Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Note: Ministerial and Departmental titles have been updated in the Question text in anticipation of the relevant Government orders to give legal effect to the Taoiseach’s announcement in Dáil Éireann on 27 June 2020.

Electricity Generation

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

61. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Climate Action and Communication Networks the actions he will take to remove the barriers blocking the growth of rooftop solar panels here, including the lack of a long-term payment system for excess electricity sold back to the grid, the roll-out of smart meters and planning issues; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25603/20]

If we are to achieve 70% renewable electricity by 2030, a key component will be ordinary people and community groups generating their own electricity and selling the excess back to the grid. Solar photovoltaics, PV, can play an important part in this but blockages in the system are preventing that becoming a reality. Can the Minister outline the steps he will take to remove these barriers and increase the amount of electricity generated from solar PV?

The programme for Government commits to the development of microgeneration and to letting people sell excess power back to the grid by June 2021. The climate action plan that my predecessor introduced included the delivery of a framework for microgeneration, whilst ensuring principles of equity, self-consumption and energy efficiency first are incorporated. There are a range of measures in place to deliver on these commitments.

A microgeneration working group, chaired by my Department, is examining an enabling framework which tackles existing barriers and establishes suitable supports within relevant market segments. This work is an integral part of our emerging photovoltaic solar strategy.

My Department has engaged with ESB Networks on grid capacity and connection issues, and with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, on a review of the solar PV scheme in order to capture the lessons learned.

The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is reviewing the planning exemptions for solar installations in consultation with my Department, and has agreed in principle to provide for exemptions to new building types, including apartments, community and educational buildings. I further understand an aviation safety mapping exercise is under way by that Department, which will inform the finalisation of the relevant regulations. It is anticipated that this will be completed by the end of this year.

My Department has also engaged external advisors to identify possible support options for microgeneration. A proposed support mechanism will be outlined in a public consultation in the coming months. A suitable support payment for excess electricity generated on site and exported to the grid will be available to all microgenerators by 2021 in line with the transposition of the recast renewable energy directive into Irish law.

The SEAI launched a pilot microgeneration scheme in July 2018 for domestic customers. To date, 3,691 applications have received grant support totalling €9 million, saving approximately 3 kt of carbon dioxide per annum.

In September 2019, ESB Networks commenced the roll-out of the smart meter programme for all domestic and business premises which is due for completion in 2024. To date, 120,000 smart meters have been installed.

Paying people for the excess electricity produced by their solar panels will result in their installation becoming much more appealing to many more people. At the moment, excess electricity produced by privately installed solar panels is spilling onto the grid for free. It is not fair on those who have paid thousands for them and does not make a compelling financial case for those considering investing in solar panels. One can do it in Newry or Strabane but cannot in Lifford or Dundalk. I have a sister in Belfast and her housing estate has recently begun to allow people to contribute to the grid. An important piece of work was done by Noteworthy.ie, a group related to Thejournal.ie. It read like a charge sheet. Did the Minister see the piece of research done by Noteworthy.ie? Does he have a response to it? It details, line by line, the missed opportunities and failures of Government policy in delivering on this important matter.

I have not seen that research but I will read it if the Deputy could forward it on to me. I will happily respond to the Deputy once I have read and reviewed it. I agree with the Deputy. Roof after roof in the North has solar PV panels and it is not exactly the sunniest place on the planet. We have failed to do that in the South. During my previous term in this office, 12 years ago, we introduced a microgeneration support price scheme of 19 cent per kWh. That was at the start of the solar revolution. Unfortunately, the succeeding Government removed that scheme. In fairness to my predecessor, he introduced such a proposal in the climate action plan that he developed and we will see it introduced early next year.

I have seen it in action. Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to visit the Fair Play café in Ringsend, one of the community energy projects that have just received support of €29 million. The café has installed 12 kW of solar panels. Their experience has been fantastic because it works, integrates with their business and was easy to introduce. They can see the level of power that they are using and to which customers can connect. There is considerable potential in the development of solar power.

EirGrid provided me with analysis a year or two ago when I was an Opposition spokesperson, as the Deputy is now. I asked what level of solar power could be generated on roofs.

I am going on memory, but I understand if we had 700,000 houses with solar panels on their roofs and 45,000 businesses that would provide 5% of our total power supply. That may not sound significant, but one of the attractive things about solar power is that it would be very much complementary to other renewable power supplies, such as wind and so on. It would provide a very stable local power supply source which, contrary to the original arguments against solar power, would strengthen and complement rather than undermine the grid.

We will be using a lot of power at a distributed level as we move towards electrifying the transport and heating systems. We will need every source of power and I am committed to the development of solar power not just on houses or smaller rooftops but for larger business applications where rooftop solar could be introduced and become an integral part of the overall switch to 100% renewables which is where we are going.

In the interest of time I will commend noteworthy.ie and thejournal.ie. They have come in for some pressure in recent days which is probably not unrelated to the important work they are doing in terms of analysis, evidence, transparency and accountability. I would be happy to send the information to the Minister.

There is some concern about smart meters and the nature of the information they will collect. Has the planned roll-out of smart meters been affected by Covid-19? What assurances can the Minister give to people about the nature and type of information that they will collect and manage?

The roll-out is starting. While everything in this country has been somewhat delayed by Covid, I do not think it has been particularly badly affected. The initial delivery comprised 250,000 meters in the latter half of last year and the start of this year. We expect 500,000 meters to be installed in each of the next four years.

The Commission for Energy Regulation, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities and the Data Protection Commissioner have strong and stringent rules around the use of any data and the purpose for which data is collected, and it must not infringe on personal privacy rights or involve the improper use of that data other than for the benefit of the householder. It is critical-----

I went overboard earlier.

National Broadband Plan

Verona Murphy

Question:

62. Deputy Verona Murphy asked the Minister for Climate Action and Communication Networks his plans on the fast-tracking of the Nation Broadband Plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25252/20]

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of good and reliable broadband to ensure that all citizens, in all parts of Ireland, can avail of remote working, education and other essential online services. Can the Minister outline the plans and the fast-tracking of the national broadband plan, and can he make a statement on the matter?

The Covid 19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of good reliable broadband to ensure that citizens across Ireland can avail of remote working, education and other essential online facilities. This is reflected in the commitments in the programme for Government where delivery of the national broadband plan will be a key enabler to many of the policies envisaged particularly around increased levels of remote working. The programme for Government has also committed to seek to accelerate the roll-out of the national broadband plan.

The national broadband plan State-led intervention will be delivered by National Broadband Ireland, NBI, under a contract signed last November. The national broadband plan network will offer users a high-speed broadband service with a minimum download speed of 500Mbps from the outset. This represents an increase from the 150Mbps committed to under the contract. The deployment plan forecasts premises passed in all counties within the first two years and over 90% of premises in the State having access to high-speed broadband within the next four years. As of 15 September, design work is complete or ongoing in target townlands across 21 counties and steady progress is being made with over 91,000 premises surveyed to date. By year end, NBI expects to have completed some 120,000 surveys. This survey work is feeding into detailed designs for each deployment area and laying fibre should commence shortly with the first fibre to the home connections expected around December this year.

While substantial progress has been made to date, the Covid 19 pandemic has had an impact on the delivery of the fibre network. The extent of this impact is currently being assessed and NBI has committed to put in place measures to mitigate the impact in as far as possible.

My Department is engaging with NBI to explore the feasibility of accelerating aspects of the national broadband plan roll-out to establish the possibility of bringing forward premises which are currently scheduled in years 6 and 7 of the plan to an earlier date. These discussions are on-going. Any changes proposed will require detailed technical, commercial and financial analysis.

Exploring the potential to accelerate the network roll-out is being undertaken in parallel with the measures required to mitigate delays arising as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic which must be the primary focus at this juncture.

I have the reply.

I will discuss local matters in County Wexford. I will happily put the rest of the reply on the record for the benefit of other Deputies.

The national broadband plan is seeking to accelerate the development of this scheme. It has been delayed somewhat, as I said in my previous reply, due to Covid. Part of the difficulty is that some contractors from the UK have not been able to come to Ireland and the ability to provide a safe environment in which people can carry out work is a challenge. There are extensive plans to accelerate the plan.

To bring it back to the Deputy's county, some 22,000 houses out of the 82,900 premises in Wexford are in an area which will be provided with high-speed broadband through State-led intervention. Over 3,745 of those premises have already been surveyed to date. That involves people mapping exactly which poles and infrastructure in local areas could be used. I could list a range of townlands which have been surveyed in that way.

Deputy Murphy will also be aware that part of the plan involves the development of broadband connection points as the first phase. That involves the fast-tracking of the delivery of services. In Wexford, five sites have been located: Hook Head Lighthouse; Ballyfad Community Centre; Askamore Community Childcare Centre; Marshalstown GAA Club; and St. Mary's GAA Club. Four have already been connected as part of the national broadband plan and will be connected by the retail service provider shortly.

I ask for co-operation so that we can get through the questions with as many Deputies as possible.

As I said, I received the Minister's written response but I found the answer was vague on timelines and the worst affected areas. I could also name many townlands in Wexford. When a statement includes the phrases "explore the feasibility of accelerating aspects of the national broadband plan roll out" or the "possibility of bringing forward premises currently scheduled for year six or seven to an earlier date", those words mean one thing to me, namely, that it will never happen.

I know children who will have left the education system by the time we are at year six or seven. How does the Government propose to tell colleges that they should educate children at home to safeguard them from Covid when they do not even have the elearning facilities to do so? It is devastating for their educational outcomes. A local Wexford website, Wexfordtoday.com, reported today that 51% of those working from home had experienced technical issues due to poor quality broadband.

The Deputy is correct. The reason we are looking to accelerate and explore the national broadband operators is because the Covid pandemic showed the importance of remote working and the urgency of us providing that at this time.

We are considering accelerating aspects of the plan. It has been scheduled, after several years of preparation, to be a six and seven year process. Those discussions are very serious and have been committed to on the basis of us wanting to see the project accelerated. It requires detailed technical, commercial and financial analysis. If it was easy in the first place, it would not have been set out as a six or seven year contract.

It will require a lot of analysis to accelerate any elements of it. I will not promise that until we know that it can be delivered in real time. The Covid pandemic has created difficulties in terms of getting access to contractors who would do the actual work. It brings the imperative to accelerate but also difficulties in that regard at the same time.

We want the businesses in rural Ireland to stay there. If 51% have said that they are being impeded in their ability to work at home that is a huge problem. The written response stated that the pandemic has had an impact on the delivery of the fibre network. The Minister has explained that is because we cannot get people to install it and people cannot travel from England. People are beginning to see that excuse as worse than GDPR. There are now three sets of excuses being used when it comes to Government contracts, GDPR, Covid and, I assume, Brexit.

Any changes that are proposed would require detailed technical, commercial and financial analysis. Will the cost of not having broadband for those who require it be included? Those affected may include a business that is trying to complete customs documentation for Brexit or a student who may feel his or her life hangs in the balance if he or she cannot receive online tuition.

Such cases are the reason the State is putting money into this project. We have had differences in the House in terms of how it should be delivered and what the exact contact arrangements should be.

I did not hear that and in my role in opposition I was always in support of the need for the plan at significant cost, but I believe it is worthwhile. The excuses the Deputy has mentioned as to Covid-19 were a reality. We all know that the working world did in many instances come to a halt because protecting workers’ safety came first. That is not an excuse, it is a reality.

The commitment and the desire to meet the objectives of the national broadband plan are absolutely concrete and clear. The desire to try to accelerate it, in part by what has happened with Covid-19 and the importance of having connectivity for people working remotely, is very real. I am committed to doing everything I can to try to do that, in Wexford and everywhere else.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of good, reliable broadband to ensure that citizens across Ireland can avail of remote working, education and other essential online facilities. This is reflected in the commitments in the programme for Government where delivery of the national broadband plan will be a key enabler to many of the policies envisaged particularly around increased levels of remote working. The programme for Government has also committed to seek to accelerate the roll-out of the national broadband plan.

The national broadband plan State-led intervention will be delivered by National Broadband Ireland, NBI, under a contract signed last November. The network will offer users a high speed broadband service with a minimum download speed of 500 Mbps from the outset and represents an increase from the 150 Mbps committed to under the contract. The deployment plan forecasts premises passed in all counties within the first two years and over 90% of premises in the State having access to high speed broadband within the next four years. As of 15 September, design work is complete or ongoing in target townlands across 21 counties and steady progress is being made with more than 91,000 premises surveyed to date. By year end, NBI expects to have completed some 120,000 surveys. This survey work is feeding into detailed designs for each deployment area and laying fibre should commence shortly with the first fibre to the home connections expected around December this year.

While substantial progress has been made to date, the Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on the delivery of the fibre network. The extent of this impact is currently being assessed and NBI has committed to put in place measures to mitigate the impact in as far as possible.

My Department is engaging with NBI to explore the feasibility of accelerating aspects of the NBP roll out to establish the possibility of bringing forward premises which are currently scheduled in years six and seven of the plan to an earlier date. These discussions are ongoing. Any changes proposed will require detailed technical, commercial and financial analysis.

Exploring the potential to accelerate the network roll-out is being undertaken in parallel with the measures required to mitigate delays arising as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic which must be the primary focus at this juncture.

North-South Interconnector

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

63. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Climate Action and Communication Networks the estimated cost of undergrounding the North-South Interconnector compared to the current plan; the date on which the cost comparisons were calculated; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25604/20]

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle. This is an issue that I have already raised but will continue to raise with the Minister as this Government looks set to repeat the mistakes of the past. The need to connect our two grids on the island is vital, even for the solar improvements we spoke of earlier. The current plan however for the North-South interconnector is putting this crucial piece of infrastructure in jeopardy. What are the up-to-date differences in cost of overgrounding versus undergrounding?

The North-South Interconnector is critical to improving the efficient operation of the single electricity market and increasing security of electricity supply across the island of Ireland. It will also help us to move towards 70% renewable electricity, a commitment made in the Programme for Government - Our Shared Future. A resilient and well-connected energy infrastructure is vital for Ireland’s economic well-being and the ability to respond to the future needs of energy consumers.

The option of undergrounding the line has been assessed on several occasions over the years. Most recently, my Department published an independent study in October 2018 on undergrounding the interconnector which found that an overhead line remained the most appropriate option for the proposed interconnector.  The estimated cost, to answer the Deputy's question directly, of undergrounding the line was €680 million versus an estimated cost of €230 million for the overhead option.  This study, available on my Department's website, was the latest in a series of studies that reached the same conclusion. 

The decision last week by the Minister for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland to grant full planning permission to the project means that the project has now been fully consented both North and South. I expect Eirgrid and ESB Networks to engage openly and extensively with those living closest to the route of the interconnector. In that regard I note that EirGrid has already set in place a variety of engagements locally, including the appointment of community liaison officers and a mobile information unit active in the area. I expect such engagements to intensify in the coming weeks and months, subject of course to national public health guidelines on Covid-19.

I believe that this important new cross-Border infrastructure will significantly facilitate the integration of renewable energy into the power system, will bring economic benefits to the region and can address our climate objectives on an all-island basis.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. The Minister raised the report of 2018. He must know that the community has no confidence in this report. It never did and I understand why. It is not the case that the community saw the report, did not like it, and walked away from it. They said from the very outset that they did not have confidence in the inquiry team, in the terms of reference, or in the methodology that was applied. Essentially it was designed, in their opinion, to give an outcome which it duly did. That is fundamentally what is at play and is at the very crux here. There is no confidence in the process thus far. There are legitimate, strongly-held opinions that are grounded in evidence. Will the Minister ensure that there is an independent assessment of the undergrounding option? It never happened in a clear and transparent way.

This is a real issue of concern for the Deputy’s constituents and for many of the people in this House and the people they represent. It is an issue that goes back a long time. I first engaged on this issue in 2003 or 2004 when, in the Oireachtas committee of which I was then a member - Deputy Durkan will remember that period, the vital strategic nature of this project and the optimal nature of the infrastructure that was recommended at that time was made very clear to us. That was 16 or 17 years ago. In that interim period we have seen a variety of different studies, as this has been an issue of real seriousness and concern and one that many Deputies have raised. In 2008, in my time as Minister, we commissioned a Dutch energy consultancy, Ecofys, to produce a study of the comparative merits of overhead electricity transmission versus underground cables. In 2009, EirGrid published a report by industry experts, PB Power, on the same subject. I could go on; there have been many independent and other studies. Will I be able to come back in to make a further intervention, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle?

The Minister will have one more minute.

The solution here, and I want to contribute to finding a solution, is to co-design an independent review of the undergrounding option involving all of the stakeholders, with the identification of a suitable panel of inquiry and independent consultants, where the terms of reference and the methodology to be employed will be co-designed with the stakeholders. We have never had that. In fairness to the community group they engaged with the 2011 report, but subsequent to that in their opinion, which I share, there have been desktop exercises and far more comprehensive reviews of other projects that have ended up in a very different place to the North-South Interconnector. We are going to stay at an impasse unless we adopt the approach I am recommending here.

This is a technically complex issue when one looks into it but I would have to say that the Deputy’s colleagues in the administration in Northern Ireland, where Sinn Féin are in power, have agreed with the assessment that I have come to, which is that this infrastructure is absolutely vital. We are all agreed on that. We need an all-island market and, with the granting of the planning commission up North, they clearly see that this is the approach that should be taken. Rather than looking at the political aspect of it, of all of the series of reports that been done over the years, the one report done on a statutory basis which is independent and has to look at all of the evidence and to take into account all of the international studies that have been done on this - I only started to list out all of the series of independent studies which have been conducted on this - is done by the person with responsibility for assessing this evidence, the An Bord Pleanála inspector. The inspector's report came to the opinion that this is a critical element of the transmission system between Ireland and Northern Ireland and it has been demonstrated that an overhead line represents less risk as to security, reliability and availability than the DC option. There is an issue as to the security of the energy systems on the island, North and South. This is not an easy issue and EirGrid will have to be very careful on how the work with communities on both sides of the Border on this project. I believe having planning permission in the North and the South is such that-----

I thank the Minister but I have to stop him as we are way over our time.

I will conclude on that.

I do not mean to be rude to the Minister but we will not get to the other questions otherwise.

By all means, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

Renewable Energy Generation

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

64. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Climate Action and Communication Networks the way in which he plans to grow the number of community owned renewable energy projects in view of the recently approved results of the RESS auction; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25605/20]

I know and I am sure that the Minister is aware that he misrepresented Sinn Fein’s position on the North-South interconnector in his last contribution but we will have time to come back to that, hopefully, in oral questions, where I can state the case clearly.

On the recent renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, auction, can the Minister outline how he intends to increase the numbers and welcome the community groups who are contributing?

I did not mean to misinterpret Sinn Fein’s position and I am happy to come back to discuss the North-South interconnector if I did.

The programme for Government recognises the importance of community involvement as new energy infrastructure is installed. Specifically, the programme for Government commits to ensuring that community energy can play a role in reaching at least 70% renewable electricity target. That target includes the introduction of a community benefit fund and a community category within the renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, auction.  We are continuing to work with the EU to agree community participation as an integral part of installing new renewable energy and a route for community participation in the projects.

It is my intention that communities all over the country should be able to generate electricity and reap the benefits in their own localities from the sale of that electricity. In that regard, I aim to ensure the delivery of approximately 100 community electricity generation projects by 2030.

The RESS, will drive the delivery of this objective. Earlier this month I announced that seven community projects had filled the allocated community capacity in the first commercial auction under the scheme. Two of them are 100% community-owned and the remaining five are at least 51% owned by the relevant local communities. In future onshore RESS auctions, there will be additional capacity allocated to the community category and I expect that only fully community-owned projects will be eligible.

In order to ensure an adequate pipeline of such projects, an enabling framework of capacity-building supports is being developed by my Department and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI. It includes information dissemination, trusted intermediary and adviser services, enabling grants, soft development loans and a simplified grid connection process.

The SEAI has commenced assessing the next wave of community projects through the sustainable energy community network. The initial call has identified already 20 of the more mature projects for immediate support. This first support takes the form of high level feasibility assessment with a view to preparing them for the next RESS auction. A further wave of projects has been identified for later support. A dedicated telephone number and email address, along with web pages from SEAI, can be accessed to facilitate further community engagement.

The Minister will be aware of the international comparisons with Scotland, for example, and many parts of Scandinavia in terms of the state infrastructure that is available to facilitate communities which want to connect to the grid. The Minister might outline his plans to build that infrastructure. All of this contributes to the price of electricity in Ireland, which we know is among the highest in Europe. Is the Minister in contact with energy providers to address the proposed hike in energy prices, particularly electricity prices? This is an issue that has been raised time and again with me by constituents. It has also been raised by my party leader.

The answer is "Yes". I am in contact with the energy regulator because if we go back to a position where Ministers or politicians are directly regulating the price of electricity, it would lead to higher prices as there would be less confidence in the system and more political interference. It would not work. The key way to bring down electricity prices in the long run is to switch to renewables. Our exposure to high fossil fuel prices is the greatest risk and the greatest cost. There are many other reasons for prices increasing. The benefit of renewables is that they would constitute our own power supply and keep money in the country. Use of renewables also brings down the wholesale price. While the renewable auction brings in an element of public service obligation payments, it was 20% cheaper than the previous renewable support scheme because the cost of wind and solar energy is coming down, slowly but surely. The best way of reducing electricity prices in the long term is to continue this path of relying on renewable power, turn our comparative advantage in wind power particularly, and also now the ability to deliver solar power as a way of protecting consumers.

On the price of electricity, does the Minister believe, on the basis of his exchanges with them, that providers are still intent on increasing prices? Are they still on that trajectory or will the Minister's intervention or that of the energy regulator provide some relief for customers? I am sure the latter would very much welcome an update on that.

Regarding the community infrastructure, Templederry is a very good example and we welcome the other projects that have been long held up as exemplars but the opportunity is there to scale up those projects and increase the level of penetration relating to them far more than is currently the case. What plans does the Minister have to tap into that potential? I know there is a good resource available to the Minister in his office.

The Deputy is absolutely right. Templederry is a great example. However, it is only an early example. As I said, I would like to see 100 Templederrys and if we got that we would look at the next 100. I believe there is huge benefit to this country in the development of community ownership of renewable energy. It is a power supply that lends itself towards more distributed ownership systems. The current constraint is at the community level. That is why the resourcing of the SEAI to support communities and give them the support measures I set out in the reply in terms of being able to get the planning, finance and the technical expertise is so important. The limit on ambition will not be in this House. I believe there will be nothing but support for widespread community ownership, particularly in the type of project we saw in Templederry, which is 100% community-owned. We are also starting to see new projects where it is not just about the generation but the use of the power at the other end. I am of the view that there can also be community development in respect of the supply side. That is what I will be encouraging.