Priority Questions

Broadcasting Legislation

Michael Moynihan


86. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the broadcasting legislation that he intends to introduce; the timeframe for same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20510/13]

As the Deputy is aware, the Broadcasting Act 2009 was enacted in July 2009 and served to consolidate the vast majority of all previous forms of broadcasting legislation in the State.

While it is the case that I have no immediate plans currently to introduce broadcasting legislation, the continuing development and ultimate implementation of various policy positions in my Department will give rise to the necessity to introduce both new legislation and amending legislation in due course. There are several areas of broadcasting policy that are being considered actively by my Department, including most specifically the question of a broadcasting charge to replace the existing method of funding public service broadcasting. Other areas of broadcasting policy that may necessitate future legislative provision include the issue of media mergers and media ownership in the State, the function of which is to be transferred to my Department in due course, and the application of relevant measures of the audiovisual media services directive on a national level, as well as other matters relating to the continuously evolving broadcasting landscape and the convergence of technologies.

When due consideration has been given to these issues and decisions have been made on policy, legislative measures will follow as appropriate.

I thank the Minister for his reply and note there are a number of issues. First, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland is conducting a review of public service broadcasting and is to submit a report to the Minister.

My latest advice is that I will receive the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland report within the coming four weeks. The Bill on media mergers is being brought through the House by my colleague, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Given it is on the A list of legislation and because, as Deputy Moynihan noted, it has been promised for some time, my understanding is that it will be published this term. The heads of the Bill to revamp competition law, as approved by Government, approve the transfer of print media responsibilities in that regard to my Department and I expect this will be dealt with this term.

I refer to the broadcasting charge which will replace the television licence and which I would like to see introduced at some stage next year. This morning I had the opportunity to speak at the annual conference of the independent broadcasters - inevitably this issue was raised. Although it may not have been readily recognised by everybody some years ago that so many people are now accessing public service content on platforms other than the traditional television set in the corner of the living room, it is now acknowledged this has become a fashion in Irish society. For that reason, and in order to diminish the current level of evasion in paying the television licence, the sooner we can make the transition the better. Even though there is much work yet to be done on this, I would like to see the charge being staggered in some time in 2014.

It might be no harm if the Minister gave an assurance on this issue, which raised its head some months ago, to those who are now exempt from paying the licence fee, stating they will remain exempt. It is very important that those people are reassured that whatever form of licensing fee is brought in they will remain in their current category.

Perhaps I should tell the House, first, that it is not my intention that the charge will be greater than the existing television licence and, second, subject to study it is not the intention that the categories of people to whom Deputy Moynihan refers, who currently have free television licences, will change. I do not envisage they will.

Fisheries Protection

Michael Colreavy


87. Deputy Michael Colreavy asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if compensation will be made available to eel fishermen; if funding is available for a study of eel stocks; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20433/13]

As Deputy Colreavy will be aware, the 2007 EU eel regulations, drafted in response to the endangered status of the European eel, required EU states, including Ireland, to develop eel management plans. Based on the scientific facts available, a recommendation of this plan was that Ireland close both the commercial and recreational eel fisheries in 2008.

In June 2012, the status of eel in Ireland, and across Europe, was reviewed as part of the reporting requirement for the 2007 EU regulation. This included a comprehensive scientific assessment of the status of the eel stocks nationally. Other EU member states carried out similar reviews. The review in Ireland recommended that the closure of both the commercial and recreational eel fisheries should continue in line with the conservation imperative. Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI, has made the relevant reports on eel stocks available on its website, including the national eel stock recovery plan, the status of eel stocks in Ireland and the implementation of the eel management plan for Ireland.

The review of eel stocks in Europe is a shared concern involving many countries on a pan-European basis. As the EU regulation requires member states to report on national measures and reassess every three years, the scientific and management review is ongoing and is mainstreamed into the work of Inland Fisheries Ireland. As previously outlined in the House, no property right attaches to public eel licences and consequently the issue of compensation does not arise given that the closure of the fishery was applied for conservation reasons under the Fisheries Acts. In that context I am sure the Deputy will appreciate that in the current economic climate the Government does not have funds available to provide for compensation payments.

I do not dispute the scientific evidence on declining stocks of eels. The evidence indicates that stocks continued to decline in 2012. What is also beyond dispute, however, is that eel fishermen have lost their livelihood by virtue of a decision taken by the Government and the EU in 2009. The price for glass eels internationally ranges between €575 and €730 per kilogram, with approximately 3,000 glass eels per kilogram. In France and Spain the glass eel is described as blue gold. The island of Ireland would require just eight to ten tonnes of glass eels to restock its waters. I remind the Minister of State that when the Shannon fisheries were closed in 1968, fishermen received compensation. There is also EU precedent for compensating eel fishermen. I ask him to reconsider the question of compensating eel fishermen. Their income has gone because of the regulations introduced by this Government and the EU. Will he consider putting in the eight to ten tonnes of glass eels needed to restock Irish waters?

Deputy Colreavy acknowledged the serious situation that exists in regard to the availability of eels. By 2011, glass eel recruitment had fallen to 5% of the levels obtaining between 1960 and 1979. For every 100 glass eels available in the 1960s and 1970s, only five are available now. It is possible that the stocks could disappear and that eels could become extinct in this generation. We must conserve eels as a viable entity in the animal world. I presume that as eels become rare their price increases. Our job is to conserve and protect them on a three year cycle. If and when eel stocks recover the fisheries will be reopened but this will not happen any time soon.

I appreciate the Deputy's point in regard to the salmon hardship scheme and the compensation that may have been paid to other fishermen in the past but that was a long time ago and our economic circumstances mean that the requisite funding is not currently available. I am advised that IFI is investigating potential sources of EU funding but it is unable to confirm any such potential at this stage.

I understand the economic pressures we currently face but eel fishermen are also dealing with economic pressures.

The life cycle of the eel is between 20 and 50 years. Eels leave Irish waters to breed in the Saragossa Sea, which is thousands of kilometres away, and drift back to the European landmass on the currents. The purpose of all of our actions is to conserve the eel stock and ensure eels survive and are able to get out to sea. It will take a long time for stocks to recover, which means it will not be possible to commercially exploit eels for a significant period, if ever. Our only hope for the future is to allow stocks to recover and we banned all commercial fisheries for this reason. Any decision to allow eel fishing would result in stocks being decimated.

Renewable Energy Generation

Tom Fleming


88. Deputy Tom Fleming asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he will outline his plan regarding the development of renewable energy scheduled year on year over the next ten years in terms of renewable energy output meeting the energy needs of this country. [20441/13]

Development in the renewable energy sector in Ireland is underpinned by a clear policy framework. Under the renewable energy directive, Ireland is required to increase renewable energy from 3.1% in 2005 to 16% in 2020, with a minimum target of 10% in the transport sector. Energy is consumed across the transport, heating and electricity sectors. Our intention is to reach our overall target through 40% renewable electricity, 12% renewable heating and 10% renewable transport.

Under the directive, Ireland was required to set out in a national renewable energy action plan the trajectory towards meeting its legally binding target. The action plan and first progress report on the plan, which are available on my Department’s website, show the sectoral and technology breakdown that we anticipate in the achievement of our target. By the end of 2011, we had reached 6.4% of overall energy consumption from renewable sources and the trajectory set out in the action plan assumes we will achieve the 16% target incrementally at approximately 1% per annum. It will be achieved primarily through the support of renewable electricity from wind, hydro and biomass by way of feed-in tariffs and mandating the use of bio-fuels through the bio-fuel obligation scheme. My Department's Strategy for Renewable Energy 2012 to 2020 sets out the key strategic goals for the various renewable energy sectors.

In terms of the 40% renewable electricity to be achieved by 2020, the ability to meet this target is largely determined by the grid connection offers to renewable generators. Supervision of the grid connection process is vested in the Commission for Energy Regulation. The commission's Gate 3 direction to system operators published in December 2008 set out the list of projects to receive grid connection offers. Gate 3 was designed to ensure the 40% target for renewable electricity by 2020 could be achieved. This was based on an assumption that 5,800 MW of renewable generation would be required. Gate 3 followed Gates 1 and 2 and provided for additional grid connection offers of up to almost 4,000 MW.

The recent conclusion of the single electricity market consultations on dispatch and scheduling affords the opportunity to move on with the wind farm developments we require. EirGrid is now in a position to commence issuing constraint reports in respect of Gate 3. This will allow developers to make decisions on their Gate 3 offers. Recent changes I announced in the REFIT 1 and REFIT 2 schemes will further facilitate this development.

As regards the structure, level and nature of targets, including those on renewable energy, the post-2020 approach has not yet been agreed. The European Commission last month published a consultation on its Green Paper, A 2030 Framework for Climate and Energy Policies, seeking views on a range of matters, including targets for designing an energy and climate framework for 2030.

We are over-reliant on imports of coal, oil and gas in the context of meeting our energy needs. We import some 90% of these fuels at present. We will be obliged to accelerate our efforts in respect of the delivery of renewable energy. The UK's reserves of gas almost ran out last month and Ireland is very reliant on the interconnector with Scotland for its gas. If there was a breakdown in supply, then we would have great difficulty meeting our gas needs. Will the Minister use his good offices to promote and, if possible, see to it that approval is forthcoming in respect of the LNG project at Tarbert? It appears that gas from the Corrib will not be brought onshore until 2015. As a result, there is a need to expedite matters in respect of the project at Tarbert. As the Minister is well aware, a huge number of jobs are at stake. Ireland has probably the greatest potential among the member states of the European Union in respect of developing sources of renewable energy. However, we are falling far behind other countries in our efforts. Outside of the motor industry, in Germany more jobs have been created in the renewable energy sector than in any other. This is in a country which is home to car manufacturers such as Volkswagen, Mercedes, Porsche, etc. Ireland has huge potential in the area of renewable energy.

Deputy Fleming is right about this country being overly reliant on imports of fossil fuels. As an island and as the most isolated of the 27 EU member states, Ireland is vulnerable as long as 100% of its oil and 90% of its gas must be imported. Of course, gas is used to a large degree in the generation of electricity. It is not something which keeps the citizens of Ireland awake at night but security of supply is a real issue and it must be afforded a very high level of precedence among the policy objectives of the government of the day. Earlier, I informed Deputy Moynihan of my hope that the new public service broadcasting charge might be in place before the end of 2014 and I would like to inform Deputy Fleming of my hope that gas from the Corrib will be coming ashore at the same time. I am sure Deputy Fleming would get good odds from Paddy Power on which of my hopes might prove to be wrong in this regard. The Corrib field would supply 60% of our needs at peak. That fact is not insignificant.

Deputy Fleming also inquired about the LNG project. The latter has as much support from the Government as can be given to it. The project is being navigated through the regulatory process and the Deputy may well be aware that it has recently been the subject of a court case. A decision in this regard has not yet been handed down by the court but I expect that it will be forthcoming before the next occasion on which I take Question Time.

I will revert to the issue of the harnessing of natural elements, particularly those on the Atlantic, and the development of onshore turbines, but what of offshore turbines and wave energy? I welcome the fact that one of our 14 science research programmes is on renewable energy. It is a good initiative. The midlands scheme is an example and I hope that a good decision is arrived at in that respect. Planning processes need to be expedited in all counties. Schemes should be compatible with residents' wishes and be run in a good, organised manner that does not cause people interference. I am sure that this can be achieved. Thanks to modern mechanisms, noise levels can be kept low.

I thank the Deputy, but I must call the Minister.

The Minister is on the right route and we will push the campaign ahead.

The Deputy is right, in that we are uniquely endowed in terms of our renewable energy prospects. We have propitious wind resources, for example. The Deputy referred to the onshore performance in that regard. Wave and tidal energy is still at research stage. It could be an important element for Ireland down the line.

The extent to which renewables can be integrated into the system is an issue. As it happens, I am meeting EirGrid, the ESB and so on today to discuss our targets and, following the single electricity market, SEM, decision, what progress we can expect to make in the next three to four years. However, the amount of renewable energy that can be integrated into the system is limited. Given our capacity to generate more than our domestic need, we could develop an export trade if there was a market. We believe there is one on the neighbouring island. Therefore, if developers of scale come forward with projects, we will have the capacity to develop an export trade in the sector to which the Deputy referred.

Energy Prices

Michael Moynihan


89. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the way he can bring about lower energy prices for domestic and business consumers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20511/13]

Responsibility for the regulation of the retail electricity and gas markets is a matter for the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, which is an independent statutory body. Prices in the electricity retail market are fully deregulated and similarly for gas, except in the case of Bord Gáis Electricity, BGE, tariffs for domestic consumers. Customers can therefore avail of competitive offerings from electricity and gas suppliers. Prices are set by suppliers and are commercial and operational matters for them. I do not have a statutory function in the setting of electricity or gas prices.

Electricity and gas costs in Ireland are influenced by various drivers, including global gas and oil prices, the cost of capital, exchange rate fluctuations, the small size of the Irish market, geographical location and low population density. Global gas and oil prices are by far the most significant factor. Prices have risen sharply since the start of 2011, driven by events in the Middle East, north Africa and Japan and the significant growth in demand from China and India. Ireland is at the mercy of international fossil fuel prices, which dictate the retail price of electricity.

We have previously discussed the price of energy in both the domestic and commercial markets. We spoke in particular about the profits of the ESB. Figures released recently indicated a fourfold increase in the company's profits in 2012. It was suggested previously that the half-yearly profits were unduly high compared to what would be expected in the second half of the year. The public is under severe pressure, as the Minister is well aware, at a time when an energy company that has a fourfold increase in profits is still looking for an increase in the product it is selling on the market. One could ask whether it is time to examine the structure for the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, and whether it ultimately provides safeguards for homeowners or businesses.

The matter goes back to the previous question from Deputy Tom Fleming, in that if we are to exploit our indigenous renewable resources, which will make a contribution in the area about which Deputy Moynihan is concerned, then we must generate the investment capital as best we can or ensure that we can remunerate the capital that is borrowed in the market in the normal way by, for example, the ESB. The ESB is a successful company and did return greater profits for last year than either the regulator or I anticipated. It has also taken a bigger hit in not just the dividend it has paid to the State but the super dividend which was part of the budget last year and which required the State companies to contribute an additional €100 million on top of that.

I am afraid it is the case, going back to the previous question, that the biggest driver in electricity costs is global oil and gas prices. The past two years have been exceptionally difficult in that regard for the reasons I mentioned about the circumstances in North Africa, the Middle East, what happened in Japan in terms of Fukushima, and the fact that both India and China have a voracious and growing appetite for energy. That has been the single biggest driver of prices.

I understand that. The ESB is a public company and the Commission for Energy Regulation exists to protect the consumer. The Minister indicated that the profits surpassed the expectations of both the commission and the Department. Is it not the case that the commission should only sanction price increases that domestic consumers or businesses can pay that are necessary to give a profit to the semi-State company but not to give it an enormous profit?

That is a layman's description with which I agree. The regulator observes a model that has been laid down from the outset and it makes its own call on these matters.

Renewable Energy Policy

Michael Colreavy


90. Deputy Michael Colreavy asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if there will be a development of a national wind energy strategy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20434/13]

Development in the renewable energy sector in Ireland is underpinned by a clear policy framework. Under the Renewable Energy Directive, Ireland is required to increase renewable energy from 3.1% in 2005 to 16% in 2020, with a minimum target of 10% in the transport sector. Energy is consumed across the transport, heating and electricity sectors. At the end of 2012, we had reached 6.4% of overall energy consumption from renewable sources. Our intention is to reach our overall target through 40% renewable electricity, 10% renewable transport and 12% renewable heating, which together amount to 16% of all energy consumption.

Under the directive, Ireland was required to set out in a National Renewable Energy Action Plan, NREAP, the trajectory towards meeting its legally binding target. The action plan and the first progress report on it, which are available on my Department’s website, show the sectoral and technology breakdown that we anticipate in the achievement of our target. Wind-generated electricity is expected to play a major role. At the end of 2012, approximately 19.5% of our electricity consumption was from renewable sources. My Department’s Strategy for Renewable Energy 2012 to 2020 has the strategic goal of having progressively more renewable electricity from onshore and offshore wind power for domestic and export markets.

Feed-in tariffs are the primary support mechanism for wind energy in Ireland. REFIT 2, which was launched last year, is designed to incentivise the addition of up to 4,000 MW of new renewable electricity capacity to the Irish grid from onshore wind, hydro and biomass landfill gas technologies. Plants must be new plants in all cases, neither built nor under construction on 1 January 2010. Projects must be operational by the end of 2017. The support for any particular project cannot exceed 15 years and may not extend beyond 31 December 2032.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The recent conclusion of the SEM consultations on dispatch and scheduling affords the opportunity to move on with the wind farm developments we require. Eirgrid is now in a position to commence issuing constraint reports in respect of Gate 3. This will allow developers to make decisions on their Gate 3 offers. Recent changes that I announced to REFIT 1 and REFIT 2 will further facilitate this development.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, published a report entitled, Energy in Ireland, in November 2012. That report gives an estimated figure of approximately €300 million in avoided national gas imports from the use of all renewable energies in the generation of electricity in 2011. Wind generation alone would account for an estimated €240 million of the €300 million in avoided gas imports.

The memorandum of understanding on energy co-operation that the UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Mr. Edward Davey and I signed on 24 January will result in completion of consideration of how Irish renewable energy resources, both onshore and offshore, might be developed to the mutual benefit of Ireland and the United Kingdom. This will determine whether it is beneficial for both countries to enter into an inter-governmental agreement under the Renewable Energy Directive to provide for renewable energy trading.

If an inter-governmental agreement is entered into, there are potential significant employment opportunities. As an example, employment creation arising from a 3,000 MW project would be expected to be in the order of 3,000 to 6,000 job years in the construction phase, with the actual number dependent on the construction schedule to 2020. There would also be additional jobs created in the ongoing maintenance of turbines over a 20-year operating life. Further employment opportunities could arise if turbines or components were to be manufactured in Ireland. All relevant State agencies, particularly in the enterprise area, would have to co-ordinate their activities early in the process to ensure employment potential of export projects is maximised. This opportunity has already been identified by the Industrial Development Authority and Enterprise Ireland in their clean technology growth strategies.

A technical review of the wind energy guidelines is being overseen by officials from the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, my Department and the SEAI. This review will examine the manner in which the guidelines address key issues of community concern such as noise, including separation distance, and shadow flicker. It will be completed this year.

This is the second time that the Minister has told me that we have a renewable energy strategy but I contend that we do not. Any such strategy must contain a minimum of six features. It must specify how the impact on the environment, human health and animal health will be measured and monitored. It must outline how we would measure the impact on existing major industries, including tourism and agri-food, for example. It must specify how the interests of the host communities will be safeguarded after the awarding of the licences and how community consent will be obtained. It must further specify how the level of accessible reserves can be accurately and honestly measured and reported. It must also include an approval-granting process that is open, transparent and incapable of misuse by vested interests. Finally, it must ensure that the benefits accrue to the people of Ireland in terms of revenue to the State, employment, energy security and energy price control in the State.

Without all those features, we have the equivalent of requests for proposals being put at a car boot sale. We should be doing a lot better.

The four minutes after the Minister's two minute reply must be shared between the two sides of the House, and that is more difficult if we have long questions.

To some degree there is a dialogue of the deaf between Deputy Colreavy and me. I would argue that five of the Deputy's six conditions are included in the strategy, and the impact on human health and animals is emphatically included. There are rigorous planning hurdles that must be complied with, including environmental impact assessments. The relative contribution of developing an energy sector based on renewables, or the relative impact of developing an export sector as compared with tourism contributions and so on, are a matter of judgment. For example, my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, deals with inland fisheries and must make a judgment on the contribution from angling tourism compared with the desire of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to develop a fish farming sector in Ireland. One makes a judgment call on such issues, as it is the only way to deal with them. The approval and granting process could not be more rigorous, and the planning guidelines are out for consultation at the moment. The renewable energy and wind energy strategy, as published, requires that developers have regard to community benefit, and there is an express statement in that regard.

I cannot answer about revenue to the State. If the Deputy is referring to the question of the export sector, the memorandum of understanding between me and my counterpart in London was signed in Dublin in January. It will take the completion of the intergovernmental agreement before one can make a stab at the commercial contracts that can go ahead as a result of that. That concerns how the State's stake reverts and whether it comes through equity participation, taxation, royalties and so on. That will be dealt with in the course of the year.

It is interesting that although those financial matters have not yet been addressed, companies are still negotiating the lease or purchase of land in the area we are discussing. The Minister spoke about planning guidelines, and there was recently a Seanad debate on the need for statutory regulations regarding distance of turbines from occupied homes. This ranges from 500 m for those turbines under 50 m in height to 2,000 m for those turbines over 150 m in height. Should there be an effective ceiling on the height of turbines, and will the Minister consider introducing regulation rather than guidelines in this respect? There are examples of breaches of guidelines quite recently.

The Deputy is right and I hear that developers are proceeding to take options on possible sites for development in different parts of the country. That has been ongoing for 15 years. If the export possibility develops, the process will be on a larger scale.