That Dáil Éireann:
- that the North-South interconnector is a vital piece of infrastructure for ensuring a safe and sustainable source of energy for both Ireland and Northern Ireland;
- that communities across Cavan, Monaghan, Meath, Tyrone and Armagh are very concerned about the present proposals for the North-South interconnector;
- that the recent decision of An Bord Pleanála to approve planning permission for the overhead pylon project did not consider an alternative underground option, which was not put forward by EirGrid;
- the negative impacts that an overground interconnector will have on the landscape of these areas, particularly on their more scenic and ecologically sensitive locations;
- the potential detrimental consequences for the tourism sector in these areas;
- that the present plans for the North-South interconnector would have adverse effects on the livelihoods and farming practices of farming households along its route; and
- that some 2,550 homes are potentially impacted by the proposed overhead line;
- the continued failure to address the concerns raised by local residents;
- the need and requirement that the communities concerns must be addressed;
- that considerable technological advances have occurred since the most recent analysis of undergrounding was conducted in 2009, such that the cost and technical feasibility of undergrounding the North-South interconnector have changed greatly;
- that EirGrid has recognised that undergrounding the project is feasible; and
- that A Programme for a Partnership Government committed and affirmed the need for "much better engagement with citizens and communities about the energy policy decisions that affect them" and committed to "effective community consultation on energy infrastructure developments";
and calls on the Government to:
- commission immediately an independent report, incorporating international industry expertise to:
- examine the technical feasibility and cost of undergrounding the North-South interconnector, taking into account the most recent developments in technology and experience gained from existing projects abroad;
- evaluate the potential impacts of both undergrounding and overgrounding the North-South interconnector on surrounding areas, considering such aspects as its impact on local tourism, health, landscape, agriculture, heritage, etc.;
- analyse the real costs to date, and estimated future costs, of the current proposed overhead pylon project; and
- ensure that no further work is done on the North-South interconnector until this analysis and a full community consultation is completed; and
- implement its commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government in relation to better engagement and community consultation about energy policy decisions that affect them.
I welcome the opportunity to bring this motion before the House on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party. The North-South interconnector has become a serious issue for the people of Cavan, Monaghan and Meath and, unfortunately, for the Government, it is an issue that will not go away. Noting the recent decision by An Bord Pleanála to award planning permission to construct 299 pylons that are between 25 m and 51 m, we felt compelled to bring this motion before the House. An Bord Pleanála's decision comes despite protracted and intense opposition from local residents and their repeated calls for EirGrid to seriously consider undergrounding the North-South interconnector. EirGrid and this Government have simply stopped engaging with technological advancements in the arena of electricity transmission.
If the Government refuses to listen to local residents' concerns of its own accord, we must bring these concerns to its attention. In this regard, our motion highlights the considerable negative impacts that an overground power line would cause to communities in Cavan, Meath and Monaghan as well as those in Tyrone and Armagh. Furthermore, in recognition of the lack of dialogue that the proposers of the North-South interconnector have had with local communities and industry experts, our motion calls on the Government to commission an independent expert analysis drawing on international expertise to examine the technical feasibility and cost of undergrounding the North-South interconnector.
As a party, Fianna Fáil supports the upgrading of the national grid to ensure security of energy supply, boost capacity for renewed economic growth and allow for the possibility of electricity links with either Great Britain or France in the future. EirGrid and Northern Ireland Electricity are jointly planning this major cross-Border electricity scheme. This scheme is a 400 kV overhead line linking the existing 400 kV substation in Woodland, County Meath, with a planned substation in Turleenan, County Tyrone. It will provide a second high-capacity electricity transmission line between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. We recognise that the North-South interconnector will play an essential role in preventing energy blackouts in either jurisdiction on the island of Ireland as well as bringing an increased amount of renewable energy into the system and ensuring that there is an appropriate competitive environment, increasing competition and ensuring lower energy costs into the future. That said, Fianna Fáil is concerned with the installation of overhead pylons throughout the country by EirGrid near residential areas and areas of scenic beauty.
In its application to An Bord Pleanála, EirGrid only made a submission for an overground line. In other words, EirGrid did not consider the merits or possibility of an underground power line in its application. This is blatant discrimination against the people affected by the North-South interconnector. Why has the Government not listened to their concerns and investigated them? When concerns were raised over Grid West and Grid East, analysis of an undergrounding option was undertaken. EirGrid has flip-flopped repeatedly on whether it is economically and technologically feasible to underground these pylons and those involved in the Grid Link projects. Its inconsistency and overall unwillingness to engage with this is central to why the people of Meath, Cavan and Monaghan will feel that they are not been treated equally or fairly. People in these counties are asking themselves why no underground cabling proposals are outlined for the proposed North-South interconnector?
In a 2013 report on the same, EirGrid considered three studies completed on the costs of undergrounding the project that were completed between 2008 and 2009 and concluded that the cost would be closer to eight times the cost of overgrounding the cables. This is in contrast to the findings of an international independent commission which suggested that an underground solution would be three times more expensive than an overhead option. That is a significant cost differential and is one of the main reasons behind our motion. We are deeply concerned about the very significant changes and are concerned that some are relying on what is clearly out-of-date data. In April 2015, EirGrid stated an underground system would cost in excess of €500 million more than the overhead option, which would be approximately three times more than the overground option. Again, this appears to be a significantly reduced cost compared to what was previously relied upon to make a decision to go overground.
Two clear trends emerge here. First, EirGrid cannot be seen as independent when it comes to assessing the costs of undergrounding the North-South interconnector. Since the beginning of the process, EirGrid has been intent on placing the North-South interconnector above ground and it is clear that any cost estimate it may provide may be perceived to favour the overground option. What is needed now is an independent group of experts to assess the specific needs of the North-South interconnector and to calculate a precise cost estimate using rigorous and transparent methods.
It is also clear that the costs involved with using an underground AC option change rapidly with technological changes. Clearly, in just over two years, EirGrid acknowledged that the price of undergrounding the North-South interconnector had fallen fivefold. Furthermore, recent international experience has disproved claims that underground technology is not suitable for developments like the North-South interconnector. One example which springs to mind is the ALEGrO project, which runs between Aachen in Germany and Liège in Belgium, which is approximately 90 km in length and which can carry 1,000 MW. It will be constructed entirely underground using high voltage direct current, HVDC, technology that we understand to be most suitable for the voltage involved. While I accept that there are many similarities, there are some differences in length and the voltage concerned but it certainly draws significant comparisons as an option. This project is very similar to that relating to the North-South interconnector. It carries in the region of one tenth of what is required in terms of Belgium's overall energy consumption and is key to maintaining Belgium's energy security. It is also intended to increase energy efficiency in Germany and Belgium and to push down the price of electricity in both jurisdictions. As such, it is very much on a par with the proposed North-South interconnector in terms of purpose. The ALEGrO project will achieve these aims without impinging on the landscape along its routes. Not a single mountain vista or rolling hill will be tainted as a result of steel pylons being erected and no local resident will face land devaluation, health issues or a reduced quality of life because of its construction. In short, the only glaring difference between this project and the North-South interconnector is that the residents of Cavan, Meath and Monaghan have not been treated with the same respect as their counterparts in Germany and Belgium.
With these issues in mind, we are asking the Government to conduct an independent analysis of the possibility of undergrounding the North-South interconnector. This analysis must also assess and detail the impacts that constructing the North-South interconnector overground would have on local communities. For example, what would be its impact on local heritage sites and tourism? Would an overground interconnector impact on agricultural production? Would there be ramifications for the health of local residents? These are the types of questions my party colleagues and I are hearing from people in the counties through which the North-South interconnector is to pass yet they are not questions to which this Government has provided answers leading me to believe that it is not so concerned by the impact of the North South interconnector on local communities. Instead, it prefers to allow EirGrid to proceed over the will of local people ignoring the concerns that have been rightly raised by the various different interest groups and people who live in the area.
As elected representatives, it is incumbent on all of us to give voice to the concerns of the public and to give careful consideration to how the decisions that are taken by us impact on their daily lives. Frankly, it is sad to see a Government that should be accountable and answerable to its people so blatantly ignore the concerns I have outlined. With the support of those Members present, I hope this motion can reverse this worrying trend and finally address the concerns of communities in Meath, Monaghan and Cavan. I commend the motion to the House.