Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Legislative Process

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

37. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications when the climate action and low carbon development (amendment) Bill will be brought before Dáil Éireann; if he has amended the Bill to include recommendations from the pre-legislative scrutiny report of the Joint Committee on Climate Action; if so, the recommendations adopted; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13516/21]

As the Minister knows, before Christmas, the Joint Committee on Climate Action did a huge amount of work on the draft climate Bill at pre-legislative scrutiny stage and submitted 78 recommendations to him. Where does the Bill stand? When will the Dáil or Seanad see it? Has the Minister taken on board any or all of the recommendations?

The climate action and low carbon development (amendment) Bill will provide for a whole-of-government approach to address climate change, with the purpose of achieving the transition to a climate resilient, biodiversity rich and climate neutral economy by the end of the year 2050. The Bill will significantly strengthen the statutory framework for climate governance, with appropriate oversight by the Government, the Oireachtas and an enhanced Climate Change Advisory Council. The Bill will introduce new legal obligations, including enacting an objective to achieve a climate neutral economy by 2050 at the latest, embedding a process of carbon budgeting, including sectoral emission ceilings, and providing for the preparation of an annual update to the climate action plan and a national long-term climate strategy every five years.

To this end, the Bill will provide for a significantly strengthened climate governance structure, which includes annual revisions to the climate action plan to address the need for intensive and regular monitoring and updating of policy actions to ensure we remain on track and within our emissions limits. In addition, Ministers will have to account annually to an Oireachtas committee for their performance in reducing emissions. The annual revision to the climate action plan and enhanced ministerial accountability will combine to act as a further review mechanism and opportunity to readjust or refocus actions, if required.

I welcome the extensive pre-legislative scrutiny report on the Bill published by the Joint Committee on Climate Action on 18 December. I have considered the 78 recommendations contained in the report and I am finalising proposed amendments, which are being carefully reviewed in the context of the overall framework and objectives of the legislation.

I intend to bring the Bill to Government at the earliest possible opportunity for approval to publish and initiate the legislative process in the Oireachtas as soon as possible thereafter. I also intend to formally respond to the Joint Committee on Climate Action, following publication of the Bill, to set out how the extensive work and detailed report has informed any revision to the Bill.

I thank the Minister for his response. He will appreciate that it does not provide the type of clarity I was hoping for. Will he give some indication of the date on which we might see this? Will it be in a week, a month or a year? I am conscious that there was great energy to try to get the Bill before the Dáil prior to Christmas. In fairness, a massive amount of work was done by the members of the committee across the political spectrum. It has been with the Department since before Christmas. What is the timeframe? The Minister mentioned targets. Will there be 2030 targets? Will there be interim targets before 2050? Will there be mechanisms to correct as we go along rather than rolling on a yearly or five-yearly basis? What is the date? What is the hold-up? What are the problems?

There is time sensitivity because we want 2021 to be the first year in the initial five-year budget. By summertime, we want to have our new updated climate action plan. We want the Climate Change Advisory Council to be able to inform it. Yes, there is an urgency. We have an interim advisory council chaired by Marie Donnelly, who has already started the preparatory work, but we do need the full legislation in place. I expect it very shortly, not within days but within the month for sure. We will bring it to the Dáil and the Chief Whip and the Business Committee will facilitate it.

To answer the Deputy's question on the committee's recommendations, I hope we can reflect many, if not most, of the recommendations in the final Bill. This process, while it has somewhat delayed developments, has been very positive. The work of the joint committee was really progressive and useful. We will reflect a lot of that in the final Bill.

I reiterate the point on the level of examination at pre-legislative scrutiny stage from across the political spectrum. There is a willingness and eagerness to get this work done. On this point, will there be 2030 targets? A significant point made by the committee was that it would not just be a matter of 2050 targets. Were the proposals on the Climate Change Advisory Council taken on board? Do the recommendations in respect of which the Minister is agreeable include that the Climate Change Advisory Council would be independent and adequately resourced? Will specific reference be made to just transition in the Bill as it is brought through the Dáil and Seanad? Is it the Minister's intention to bring the Bill before the Seanad or Dáil first?

My expectation is that it will come to the Dáil first. I cannot answer specifics regarding the final wording on amendments or particular aspects. I hope we will have this discussion in the Dáil very soon. This has been a very unusual process in that it was an actual draft Bill that went to pre-legislative scrutiny. Usually it is the heads of a Bill. The extent of analysis and discussion in the pre-legislative scrutiny was unprecedented. A lot of good work has been done, which will inform the Dáil debate. It means it is a much more advanced Bill. It has almost already gone through Committee and Report Stages and not just pre-legislative scrutiny. It has been through what would ordinarily happen in a very extensive Committee Stage or Report Stage process. We have done this before we have even introduced the Bill to the Dáil. I look forward to further debates in the Dáil and then the Seanad.

Legislative Process

Jennifer Whitmore

Question:

38. Deputy Jennifer Whitmore asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the status of the new climate action and low carbon development (amendment) Bill 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13252/21]

It reflects the importance of the Bill in question that it is also the subject of my priority question. I would also like to ask the Minister for an update on the Bill. To take it a bit further, what are the actual delays with it? The Minister has said that considerable work has gone into it. When the committee first received the document, the Minister hoped for a two week pre-legislative scrutiny period which, to be honest, would have amounted to very little. Instead, we brought in a series of experts who all said the same thing on the weaknesses of the Bill. We put a lot of work into it. Will the Minister provide an update?

I have a written response but because it is very similar to that given to Deputy O'Rourke, I might skip it and Deputy Whitmore can read it because it does answer her question directly. To come back to the process, because there was a certain time urgency I thought the pre-legislative scrutiny process would be short and then we would probably spend longer on Committee and Report Stages.

However, when the Oireachtas committee came back with its suggested approach, I was happy to agree to that much more extensive consultation. In my experience of the last three to four years, what has worked in climate politics in this country, if I could put it that way, has been the good co-operation between Government Departments and the joint Oireachtas committee. In particular, the Joint Committee on Climate Action in the last Dáil, and again in this one, has shown a cross-party approach that really benefits us. It is in a similar respect that we have taken time to review and consider the amendments. While I cannot remember the exact number of amendments, perhaps 90 or so, that was not a short process in terms of considering not just the amendments but the evidence we heard at the joint Oireachtas committee, including valid criticism, which we accept, that we need to listen and try to improve things. We will end up with a vastly improved draft Bill. While the time it has taken has been somewhat frustrating, I think it has been time well spent and we will see that in the Bill as it emerges.

It has been 83 days since the committee handed back the recommendations so I hope the time the Minister has taken has been to incorporate those recommendations, not to get rid of them. The frustrating thing for me is the sense of urgency with this. There was a huge sense of urgency in getting this Bill up and running. I do not know if the Minister can picture that image by the Spanish sculptor of a group of politicians sitting around discussing climate change and how we deal with it, as the water rises above their heads. To me, that is what it feels like. Our biggest risk, and the most problematic issue here, is our ability and the ability of a bureaucratic system to deal with things quickly.

One of the previous questions I had hoped to ask the Minister this evening, although I did not get an opportunity to do so, was in regard to CETA and its implications for any legislation. Does the Minister foresee any issues in regard to CETA once this Bill is passed into law in terms of being able to bring in the policies we need to see brought in to address climate change?

On the last question, I do not. There is a whole range of other international treaties that will affect climate change. The energy charter treaty is a very specific energy treaty that has all sorts of mixed implications on climate, some pro and some of which would give rise to concerns, so it is very complicated. The recent Brexit agreement is going to affect how we approach climate and there is a whole range of new treaties coming. The issue of trade and climate is critical and a variety of different trade agreements and other structures will affect that. I have not had any sense that CETA will have a direct impact but we will continue to review that. I know various Oireachtas committees are looking at it.

I want to make one point in regard to the Deputy's comment on speed of delivery and political action. With regard to the collaborative approach I mentioned, in this country in the last three years, Deputy Pringle's Bill delivered an end to investing in fossil fuels, a similar Bill from Fine Gael in the last Dáil delivered an end to fracking on our part of the island and Deputy Bríd Smith's Bill on ending oil and gas exploration - we had a similar one - is about to bear fruit when, on Committee Stage of the climate Bill, we will introduce the provisions to stop oil and gas exploration. We are effectively stopping the use of coal and we have stopped the use of industrial peat extraction. If anyone had said to me four years ago that we would stop State investment in fossil fuels, stop fracking, stop the use of coal and stop peat extraction, I would have said that to do that in such a time period was a remarkable achievement. We should collectively recognise that politics sometimes does deliver and that in the sort of actions that have been made in the last three to four years, we have achieved significant change.

For a lot of what we are trying to get into place, infrastructural changes will be required and there are lead-in times for that. The Government has a target of 2030 as the next major step. We had the transport discussions yesterday with the climate committee. It came as a surprise to me that when the National Transport Authority is putting in applications for Government funding or putting forward its proposals for different programmes, they are not assessed as to what the emissions results will be or what reductions will come out of those projects. The climate Bill will be very welcome once we have it in legislation, so long as the recommendations are incorporated, but there is a whole jigsaw that we need to get done. I know many wind farm operators want to know when the renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, option will happen and what the terms and conditions of that are. There are timelines and milestones that we need to speed up, if possible, to ensure we get this done.

I agree. While the Deputy was in the climate committee yesterday, I was answering questions at the transport committee, where I made the case that we will need to have a radical system change in transport. What we have done with switching to electric vehicles or switching to biofuels will deliver certain elements, but it will not deliver the enhanced ambition we are now setting ourselves. That will only come with really significant reductions in the demand for travel and the volume of travel, and also with radical changes in modal share shift. That is why I keep coming back to the benefits of a collaborative political approach around climate. As the Deputy and I know, that then comes around to difficult decisions about allocation of road space and allocations of resources at a local authority as well as a central government level in terms of how we make it safer for active travel, and how we really promote public transport by allocating road space and investment priorities. The critical need for time urgency is that the national development plan review will be done at the same time as the new climate action plan is developed, which is absolutely right because it has to be climate-proofed. That is what we will do.

Electricity Grid

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

39. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if EirGrid has recently sought between €700 million and €3 billion for grid investment; if so, the new and existing projects this will fund; the way in which he plans to deliver this crucial grid investment while also working with local communities; his views on delays to key grid improvements and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13517/21]

I ask the Minister if EirGrid has recently sought additional funding for grid investment; if so, the new and existing projects this will fund; the way in which he plans to deliver this crucial grid investment while also working with local communities; his views on delays to key grid improvements; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Matters relating to the cost of grid investment and projects funded are operational matters for EirGrid and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU. EirGrid is the transmission system operator and its responsibilities include the appropriate development of the grid and power system to achieve our energy policy objectives and underpin economic development.  The CRU is the independent energy regulator and, through a formal price review process, it decides on appropriate spend by EirGrid on a five-year basis.

The recent price review decision by the CRU on the allowable spend on our electricity grid over the next five years signalled a significant and necessary increase in funds for grid enhancement. EirGrid already seeks to optimise the existing electricity grid to minimise the need for new infrastructure through upgrades, refurbishment or up-voltaging of existing infrastructure, where possible. However, in light of the Government's ambition to have 70% renewable electricity on the power system by 2030, and with demand profiles increasing as we continue to electrify more sectors of our economy, further investment in the power grid is required over the coming decade.

I recognise the vital role that communities across Ireland are going to play in delivering on this target. Working in collaboration with local communities to ensure that grid development is appropriately delivered will be crucial as we continue to decarbonise our energy system and wider economy. The Government takes the commitment to community engagement and acceptance seriously, as does EirGrid. In this respect, EirGrid has this week launched a detailed consultation document, entitled Shaping Ireland’s Electricity Future, which outlines innovative approaches to developing the grid to meet our ambitious 2030 renewable electricity target and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It is acknowledged there needs to be significant investment in electricity and energy infrastructure. I want to raise the issue of data centres and the impact they will have on the grid. In addition, I want to raise the issue of our continued dependence on fossil fuels and the expectation that has been reported in the media by a number of commentators that we will be dependent on fossil fuels for far longer than the Minister intends or is providing for, and that we are facing a cliff edge in about 2026 and are not prepared for it.

The new consultation from EirGrid takes a very good approach because it looks at the wider picture of how we develop our society. It is not just about emissions reductions or bringing forward renewables, but the long-term big picture thinking about what type of energy system we have to serve our society. That poses various questions to the public. Should we perhaps continue what has been done in the last ten or 20 years, which was more developer-led whereby the developers of renewable power said where they wanted to go, or should we go for demand-led? Should we move and adjust some of the demand to match the power system we need? We will probably take a combination of various approaches, but one of the things we will ensure is that demand, be it from data centres or other large energy users, is planned in a way that lowers the cost, minimises emissions and ensures we have a fully sustainable system. That may involve locating data centres close to where the power is, or restricting in certain areas where the grid cannot cope with the addition. However, it will not say "No" to data centres because we need them as part of the wider economy.

The question then arises of the Minister's and the Government's confidence that we are not walking ourselves onto a cliff edge in 2026 in terms of the increasing demands on the network, the shift away from fossil fuels and how to square the two. What is the Minister's expectation of demand into the future for fossil fuel for energy and electricity production in the State? Does he believe it will extend far beyond 2026 and to what extent will that be? What percentage of our energy might we still be expecting to deliver through fossil fuels at that stage?

We will be doing what many other countries are now committed to, such as net zero by 2050 in the UK and what California is doing, which is net zero in the same timeframe. Other countries in Europe are aiming for more ambitious times sooner than that. China and Germany are doing this. The world economy is switching towards this new energy system because it is better. By 2050, and it hard to have a crystal ball, it is likely there will be a variety of different technologies that provide back-up and support to what will largely be a renewable electricity power system, with electricity having an increasing role in transport, heating and a range of different sectors. That may involve carbon capture and storage, CCS, where one takes the carbon out in the generation process and stores it geologically. It may involve a switch to new green hydrogen fuels, whereby through electrolysis we can convert our superabundance of renewable power into fuels like that, which can provide back-up, and other storage systems. There will probably be a variety of demand management, with sophisticated switching on and off of energy uses to store and balance electricity. It is going to come because it is a better system. It is more competitive, cleaner, indigenous and we are good at it. That is why I am very confident in EirGrid's ability to help make this happen.

Data Centres

Bríd Smith

Question:

40. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he will review State policy relating to the building of data centres in Ireland and specifically the impact on energy consumption; if this policy is compatible with national climate-related targets; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13279/21]

There is growing alarm at the spread of data centres, what they are doing to our hopes of reaching the Paris Agreement targets, as well as our climate goals, and whether an economic policy based on the unlimited growth of data centres is compatible with any chance of tackling a climate catastrophe. I am not assured by what is being said about them using sustainable energy. Based on what we see, they will swallow increased amounts of renewable energy. Will the Minister comment on this?

Government policy relating to data centres is primarily a matter for the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and any review would be a matter for him. The Government statement on the role of data centres in Ireland's enterprise strategy of 2018 recognises that a plan-led approach is needed to develop a range of measures to promote regional options for data centre investment, minimising the need for additional electricity grid infrastructure.

Data centre-related electricity demand in Ireland continues to grow. EirGrid, in its Generation Capacity Statement 2020-2029, projects that demand from data centres could account for 27% of all demand by 2029, up from 11% in 2020. Significant increases in volumes of generation capacity, including from renewable energy sources, will be required to meet data centre demand and deliver on Ireland’s climate objectives. Under the Climate Action Plan 2019, Ireland has adopted a target of at least 70% renewable electricity production by 2030. This will contribute to meeting the Government target of reducing Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions by 51% by 2030 and meeting the long-term target of climate neutrality by 2050. The plan sets out a number of actions to ensure that data centres are accommodated in a sustainable manner, including implementing flexible demand and other innovative solutions for data centres. This has been implemented by EirGrid for new data centres seeking to connect in Dublin.

EirGrid has this week launched a public consultation on "Shaping our Electricity Future". The aim is to make the electricity grid stronger and more flexible so it can carry significantly more renewable generation as well as meet increasing demand from high-volume energy users such as data centres.

First, people should be aware that there is an astonishing growth in the number of data centres in the State. There are currently approximately 54, mainly based around Dublin. Another ten are under construction and planning permission has been granted for another 31. Although the argument the Government makes is that they will have their own renewable energy, that means that by 2030 half of the total renewable energy produced in this country will be gobbled up by data centres. In anybody's book, that does not make ecological or environmental sense and is not sustainable.

There is also the issue of water. We cannot regenerate water, but these data centres use a vast quantity of it. The question of water as a public resource has been at the heart of politics in this country. The Minister should, in the first instance, begin to examine the planning legislation, which allows data centres a special place as part of strategic infrastructure and fast-tracks planning permission for them. This is getting out of control.

The Deputy is correct that we must ensure our planning matches other objectives, including our decarbonisation objectives. Included in that is the planning of the grid system because that is probably the biggest constraint. It is one thing if something has planning permission, but whether it can get a grid connection and has good access to the grid is probably the main constraint. That is why EirGrid's consultation is key. Every sector of the economy, such as the transport, agriculture and industrial sectors, including data centres, must fit in with our new climate action plan. To my mind, they can.

We always have to think about where we are going next if it is 70% by 2030. We have agreed this. We all have collectively said that we think offshore wind has the potential for us to go even further, such as an additional 30 GW. That is the scale. It is almost nine times what we are using at present in terms of scale. There will be opportunities in this country whereby, if we locate them correctly and have the grid correctly connected to them, we will be able to run data centres efficiently with low carbon, and possibly look at other matters. We are starting to look at Tallaght, for example, and how we use that data centre. The Deputy is correct that we must consider the water use as well. We must also look at the heat and, perhaps, the potential use of heat from data centres for local district heating and other purposes. That overall planning is critical. The Deputy is correct that it must be centre stage.

I do not believe it is sustainable, or that it is possible to make it sustainable. If we take the climate crisis seriously, we will not go down this road. It is not in our interest to gobble up renewable energy and water on this scale. Ireland bends over backwards to facilitate foreign direct investment. That is fine; that is a different argument for a different day. This is also a facilitation. No other country in the world will have this level of data centres and facilitation of them, including fast-track planning, strategic development and so forth. Ireland will stand alone in that regard because it is facilitating Amazon, Facebook and all the famous, big, high-tech companies. They are based here already and there is a proliferation of data centres to facilitate them. It is an unsustainable and dangerous road for us to take.

I ask again if the Minister, the Government and the Cabinet will consider removing data centres from strategic development infrastructure so that at least they cannot be fast tracked thorough planning.

The strategic planning process will have to take into account EirGrid's analysis to show where is the best place, what is the number and what is the limit. The Deputy is right that we also must look at water use. This has to come from the land use plan the Government is initiating, which is also key to meeting our climate and biodiversity targets. Yes, the planning process has to take into account the low-carbon efficiency of the energy system and the ability to deliver water and other resources before any commitments are made. We cannot allow industrial policy go ahead of sustainability policy. It has to fit within it, like every other sector. I absolutely commit to putting that approach in the right order.

National Broadband Plan

Thomas Pringle

Question:

41. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the number of homes that will have high-speed broadband in County Donegal by the end of 2021 and the end of 2022; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12764/21]

Will the Minister confirm how many homes in Donegal will have high-speed broadband by the end of this year and the end of next year? Donegal is one of four counties where the roll-out of the national broadband network of fibre broadband is not yet in progress. Working from home and home schooling have highlighted the importance of Internet connection for rural communities. People are very frustrated by the slow roll-out. If people are expected to work from home and to home school then they should be provided with the tools necessary to do so. Every other county will see the start of the national broadband plan roll-out by the beginning of next year. Donegal is not expected to see any roll-out until the second half of 2022. Will the Minister comment on this?

There are 32,373 premises within the national broadband plan intervention area for County Donegal within the national broadband plan. As of early March 6,389, or 20%, of the premises in the county have been surveyed.  Of these premises that have been surveyed to date, National Broadband Ireland, NBI, indicates that approximately half will be passed and ready for connection next year with the other half passed and ready for connection in 2023.

Further details are available on specific areas within Donegal through the NBI website, which provides a facility for any premises within the intervention area to register their interest in being provided with deployment updates through its website www.nbi.ie. Individuals who register with this facility will receive regular updates on progress by NBI on delivering the network and specific updates related to their own premises when works are due to commence.  I am advised that NBI is working to provide more detail on its website, with a rolling update on network build plans.

Broadband connection points, BCPs, are a key element of the national broadband plan providing high-speed broadband in every county in advance of the rolling out of the fibre to the home network. As of 3 March, 287 BCP sites have been installed by NBI and the high-speed broadband service will be switched on through service provider contracts managed by the Department of Rural and Community Development for publicly accessible locations and by the Department of Education for schools. Ray Community Centre, Leghowney Community Centre, Fort Dunree Military Museum, Coole Cranford Community Centre, the Gweedore Theatre and the Meenreagh Hostel have now been connected with high-speed publicly accessible broadband.

My Department continues to work with the Department of Education to prioritise schools with no high-speed broadband and this aspect of the national broadband plan is to be accelerated to ensure 679 primary schools nationally are connected to the high-speed broadband network by the end of next year. This will include 42 schools in County Donegal.

Those figures are shocking. The Minister said some 3,500 premises have been surveyed in County Donegal and with a bit of luck they will all be connected. This is out of 32,300 premises. That is shocking. This means there is very little happening in Donegal with the national broadband plan. The county that is probably in most need of development and most need of work on that cannot do anything. Some 2% of the premises nationally are in Donegal and this is not good enough. It is not good enough that the national broadband plan is not delivering. Since there is not reliable broadband for Internet connections it means that employers in Donegal, such as those based in Letterkenny, cannot have their workers working from home. I urge the Minister, if he is interested, to speed up the roll-out in the county because it is vitally important.

It is true that the national broadband plan has been somewhat delayed by Covid. As with so many other areas, workers are not available and contractors are not able to come into the country, but we are progressing at full speed and are working with the company and with other companies to see if we can accelerate the programme further. In truth, this was originally a seven-year plan and I would like to see if we can bring that back to a shorter number of years. Our commitment to Donegal is very real. There is a €128 million investment. It is part of a wider strategy. The national broadband plan is closing and filling the gaps at the same time that other companies are delivering really high-speed broadband. In Donegal Eir has rolled out to some 28,000 premises with the really high-speed fibre broadband. SIRO has passed 18,000 premises. It is not just the national broadband plan, there are also those additional 40,000 and 50,000 houses that have, in the last two and three years, got significant upgrades. Yes, we need to go further and go faster. We will do everything we can to make that happen.

I am sorry to say that this is not the case. This question does not even cover Eir and how people do not get broadband even in the areas that are supposed to be covered by Eir. They do not get a response from Eir when dealing with it. I could spend the next hour on questions about Eir and its lack of response to people. The reality is that once again Donegal has been put on the hind tit with regard to the national broadband plan and will have to make do with whatever the Minister decides. The Minister might be shortening the period of the plan but the fact is that Donegal will be at the end of the shortened period regardless. This is not acceptable. This problem was about long before Covid. It is a bit rich to blame Covid for this. The Department has not done its job and it is leaving Donegal behind again.

There is no intention, far from it, to leave Donegal behind. It is a county that has suffered from a lack of infrastructure and a lack of connection to the rest of the State in transport and a whole range of areas. I absolutely accept that Donegal should get priority. The roll-out of this NBI plan, with regard to where the surveys are done or how the network is developed, is a technical one. It is not that we, as politicians, are telling to NBI to do Cavan first and go back to Donegal later. It is far from that. It is purely a technical exercise in where the network points are to start and how it is rolled out. My direction to the NBI would be to please do Donegal as fast as possible and to make it a top priority. Donegal needs improved connectivity in a whole range of ways. If there is any way this can be accelerated in Donegal I would happily support it. It is, however, an engineering task first and foremost and we must at some point cede to the engineers as to how they roll out that technical network.