extra electricity supply, it is those issues. While it is desirable to have all of the renewables, if there will be a substantial increase in food products, we must make sure we have alternatives. Providing increased power through the EirGrid system is the way forward.

We have only two or three minutes left in this slot.

We have four minutes.

I am delighted to get the opportunity to speak on this EirGrid Bill. This is a very important topic because it embraces the question of the energy requirements of this country for years to come. There was a lost opportunity over the past four or five years to increase the capacity of electricity that was badly needed to keep up with the growth in our industrial set-up and buildings. I will come back to that at a later stage in my speech.

We approach this energy situation at a time when we hear about a figure of $120 per barrel for oil on the world oil spot market. I thought I would not see or hear that figure for many years. As we know, the price fluctuates up and down but those are all pointers to the future. It is not so long ago that the price of a barrel of oil was around $60. I heard two economists on radio recently say that it is entirely possible that in the next five or six years, it could reach $200 per barrel under certain circumstances.

Can one imagine the effect this would have on us from everyone driving into this House to do their work, be they politicians or staff, to the people who work in our factories? Can one imagine the cost of production and the effect it would have on jobs and heating for the elderly? One could not imagine the effect something like that would have on the living standards of every man, woman and child in the country.

This Bill will not solve all the problems. Hopefully, it will give us an opportunity through the interconnector system to at least see a security of supply, provided that the countries from which we are getting it have a security of supply themselves. We will return to renewables in a minute. In my area of east Galway, which is not an industrial area, I have noticed that over the past three or four years, particularly the past 12 months, the amount of electricity used is increasing at a considerable annual rate. However, all of a sudden, we have pure blackness. A blackout happens for no reason in the world and electricity goes off for perhaps five or six hours. The strange thing is that the same area gets hit again in about a week's time. I am talking about today, last month and the month before that.

I know the ESB had to use mobile generators in the past year or two to try to boost the current around the country. Let nobody tell me that somebody was thinking about energy security over the past five or six years when that had to happen. There are many aspects of energy over which no Government has control, no matter who is in power. However, one of the elements of the equation over which we have control is ensuring that there is competition in respect of the market and delivery of the product.

Debate adjourned.