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

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

There is no dispute on this side of the House regarding this Bill, which is essentially a technical one. I join my colleagues in welcoming it and in supporting Eirgrid, which is patently highly qualified and competent to undertake the task in hand. It is to be hoped that the Bill's speedy passage through this House will facilitate the building of the east-west interconnector between Ireland and Britain, which is long overdue.

I do not intend to repeat the technical aspects of this Bill or to dwell on the merits of publicversus private sector delivery of the project. I wish to focus on the issue of the heritage and environmental impacts of this initiative. While in no way querying or debating the urgent need for the construction of an interconnector to facilitate the rapidly expanding power needs of this country in the face of increases in the cost of coal, gas and oil and the potential lack of availability of same, I have grave worries about the environmental, heritage and health aspects of the initiative.

The project highlights a problem which has raised its head many times in the past 11 years, namely, the Government's lack of joined-up thinking. Solving one problem is fine but causing a rake of others at the same time is not so much a hallmark of this Government but an incurable affliction. Can the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources assure the House that he has given the necessary consideration to the appalling and totally unnecessary devastation of our landscape that building the infrastructure for the North-South interconnector over ground will cause? I am sure the Minister is familiar with the expression "penny wise and pound foolish". While it is probably easier and less costly in the short term to built over ground, the long-term implications could include environmental havoc and financial loss.

Public concern is the driving force behind the study the Minister commissioned into the cost, environmental impact and possible health hazards of overhead lines, as opposed to underground cables. The decision to undertake this study follows several months of protest in Counties Cavan and Meath, since Eirgrid announced its intention to route 56 km of high-voltage lines from Woodlands, County Meath, to Kingscourt in County Cavan. This decision could see pylons up to 40 m tall across both counties in the 400 kV transmission system. Such protest is extending to action against the suspension of the building of transmission lines through west Donegal and from Roscommon to Sligo. The jury is out on the health implications of such systems but anyone with an eye in his or her head can see the shocking implications for our tourist industry as scenic routes become surreal visions from pylon hell. This issue has been repeatedly highlighted by promoters of tourism and environmentalists. I am glad that the Minister is in the House today and I hope he is taking note of what I have to say. Overhead lines can have a devastating impact on the environment. In that context, I endorse the calls by Deputy McManus for an extension to the study to investigate the feasibility of an under-sea route for the east-west interconnector, with an opportunity to incorporate such an under-sea option in the North-South route.

I ask the Minister how his role in energy conservation marries with the real need to preserve our boglands. The balance between our reaction to climate change and the preservation of our unique heritage of the boglands and the art of turf-cutting is a delicate but essential link in the chain of environmental and energy policies. I am conscious of and support the need for CO2 emissions reductions but in an era when our national identity is subsumed more and more into globalised anonymity, turf-cutters must be protected. Generation after generation has cut turf in Ireland, particularly in the midlands where 1,500 jobs are at stake. Turf has been a major player in the provision of power and energy. Calls for the Minister to prevent the opening of new bogs for commercial purposes and the eventual closure of existing boglands are a blow to rural areas and I am glad Deputy Kelly is supporting me on this. It threatens not only livelihoods but also a way of life that cannot be restored once lost. I appeal to the Minister to take this into consideration.

I wish to share time with Deputy Calleary.

The main provisions of the Bill are threefold. First, it will expand the functions of EirGrid 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. Second, it will provide in primary legislation for subsidiaries of EirGrid, an increase in the amount EirGrid may borrow and for its total capital expenditure while, third, it will consequently amend the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 in regard to interconnectors.

While electricity regulation may not excite many people, its importance cannot be overstated. Electricity is at the core of much of what we do every day and it has become a natural part of our lives. We take for granted that there will be an endless supply of electricity and there will never be shortages or blackouts. This Bill will ensure we have an efficient, safe and economically viable electricity transmission system. The east-west interconnector makes sense and it will be of enormous benefit to the country. The Government mandated EirGrid in its energy policy to build an interconnector between Ireland and Britain, which is scheduled for completion in 2012. The EirGrid east-west interconnector will link the Irish transmission system to the British transmission system, thus enabling two way transmission of electricity.

Our electricity system is relatively isolated compared to systems in mainland Europe. In line with European policy the EirGrid interconnector will help ensure Ireland is more closely integrated into the wider European energy market and it will have both importing and exporting capacity. The interconnector will bring many benefits to domestic consumers. It will enhance security of supply. Electricity demand is forecasted to increase by between 2.7 and 3.6% per year over the next seven years, according to the experts and the interconnector is necessary to provide generation capacity to meet demand. It will also facilitate increased competition in the market, provide for energy importation from the UK market and create an opportunity for energy generators in Ireland to access the greater UK market. This increased competition will help to keep electricity prices down in both markets.

The interconnector will assist expansion in renewable energy. The proposal will facilitate growth in renewable energy in Ireland as excess energy can be exported to the British market. Our dependency on renewable energy can also be increased, as wind turbines generate electricity from a freely obtained fuel, which will never run out but which is not available all the time. The fluctuations in energy produced by wind farms in the case of a wind drop could be quickly resolved by accessing the large British energy market.

In today's world we are all more aware of the importance of issues such as climate change and energy efficiency. Our climate change commitments and the insecurity of future and current fossil fuel supplies require us to make changes in our energy policy. The Government has promised to develop our indigenous renewable energy resources and to promote greater efficiency in our use of all energy supplies. Over the last year it has made progress in policy supports for new renewable energy resources. Developments include moving to the second stage in the ocean energy development strategy by resourcing new wave basin testing devices at the maritime campus in Cork Harbour, a new offshore grid connection site in Belmullet, County Mayo, a new grant scheme for prototype wave power devices and a new support price scheme to ensure Ireland has one of the best investment as well as natural environments for such technologies.

The Government has doubled the support price mechanism for critical bio-energy power production systems which can bring about efficiencies both through the use of waste products in anaerobic digestion and the combination of both heat and power production in the one operation. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources stated that over the coming months his Department will introduce further measures that will promote the development of new microgeneration systems, which will complement the work the energy regulator and network companies are engaged in to develop a smarter new grid system.

Energy efficiency is the key to meeting our targets for climate change and energy security. It will require a renewed focus, sophisticated policy tools and total commitment to change across all sectors of our country. It has been demonstrated that efficiency measures are the least expensive and most intelligent means of making substantial cuts in fuel bills and greenhouse gas emissions. The energy White Paper is committed to a 20% energy efficiency gain in the private sector by 2020 and a 33% improvement in the public sector over the same time. All organisations, no matter how large or small, should become drivers of energy efficiency in their own buildings, programmes and investment decisions. It must be realised that focus and leadership in energy efficiency has the potential to unleash savings and wider economic efficiencies for the taxpayer.

Last September building regulations were announced, which will require all new homes to be 40% more energy efficient. The regulations should lead to a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions. The regulations also introduce mandatory minimum requirements for the use of renewable energy, insist on the use of a significant proportion of energy efficient light bulbs, and introduce efficiency standards for heating systems. They will be good for the environment and the consumer and they have been welcomed by the Construction Industry Federation, which has been enthusiastic about the changes. It will take time to invoke significant change in the energy picture, but every step helps. A recent study stated that by 2020 Ireland has the potential to achieve carbon savings of more than 6 million tonnes and a total of €3.6 billion in economic benefits through energy efficiency. Proposals such as the east-west interconnector can only help in this endeavour.

Last week a €2 million microgeneration programme to be carried out by Sustainable Energy Ireland, SEI, in conjunction with key stakeholders, including the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, ESB Networks and electricity suppliers was announced. Key points of the programme include assessment of the technologies and installation procedures and their associated standards and costs and development of qualification-accreditation systems where required; assessment of the implications of high concentrations of deployment of micro-generation on the electricity system; development of an appropriate buy back-refit tariff for exported electricity; field trials, initially over four seasons, for each of the technologies in the domestic and small commercial markets using standardised monitoring methodology to gain experience and provide data for assessment, but continuing into a second year as required; and a review of legal and regulatory issues from the points of view of consumer protection, quality of supply, security of supply and safety.

The programme is intended to provide the information, prepare the infrastructure and field trial microelectricity generating technologies, including wind turbines, to facilitate consideration of future policy to stimulate the deployment of microgeneration. It is envisaged SEI will announce details of the monitored and grant-aided field trials in the summer for approximately 50 installations. SEI has commenced activities on the commissioned studies that need to be undertaken within the context of this programme. The organisation will announce full details of the field trials it will manage in the summer. This will involve technologies such as small scale wind and PV, converting solar power into electricity, which have not previously had widespread application in the Irish market. I compliment the Minister and EirGrid and assure everyone that our electricity is in safe hands with EirGrid. We will have safe, sustainable and plentiful power.

That sounds like a ministerial speech.

It is a dress rehearsal.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill which is also an opportunity to reflect on the successes of energy companies such as ESB and Bord na Móna. Our generation of politicians is inclined to take the credit for the economic success of the country in the past ten years but many of those companies were set up through the foresight of many of those people who served in this House long before us. This foresight has allowed Ireland to become the economy it is today. When one looks at the period companies such as ESB and Bord na Móna were established, one can see how those people were far ahead of their time and perhaps we will give them their due recognition in time.

This Bill places EirGrid on a proper commercial footing. The days of State companies being regarded as extensions of the social policy of the State are now gone and that is right. EirGrid will undertake a very important role in the coming years. I have the honour of being Vice Chairman of the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security. Yesterday, the committee was given a stark presentation by the Institute of International and European Affairs on Ireland's climate change strategy and energy security targets. It seems the institute is not hopeful of Ireland meeting those targets. The presentation to the committee described all the areas where targets must be met. The Minister and other speakers may disagree but in the opinion of the institute we will not meet the targets with regard to energy and other areas.

The construction of the interconnector, subject to the authorisation of the Commission on Energy Regulation, is very important. To date, the debate on the interconnector has been about its construction. There are justifiable and considered concerns about the effect on communities of this construction. The Minister has set up a process to deal with those concerns. Colleagues on all sides are taken aback at the turn-out at public meetings of people with genuine concerns about the impact on their daily lives of the project and the pylons. If those concerns had been addressed properly from the start, it might have avoided the current level of concern and agitation. It is hoped the process now in place to address those concerns will allow EirGrid to interact properly with the communities and also with public representatives who have a mandate from those communities to address those concerns. I compliment the Minister on setting up this process.

I welcome the Government decision last July to authorise the Commission on Energy Regulation to arrange a design competition for the interconnector. This is a small country on the periphery of Europe and our energy supply is not secure. This interconnector will allow us to connect with Europe and copper-fasten our energy supply in a way that was not previously possible. A connector of 500 MW will allow us to connect with the UK and allow us to connect onwards. It will also allow us to become an exporter of spare capacity energy generated through wind, wave or any other form which may be developed in the future.

We must regard the issue of security of supply as being very important. The national grid is under pressure and at times is unable to cope with that pressure. In recent years, the ESB and EirGrid have installed temporary, large scale generators around the country in order to assist the grid process. The campaign undertaken by the Minister and SEI in alerting people to proper commercial and domestic energy usage is welcome and needs to be accelerated. I look forward to the roll-out of the smart meter programme in domestic houses because when people are able to see how much inefficient energy usage is costing them and how they can take charge of their usage, this will result in a proper and efficient use of domestic electricity as has happened with many commercial companies.

I am concerned about EirGrid's policies on access to the national grid and in particular for access by wind operators. People developing community wind farms or any kind of commercial wind farms are frustrated not only with the difficulty in obtaining planning permission, but also with the negotiations with EirGrid over access to the grid. The process is cumbersome and slow and does not reflect the commercial realities of these developments and does not seem to be commercially equipped to respond to the demands of the market. I ask that EirGrid examine that process and make it more transparent for the people involved, and more engaged and more urgent in its response to proposals. Otherwise we do not have a hope of generating the extra capacity that is required from wind energy in order to address our climate change targets and our energy demands in years to come.

The all-island single electricity market is just another development that could not have been envisaged ten years ago even though it makes complete economic and practical sense. Unless we maximise the benefits of the all-island economy, we will fail to respond to the challenges I have outlined. The work of EirGrid in maximising the all-island electricity market will be very important but this must be achieved with an eye to efficiency and without taking on the costs of any other market. We already have enough costs of our own. EirGrid must examine the benefits of the Irish market without taking on the difficulties in other markets.

Deputy Bannon spoke about the restrictions which will be imposed on bog cutting and this is an important point. Many people in rural areas have a deep attachment to the bog and to the burning of turf. They are not Moneypoint-type generations but rather are domestic users who use turf in the range or the open fire and are exercising rights to the bog which have been in their families for generations. The SAC, special area of conservation, designation which will begin next year is prohibitive and is the cause of much concern to those who believe their rights are being taken from them. We all know that one should never challenge an Irish person about their rights to land and if that challenge comes from an outside body, be it Europe or anywhere else, it is all the worse.

I refer to the issue of unused bogs which are held by Bord na Móna in its reserves. Many thousands of acres, much of it in my own constituency, which up to now was used by Bord na Móna to power the Bellacorick power station which is now closed, are now lying unused. I agree that some of this bog needs to be protected but it is a very important economic resource and it cannot be allowed to just lie there as an exhibition piece for generations to come.

Economic use can be made of such bogs, as has been proven in many of the Scandinavian countries, where they are put to use in an environmentally efficient manner. I ask the Minister to examine the economic and environmental indications of opening up Bord na Móna bogs to see if there is a sufficient supply and to examine the environmental and economic impacts of doing so.

The challenge presented to the committee yesterday by the Institute of International and European Affairs, was stark. All the presentations to date to the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security have been equally stark. We have within our capacity the resources to meet that challenge by maximising our energy potential, by ensuring our energy use is as efficient as possible, by opening up this country to other energy supplies and by moving into a situation where through use of our natural resources of wind and wave we could become an energy exporter.

This Bill will put EirGrid on a proper commercial footing to allow it maximise that opportunity. I hope the company will take the spirit of this Bill in the way it should be taken and not become a form of commercial entity which becomes unresponsive to any body of this House or any democratically-elected institution. I hope EirGrid has learned the lessons from the debate on the interconnector and that it has learned the importance of engagement with communities, with business and with public representatives.

I compliment the Minister and his Department on the spirit in which the Bill has been presented. It is an exciting Bill which will allow us continue the very fine tradition of State enterprises established by this House many generations ago. I hope this generation of representatives can put its stamp on energy supply.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on Second Stage of the Electricity Regulation (Amendment) (EirGrid) Bill 2008. I strongly support the Bill, particularly its key objective of facilitating the development of the first east-west interconnector and interconnectors generally. This is a crucial step forward for our energy market.

However, I agree with the Labour Party spokesperson, Deputy McManus, that significant issues remain in terms of our future energy security. These include the development of a green energy market and the impact of rising energy prices on the public, particularly vulnerable persons such as senior citizens or those in low income households. The Minister has set out several major objectives he hopes to achieve and for which the House will hold him accountable in coming years. Regrettably, an issue in which he seems to have no interest is fuel poverty and the difficulties experienced by vulnerable households in this regard.

This small Bill is largely technical but it has significant implications for the future of our energy supply. As an island nation with a small population, we have a relatively small energy market. One of my key concerns as spokesman on energy in the last Dáil was to highlight the overwhelming importance of ensuring connectivity to other markets. In this regard, I strongly welcomed the development of an all-island market. Increasing our connectivity will enhance the security of our supply and provide additional protection against potential blackouts. This is vital given the level of amber and red alerts that occurred in the electricity system in recent years. I hope the Minister will keep a careful eye on this situation with a particular focus on increasing the quantity of electricity from renewable sources in the system.

Until recently, only 330 MW of power could transfer from North to South and 100 MW in the other direction. In the last Dáil, the Minister and I often raised the importance of strengthening the grid in the Border region, particularly in the Louth area. I hope this will be one of his priorities. I understand the development of the second North-South interconnector will allow a total of up to 800 MW of power to transfer between North and South by 2012.

In 2004, 400,000 GW of electricity was generated in the British market, which currently has five large players. The Scotland-Northern Ireland interconnector has a 500 MW capacity, which is too small to integrate Northern Ireland into the larger British market. However, the proposed east-west interconnector linking Ireland with Wales, with a target completion date of 2011, will have a capacity of approximately 1,000 MW. The enhancement of our interconnectivity, on both a North-South and an east-west basis, is absolutely critical to the security of our energy supply. Other speakers mentioned the key role interconnectors can play in the export of electricity. I attended various energy conferences during the last Dáil at which I discovered the dramatic contrast between the Danish and north German markets, for example, and our own. The experience in other jurisdictions makes clear that extensive interconnectivity is vital if we are to achieve the ambitions set out in the ESB's strategic plan for 2020.

When the Minister, Deputy Ryan, was in opposition, he was a consistent advocate of the break-up of the ESB. He repeatedly made the case that the best way forward was to transfer the entire network from ESB to EirGrid. Therefore, this Bill represents an astonishingvolte-face on the part of this Green Party Minister. He has abandoned the key element of his oft repeated mantra on the Opposition benches that a major generator, or even a minor one, should not also have responsibility for the management of a transmission network. I recall the meeting in the Royal Hibernian Academy where members of senior management at the ESB were utterly devastated, understandably so, at the prospect of the demolition of that historic semi-State body, which has served the State so well. The Minister was a key advocate for that approach, putting forward the case that a decentralised grid could not be achieved under the direction of the ESB.

It seems the Minister has undergone some type of Damascene conversion and has now come forward with a much better plan for the ESB. The senior management of the ESB has consistently articulated its plan, which has been expressed in its vision for 2020, that it should effectively become a minority player. In other words, it envisages a situation where it is unable to fix market prices in the incredibly fast moving electricity market but will continue to function as the maintainer of the transmission network and the local grid. I welcome this development and the Minister's abandonment of what was a foolish policy. It would have been a pointless adventure to go down the other road. Some speakers on the Fianna Fáil benches referred to it as a madcap policy in the context of the achievements of the ESB over the decades, particularly in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s when the electrification of the State was one of the key stepping stones in our economic development.

EirGrid also has a crucial role to play and the Bill further enhances its function as the transmission system operator, TSO. This enhanced role is welcome, as are the new capital facilities to be provided for the company. I notice that the Minister's approval is strictly required in this regard. He is surely anxious to avoid anything like the controversy in the last Dáil when the then Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, was unfortunate to discover that the ESB had embarked on a major and successful financing on the New York market of which he apparently knew nothing. I hope the Minister, Deputy Ryan, will not experience a similar fate in the coming years. I am sure he will not if he keeps a close eye on his job.

Sense has prevailed and we now have a situation whereby the ESB and EirGrid, two excellent semi-State companies, are being steered in the right direction in their respective roles in the vital electricity generation sector. I warmly welcome the ESB's strategic framework for 2020, which was announced by the company and the Minister some weeks ago. The target of achieving a net zero carbon rating by 2035 is reasonable, as is the objective of halving carbon emissions within 12 years. I also welcome the wide-ranging development programme, which includes the provision of €4 billion for renewable projects. The Minister will recall the debate on Hibernian Wind Power and so on, and the attempt effectively to ensure that the ESB would not be allowed enter the renewables market. Now, however, it has been decided that it will become a "green" company and that is to be welcomed.

I note the provision for a major expenditure of €6.5 billion on the development of smart meters. Both the Minister and I were strong advocates of smart metering in the last Dáil. What is the timeframe for this? When will smart meters be installed in people's homes so that their electricity performance can be monitored? What would be the advantages of installing a carbon neutral local energy system based, for example, on wind or solar power? In the UK people can get a picture of what is involved. Recently, I read that a low carbon device costs £9,000 sterling and has 17 years pay back time in terms of saved electricity. We need smart metering. When will the Minister launch this? Do many homes already have it? What will happen with regard to this?

I warmly welcome the vision of the ESB delivering one third of its electricity from renewables by 2020. With the exporting capacity of the interconnectors, we should arrive at a point where all Irish electricity is renewable or that we have the capacity at all times with wind power.

I did not notice much on storage in the strategic vision. Previously, storage facilities, such as those at Turlough Hill, was a major theme of the Minister and I support it. If we continue to move as quickly as we have been into renewables, given the nature of electricity can we store it better? I hope the Minister will announce major developments on this during the coming years.

The divestment programme of generation capacity, which the ESB always intended, will go ahead. The management would like it to become a smaller generator and the management of the transmission system would be its key element. With regard to competition, a major disappointment to this House was that while we have had an open market for three years, none of us can apply to have a supplier other than the ESB. More than 60% of the market will fully open up to other companies, including the other major player on the island, Northern Ireland Electricity.

So far, households have not benefited in anyway from the additional competition introduced in the market. It seems to exist only at the level of business. Eirtricity withdrew the facility it had for households. Deputy McManus rightly considered a major fear with regard to the Bill before us, which is whether consumers will pay for every inch of the interconnector. Ultimately, will they bear the burden through the cost of electricity, be it partly or mostly renewable, in addition to taxation and other spending? When will the Minister address competition issues, in particular to provide more advantages to households? Undoubtedly, the development of renewable power is more expensive and people have a cost benefit in that they gain by having a low carbon environment. Nonetheless, all of these costs should be spelled out and should be clear to people.

I warmly welcome the new vision for the ESB and I wish it well in this new phase of its development. The development through the Bill of the all-island market and the two island energy market are also to be welcomed. When the Minister was in Opposition he called for a full debate on nuclear power and has also done so since entering Government. We have not had this debate. Why, given the law of the land, must we go back through what we decided over a number of decades is an unnecessary form of development given the capacity for wind, wave and other renewable powers?

The Minister must also tease out this matter in the context of electricity storage and the base load. The security of our energy and electricity supply requires that we have an absolutely secure base load capacity and the Minister must spell out how he will achieve this for the decades ahead given that we will use considerably more power. It is striking that as IT industries develop and we become a high-tech economy, the amount of power used in the area increases. In my constituency, a small data storage facility will come on line shortly and will use 20 MW per day. Its consumption of electricity is phenomenal, even in the context of national consumption. Will the Minister address the issues pertaining to storage?

Having stated all of this, I welcome the Bill and the responsibility given to EirGrid, in particular the facility for exporting. A number of Deputies mentioned the ESB's involvement in the SeaGen project on wave power. The length of time it has taken to bring wave power on stream and have a dynamic coastal section is disappointing. It is hoped this will come to fruition in the coming decades.

Will the Minister address the matter of energy and fuel poverty, an issue he has refused to address either in Opposition or in Government? A fuel poor household is defined as one which must spend more than 10% of the household's finances on fuel use to maintain a satisfactory heating regime. On average, fuel poor households spend three times as much income on fuel as other households. A combination of low incomes, high energy prices and inadequately energy efficient housing are the crucial factors which condemn many Irish households to fuel poverty. Ireland has one of the highest levels of housing deprivation in energy terms in northern Europe.

The Minister's failure to introduce a significant energy efficiency programme in the nine or ten months since he took office is disappointing. Last year, we had the amazing situation whereby he cancelled the programme and then cobbled together money from other parts of the budget to carry it on. It seems a totally inadequate and derisory fig leaf and the Minister must address it. Householders contact Members of this House with regard to obtaining insulation systems and few resources exist to support it.

The most disturbing aspect of living in a fuel poor household is the adverse and potentially fatal health implications for families and individuals. Even though Ireland has a relatively mild climate, according to a UCD study carried out in 2001 it has the highest rate of excess winter mortality in Europe. Little recent research has been undertaken on this. According to the UCD study, approximately 18% of Irish households declared a level of fuel poverty. SEI estimates that approximately 60% households experience persistent fuel poverty and another 160,000 experience intermittent fuel poverty.

Approximately 300,000 may endure some type of fuel poverty. This is of particular interest to the Labour Party. Had we the opportunity to serve in Government we would have advocated a five year programme to eliminate it completely through insulation and support for vulnerable families. I draw this issue to the Minister's attention and ask that he address it as a matter of priority. We can be green and socially responsible at the same time in terms of insulation and other supports.

On behalf of the Labour Party, I support the Bill. It is a major step forward for which I commend the Minister. There are a whole range of other issues on which the Minister was voluble when on the Opposition benches. I hope now that he has an opportunity to do so he will address them one by one and will at an early date update the House on storage and smart metering.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I wish to raise several issues.

The Bill seeks to expand the functions of EirGrid, the licensed electricity transmission operator, to include the construction, ownership and operation of the interconnector subject to the grant of the relevant licences and authorisation by the Commission for Energy Regulation and the Energy Regulator for gas and electricity and to provide, in primary legislation, that it may continue to borrow the total capital expenditure required.

I welcome the east-west interconnector. This proposed development could not have been foreseen ten or 15 years ago. The interconnector will tie us into the island of Great Britain and provide for closer co-operation between the two islands that have suffered enormously from historical differences. I am glad those differences have been resolved. We must encourage all sides to work for continued peace.

When the Electricity Supply Board was founded the men and women employed by the ESB and Bord na Mona showed great foresight in building the many power stations around the country. We must continue this work and ensure we provide sustainable energy for future generations on both islands. Security of supply is a particular issue that arises in respect of the Bill. We are all aware of the huge pressure on the grid and on energy. For many years, we wasted enormous amounts of electricity but, people are now conscious of the environmental and cost impact of providing electricity to the domestic and business markets. They know, from initiatives such as the Power of One and so on, how to achieve huge savings in respect of the cost to them and the business community of electricity and in respect of climate change.

In recent years there has been an increase in awareness of renewable energy, which is to be welcomed. We are living in an age of renewable energy. The interconnector will provide safeguards to the generation of electricity through wind and other means. We must ensure that ongoing development through wind energy, by public and private companies, ties in with the environment, is targeted and takes account of the sensitivities of different communities. We must also move forward and replace with wind energy and renewable sources much of the fossil fuel we currently burn. The availability of a ready-made resource in respect of energy will ensure continuity of supply and will protect the environment in the future.

Major efforts are being made across the globe in respect of climate change. While many people spoke out on climate change during the past ten or 15 years, it was generally accepted that there was precious little politicians or countries could do about it. The issue is now being tackled across the globe, no more so than in this House. I welcome the initiatives taken. It is a campaign we must continue to drive forward. While change will cause inconvenience and pain for domestic and business communities, we must ensure we continue to make the right decisions in this regard.

Previous speakers spoke about smart metering. We must ensure we have energies which are important to us. While people may have believed for many years that there was no limit to the amount of energy that could be generated, they are now aware, given the growth in our population, of the enormous pressures in this regard. We must ensure the energy we create is put to the best possible use and not wasted.

The national development plan deals with future development. It has been predicted that our population will increase to almost 4.9 million people by 2040. This will put enormous pressure on this generation to ensure provision of the required infrastructure and planning and development as provided for in the national development plan. It is vitally important that we adhere to this aspect of that plan. We must ensure we make the right decisions in respect of wind energy, climate change and how we conduct our business.

The east-west interconnector has been welcomed on all sides. It will provide a connection between Ireland and Great Britain and on to Europe. Grave concern has been expressed in many parts of the country about the north-south interconnector. I hope the independent review group set up by the Minister to examine this matter will be able to address the concerns expressed.

The introduction of competition to other markets wherein there was a monopoly has been good for consumers. The interconnector will promote competition in the electricity market as it will allow for third party access in a fair, consistent and transparent manner. This, in turn, will bring pressure to bear in respect of reduction in the cost of electricity. The interconnector will diversify the fuel sources used in the Irish system to generate electricity. The environment will benefit greatly from the interconnector which will provide for greater potential to export wind power, reduce the need for carrying reserves and the need for carbon credit payments.

The interconnector will increase the capacity of the single electricity market and provide us with a link to the UK electricity market and, in turn, the European market. We will be in a position to attract more foreign investors who may choose to invest directly in the market through, for example, the provision of additional generating capacity, conventional or renewable energy.

The interconnector connects us to the UK market and on to the European market. Who would have thought some 40, 50 or 60 years ago that there would be such great co-operation within Europe? This co-operation is of enormous benefit to Ireland as a peripheral country. The interconnector will ensure we are no longer isolated but connected to every country in Europe. That is our future. It is where we will see our country going, and it is where we have to encourage our country to go.

Prices have reduced somewhat, but ordinary consumers have seen huge increases in the price of oil and, in turn, the price of electricity, so we have to improve competition and ensure the introduction of additional energy sources. In particular, we need the introduction of external sources to improve the level of competition in the market, which in turn leads to a more competitive environment. That will not only impact on prices to the end user but generate an environment in which the incumbent players have to keep abreast of international market changes in demand and to improve the overall quality and service provision in the market. That is one issue with which we have to deal.

We have seen an all-island market develop in the past ten years. I welcome all the initiatives that have been taken in that regard, and I commend the Minister on his work on that issue and the other people who have been involved on their abilities. What we have achieved could not have been foreseen 20 years ago. We must welcome and secure those developments. Through the east-west interconnector we are connecting to Great Britain and the rest of Europe, and we must not lose sight of our stance in Europe or of what we can gain and have gained from the European Union, particularly with EirGrid.

A key issue is the need to seriously address climate change. Renewables are the way forward, and there has been a huge take-up in the market, but we must be clear about renewables in order to meet a certain target by 2020. The industry has made the same point. However, we must ensure that, as we go down the renewables route, we integrate them as far as possible with other environmental and personal concerns that people have. There is no doubt that one of the great untapped sources of energy is wind energy, which has been used to great effect. We must also move away from our dependence on oil and fossil fuel, which affect our climate.

The other key issue is the national development plan which includes provisions in this regard. We will be judged on how we continue to roll out the national development plan and ensure that it is implemented in full. Generations to come will see the infrastructure we have put in place, and will give credit to those who set up the Electricity Supply Board, Bord na Móna and other semi-State bodies to ensure our electricity supply. We have to continue that process. I commend the Bill to the House.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak to the Bill. As the Minister knows, we all support the Bill and acknowledge the great effort that has gone into it and to ensuring that we can produce our own electricity. It is only when we go to petrol stations and see diesel on sale for €1.27 per litre that we realise the consequences of depending too much on other countries for energy. We as a nation cannot and will not be in a position to be competitive not only in Europe but across the world if our energy prices continue to grow in the present manner.

Our economy is experiencing a minor downturn, and I hope to God that it will turn around sooner rather than later. However, there are two areas in which we cannot afford to be mean, even if we have to borrow money for them. One is the interconnector, which is probably the most exciting project any Minister is undertaking at the moment. We cannot afford to skimp on it, and the quicker the interconnectors are up and running and providing our own electricity, the better. The other issue on which money cannot be spared in lean times is education.

The provision of electricity is crucial. Europe is growing and I hope all new EU member countries will be in the same position as Ireland in terms of rising standards of living. However, we must be able to provide these people with technology, food and so on. As we know, food has become a scarce commodity, and with only five weeks' supply in Europe at any one time, Ireland is in a better position than other countries because we have spent so much money down the years on promoting our brand of food. Energy, including electricity, will be a crucial issue in ensuring that we are as competitive as any other country across the world, so we welcome the Bill. Deputies Crawford, English and I have spoken previously on this issue, and the Minister knows that we back him to the hilt in this regard.

Having said all that, the Minister probably knows what I plan to talk about, namely, the North-South interconnector. The issue will not go away because it is like so many other issues in Ireland today. Young people, in particular, will not accept things being handed down to them, whether by the Government, the church or anybody else. They do not like something just being dumped on them without any reason. They will not accept an advertisement in a newspaper stating what is going to happen.

The plan to locate pylons throughout County Meath was identified a couple of months ago and has caused great concern. The Tánaiste and perhaps some Deputies from County Meath said the North-South interconnector would never be discussed in the House, so I welcome the fact that the Minister has intervened. He has taken full responsibility and ordered an independent review of the costings. I will not comment further at present, but when the results of that review are known I will demand that they are discussed in this House and at committee level.

The people of Monaghan, Meath and Cavan got together on the issue four or five months ago. They will not accept a report which simply says that cables must be laid overground because the cost of putting them underground is too high. The people of Ireland will not accept that either, which I am delighted about. People will not accept streets being closed for a month or six weeks, such as happened in Duleek for sewerage works, and companies going out of business.

As everybody in the country, including the Minister, knows, the manner in which EirGrid did its business early on was revolting. It thought it could bully people and do what it liked. We have now reached a stage in which millions of euro will be put aside for Ireland to provide as much electricity as possible at a decent price. People in North East Pylon Pressure, who own EirGrid in the same way as the Minister and I do, are not going to be bullied and will not accept a decision to locate pylons in any part of Meath, Monaghan or Cavan because it suits business people attached to the project or others.

Pylons have their uses but they are an ugly sight in any country. When one drives up the M1, which I have done several times, one sees a line of pylons. They do not look so bad because they are in a straight line and run alongside the M1, although some of the wires have not been connected. A high-ranking Minister from my constituency was to approach the National Roads Authority on this issue, but we have not heard whether he did so. Why has nobody considered locating the pylons alongside the M3? When I asked that question at my first meeting with EirGrid and questioned whether the issue related to Tara, the representative admitted that it did. However, locating pylons along a motorway, as with the M1, would be far more acceptable to people in Meath, Monaghan and Cavan, rather than running the line through towns, villages, fields and farms, thus destroying the area. If the Minister thinks, having commissioned an independent study, that this will satisfy the people it will not and it will put a stop to this country's great plan if we do things the old way.

The young people, the GAA, farmers and people from all parties have come together to ensure their electricity supply will be connected in the proper way. Money will not be an issue for them but it may have been an issue for the Government to spend on this underground study. Perhaps it could not hand over €50,000 for a report which was supposed to be done in 40 days. Will the Minister indicate clearly when this report is expected to be published? Money will not be an issue for the people of Meath, Monaghan or Cavan to ensure that when EirGrid goes ahead it will be done correctly and will not affect their health, the price of houses, the environment or the tourism industry. This is the reason the people of Meath, Monaghan and Cavan have come together as a unit in a way I have not seen previously.

I understand the Minister's position, a position I will never be in, and that he has a lot on his plate but he should keep the people informed about what is going on. On the three or four occasions people addressed the joint committee, the Minister said an independent study would be set up. That was fair enough but everyone went back to their old ways and went underground and would not say openly what was being done. It had to be dragged out here on one occasion because we got wind of it. A statement was leaked out at 3 p.m. on the day in question; that is not the way to proceed.

I will be as straight as I can on this issue. I know the people we are dealing with; they come from every walk of life. I have worked with them and played football with them. They are Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, Labour and Independent and the Minister must get somebody to speak with them within the next three weeks. If this report comes out, it leaves the door open for anyone to conduct a study. We will then end up in the courts which will be followed with a campaign that will continue for the next eight or ten years. Other Deputies have said it will never be discussed in the House. Gradually Deputies from other counties are beginning to realise the concerns of the people. It is the same in the health area; it is the fear of the unknown. What are the effects of magnetic fields on people? One of EirGrid's representatives made a statement on local radio in which he referred to the possible death of only a few children as a result of the installation of cables and it has not been retracted properly. That was a terrible statement to make by anyone who is employed by EirGrid.

This is a health issue. Every parish in Ireland must know within the next five or six years why our young people are dying. Will it be because of our food, the environment, magnetic fields or mobile phones? They will not take "No" for an answer. When this campaign started in October or November 2007, I was amazed at the people who turned up at these meetings — men, women and children. Age means nothing in regard to cancers of all description. The people want to know whether the food chain, Sellafied, incineration or whatever is responsible. They are far more educated than, perhaps, Members. The North East Pylon Pressure group is six months ahead of EirGrid in regard to its PR, investigations and what has happened throughout the world and will not accept a €50,000 study. Money is not everything at the end of the day. We are going to spend billions. As one of our Fianna Fáil colleagues rightly said earlier, this is a fantastic opportunity for us to supply our own electricity and, as Deputy Broughan said, to export our electricity. It has been clearly stated that Ireland has the capacity, without having to use oil, to provide energy to Europe. The interconnector is the main means of doing that.

EirGrid is not doing its job in regard to dealing with the people. EirGrid is our company, it is not a private company. We own it and we do not want to see it in the courts for ten years but it is heading that way. The issue will be fought at the next election and at the local elections next year. Why has the Minister come back in regard to talks with the National Roads Authority? The Minister should go for a drive out the M1 and look at them. Something on that line would be acceptable to the people because this ground has been acquired. It is away from property and people and away from devaluing their land.

Meath, Monaghan and Cavan, like other counties, have tourism industries and the sight of pylons is not acceptable. While I understand that a great deal of work is being done in the Department, this is a fantastic opportunity for Ireland as a nation to provide as much power as possible of its own. We cannot continue to pay €1.27 per litre for diesel.

I have been in business previously. I go home at weekends and I deal with people as part of one of my businesses. They cannot survive for much longer given the energy costs. One man who had 35 people employed is now working by himself, due to the energy costs and the downturn in the building industry. We have the technology and an educated workforce and Europe will grow. We have got to be ready and energy is the key. As an island nation everything has to be transported from this country through the use of oil or whatever. The more we can produce here, the less oil we have to import for transporting to Europe.

I am in contact with the group referred to earlier which is not a Mickey Mouse campaign. This is not party political; everyone in every parish is united on this issue. Each time I am in touch with the group on a different issue I am asked how this one is proceeding. The group is as organised as the GAA, if not better. Following one telephone call everybody knows that is going on. Millions of euro has been collected to ensure that the company they own will not devalue their land or affect their health or the tourism industry. The closing off of the relationship following the announcement of the study was a mistake because that is not what was agreed. The group did appreciate the Minister taking it into his hands.

In Duleek and Donore streets are being dug up resulting in businesses closing for six or eight weeks. A notice to this effect appeared in a newspaper that the people do not buy. Two years ago, when the State was flush with money, people had borrowed to the hilt and are still heavily indebted now that the State has no money. They will not allow their businesses, the value of their land or the health of their children to be jeopardised. While the World Health Organisation states the pylons will not affect human health, new WHO findings are due to be published.

At midnight recently, Councillor Brian Fitzgerald and I visited an area with a number of electricity pylons. I could not believe it when the fluorescent electricity tubes we brought with us lit up close to a pylon. If one is using one's car kit while driving past the pylons located at Loganstown on the road to Dublin, one's mobile telephone will cut out. Although there is clearly a problem, no one wants to address it.

The people living in the affected area are prepared to compromise. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, must inform the people of County Meath of the outcome of his correspondence with the National Roads Authority. What is the position regarding talks which were due to be held with the NRA on the possibility of installing the transmission lines along the route of the M3? The new road will open soon. If pylons were erected, the protestors at Tara would have other things to climb on to besides trees. Pylon towers do not look so bad on the M1 but they cannot be erected in Moynalty, Nobber or Batterstown or on land on which farmers are supposed to produce good food.

While I want the project to proceed, we must listen to the concerns about the current proposals. Otherwise, the Minister's plans will be blocked and jobs will be lost. All public representatives in the area, including Deputies Seymour Crawford, Damien English and Fianna Fáil Party Members and councillors, share these concerns. We are right, not the five, six or ten people who have decided to bulldoze through the current plan, which is not needed and will not be allowed to proceed.

This is not a Mickey Mouse campaign. Residents will stop at nothing to ensure their health, the land they use to produce food, property values and the tourism industry are protected. The value of houses must not be allowed to decline by almost one third because the cheapest option is to erect stupid pylons across several counties.

I ask the Minister to instruct EirGrid to examine the M3 and M1 options. The pylon towers may not look so bad on the M1 but we will not allow them to be erected across our lands. With a further 600 km of transmission lines required elsewhere, the Minister will have similar problems in every other county. I ask him to engage in meaningful talks with representatives of North East Pylon Pressure before it is too late.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this welcome legislation. Ensuring supply of safe, clean, sustainable energy at competitive prices is one of the greatest challenges facing Ireland. Many Deputies from the north east spoke about the North-South interconnector. I accept it is easy for me, as a Deputy from Waterford, to take a different view because my area will not be directly affected.

Several months ago, I travelled to Germany with a parliamentary delegation, which included the Ceann Comhairle. A number of members of the delegation with a particular interest in the North-South interconnector raised the issue with representatives of the federal and state governments. We were told it is not possible to route the lines underground due to the high costs involved. This approach has not been used elsewhere. Nevertheless, there is merit in erecting overground power lines alongside a motorway as this would impact on fewer people.

We need the North-South interconnector because the current infrastructure is not sufficient to meet our electricity needs. We also need the east-west interconnector linking Ireland and Wales. We must show flexibility regarding our source of electricity supply. In Britain, it is estimated that 11 million of the country's 26 million consumers have changed supplier, while 8 million of 20 million gas consumers have changed theirs. The comparative figure in the Republic is slightly more than 40,000, most of whom are probably on the commercial side.

However, when one examines the telecommunications market here, it becomes clear that Irish people do not have difficulty changing to a company which will provide the cheapest service and best value for money. Such a choice on the electricity sideis novel and not yet fully available but will, in due course, become as much a feature as the flexibility in the telecommunications side.

Traditionally, the ESB has been the dominant force in the electricity market. This is hardly surprising considering the company has been, to a large extent, the only supplier since the foundation of the State. In the main, the company has served the nation well in its three quarters of a century of existence. While there have been occasional flaws and deficiencies, in the main the quality of the service has been superb.

I digress slightly to pay tribute to successive generations of workers in the ESB who have worked hard, often in the most atrocious conditions, to restore supply and given exemplary service when the chips were down. It would be wrong of us, as we prepare for a major change in electricity supply and distribution, with more and more companies entering the electricity market, to forget this service to the fledgling State and the technical and financial difficulties which often had to be overcome. I am drifting into history and we have a new Ireland and economy in which the energy sector must move with the times.

I welcome the proposals to facilitate the interconnection of electricity generated by systems not in the ownership of the ESB. While this will make inroads into the company's dominant position, I have no doubt, given its vast experience and decades of tradition, that it will be able to take this new challenge in its stride and emerge a stronger, more competitive entity as a result. This has been proven in other sectors and I have every confidence the ESB will be able to do the same.

The development of the east-west interconnector is a key task in the 2008 work plan of the Commission for Energy Regulation. This project would provide 500 MW of power. We should be cognisant of the importance of renewable energy and the difficulties faced by many of those who wish to generate electricity from renewable sources and connect to the grid. It is important they receive support.

The first reaction of most people when faced with the question of how to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels is to look to motor vehicles for an alternative supply of energy. While there is no doubt this sector offers considerable scope for savings, it is not the only area which needs our attention. Renewable sources of energy offer sustainable alternatives to our dependence on fossil fuels, a means of reducing harmful greenhouse emissions and opportunities to reduce our reliance on imported fuels. For these reasons, Irish and European policies support the increased use of renewable energy from such sources as wind, solar power, wood, waste and water as they are abundantly available in Ireland. Several renewable energy technologies are now economically viable and capable of supplying clean, economical heat and power. The higher the price of oil, the more economically viable previously unviable sources will become. The alternative energy industry must be further developed and positively encouraged through substantial investment and assistance to the industry. The growing of rape seed and other crops should be actively promoted among a farming population which is finding itself increasingly isolated, with reduced incomes and disused or underused land. That is not a natural condition for good farmers and I am sure they would welcome any positive measure which would bring them back into productive and useful farming again.

The time is right for more initiatives in the alternative energy field. The public is thinking of ways to reduce energy costs and those who are so minded — that is a growing number — are looking at ways to help the environment and meet our requirements in the reduction of harmful emissions. A constituent of mine who has a stream running through his land has set up a company to develop a hydroelectric scheme with a view to selling his power into the national grid. I spoke about this in the Seanad and said it was not pie in the sky, and I was correct because it is up and running. I heard a man speak on local radio while I was travelling up here on Tuesday and he can generate enough electricity for 800 or 900 houses. One should think of the difference it could make to us if a number of people were to do something similar. He did this without any financial aid or assistance and said it would take approximately 15 years before he would eventually get a payback on it. He was not doing it for financial reasons but for the best environmental reasons. We must encourage more of that. It can be replicated on a large scale but the ground must be properly prepared for such developments.

I get very annoyed with people who use blanket arguments against wind power. Whether their point is that such turbines are noisy or that the towers impinge on the landscape, we must face up to the fact that we have to find an alternative to oil, and the wind method is especially suited to this country. It will take a large investment and may mean heavy subvention by the Government, but unless we promote these cleaner forms of energy we will leave the door open to those pushing the nuclear option.

There will be some drawback with every means of generating electricity. When the first hydroelectric station was set up at Ardnacrusha three quarters of a century ago, the landscape had to be changed radically to allow for the new route of the headrace and tailrace to accommodate the assisted flow of water. When Turlough Hill was suggested and constructed over 30 years ago many environmentalists condemned the interference with the mountain and countryside. That pumped storage station soon became a showpiece and, while small enough by today's standards, it still represents go-ahead thinking in the power and energy industry. I realise that wind energy is not perfect, but it is way ahead of other forms of electricity generation. It is held that Ireland has the most abundant and reliable supply of wind in Europe and it is bordering on sinful that we are not using it to the fullest effect. We cannot suggest that wind turbines are silent and there is a perception that wind farms are noisy developments. That is not necessarily true or accurate. As technology improves, the disadvantages and misgivings will reduce and in time we will come to look on wind energy as our saviour.

We are also best placed in Europe to take advantage of wave power, the returns for which are enormous. The technical people will be readily able to tell us just how many megawatts can be generated by a single wave, but I know from reading and from TV programmes that wave power has much to offer our country. It would be easy to despair and get downhearted about the future of oil. I have every confidence the motor industry will come up with an alternative fuel for vehicles and we have clean and bountiful natural resources on our side to tackle domestic and industrial requirements.

I began to mention CER's plans to develop this interconnector, which are well advanced and form a key part of CER's strategy for the further development of the Irish electricity sector. CER has worked with EirGrid to advance this project and it will remain a key priority during 2008. It will have a capacity of 500 MW and it is hoped that it will be delivered by the end of 2011. The advantages of increasing levels of interconnection for an island system such as Ireland's are clear. Not alone will interconnection with the UK increase security of supply, but it will also help to drive competition and improve overall efficiency in the Irish electricity system. This is bound to benefit all of us. It will significantly reduce Ireland's isolation from other European markets and will introduce new competitively priced electricity into the system. This will put downward pressure on prices meaning they will be lower than would otherwise be possible.

While technically the supply can flow either way, depending on who has the excess at any given time, the most likely scenario is that we will be the recipients of electricity from the UK. This opens up a whole new debate on nuclear generated electricity because we will be taking our supply from a grid which is in turn supplied from nuclear sources. We are a nuclear free country and, with an occasional exception, everybody wants to keep it that way. It is bad enough to have Sellafield on our doorstep and other nuclear stations on the British east coast to threaten our well-being without generating the same threats in our own country over which we have full jurisdiction.

I have some reservations about this matter and it is one of the reasons I have consistently pushed to make ourselves as self-sufficient as possible in energy supply. I repeat what I said several times before, we must put more resources into researching the generation of electricity from other renewable and sustainable sources. The major problem is encouraging independent generation and getting that power into the grid, as I mentioned. We are daily told about the imminent peaking of oil availability, the high demand which will come from the greatly expanding economies of China, India and other eastern countries and the instability and insecurity in the supply of gas from eastern Europe. A couple of years ago we saw how gas was shut off from the Russian Federation's neighbours and, while there does not appear to be any threat at the moment to those who can pay for their supply, we do not know what will come down the tracks in a decade or two.

Now is the time to provide for the hard times. Now is the time to encourage home-produced energy and to do what we must to guarantee easy access to the grid for those who enter the market and take the insecurity out of the equation for them. We should be mature enough to realise that people do not invest vast sums in any enterprise without some reasonable expectation of success and while obstacles exist which can easily be removed. The ESB is doing a good job. It has served us well, but this is 2008 and we have massive energy needs, not 1958 when demand was easily satisfied. We must move on and change. This legislation is another step along that way and I commend it to the House.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the chance to say a few words on this Bill. Although the Bill is fairly short, the Minister's speech introduced a few different areas into the debate so that gives us all the chance to talk about interconnectors in different counties throughout the country. It is a useful Bill which we all support. Giving EirGrid more powers and letting it go and do its job is probably correct and it is a wonder we are doing it only now. I am sorry the other Bill relating to EirGrid is not coming through to give it the powers and assets, and break up the ESB once and for all. There are difficulties with ESB staff, which I hope can be sorted out shortly. Until now EirGrid was mainly involved in planning, researching and getting organised. Now it has to spend real money and deliver projects. Some ambitious targets have been set for these interconnectors and the Minister said he hopes that by 2012 the east-west interconnector will be built. He also claimed the same date for the North-South interconnector. If the current approach continues, I wish him luck. It has not been handled in the best way and there are many concerns. I believe the east-west interconnector can be built on time — by 2011 or 2012, or before that if they really want to do it. It is going underground. Any sensible person will accept this and there will probably be few objections. We have been discussing and planning this for ten years and the case for the interconnector was proven long ago. It is needed and it will happen on time. Some of the private companies are now claiming they could build their own interconnectors more quickly. It is a pity they did not get involved in the project earlier. I understand the project was put out to tender before now and nobody was interested until the Government decided to do it itself. It is interesting how things move along. It is to be hoped it will happen on time.

I fully support the east-west line as planned and the route it is taking even though it goes through my county. We need it and it is sensible to put it underground. I must accept this as it is the way it is — we will have concerns going along but it is to be hoped we will be able to iron them out.

EirGrid's job of managing the distribution network is an interesting but tough job. I have been in the control centre and seen what they do there. It is a place where an awful lot can happen at the touch of a button. IT is used, as well as competent staff, to control everything. I did not realise they could literally tap into every windmill farm and turn it off or on when they want to. It is an interesting place and I urge all Deputies to avail of the opportunity to see how it works so that they may understand its importance. Many of the speeches last week and this week on this issue dealt with energy supply, security and cost. It is a major issue and we need to understand it.

Apart from the fact that I represent County Meath, where the proposed route is, I am also interested in this project from the point of view of small businesses. Those who are running small businesses have made it clear to us that energy costs are a big issue and they want it tackled. There have been some positive moves over the past couple of years to help reduce some of the costs, but there is a long way to go to make things easier for business and ease the pressure. I am not advocating that we spend five times or ten times the money putting in different infrastructure than was suggested; that is not the argument. We should simply spend the money wisely and ensure we get the best value.

One of the reasons for building interconnectors, which is one of the main tasks of EirGrid, is that it will give us an opportunity to sell our energy as well as take it in. At the moment we are a net importer and we will be for a while, but it is to be hoped that at some point we will be able to sell the energy we produce and make money. My colleagues have spoken about the possibility of Ireland being a green energy supplier, and that would be great. It would be nice to be known for that. We are known to be a green country, with the shamrock and so on. We should set this as a target and go after it.

The most important short-term issue is security of energy supply. People have been saying over the past few years that we will run out of energy. At Christmas 2006 it was predicted there would be blackouts. This has not happened and I do not believe it will. My reading of the figures is that we are all right for the next couple of years. We need to get ourselves ready for what will happen down the line but it is not as urgent as people are making out. Our electricity will not go next Easter or next Christmas. We are all right from that point of view. However, one never knows. I understand that part of EirGrid's job is to consider, along with the Department, the area of energy production. At the moment we are centred on gas but we are moving towards wind and other energy resources. We will also lose out on some energy resources, such as turf, with the current cutbacks in turf cutting. We must consider other supplies.

Many Oireachtas committees have been travelling to different countries over the past number of years to look at supply methods and different ways of doing business. My committee, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, went to Gussing, Austria, at the suggestion of Deputy Mary White. It is an interesting place. The Minister is probably well aware of the projects being carried out in Gussing, but when I spoke to other people they did not know about it. We should consider places such as this. Gussing, a population centre of less than 5,000 which was one of the poorest areas of Austria in the early 1990s, has turned itself around to become one of the most self-sustaining and profitable areas in the country. This was mostly done by investment in energy production, although it also tapped into many grants from Europe. We visited plants that extract energy from biomass and biogas plants that make gas from grass, corn and so on. They call the plant a "cow" because it eats the same things as a cow and produces gas. This gas is then used to produce electricity. The area also has district heating, which is not something we have in Ireland but which I have seen in other countries. It works quite well. I accept it would probably not be cost-effective to install it in existing developments, but in the future, for developments of 200 or 300 houses, we should consider a system of district or central heating. I have asked EirGrid directly to consider this and I ask the Minister of State to ensure that the Department considers it also.

In Gussing, much effort is put into using local resources to obtain energy which can be sold to the national grid to offset the cost of its own power use. More than 50 businesses have chosen to locate there over the past seven or eight years, purely because of the low cost of energy. That is something we must learn from. Sometimes in Ireland we have too much of a tendency to think big. We plan huge power plants that will produce half the country's supply. However, we also need to consider the smaller versions. We already have wind farms, which is a step in the right direction, but even with them we are thinking big. It is only recently we have been hearing talk of smaller one-off windmills attached to people's homes. We must consider the possibility of villages and towns having their own plans for the provision of heat and energy in their area using the materials around them. In Monaghan or Navan, for example, where furniture is made, we could use wood left over from furniture building. There are certain things we can do if we put our minds to it. We need to consider energy production in smaller areas in conjunction with county councils, enterprise boards, and people involved in rural areas, such as partnership groups.

Obtaining permission to sell the resulting power is a complicated process and there is no guarantee. We should consider giving guarantees to community-centred, not-for-profit or county council groups wishing to provide their own energy supply that they will have an opportunity to supply the grid. They should not be treated in the same way as a private consortium. Common sense must be encouraged, and we must encourage a supply of energy at cost price, rather than at a profit. Many big companies are involved in providing infrastructure in Ireland, be it roads, electricity or something else, and they are there to make profits. We do encourage enterprise but we should also encourage not-for-profit enterprises. This is working well in the area of child care and community projects and we should consider it for other areas. People are under immense pressure when it comes to the cost of living, and the cost of running a business is also increasing. Anything we can do to use new ideas to save costs should be tried. We must learn from other countries.

We have a terrible habit in Ireland of conducting endless pilot schemes and studies. I do not know whether this is done just to delay spending money. Every now and then we should just do something. If we get it wrong it does not matter — we can do something else. We are obsessed in every area of Government with studies and comparisons. I want to see more politicians and Ministers making decisions and doing things. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, is often criticised for going headlong after something and not thinking it through, but at least he is trying to reform things. Other Ministers are the same; Deputy Ryan is another Minister who will try to reform things. Politicians need to have guts. It is not all about setting up State agencies or bodies or other groups to take away decision-making. Decisions can be made by Government; that is where the quickest decisions can be made. I encourage this, especially in the area of energy delivery, production and cost. Let us make some quick decisions and try to get there as we go along. We must set targets that are interesting and challenging rather than establishing the bare EU minimum. Let us go after high targets in this area.

This Bill streamlines the delivery of energy through EirGrid. It will be working on these projects for a couple of years but in the future I hope it will be more proactive. I wish to mention interconnectors as the Minister himself brought it up. However, I will first mention smart meters. The energy regulator spoke to our committee recently and explained to us that it would take four or five years to roll out smart meters and that the cost would be high. Four or five years is probably not a bad target when we consider that a year ago we thought we would never see this. However, I ask the Minister of State to ask the Minister to consider giving priority to those who want to produce electricity in their own areas. They have to be given the chance to obtain smart meters and other incentives more quickly than anybody else because they are making an effort. The smart meters will be rolled out in yet another pilot scheme. I do not know why. We do not need pilot schemes. We know it is the right thing to do. The Minister brought the idea further when he took over the office. We should not bother with pilot schemes but start rolling out the project as quickly as we can. We should ensure that those who want to make their own energy are given priority.

The Deputy has nine minutes remaining.

That should be enough to cover the problems of my county.

I have stated that I fully accept the interconnector that is going underground. I accept the necessity for the North-South one and everybody involved in the campaign to have the proposal changed from overground to underground fully accepts the necessity for this. We in the north east also want more businesses and more jobs created and we want to be able to run our own factories etc. There is no doubt about that and we will do our bit for the country by carrying the supply through the counties. The issue is not that, but how we go about our business.

In that regard, there is a couple of issues I want to tackle. First, seeing as today is about EirGrid and its role in the future, we really must look at how EirGrid does its job of dealing with people and how it makes decisions because the company got it wrong in this instance. I accept EirGrid was given permission by a previous Minister to put these overground, no questions asked. I also accept that since then this Minister, Deputy Ryan, has stated that first let us do a study to check out all of this. That is the way it should have been done in the first place. They should have undertaken this study first.

Everyone speaks of best international practice and we compare figures and charts. Those opposed have different figures to those who are in favour, but I would like to see an analysis of best practice from the past couple of years, not dating back over the past 30 years, of what other countries have decided to do because the majority of infrastructure for carrying electricity was built years ago and would not necessarily adhere to today's best practice. Many private companies are producing and using the DC line, which seems to work quite well and seems close to the usefulness of an AC line, and yet EirGrid states it cannot be used. Other Government representatives, including the next Taoiseach, told us to forget about it, that it was not even worth discussing. When it involves people's health, it is worth discussing and checking out to see whether it is an option. One should not rule it out.

EirGrid, before an Oireachtas committee, ruled out the use of the M3. They did not even consider it. That is not right. That is not treating people properly or giving every chance of a fair say. They ruled out going underground and, as I said, did not even check it out. They ruled out engaging properly with the people.

They decided to come down and tell the people that it was not possible to go underground and that it would cost ten times the amount. Those were mistruths — I cannot use the word "lies" here. They were wrong to state that they could not go underground. They were wrong to state that it would cost ten times the amount when they did not know what it would cost. We might accept that AC might cost more, but none of us here knows. It could cost two times, five times, 10 times or 20 times the amount.

It is wrong for a State body to arrive down to a community and give information that is wrong to mislead and to discourage a certain method. Despite giving EirGrid more powers, we should give it proper direction on how to conduct its business, how to do proper research, how to deal with people and how to conduct proper public relations. I accept that EirGrid will state that it has learned from this and, with some humility, it has accepted that it got certain matters wrong, but it is still adamant it will opt for the same use of infrastructure. We must look at all of that.

Returning to the reasons people have a difficulty with these pylons and the infrastructure running over them, there are many reports, probably hundreds in the past couple of years but many more than that over the past ten to 30 years, some of which raise doubts over magnetic fields. Many do not, but there is a doubt and where there is a doubt, Government, State bodies and all the rest have a duty of care to the people and to their families to check all of this out. There are other arguments about the environment, esthetics and the value of family homes and of land, but they all are separate to the real argument based on health. Those other matters should be looked at, but health is the most important matter and we must thoroughly check it out before we engage on a policy of putting in any more lines.

Apart from the health issue, there could be savings to be made as well. It might be cheaper to go underground using different technology and I want that fully checked out. I do not accept the figures we have been given by EirGrid for the cost of going overground. They are not realistic. They do not include the full cost of the hassle involved in the years of legal and planning challenges and delays. All of those costs must be factored in and we must look at the real cost of going underground. If it is at all possible to go underground, for health reasons if it is the same cost we should definitely go underground and even if it costs a little more we should consider it. It might prove less expensive than going overground. That needs to be fully checked out.

I agree with Deputy McManus and other Deputies who stated we should come in here to debate the matter, and we should debate it at Committee as well. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, is open to that because he has been very open about this in the past couple of months. In his speech, he mentioned that he hoped and believed EirGrid will have a big influence on that study and will have a big say in the deliberations. I am sorry he did not state in the same speech that he expects the community to have the same say, and that he will give them the same chances. As EirGrid is on one side of this debate and the people are on the other, both should be given an equal opportunity to have their views heard and concerns addressed by the consultants conducting the study. Both should be brought in and listened to, and given a fair chance to put their case, because both have an argument to make. It is wrong to give one side more than the other.

As I stated, I will not say the health argument is true or false. There is evidence and doubts, and we must check them out fully. No loss of life is acceptable, despite a guy who claimed to work for EirGrid stating on local radio that it was okay in Italy for four or five children to die over 30 or 40 years. That is not okay and is not acceptable. One cannot put a cost on that. No politician worth his or her salt, irrespective of party, could ever accept that.

There are people in the north east who are doing a great deal of work on this. They have made a 300 page submission to this study to have this investigated. They are doing their job right. They are not necessarily scaremongering, they are just talking about the issues. However, they are going around trying to raise hundreds of thousands to fight this legally because they have been led up the garden path by certain people and politicians that this can be stopped in the planning process or in the High Court. In my view, that cannot happen unless we change the direction given to EirGrid and unless the Government changes the regulations on the use of lines overground. No barrister or solicitor would be able to defeat planning laws. If Ministers and politicians who claim to be against it are against it, the best, quickest and most effective way for this to be done is to bring new regulations to this House stating that in future all lines will go underground. I, for one, accept that one cannot go back to do something with existing lines but we can for those of the future in a cost effective manner. The Minister needs to tell the people that this is about political decisions of Government, not about raising millions to fight legal cases. People in these areas cannot afford to spend millions and yet they feel they must because they are being convinced that it is not just a matter of politics. It is a matter of politics. This House makes decisions on how this country is run. This House makes decisions on how taxpayers' money is spent. Taxpayers' money will be spent to build this infrastructure and therefore the decision lies in here. The study is a useful step in the right direction to assess the situation and give us the information we need to have a proper and balanced debate, but if the figures add up and if the information is true, I would expect the Minister to make that decision and direct EirGrid to go underground with this and other lines in the future. It is not about Meath, Cavan and Monaghan, it is about the future of the country and how we decide to spend our money and do our business, protecting everybody and delivering energy at the right price. Nobody is asking for extremes, just a fair crack of the whip. Let us not have people spending money unnecessarily when it is down to decisions made here.

I ask the consultants to explain in their report why some countries have decided to apply directives and regulations on the distance of such lines from homes. EirGrid technically must install lines 25 m from homes and will try to have them at 50 m. Personally, I encourage them to be at least 150 m from homes. Why have other countries set targets of 200 m and 250 m? Somebody has obviously convinced them that it is right to do so. We need to access that information and find out why that choice was made so that at least we can have a proper debate.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the latitude. It was not all technically to do with the Bill but the Minister gave us the opportunity by going that road himself.

Like previous speakers, I am delighted to have the opportunity to make a contribution on this important Bill. It may not involve a large number of sections but, nonetheless, it is very important.

It is important on occasions like this to recognise the contribution the ESB has made to this country. It has been one of our most successful State companies and I am always proud to remind people that it was the first Government of this country that put it in place in 1927 after the success of Ardnacrusha. The Government had the vision to put the ESB in place at the time and it was criticised for doing so. It has been one of the most successful State bodies in this country, and comparatively one of the best of any country.

At that time the ESB was set up to manage the power generated at Ardnacrusha. That station now generates less than 2% of our gross output, so that gives an example of how our energy network has developed since 1927. EirGrid was established in 2006 and is a new State-owned company. It is separate from all parties in the Irish electricity sector and it took over responsibility for the operation of the Irish national grid. It has its own separate board and it reports to the CER and its main shareholder, the Government. It was established as the operator of the Irish transmission system, but ownership remains with the ESB. On 12 March last year, the Government policy on energy stated that ownership of the transmission would be vested in EirGrid from the end of 2008. EirGrid is responsible for balancing electricity consumption and generation and for the development of the power system.

In October 2006, the decision to proceed with the development of a 500 MW electricity interconnector with the UK and to give ownership of the asset to EirGrid was announced. The delivery of the interconnector is a key priority in the energy White Paper and in the programme for Government. This Bill simply provides the statutory basis for EirGrid to carry out the functions associated with building and operating such an interconnector. The main provisions of the Bill will be to expand the functions of EirGrid to include the construction and ownership of an interconnector and the operation of an interconnector, subject to the appropriate authorisation by the CER. Another provision is to amend the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 to clarify the position of interconnectors not owned by the ESB, and to make it an offence to operate an interconnector without the appropriate authorisation from the CER.The Bill also provides for the establishment of subsidiaries by EirGrid, the increase of its statutory borrowing limit, allows for capital expenditure by EirGrid and other ancillary matters.

Interconnection is crucial to the security, price competitiveness and environmental sustainability of Ireland's energy supply. First, in the event of a shortage in electricity supply in Ireland for any reason, connection with other grids increases the chances that our supply will not be inadequate. Second, greater interconnection in effect makes Ireland a part of a larger electricity market, with many more competing generators and increasing economies of scale, thus leading to lower prices. Finally, greater interconnection is crucial for the development of renewable energy. Many renewable energy sources, such as wind and wave energy, are intermittent and can only work if there are backup sources of electricity. Interconnection provides a greater bank of such backup sources, thus enabling us to increase the proportion of our energy that comes from wind. Furthermore, greater interconnection across Europe generally dramatically increases the potential for wind energy.

However, the pace of the interconnection programme to date can be criticised to some extent. Many other European countries, including those isolated by the sea, have much greater interconnection with their neighbours than we do. They are pushing ahead with even more ambitious plans. For example, Norway currently has 2,800 MW of interconnection with Sweden, 1,000 MW with Denmark, 100 MW with Finland and 50 MW with Russia. A 580 km interconnector between Norway and the Netherlands that will generate 700 MW is currently under construction, while another sub-sea cable to the UK is at the planning stage. Deputy Coveney pointed out that Denmark has interconnection with Sweden, from both the western mainland and the eastern islands, amounting to a total of 2,800 MW, as well as substantial connection between its various islands.

Ireland's interconnection is in a very poor state by comparison. The total currently amounts to 480 MW with Northern Ireland, and that is no longer properly classed as interconnection since the establishment of the all-Ireland electricity market. In spite of this, interconnection projects are proceeding very slowly. That is why I welcome this Bill and hope it proceeds rapidly. Fine Gael will not be doing anything to delay its passage.

It is proposed that EirGrid will develop a 500 MW interconnector between Great Britain and Ireland in the next four years. With the demand for energy estimated to grow at an average yearly rate of between 2.7% and 3.6% over the next seven years, the planned east-west interconnector will contribute to securing energy supply in Ireland. The interconnector will hopefully increase competition and facilitate growth in renewable energy in Ireland. The Ireland to Wales undersea electricity link being developed by EirGrid will be capable of carrying power to supply the equivalent of approximately 350,000 homes. The interconnector will link two separate power transmission systems, which will enable two-way transmission of high voltage electricity. The interconnector will carry electricity for all parties in the electricity market, such as the ESB, Airtricity, SWS, Tynagh, Viridian and others. EirGrid does not generate or sell electricity and so is totally independent.

I was a member of Kerry County Council some years ago when there was a major discussion on wind energy. Enterprising people in Kerry like Mike Barry saw the potential in wind generation. We proposed that we would draw up a special wind policy for the county and would designate certain areas as being suitable for turbines. As a result, the Stacks Mountains have come to resemble an energy park. There are turbines right across those mountains and although people had initial reservations on how these turbines might affect them or the skyline, they have grown to live with them and the turbines are quite aesthetically pleasing to the eye. The Stacks Mountains generate more wind energy than the rest of the country put together. There is further capacity there and more wind farms will be coming on stream.

Planning permission was granted to provide 4,000 MW of electricity, but because we cannot utilise this capacity whenever the demand is not there, that is why the interconnector will be important. Our turbines can generate electricity all of the time, which will make wind energy far more viable as an alternative source in Ireland. I hope that this will provide further impetus to the wind energy industry here, as it has really taken off in County Kerry.

I will now turn to the power station in Tarbert. The ESB decided to sell off some of its power stations, including Great Island, Tarbert, Poolbeg Thermal and the Marina Steam Turbine. The ESB decided in June 2007 that these stations would be closed by 2010. This was greeted with many reservations in Tarbert. People were shocked. There are 130 jobs in Tarbert where there are no real alternative sources of employment and it was a shock to the community. The ESB has been synonymous with Tarbert since 1969 when the foundations for the current generating station were laid.

The ESB has now advertised these plants and has sought formal expressions of interest in respect of their assets. In October 2007, it invited bids for Tarbert and Great Island. I am enthused by the reaction I understand it received. Hopefully, the plant will be bought and will continue in operation as a power generating plant. Apparently, setting up a plant now costs about €300 million and €150 million of the infrastructure is already there if people want to change from oil at that location. As we heard from previous speakers from County Meath and elsewhere, putting pylons and wire over ground leads to much controversy. The wires are already in place here so why would one enter into all that controversy when one has the infrastructure in place as it is? It is critically important that the ESB offloads this to somebody who will continue to operate it.

A major proposal for a liquid natural gas plant on the Shannon estuary has gone through An Bord Pleanála and is on track. An application for a pipeline must now be made. That focuses people's minds and interest in the very unique land bank in public ownership in the Tarbert-Ballylongford area that is known as the Tarbert-Ballylongford land bank. IDA Ireland and Shannon Development should designate that land bank as an energy park. There are 1,000 acres there between land in public ownership and land owned by companies. It could be called the national energy park in the same way as the facility in Limerick has been designated as the national electronics centre. There is a mix of coal and oil generation just across the river and there will now be gas on site.

There are turbines in the locality so there is a mix and balance of energies there. I am sure that as someone who thinks creatively, the Minister of State will agree to considering this move. It provides IDA Ireland and Shannon Development with an opportunity to do something very creative with the site. It provides them with an opportunity not just to provide a holding operation for liquid natural, but to provide for other alternatives as well, both for supply and production. I see no reason that companies could not move into that area to generate alternative forms of energy.

I visited Silicon Valley recently, which should really be referred to as Innovation Valley because most of the innovations in the world come from there. That is the way their universities are set up for innovation. Everybody out there is thinking about innovation. The visit was an eye opener. It is no coincidence that the microchip and most of the other developments in recent times have come from there.

They are looking at applying their technology to green technology. I visited one plant where solar energy panels are being used. Their total electricity was being generated and water for the house was being heated. In Ireland, we are just heating water with solar panels. I have been involved in a few projects relating to heating water, such a swimming pool and our own dressing rooms at home, which have been very successful. However, this particular company, Akeena, is generating electricity for 2,000 homes with its panel. It is not unlike the panels we are using here but it can do more than just heat water. I contacted another company, NovaSolar, which operates in San José and is very interested in looking at Ireland and seeing what we are doing here.

A few weeks after that, the Governor of California made a major announcement with that company of something like $300 million in investment into future green energy alternatives. As a country, we could be the leaders on wind, wave and tidal energy if we just pursue it. Generally speaking, Irish people are very creative. I know measures have been taken but there is so much more scope there and we must take this area very seriously.

In respect of the LNG plant on the Shannon estuary, there was strong local support because that land has been lying idle for 30 years or more. Some of it was bought back in the 1960s. However, there were also reservations. Obviously, it will affect some local people's quality of life. I know that Shannon LNG is speaking to local development companies. I would advise it to continue its dialogue with just the local people and accommodate their wishes and needs in any way possible. These people are very reasonable, but also very concerned. I say that here today because it gives us so much opportunity going forward in that area not just in respect of providing facilities and terminals for liquid natural gas, but also providing for associated industry.

We have become very uncompetitive in respect of attracting industry to Ireland. During my visit to Silicon Valley, one of IDA Ireland's officials there pointed out to me that we have considerable competition from India, China, Malaysia and other countries but that the total cost of employing a person in Silicon Valley is $26 per head. The figure is €28 in Ireland and €6 in Poland. Our energy costs are becoming a major disadvantage when we try to promote Ireland. The biggest advantages we have at present are the 12.5% corporation tax rate and our very well-educated and creative workforce. They are our two big advantages but we are not competing in respect of labour and energy costs. Hopefully, this Bill will not only fuel wind energy generation in this country but might make our energy costs more competitive at some point down the road.

The support of Members of this House for the provisions of the Electricity Regulation (Amendment) (EirGrid) Bill in respect of electricity interconnection is very welcome. I have listened with interest to the Deputies' points about security of supply, costs and competitiveness and our ambitious renewable targets.

The east-west electricity interconnector is a key strategic infrastructural project. With EirGrid as owner, we can be certain that it will contribute significantly to maintaining Ireland's security of supply. It will also be made available to all users on a non-discriminatory basis and will support the development of renewable wind generation.

In the context of liberalised multi-player energy markets, the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, has responsibility for ensuring security of electricity and gas supplies. The CER plays a key role in overseeing the development of the east-west interconnector and in its ongoing regulation. I assure the Deputies that the Department, together with CER and EirGrid, is working to ensure that this project is delivered in the most expeditious manner and at the lowest possible cost to consumers.

EirGrid is a fully independent, transmission system operator, licensed by the Commission for Energy Regulation. As several Deputies highlighted, EirGrid plays a key strategic role in the independent operation of the single electricity market in co-operation with its Northern Ireland counterpart. EirGrid also has responsibility for monitoring and reporting on security of electricity supply and generation adequacy. It is instrumental in facilitating the increased penetration of the renewable generation in the Irish electricity system.

The Bill, which expands EirGrid's statutory functions, clearly demonstrates the Government's confidence in EirGrid's ability to deliver on its challenging mandate. I am aware that the Minister will be happy to consider carefully any proposed amendments to this Bill from all parties in this House as long as they serve to expedite the planning and development of our electricity interconnection and, in so doing, help deliver important benefits for Ireland.

I have also listened to the concerns raised by Deputies on all sides about overhead electricity lines and certain transmission projects currently being developed by EirGrid. The Deputies will be aware that international consultants have been appointed by the Department to undertake an independent study to provide the best available professional advice on the relative merits of constructing and operating overhead transmission lines compared to underground cables. This study will have regard to technical characteristics, reliability, operation and maintenance factors, environmental impact, possible health issues and cost factors. The study will address the concerns raised by the Deputies on this issue.

The Department also requested submissions from the public on this issue, which generated a huge response. The consultants will consider the more than 500 public submissions received. The consultants will also be available to meet the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to discuss the details of the report once published.

Turning again to the Bill, it is one of a range of ambitious and challenging measures that will help to advance the Government's energy agenda, as outlined in the energy policy framework and programme for Government. The Government is providing strong leadership in this area and will deliver a sustainable, secure, efficient and competitive all-Ireland energy market. Our overall objective is to develop an economy and society that value both energy and the environment.

The Minister is anxious that this Bill be considered as soon as possible on Committee Stage with the aim of progressing it to the Statute Book as quickly as possible. In this regard, the Minister wishes to encourage Deputies to table any amendments to the Bill as quickly as possible so that they can be given full and fair consideration. Such amendments will be considered on their merit with an open mind.

Question put and agreed to.