Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Natural Gas Imports

Mick Wallace

Question:

6. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his views on the growing trend of US multinational involvement in the gas industry across Europe; if he or his Department has had input into the proposed gas terminal on the Shannon Estuary backed by a fund (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3404/19]

There are currently 14 liquid natural gas terminals in the planning or building stages around the EU. They are mainly the result of a deal struck between Trump and Juncker last year, with Trump commenting afterwards that the EU was going to be a very big buyer of US liquid gas. The terminal being built on the Shannon will lock us into future fossil fuel use when our future energy policy needs to focus on renewables. Why are we allowing this private company to do this?

Consistent with European energy policy, gas markets across Europe are commercial, liberalised and competitive. Europe is currently importing approximately 70% of its gas needs, with this share expected to increase. The diversification of sources is important for security of supply purposes. The involvement of US or other companies or corporations in the European gas industry is a commercial decision by those entities in a liberalised gas market. The EU has acknowledged the importance of importing gas from the USA and other sources to diversify and render its energy supply more secure.

At present Russia is the largest source of these imports, whereas the USA is of the order of 1% to 2%.

The diversification of sources of supply is important for security of supply purposes and liquid natural gas, LNG, offers the opportunity to diversify supply.

In Ireland since the Corrib field opened, we have reduced our dependence on gas imports from 95% to approximately 33% in 2017. However, that reliance will rise again as the flow from these fields reduces. We import from just one source in Scotland.

The Shannon LNG project has been designated am EU project of common interest. Ireland has supported that designation as it offers Ireland the potential for improved security of supply.

In August 2018 Shannon LNG announced it had entered into an agreement with New Fortress Energy to develop the proposed LNG terminal at Ballylongford, County Kerry. As this is a private commercial project, any future investment decisions on the development of this project are ultimately the responsibility of the project promoters, subject to compliance with all legal and regulatory requirements.

The Minister of State did not say that it increases security. The Government is moving away from Russian gas and going to America and wants to frack gas, which is twice as damaging. It is a scientific fact that US gas is fracked gas. It releases more than twice the amount of methane than conventional gas, which comes from Russia which is already more damaging to global warming than coal.

This is nuts. It is not going in the right direction in terms of climate change. There is no evidence that this is a good climate action decision. Royal Dutch Shell invented the idea of natural gas as a bridge fuel in 2001. We are still talking about it 20 years later. The reality is that over a 20-year period, liquid natural gas is dirtier than coal and diesel oil in terms of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy produced. This is because of the unburned methane that is released through the extraction, processing, transport, storage and combustion of that gas. I have been looking at stuff from Cornell University, which is one of the leaders in this field. It has pointed out that "reducing methane is absolutely key to meeting" the UN COP21 targets.

I have listened intently to what the Deputy has been saying. I would like to explain what we have to do right now in terms of our supply. We have to transition to cleaner sources of fuels. In the meantime, we need to have a transitionary period. We cannot say we are not doing this or that. The Shannon project is a private enterprise that is governed by EU regulations. This means it can be done. There is a need for secure supply right now. In 20 years' time, we will have transitioned away from this type of fuel but we cannot do it overnight. I mentioned earlier that Bord na Móna is moving from peat to other sources of energy. This transition will take time. We are working on that. At the same time, we need to have security of supply. We cannot rely on one source alone.

The Minister of State is admitting that by buying fracked gas from America, we are going to a dirtier fuel now. There has been a myth about gas as well. I have looked at the Minister's responses over recent months. It has been said that we are following EU guidelines. As far as we are concerned, the unelected EU Commission is in the hands of the fossil fuel industry. The carbon dioxide emissions from gas are far less than those from coal and diesel, but the methane element is disastrous. Cornell University has pointed out that "Earth's climate system responds too slowly to reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, and warming to 2°C and higher will occur within the next 35 years unless methane emissions are reduced below current levels". The Shannon facility will lock us into something that is not positive in the context of where we should be going as we seek to deal with the challenges of climate change. This is not a way forward. The Minister of State is arguing that we will have no security without this facility. Rather than pursuing a dirtier fuel using fracked gas from America, we would be better off staying better friends with the Americans to bring us to a point where we will be using more renewables.

I agree with the Deputy that we have to get to a stage where we will be using more renewables. That is part of the whole-of-Government action plan on climate change. As I said earlier when we spoke about the warming of our fisheries, this is happening and we have to face up to it as a reality. We need to have an adult conversation about it. We have to make sure whatever we do is done in a way that involves a transition to the proper place. I do not disagree with what the Deputy has said about the research that exists. We need to make sure we can secure supply for the moment. I agree with the Deputy that we need to move away from fossil fuels to a cleaner society.

Deputy Mattie McGrath was at the Business Committee when we reached Question No. 4. With the permission of the House, we will return to that question now.

I do not know.

Deputy Mattie McGrath has a number of friends in the House.

We will leave him off with it.

I have my reservations.

The Deputy's reservations will be noted.

Deputy Mattie McGrath is one of the better ones.

That will not be noted.

I have to be on my best behaviour. I was trying to organise the business for next week.

National Broadband Plan

Mattie McGrath

Question:

4. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the current and projected costs for the roll-out of the national broadband plan; the status of the plan; the timeline for completion of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3141/19]

I am asking the Minister for details on the current and projected costs for the roll-out of the national broadband plan and the status of the plan. When does he think rural business people, householders, schoolgoers and farmers will have some modicum of broadband service in order that they can transact their business? I ask the Minister to make a statement on his commitments in this matter.

The Deputy missed earlier exchanges that might have answered some of his questions. I ask the House to forgive me if I am being repetitive. As I said in response to earlier questions, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has received a final tender submission from the bidder in respect of the ongoing procurement process for the national broadband plan. My priority is to bring the procurement process to a fair and impartial conclusion as quickly as possible. I will bring a recommendation to the Government in this regard in the coming weeks. The level of subsidy required to bring high-speed broadband services to the 540,000 premises in the national broadband plan State intervention area will be determined through this procurement process. Until the assessment is concluded, I will not be in a position to formulate a recommendation for the Government. I am not yet in a position to discuss cost. With regard to the completion of the build of the infrastructure, if a contract is awarded and signed, deployment will commence at the earliest possible opportunity with activity across all counties in the first year of deployment. Given that deployment is likely to take some years, if a contract is awarded the bidder will be required to provide almost 300 broadband connection points across all counties in the first year of deployment. These broadband connection points have been selected by local authorities and are locations of community importance such as schools and community centres.

The Minister said he did not want to be repetitive, but there is nothing to repeat in what he has said. There is nothing in it. The motion we discussed earlier this week made it clear that the estimated total cost of the delivery of the national broadband plan is escalating. The lack of clarity regarding those costs is a real concern. The Minister's response is a source of further concern. We know from this week's debate that the structure of the sole remaining bidding entity has changed substantially over the course of the process. Significant concerns now exist regarding the robustness of the national broadband plan and the structure of the sole remaining bidder. What happens if we have legal challenges? As I said during this week's debate, I am a small contractor who tenders for projects. The tender process has to be robust. There cannot be a tender process if just one person or company is involved. It just does not happen in that way. I wish it did, because all of us would have great fun and we would have a great country. The Minister knows that this is a right unholy mess. It is just not good enough for businesses in my area, right from Carrick-on-Suir up to Nenagh. I was contacted this morning by a man who is involved in a substantial long-standing business in Nenagh. He does not have a broadband service. It is 350 yd. away from him, but he cannot get it.

I have indicated that I will not be in a position to clarify costs until we have completed the process. The Deputy will understand that people who are considering tenders do not talk about those tenders ahead of a decision. That is normal practice. The Deputy has expressed concern about a change in the composition of the bidding consortium. There has been a very detailed pre-qualification process. Any change in the composition of the consortium, or indeed of the contractors, has to go through that process. An evaluation committee looks at technical and commercial compliance requirements. When a change occurs, the committee looks at the financial standing and the technical and professional capability as a result of the change, as well as the suitability from a compliance perspective. Every time there is a change, those tests have to be run and the State has to be satisfied that the requirements are met.

This is a riddle. I am worried that this project will turn out like the children's hospital project. The Minister has said that the non-disclosure of tender prices is a normal part of the tender process. This process is not normal. It is abnormal because we have just one bidder. There is no political or commercial sensitivity here. The only problem I have here is that taxpayers are being fleeced and homeowners are getting no service. The Minister made it clear that following the review conducted by an independent process auditor, Mr. Peter Smith, a recommendation would be made to the Government on whether to appoint the Granahan McCourt-led consortium as the preferred bidder. This is riddled with opportunities for legal litigation. I represent people from Puckane to Ballingarry and everywhere else. I represent homeowners, schoolgoers who want to get information on courses and fill out their CAO application forms, farmers and ordinary business people. We are talking about providing hubs and giving community access. This is farcical. It is going nowhere. The Minister is down a cul-de-sac. It is not normal. It is abnormal. The Minister should do something about it because it could end up in the High Court or the Supreme Court. If the Minister knew anything about tendering, he would know that he cannot deal with one bidder.

The Deputy has to remember that we have had a competitive process. There was more than one bidder in the early stages. We have had to contend with the withdrawal of some of those who initially entered the process. That has been the reality.

As a result of that, to meet the concerns that Deputy Mattie McGrath's constituents are expressing to him, which concerns were eloquently expressed during the debate here the other night, we need to attest to the robustness of the technology, the deployment strategy, the terms of the contract, the governance, the protection of the State interest, the terms for connection of individuals who will be connected, and the fulfilment of the brief as set out. These are things on which we have to conduct due diligence because there is only one bidder. We must ensure that the State interest is protected. The care that my Department and its officials are taking is proper in light of the concerns that the Deputy's constituents are expressing to him. The Deputy would not thank me if we did not do that robust evaluation and that is the reality. The Deputy would be the first person to ask why we did not evaluate this or that.

Of course I would. I would be holding the Minister to account. I will not listen to waffle.

The House facilitated Deputy McGrath to intervene. We are now going to move on.

Question No. 7 replied to with Written Answers.

Mining Industry

Timmy Dooley

Question:

8. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the position regarding the identification of further unidentified sinkholes in view of the identification of a further sinkhole on a site (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3367/19]

The Minister is familiar with the sinkholes that have developed in parts of County Monaghan as a result of difficulties around a disused site. Could he update the House on where the Department is at in dealing with other such potential difficulties around the country?

I am familiar with the site and the area. Gyproc, part of the Saint Gobain construction materials provider, operates a gypsum mine in Drummond, County Monaghan, and has a factory in Kingscourt, County Cavan. The company employs more than 160 people in the Cavan-Monaghan area. Mining operations have been taking place in the area since 1936.

On 19 December 2018, a crown hole, often referred to as a sinkhole, developed in the area of the Drumgossatt mine. My Department, Monaghan County Council and the Environmental Protection Agency are working together to ensure that Gyproc carries out the necessary investigations to understand the development of the recent sinkhole in Magheracloone. A programme of works has been agreed between the parties, including site investigations. The results of investigations will be submitted by the company to the statutory authorities for monitoring and verification. Timelines have been set for these works, which will be adjusted and revised depending on results. The three statutory authorities continue to work closely to ensure that the situation is managed and resolved by the company as promptly as possible. As a precautionary measure, Monaghan County Council closed a section of the L4900 road to facilitate the investigative drilling which is ongoing at the location. I attended a meeting on 15 January in Carrickmacross which was held to allow representatives from the three statutory authorities, independent technical consultants and Gyproc to address concerns and questions from local residents affected by recent events.

The Minister well knows that the grounds at the GAA club and village community centre in Magheracloone were damaged by the opening of that sinkhole. Land collapsed at the community centre in the immediate aftermath of the emergence of that sinkhole. Part of a road also collapsed with a significant impact on people getting around.

My concerns are centred around the safety of the roads, five homes and a national school in the area. Gyproc sent information leaflets to households explaining what was happening, which was fine to a point. Inspection holes were bored around the collapsed ground and instruments lowered in to confirm the state of the structures below. The holes were caused by pillars collapsing after water was pumped into a disused gypsum mine.

The subsidence in September affected a radius of about 120 m and another hole has since opened up in a nearby area. I accept it is a matter for the private company to deal with, but is it the Department's view that this is isolated to this particular mine structure, or is there a potential for similar events to happen at other disused mines or mine areas throughout the country? That is what concerns me. To what extent is the Department monitoring those disused mines and what kind of structure is in place to deal with that?

To clarify, the first collapse in the ground was as a result of pillars that collapsed. The second was the result of what they technically call a roof collapse, where the surface went down in a circle. Both of these are being investigated, and that includes independent auditors looking at the results. Gyproc has undertaken to produce all maps to the residents. It will also produce all of the mining licences maps for that area.

As the Deputy touched on, one of the big things was the communication. I told Gyproc at the meeting in Carrickmacross, in no uncertain terms, that its level of communication left a lot to be desired. Gyproc has taken that on board and will set up a stakeholders committee where the county council, my Department, the EPA, the residents and the company will meet regularly, probably every fortnight, for updates on what is happening. It is a serious issue, especially because of the type of mining that is being done there and the type of material involved. There are other mines around the country which are being looked at.

The Minister may not have all the information today but I am trying to get at the reviews that take place. I understand that, from the time that the water was pumped into the caverns, a three-month period elapsed before the collapse at Drumgossatt. I understand that Gyproc indicated that it only monitors every six months, as required by the Department. It appears in this case, based on the preliminary investigation, that the entire event happened within a three-month period. The time between the flooding taking place and the actual collapse was three months. The current directions of the Department make no requirement for Gyproc to do any reviews within that time. It might be worthwhile for the Department to look again at its recommendations for necessary checks that need to be put in place and monitoring that to ensure that we do not have a similar situation in some other location. The Department might also look at or review other mines throughout the country to ensure a similar situation does not arise.

The Deputy correctly points out that water was pumped into the mines and that changed the whole dynamic. That is something my Department will be looking at.

Ireland has a mining heritage that extends back to the Bronze Age. It has occurred at hundreds of sites, the majority of which are not the legal responsibility of the State. The Department maintains an inventory of sites at which historical mining is known to have occurred, in compliance with Article 20 of extractive industries waste directive. There Department continues to monitor other major sites around the country. The site in Monaghan has a particular reason the collapse happened and it was because of the pumping in of water at a particular time which destabilised the ground. I agree with Deputy Dooley that we have to look at the monitoring regime in places like that where there are specific issues or if there is a material change to the activity that is going on.

Food Waste

Joe Carey

Question:

9. Deputy Joe Carey asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the steps that can be taken to reduce food waste, particularly in supermarkets. [3187/19]

I ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the steps that he can take to reduce food waste, particularly in supermarkets.

Globally, it is estimated that one third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted each year. In Irish households, food waste is costing about €700 each every year. Ireland aims to halve food waste by 2030 in line with the United Nations sustainable development goals and the EU’s circular economy action plan.

In Ireland, we waste nearly 1 million tonnes of food annually. About a third arises in retail and catering, with a somewhat smaller share of waste from consumers, and somewhat larger share from producers. While supermarkets are directly responsible for the disposal of only 2% of food waste, their influence across the supply chain makes them central actors in combating our national food waste problem. Recognising this, my Department and the EPA sought to involve major supermarkets in reducing food waste. Aldi, BWG, Lidl, Musgrave and Tesco have all participated in my Department’s action group on food waste. This has involved signing up to the food waste charter commitments, supporting the EPA’s "Stop food waste" campaign, signing up to the FoodCloud food donation network and collecting and sharing food waste data.

I intend to build on this foundation. I am currently reviewing the data on waste streams and practices at different points in the supply chain and any implications for our current programmes. My aim is to identify initiatives which can reduce food waste in line with agreed targets but also to improve recycling by encouraging increased uptake and use of the brown bin by householders and businesses.

I shall work with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the EPA, producers, retailers, consumers and local authorities to develop an effective strategy to deliver on these new ambitions. Schools are important channels through which attention and improved practices can be promoted.

I thank the Minister. A great deal of progress has been made to reduce our food waste over the years. If one looks back at 2009, the first pilot was done at Frenchpark in Roscommon which entailed a national master composter training programme. The programme has been rolled out nationally since. The introduction of brown bins was another success. There is a website, stopfoodwaste.ie, which is also very good. I welcome the Department's interaction with the various supermarkets, including Tesco, Lidl, BWG Foods and Musgraves on the initiative mentioned by the Minister and in the setting up of the action group. Charitable organisations like FoodCloud are doing tremendous work. Along with Simon, it operates a food hub in the midwest, which is great. We need to build on this progress . As such, I ask the Minister whether he has plans to step up efforts to reduce food waste.

I am reviewing all of these matters to determine how we can enhance our performance here. A 50% reduction is going to require huge improvements. Food bins are not universally deployed currently which means that is one area to examine. There is significant contamination of bins currently. The relatively high rate of contamination can compromise the recyclability of materials. That is another area. We will identify demands and requests on the production chain to see how we can reduce the impact across it. It will be partly about enhancing consumer consciousness, taking into consideration the role of schools but we will also look at retailers, as the Deputy said, right back to producers to reduce the handling and creation of waste.

I agree entirely with the Minister that the consumer is key and that schools have a role to play. Indeed, producers are also an issue. If one looks at vegetables in particular, there is a grading system which means that a vegetable of a different size or look than the norm is discarded. Is that an area at which the Minister might look in the context of this issue?

We will certainly look at it if the Deputy has ideas as to how that could be dealt with. Over one third of waste is at the producer end which reflects practices like that. Whether the discards can be recycled into other material such as animal feed or whether they can get into the consumer chain, I am happy to look at any suggestion from players in the field. I intend to meet with different players to go through the policy changes we need to make to deliver on our ambitions.

Electric Vehicles

Brian Stanley

Question:

10. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the policy initiatives that have been developed in terms of expanding and the future ownership of the public charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. [3353/19]

Martin Heydon

Question:

18. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his plans to address range anxiety and to develop a network of EV chargers nationwide which would support 500,000 EVs. [3177/19]

My question is on the roll-out of charging points for electric vehicles and the need to expand the network to deal with range anxiety. I also ask about the ownership of the network. The regulator's decision in 2017 has left the question of the ownership of charging infrastructure up in the air. I ask the Minister to address the policy initiatives his Department is developing to deal with these matters.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 18 together.

I thank the Deputy for the very relevant questions. Providing adequate charging infrastructure is critical to ensure the continued growth in the uptake of electric vehicles. There are currently 668 standard public charge points in the ESB's ecars network and a further limited number provided by local authorities and retail outlets. There are also 77 fast chargers, mainly on national routes. Most standard public chargers can provide approximately 100 km of range in one hour whereas fast chargers typically provide 100 km of range in 20 minutes. Since the start of last year, a €600 grant has been in place for home chargers and over 1,000 grants have been paid out to date. Under the first call for applications from the climate action fund, I approved funding of up to €10 million to support ESB ecars to develop a nationwide, state-of-the-art electric vehicle fast charging network. The key elements include six high speed charging hubs on motorways capable of charging eight vehicles simultaneously; 16 high speed charging hubs capable of charging four vehicles simultaneously; additional high power chargers at 34 current 50 kW locations; upgrading over 50 22 kW chargers to 50 kW, and replacing up to 264 locations with 528 charge points at the pre-existing pilot grade of 22 kW to next generation high reliability models. It is an ambitious programme. New EU regulations will require employers with over 20 parking spaces to provide charging points by 2020. This is in addition to the requirements in respect of new developments for both commercial and multiple dwelling developments. As part of the climate action plan I am developing, I intend to look at the adequacy of the infrastructure and its path of growth to ensure we can meet the ambitious target we have set for electric vehicles in the network.

I thank the Minister for the reply. The Minister has outlined some of the progress and indicated that there are 668 ESB charging points. He further stated that his Department had provided a €10 million grant to the ESB. The Minister said there will be private charging points such as those which employers with more than 20 car spaces will be required to provide by 2020. While that will cater for a lot of it, there is a need to create a network nationally which is more substantial and strategically located. For people travelling from the west, south or even midlands, the question of range is always at issue, in particular when one's lights and window wipers are going at the same time as everything else. I ask about the policy direction on the ownership of the network. From where is the policy that the ESB must divest itself of the network coming? Is it the Department? Charging is not like refuelling a diesel or petrol car, it is a major investment. There is also the matter of upgrading the grid as wider ownership of electric vehicles will place a strain on it.

Heretofore, charging points have been free and unlimited but the ESB has signalled that this position will not continue to obtain indefinitely. As such, it is entering into consultations with stakeholders on the introduction of fees for fast chargers later in the year and for standard chargers in 2020. The expectation is that many more entrants will come into the market when the service is no longer free. The other network is that of the local authorities which have been very conscious of trying to develop a network which deals with range anxiety. We are also considering whether the role of local authorities can be enhanced and whether they can be supported in this context. There will be a mixture of public and private provision. The key is that when charging is no longer entirely free, those who have obligations to meet will get some recompense and that will promote greater density in the network. I will be assessing this carefully in the context of the plan to ensure we have it right.

I refer to the chargers in the ESB's network currently. What will happen with them? There was a big push from the regulator to have the ESB divest itself of those chargers. Is that continuing and is the policy direction coming from the Department? It is a very clear question. I welcome the fact that local authorities have become involved. As the Minister has heard me say in the House before, local authorities have a major role to play as the form of government closest to the people in addressing climate change and in taking climate action.

If it does not happen at local level, it will not happen at national level. There will be charging at home and workplaces, but there will be a substantial loading on the grid. In Norway lights are reported to flicker in some parts of the country where there is a high number of EVs. In its low carbon future document the ESB stated that to connect 275,000 EVs and heat pumps, the grid would need an upgrade costing €300 million.

On the question of ownership, the Deputy is right that the regulator temporarily suspended ESB expansion of the network. That suspension has been lifted, however, and the ESB is undertaking a new expansion under a new dispensation from the CRU. The decision is one of an independent regulator and I am not aware of any requirement to divest.

The Deputy is undoubtedly right about the loading on the grid. As the uptake of electric vehicles increases, we will have to fortify the grid. Capacity is one of the important aspects EirGrid must examine, not only for taking on electric vehicles but also renewables. It is equally important that we move to smart metering and dynamic pricing opportunities in order that consumers can meet the pressures on the grid and that there can be dynamic demand to allow us to better manage the pressures.

Energy Prices

Brian Stanley

Question:

11. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if consideration has been given to providing a policy direction to the energy regulator to investigate the increasing price of household energy bills in view of the fact that under the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 he has the power to issue a policy direction to the regulator. [3354/19]

My question relates to the price of energy. Prices are high and there is talk of an increase in carbon tax which is already applied to some goods. In comparison with other European countries, we have some of the highest electricity prices. Section 10A of the Electricity Regulation Act 1999, as amended, sets out a procedure whereby the Minister can give a general policy direction. What is being done in that regard?

Section 10A of the Electricity Regulation Act sets out the procedure under which a policy direction may be issued to the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU. The legislation sets out details of the tasks and, inter alia, restrictions, timelines and consultation requirements with the independent regulator and the Oireachtas.

Energy markets in Ireland operate within a European regulatory regime in which member states must guarantee the independence of national regulatory authorities which are expressly forbidden from taking direct instructions from government. The regime also restricts policy directions in the form of general policy guidelines in certain areas that are prescribed regulatory duties and powers in the European Union's third energy package. A policy direction in this matter, therefore, is not being considered. Consistent with European energy policy, the electricity and gas markets in Ireland are commercial, liberalised and competitive. The position of successive Governments has been that competitive energy markets result in greater choice of suppliers, products and prices for consumers and businesses.

The regulation of retail market prices for electricity and gas in Ireland ended in 2011 and 2014, respectively. The thrust of Government policy on energy costs is focused on the competitive market and supports for energy efficiency. Government policy has supported competition to drive down prices and data from approved price comparison sites show that consumers can make significant savings by switching energy suppliers.

The CRU has a statutory market monitoring function in the electricity and gas markets and is solely accountable for the performance of its functions to the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

There are boundaries to what the Minister of State can do, which I understand, even though I would prefer if some of them were not in place. They are set out in the legislation. The problem is that there is no competition on prices; rather, in some cases there are signs that energy prices have increased since the so-called liberalisation of the sector. The regulator judges competition solely by switching rates, that is, the number of people who change from one supplier to another in any one year. I understand the rate is high compared with that in other European countries. That is the reason the regulator gives and has given in the past, but the problem is it does not deal with the issue of price because people are given a reduced price for a short period only. Has there been any recent initiative? Through his powers in legislation, has the Minister of State asked the regulator to initiate an investigation into the prices charges? Last year the electricity supply of 4,626 households was disconnected.

I would not like to see a return to price fixing. Long-standing Government energy policy since 1999, aligned with the thrust of the European policy, has focused on the importance of increasing retail market competition, which results in a choice for consumers. Government policy has supported competition to drive down prices. Data from approved price comparison websites such as bonkers.ie or switcher.ie show that consumers can make significant savings by switching energy suppliers. For example, in switching supplier a customer could save consuming an average amount of energy up to €148 on an annual electricity bill and up to €118 on an annual gas bill, while a customer of a single dual-fuel supplier could save up to €300, as estimated by independent websites. Therefore, there is competition and prices are being driven down by it, which is how the market should work.

The Minister of State is correct that people can switch and reduce their bill for a short period. The problem, however, is that the rates charges go back up, as anybody who has tried to switch supplier will have learned. There is not a long-term saving. In the past 20 years the percentage of household income spent on energy has increased dramatically. If we consider the profits of suppliers, we can see that Bord Gáis Energy which was once a State-owned company but which was sold to British Gas in 2014 made a profit of €28 million in 2015, while pre-tax profits at SSE Airtricity have also increased. Other companies' profits have risen substantially. Has there been any investigation by the CRU or the Competition Authority? Pay-as-you-go meters are typically used by people and households on the lowest incomes, but they are being charged significantly more for electricity. The Minister of State needs to examine the matter to provide a policy direction and must speak to the CRU about it. The poorest households pay on time because they must, but they are being charged the most.

I reiterate that EU restrictions are the main reason such a policy direction is not being considered. In addition, it is clear that such a move would run counter to the thrust of long-standing Government policy on energy, which favours competition. Moreover, the CRU has carried out investigations of energy market competition in recent years and recommended a range of new measures which are being enacted by the regulator to boost consumer engagement and raise awareness of the availability of cheap, discounted tariffs to customers who switch suppliers. If a customer switches suppliers, he or she can switch again the following year.

Switching suppliers takes half a day.

There is no reason not to switch.

National Broadband Plan Implementation

Eamon Ryan

Question:

12. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the status of the tendering process for the national broadband plan. [3265/19]

I know that the Minister has returned to this issue on several occasions, but I am keen to be given a broad update and ask some specific questions. Perhaps it might be outlined in the second phase of the plan, but will the Minister comment on the specific infrastructure he is considering using to roll out broadband provision? Are ESB poles being considered to bring fibre optic cable to homes, or will it only be done using telephone poles? What percentage does the Minister estimate will not be provided by fibre optic cable but rather will be wireless? They are the details I am looking to tease out to help to inform our discussion on the issue.

I will not reiterate the data I have provided for the Deputy, but, suffice it to say, we are at the final stage of evaluation. A few nights ago we had a debate in which many concerns were raised. The reason the work is ongoing is we wish to tease out the issue of the robustness of technology and so forth.

On the use of technology, bidders had access to the entire network. There is an intention to use the networks of both Eir and the metropolitan areas. Therefore, existing infrastructure is being used where possible, although delivering fibre optic cable to homes will require substantial new infrastructure.

In the vast majority of cases fibre broadband will be delivered to the home. The approach envisaged throughout the process has been that up to 2% could be provided for otherwise than by fibre broadband to the home, with a request that it could go to a higher number on agreement. However, in the vast majority of cases fibre broadband will be delivered to the home.

I wish to tease out one issue. It seems that one of the options is to use ESB, rather than telephone, poles. The thinking behind it is why in the long term would we maintain two mechanisms for delivering cable to a house? We know that every single house has an electricity connection. If the ESB already has the capability, working with Siro, to wrap fibre optic cables along electricity wires, it would be much easier to provide access that way. There are difficulties with it as the cables run across fields, rather than along roadways, as telephone poles tend to do. I question the overall strategic logic of maintaining the network of ESB poles in the country, as well as 2 million telephone poles. A long-term strategic saving must be available if we were to use this opportunity to double up and use the same infrastructure, although I know it would not be easy. There are lots of difficulties in negotiating with farmers and so on, but it would be a missed opportunity if we did not think strategically at this critical stage. I am interested in knowing about the use of ESB poles and where the process is at.

It has been a competitive dialogue. As the Deputy knows, we had a number of them entering the competitive process. Bidders could look at different approaches. The ESB was one of the bidders at an earlier stage. Clearly, they had to choose which approach to take in making their bid, but they are making use of existing infrastructure, both State and privately owned. The mix is for the tenderer to set out. It was an open technology-neutral tender. There was no State direction on particular approaches that should be taken. They were the terms on which the tender was developed.

I was aware that the ESB had pulled out, but that does not preclude the use of its assets by the winning bidder. The Department does not have to stand back completely. It is good that metropolitan area networks, MANs, are being used. It was obvious that they would be, given the history of the bidders. The bidder may also use Eir poles. However, it is my understanding the bidder was very keen and open to entering into negotiations with the ESB with that as an option. I am keen to get some sense of whether that is now dead. The Minister mentioned using existing infrastructure. Is he precluding the use of ESB poles? Is that likely or unlikely to happen? Surely the Department must have some idea of whether it is in the mix where final delivery is concerned. There is a State interest in the network we are building and its degree of efficiency.

The State has not precluded any approach in the fulfilment of this requirement. Obviously, the bidders had to negotiate on the option they felt suited them best. That required them to negotiate privately with other providers where they were going to use that network. It was up to the bidder to come forward with what it regarded as the best approach in delivering at the least cost. That has been the approach throughout the process.

Illegal Dumping

John Curran

Question:

13. Deputy John Curran asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the new initiatives and projects planned for 2019 to combat illegal dumping; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3171/19]

Since the introduction of domestic waste charges, the incidence of illegal dumping has increased year on year. It is a blight on the landscape in towns and villages and rural Ireland. I know that the Minister of State will say dealing with it is the responsibility of local authorities and they are. As it is a uniform problem in most parts of the country, it is time the Government and the Minister of State's Department looked at an initiative to support local authorities in dealing with this problem.

Under the national waste enforcement steering committee, a network of regulatory bodies work together to target illegal dumping. In 2019 specific priorities are the enforcement of large-scale illegal activity requiring multi-agency responses; identification of sites where illegal dumping occurs for enforcement; and creating regional multi-agency fora with An Garda Síochána in each of the six Garda regions. This will give a particular focus to the work of the regional lead local authorities for waste enforcement. I shall provide assistance with enforcement costs and site solutions in 2019. Enforcement is primarily through the local authority network which undertakes about 140,000 site inspections and 15,000 enforcement actions. Each year the Environmental Protection Agency engages in particular enforcement of an upper tier of waste activities. It also supervises the enforcement activities of local authorities and promotes programmes for critical improvement in enforcement. My Department supports these activities with a €7.4 million enforcement grant and is reviewing the effectiveness of the programme.

In 2019 my Department will also be funding anti-dumping initiatives with a grant of €2 million. The grant has supported hundreds of projects across a range of activities, including clean-up, awareness and prevention, surveillance and smart enforcement. This year's projects are being identified. The criteria for the selection of projects will be communicated to local authorities shortly.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply and welcome the initiatives to which he has referred. He specifically spoke about large-scale dumping. Perhaps in his further remarks he might indicate how many prosecutions actually went through the courts last year and were successful. With a lot of fly-tipping and the like taking place, local authorities will state securing the evidence to secure a successful prosecution is difficult. While there are initiatives, how effective have they been? Let us move away from large-scale dumping and look at the dumping of domestic refuse. Perhaps there should be initiatives to provide greater flexibility for local authorities to offer free services. I do not mean replacing the domestic charge; I refer to civic amenities available for one-off use. Local authorities used to collect large household items once a year, but that has largely been done away with in many parts of the country. Initiatives of that type need to be reintroduced.

Illegal dumping is rife. It is a particular problem in my area of Galway East, but it is rife throughout the country and we need to do something about it. The review that is ongoing will inform us on enforcement and helping local authorities and how effective enforcement and prosecutions have been. I do not actually have the number of prosecutions to hand. That is part of the overall review, but it is important that money is being made available. We need to review and set out criteria to obtain effective results from it. We need to mention the offenders in the media when they are found in order that they are named and shamed. That is also very important.

I agree with a lot of what the Minister of State says and absolutely agree that the offenders should be named and shamed. From what local authorities tell me, however, securing prosecutions in court is difficult. The Minister of State might come back in due course and indicate how many prosecutions were secured last year, but the reality is that many people are never brought to court. That is the underlying issue. From the householder's point of view, I note that we used to have a system under which large items were collected from houses once a year or every second year. That service is no longer available from many local authorities. Funding should be made available to local authorities to provide it. Large-scale dumping often consists of beds, sofas and other large items. Rather than paying for the clean-up afterwards, there should be a pro-active programme, as part of which local authorities would provide that service.

I agree with the Deputy, that for large-scale items which were previously collected or delivered free of charge, some of the grant money of €2 million that I mentioned has been used to do exactly what he is saying. I agree that we need to incentivise people to dispose of what they have in a legal way. We also need to have an awareness campaign to highlight the issue of prosecution. We will get the Deputy the figures he has requested, but we are on the one page. It is a question of making the most effective use of the money to ensure we will end up with an outcome that shows we are reducing this plague on the environment.

Television Licence Fee

Brian Stanley

Question:

14. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if consideration has been given to the expenditure of the licence fee by RTÉ; and if legislative change has been considered in order to establish a greater level of accountability in the expenditure of the licence fee. (details supplied) [3357/19]

Has any consideration being given to the expenditure of the TV licence fee by RTÉ and have legislative changes been considered to establish a greater level of accountability in that regard? It is a substantial sum of money. Looking at costs, €3 million is expended in RTÉ every year in paying the wages of the ten leading presenters.

The governance and reporting structures in respect of the expenditure of the licence fee by RTÉ are set out in the 2009 Broadcasting Act. It places an extensive range of reporting requirements on RTÉ in relation to its activities and expenditure. As well as oversight by my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, RTÉ is subject to regulation by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI. RTÉ is audited separately and independently by externally appointed auditors, KPMG.

As part of its annual reporting process, RTÉ submits a statement on the use of public moneys paid to it. A statement on total revenue and costs derived in that financial year, distinguishing between moneys received or expended on activities related to the delivery of its public service objects and activities related to its commercial opportunities, is also provided.

The BAI also has significant regulatory responsibility in relation to RTÉ, requiring each year a statement on performance commitments and a review of the extent to which previous commitments have been met. The commitments include such items as maintaining audience reach; growing online and the RTÉ Player weekly reach; developing and opening RTÉ archives; implementing a diversity strategy and action plan; meeting news and current affairs targets; providing a broad range of content and services for children; making content accessible to the widest possible audience across different devices and platforms; and supporting the Irish independent production sector through commissioning radio and television programmes.

BAI also conducts a review of RTÉ’s strategic plan every five years.

I note the response of the Minister and his reference to the BAI and the fact that there is an external audit. The shareholder on behalf of he taxpayer and the householder is the Minister. In 2017 RTÉ looked for the licence fee to rise to €175 because, as we know, it was in significant financial difficulty at the time. Certain measures were taken to address that issue. I am asking what conversations take place between the Minister and the director general of RTÉ. Some of the costs at the station seem to be excessive. We are fully in favour of good public service broadcasting and funding it, but if one looks at wages alone, one will see figures of €495,000, €400,000 and €389,000, which are substantial sums for a station that is serving the population of the whole island of 6,500,000, which is roughly half that of London. The BBC, for example, proposed the introduction of a cap on pay.

The Deputy will have another opportunity to speak.

The position is that RTÉ is independent in many of these operations. They are not day-to-day matters with which the Minister deals. Notwithstanding this, RTÉ states the latest figures demonstrate a reduction of 32% compared to fees earned in 2008. I understand the director general has indicated an intention to see further reductions in the fees paid to top performers, but that is an operational matter for the company. It will respond that some of the top performers are key in generating advertising revenue and that from its point of view they create important access to audiences and commercial revenue. However, there is a balance that it has to strike, but we must recognise that it is part of the day-to-day operations of the company.

On the question of how money is spent in RTÉ, I am sure the Minister has conversations on an annual basis with the director general. I understand he cannot go in every day of the week and demand this, that and the other be done. However, this issue needs to be watched of a general policy direction. The Minister needs to do this on behalf of householders.

On the licence fee, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment made various proposals and set out a course for the improved collection of the licence fee. We know that there is a significant gap; in the region of €40 million a year is not being collected. Has the Minister any update on the matter?

On introducing a cap on wages, the Minister has said the director general is seeking to reduce costs, which is welcome. Has the director general indicated to the Minister that there is talk of a cap on wages similar to that being considered by the BBC?

First, I recognise what the Deputy is saying in that there is concern and public comment on the very high wages paid to individual broadcasters. It is something RTÉ has also recognised. It has indicated its record in bringing down salary levels and its intention to see it occur further. I will certainly raise the concerns of the Deputy when I meet RTÉ. There is a balance to be struck.

On the collection of the licence fee and the level of efficiency achieved in stamping out non-compliance, there is a cross-government report being produced which is due to be presented in the first quarter of the year. I am looking forward to receiving it as it will look at the effectiveness of the system in place.

Questions Nos. 15 and 16 replied to with Written Answers.

National Broadband Plan Implementation

Timmy Dooley

Question:

17. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the estimated cost of the roll-out of the national broadband plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3365/19]

We have talked at length today about the national broadband plan, but there has been conflicting information coming from different sections of government on the costs associated with the roll-out of the national broadband plan. The Minister will appreciate that there is considerable concern, particularly in the light of what has happened in the building of the national children's hospital and the serious escalation in prices. Will he outline for us any information he can on the cost of rolling out the national broadband plan?

As indicated in our earlier discussion with Deputies, until there is a finalisation of the process of examination, there are no costs I can indicate to the Deputy. The approach has been entirely different. We are now at the end of a tendering process in which a very detailed examination of every element of the cost, right down to the number of poles required and the footage of fibre to be rolled out, is taking place. It is at that level of detail and not at an initial stage. Costs identified now will be very robust and have been subject to very close scrutiny by the State. There is a distinction to be made in the stage of the process we are at. We are at the stage where finalised tenders are being submitted.

The Minister will have read the detail in his Department that when the State originally sought to develop a process to appoint contractors, the advice available to the Government at the time - in a PwC or KPMG report - identified the necessity or opportunity to leverage the use of existing infrastructure that resided with the ESB and Eir. The best value for the State could be provided on the basis of using that infrastructure. Is the Minister concerned, in the light of the structures and tender process deployed, that following the consultative process we have ended up with a process where the two main players with all of the infrastructure are no longer able to participate because they do not see value in it for them? We are left with one contractor who is not really involved in the business. It is effectively a private investment fund in Boston with access to some sub-contractors here. This contractor is effectively the only player left in the race. Does the Minister have concerns about its capacity to deliver best value for the State?

In light of what the Minister has seen since he has arrived at the Department and knowing what he now knows, would he still stand over the consultative dialogue process deployed?

The proposal which has emerged has a list of subcontractors. That list closely mirrors the list of subcontractors which would have been included by any other bidder. They are experienced subcontractors. The whole pre-qualification process required the evaluation committee to go through the experience, competence and record of work of the various players in the contract. All these elements of competence, capacity and compliance have been examined in great detail by all those involved. They are leveraging State infrastructure and private infrastructure, wherever that may be possible. That has been a key element of the process.

The approach of having a competitive tender has been supported by several decisions by the Government. I believe it was the right approach. This is an area in which the State did not and does not have a preconceived approach as to the ideal model to deliver best value. It had an ambition. The competitive tender process allowed that ambition to be filled by people experienced in the field who came forward with what they believed was the best way to achieve the plan’s high ambition.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.