Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Climate Action Plan

Gino Kenny

Question:

42. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications his views on the use of negative emissions technology in reaching Ireland's climate targets; if concerns regarding the climate action and low-carbon development (amendment) Bill 2020 that, as first drafted, may rely too much on unproven technology to achieve reduction needed in greenhouse gas emissions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13287/21]

By prior arrangement I will take Deputy Kenny's question for him.

Like many others we are alarmed at the use of and over-reliance on negative emissions technology, NETs, in the climate action Bill. We have been warned repeatedly by the science and by the scientists that over-reliance on technology that does not actually exist and that gives us hope for the future without dealing with the here and now is the wrong way to go. I would like the Minister to make a statement on that. If we are over-reliant on NETs we may never see an avoidance of a 2°C rise in temperature.

The Government is committed to an average 7% per annum reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030, equivalent to a 51% reduction over the decade, and to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. A key aspect of delivering on this ambition will be enacting the climate action and low carbon development (amendment) Bill, which will underpin our policies.

The Bill will significantly strengthen the statutory framework for climate governance, with appropriate oversight by the Government, the Oireachtas and the Climate Change Advisory Council.

It would introduce new obligations including enacting an objective to achieve a carbon neutral economy by 2050 at the latest and providing for an annual update to the climate action plan and a national long-term climate strategy every five years.

The increased scale and depth of our climate ambition is consistent with the approach being taken at EU level. Both domestically and at the EU, it is recognised that we are not yet in a position to identify all the emerging technologies or policies to meet our full ambition. However, committed research in the area and the continued intensive updating of mitigation measures over the decade, and beyond, will ensure that we remain on course to achieve our climate goals. Investment in research to support Ireland’s efforts to decarbonise and achieve our climate ambition will also be an important element of the national economic plan and is an important commitment in the programme for Government.

While negative emissions technologies will likely be needed to deliver Ireland’s net-zero ambition, the carbon budget structure will serve to determine the scale of negative emissions that may be required to achieve the national climate objective. This will inform investments in such solutions and thereby inform policy responses.  In this regard, it will be necessary for Ireland to develop pathways for removals of carbon dioxide related to land use and to protect carbon sinks and stocks.

New strategies will be needed, with additional policy attention across multiple sectors, to sustain an emissions reduction trajectory that will increase over the next decade and beyond. However, the potential for negative emissions technology should not be seen as a means to avoid making the necessary reductions in emissions across the different sectors of the economy.

That is fair enough as an answer but it does not get to the point I am making, which is that the Bill the Minister published had an over-reliance on negative emissions technology. That is a sort of dream into the future because when one unpicks the models of negative emissions technologies, NETs, and a large-scale deployment of them, if it was possible, in the words of the scientist, Kevin Anderson, it is taking a high-stakes gamble in the hope that such technology can be invented in time and on scale but the problem is that we do not have that technology. Moreover, the touting of negative emissions technology often comes from the same sources of existing fossil fuel interests and much of what we hope and are promised seems to be a version of medieval indulgences - sin today with the promise of atonement tomorrow or the next few decades. In this case, NETs allow the continued sinning and profiteering of the fossil fuel industry and big agri-industry and allows us to continue with the fiction that it is okay to issue or renew licences like Barryroe or to build liquefied natural gas plants because somewhere down the line we will have new technology that can carbon capture and store that. It is not there.

It is starting to develop carbon. The Deputy spoke lastly about carbon capture and storage. It is very expensive. We do not have many examples of large industrial applications but I believe it is likely that by the end of this decade we will start to see deployment at scale for both industrial production purposes, power generation and potentially in other areas. We have to be very careful about that. It should not in any way be a continuation of a fossil fuels pass. We know that in the likes of our industrial emissions, which is some 8 million tonnes at the moment, we will need a 50% reduction in emissions. Could the use of carbon capture technologies in some of the large industrial processes help us? It probably could, and that is something I would not rule out. Similarly, in power generation, we will have some backup, whether it is hydrogen powered or gas and so on. If there are mechanisms where we could safely, in terms of geological storage, put that carbon I do not believe we should rule that out. It is one of the elements but it is not any sort of flag for the secure future of the fossil fuel industry because it will be more expensive, primarily backup and is only one small element in the overall mix.

I admire the Minister's optimism but as we know the reality is that for decades carbon capture and storage has been proposed as the silver bullet solution for cutting carbon emissions. Despite billions of dollars in funding and years of research there are no carbon capture storage, CSS, plants anywhere in the world that effectively capture and store carbon. Relying on a hope that it will do so in the future is a fundamental mistake. My question to the Minister is whether his refined and changed Bill that he is about to publish will take that into account and cut out the over-reliance on these negative emissions technologies as a way forward because they are not in existence to a scale where they will work. They have been touted by the fossil fuel industry and there is no evidence anywhere in the world that they will help us reduce our carbon emissions. Obviously, some things do help us do that, such as plants and trees and re-wetting bogs but the false reliance on this technology that does not exist has to be removed from the new Bill. Otherwise, it is not a functioning Bill to deal with the climate catastrophe.

I look forward to the Dáil debate on that aspect of the Bill and whether there is such an over-reliance. In any climate action plan we are developing now I do not believe there will be an over-reliance on that because what the Deputy said is true. The real cost, scale and widespread deployment of carbon capture and storage is still evolving in the same way that, for example, there is huge investment, which is going on in both areas now, in the use of hydrogen fuels. I refer to green hydrogen as a potential replacement for existing fossil assets. It has to be green and not blue to ensure that it is not just another pass for the fossil fuel industry. Again, in that sector it is not exactly clear what the cost and an optimal deployment will be but almost every country I look at is investing massively on the expectation that that will evolve and be part of it. We will need a suite of measures. We will need every tool in the tool box to solve the scale of this challenge. If one does not work, which may be the case in terms of finding that CCS proves not technically as easy to develop, then we will have to switch to alternatives. That flexibility and being open to a variety of options is the right strategic approach.

Renewable Energy Generation

Cathal Crowe

Question:

43. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the way in which the existing Climate Action Plan 2019 can be enhanced in order to increase the speed at which renewable energy generation projects are brought online particularly in the context of the expedited downsizing of the Moneypoint power station. [13290/21]

I thank the Minister, Deputy Ryan, for being in the Chamber. I wish to ask him, in his brief as Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, how the existing climate action plan can be enhanced to increase the speed at which renewable energy projects are brought online, particularly in the context of the expedited downsizing of the Moneypoint power station in west Clare.

Under the programme for Government and the Climate Action Plan 2019, Ireland had adopted a target of a 70% renewable share in 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.  

Electrifying large parts of our economy, including our heating and transport systems, means building a grid that can handle a high level of renewables which will be critical to our success.  The efficient connection of onshore wind, solar and offshore projects will be driven by regular competitive auctions under the renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, as well as enhanced regulatory rules for connecting projects to the grid.

Revised planning guidelines for onshore wind and a new consenting architecture for offshore renewable projects will facilitate a more rapid roll-out of renewables to replace retiring fossil fuel generation.  Furthermore, enhanced flexibility and system integration tools as well as new technologies and use of storage technologies and hybrid assets will enable a speedier roll-out of renewables to take the place of fossil plant.  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 that it can carry much more renewable electricity. EirGrid’s consultation will align with Ireland’s strategy to further reduce electricity emissions which will be set out in this year's revision to the climate action plan.

The climate action plan sets out that the burning of coal at Moneypoint will cease by 2025. That was the existing plan.

The major ramp up in the levels of renewables on our power grid and the move to a highly electrified economy means we also need to ensure security of supply. My Department is carrying out a review of the security of energy supply of Ireland’s electricity and natural gas systems. The review will include a detailed technical analysis and a public consultation. It is planned that the review will be completed by the end of 2021.

I thank the Minister. He said that Moneypoint will cease burning fossil fuels in 2025. There is a belief, and a worry, in Clare that that will happen much quicker because it is losing out in key energy options. It has colossal 400 kV power lines running from the coast of west Clare right across to Leinster. It is the best specification of power line in Ireland and that is where the future lies.

Ireland's maritime area is approximately seven times that of its land and the scope and potential for offshore wind energy is colossal. The cost of generating electricity offshore is rapidly becoming more competitive than fossil fuel generation. Time and again the Shannon Estuary has been identified as a key location for generating high-speed wind energy three times more efficient than onshore wind energy. It is where the future lies and, as the Government has committed to in the midlands where there is a just transition plan, we need a Government plan for Moneypoint that puts it at the centre of this nation's strive to move to greener, more renewable energy.

It has to be developed offshore, and Moneypoint is the perfect processing point to bring it onshore and across the whole island.

I absolutely agree with the Deputy on the development of renewables, offshore wind in particular, and particularly in the west, where our sea area is ten times our land area. The highest wind speeds are in the west, north west and south west, so that is where we have huge potential for economic development. I absolutely agree with the Deputy on the Shannon Estuary. It is not just Moneypoint; there is also potential in Foynes and even areas around Ballylongford and other areas. We expect and will plan for such areas becoming the centres of these new industries, not just in electricity generation. Going back to what I said earlier, the location of industries close to the power is what we need. That offers potential for huge long-term investment in the whole Shannon Estuary. It has incredible deep water and is safe and connected close to the power supply system out in the Atlantic.

As for the specific use of Moneypoint, I am conscious of the time. Perhaps I will come back in my final contribution with final points on Moneypoint.

A very delicate balance has to be struck. We want to see a shift and transition away from old fossil fuels and towards more renewable energy. The Government needs to speed up the issuing of new wind energy guidelines to all local authorities. We have had some absurd wind applications granted and other ones turned down. For example, in my county of Clare today we had the council determining - rightly so - that a 100 m high wind turbine in the middle of the village of Parteen was wrong and improper planning. It is to be taken down by 8 April. That is right. It is in a residential area. Wind turbines need to be taken away from communities and put in more obscure areas, where the wind is stronger, and offshore is the way to go. The guidelines need to be updated quickly. We do not want to see Carrownagowan, Meelick, Cahermurphy and Parteen repeated time and time again. We need updated guidelines and an embracing of our best asset of all: those high-speed wild Atlantic winds off the coast of Clare. That is the type of wind energy we need. It is three times more efficient, with all the infrastructure there to take it already. I implore the Minister to drive this on in his Department and to make it part of the realisation of our movement away from fossil fuels.

To go back to Moneypoint and to give an example of how things are changing, five years ago Moneypoint accounted for about 16% of our electricity generation; it is probably down to 2% or so in the past year or two. It will continue to decrease because if one considers the price of carbon on the emissions trading system markets, which is about €40 per tonne at the moment, at that price it is very hard for coal to come into the merit order among Irish power plants. However, what Moneypoint has is incredible sea jetty access and a very large platform where one could assemble, store or manage the deployment of offshore wind. Moneypoint also has that incredible grid connection. The ESB may look at it as a potential plant that would be used only as backup in an emergency. There is a whole variety of options. I very much trust the ESB and its expertise in this area as to what the best outcome will be not just for the workers and the future of Moneypoint but for this whole new energy system. It is absolutely committed to this new decarbonising system because it recognises that it is the way the world is going and that it is a better system. We will make sure in this transition that there is a just transition for the people of Clare, Kerry and Limerick who border the Shannon Estuary.

North-South Interconnector

Matt Carthy

Question:

44. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he will reconsider commissioning an independent report incorporating international industry expertise to examine the technical feasibility and cost of undergrounding the North-South interconnector in line with the resolution of Dáil Éireann on 16 February 2017. [13090/21]

I firmly believe that the proposed North-South interconnector can be undergrounded and that the technology is available internationally in order for that to happen. I would go so far as to say I believe it will happen only if the Government changes tack and instructs EirGrid and SONI to pursue that route. In 2017 a motion was passed in this House calling on the Government to commission an independent report to examine the technical feasibility and the cost of undergrounding the North-South interconnector. Will the Minister now commission that report?

The North-South interconnector is critical to improving the efficient operation of the all-island single electricity market and increasing security of electricity supply in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It will also help Ireland to move towards our 70% renewable electricity target by 2030. 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 Government does not have any role in the delivery of electricity infrastructure on the ground. This is consistent with the 2012 Government Policy Statement on the Strategic Importance of Transmission and Other Energy Infrastructure, which states: "The Government does not seek to direct EirGrid and ESB Networks or other energy infrastructure developers to particular sites or routes or technologies."

The option of undergrounding the North-South interconnector has been comprehensively assessed on several occasions. Most recently, and fully in line with the resolution of Dáil Éireann of 16 February 2017, my Department commissioned an independent report incorporating international industry expertise to examine the technical feasibility and cost of undergrounding the North-South interconnector. The report from the international expert commission was published in October 2018 and it found that an overhead line remains the most appropriate option for this piece of critical electricity infrastructure. I do not intend ordering a repeat of such a review.

EirGrid and ESB Networks, as our electricity system operators, always seek to work in close collaboration with landowners and stakeholders in the delivery of electricity infrastructure. Both companies are engaging 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 to national Covid-19 public health guidelines.

I hope the Minister does not believe what he is saying because if he does, it means he is completely out of sync with his role and his responsibilities. The Government does have a role. EirGrid itself has been on the record on a number of occasions telling the Government that if Government policy directs it to underground the interconnector, it will be forced to oblige. The Government has never implemented the resolution of this House. Yes, a report was commissioned and carried out in 2017 and published in 2018, but it did not do what this Dáil asked it to do. It did not examine the prospect of a full underground route in terms of feasibility and cost. Even if we are to take that report, however, does the Minister know that the report states in its findings that undergrounding the interconnector is "a credible option"? Those words are taken directly from the report. The question that needs to be asked is this: will the Minister continue to allow EirGrid to proceed along a route that will lead to further delays and increased costs or will he engage with the communities concerned and come up with a viable option that will allow us to deliver this interconnector?

I was on the Oireachtas joint committee back in the early 2000s when this issue first arose, and the need to strengthen our grid infrastructure and interconnection with the North of Ireland was set out with real urgency. In the meantime, there have been a lot of positive developments: the creation of a single North-South electricity market, the meeting of 2040 renewables targets and an all-Ireland approach to energy. Everything I have seen over the past 18 years looking at this tells me that this is a critical piece of infrastructure and that not having it would threaten the economic strength of the areas through which it passes because having an AC grid infrastructure strengthens economic prospects. It is different from a DC underground connection in what it can do. Its absence would risk all the progress that has been made on an all-island policy on energy, and that would be a huge cost to the people north and south. It would make it almost impossible, I think, to meet a lot of our climate objectives. We would be forced to look at new investments in the North and an effective separation again of the two systems, which would be hugely damaging in a variety of ways. Therefore, having looked at this for 18 or 19 years now, I believe that the approach and the objective that EirGrid is setting is the correct one.

Does the Minister wonder why it is 18 years later and there has not been a single move to erect a single pylon in the intervening period? It is because, crucially, in all the objectives and all the parameters EirGrid set itself, it is missing a crucial component that is at the heart of projects such as the ALEGrO interconnector, a very similar project happening between Belgium and Germany, which has one fundamental difference: it is being undergrounded. The reason it is being undergrounded is that the objective I talk about is the objective of public acceptance. That is a criterion that EirGrid has never taken into consideration. If the Minister wants, as I do, to see this interconnector developed, he will need to talk to the campaigning communities. I ask him again today: will he engage with those communities? Will he speak to them to hear their concerns? Will he actually engage with EirGrid, not to take its word verbatim as gospel, as he and successive Ministers in his position have been doing, but to engage critically with it to ensure we can deliver this infrastructure through underground technology? It is the only way that the project will be delivered.

The Minister knows that the communities completely united against the North-South interconnector. We could be talking about it in another 18 years if we do not look at the option of undergrounding. The communities are furious with EirGrid, which led fancy public relations and marketing campaigns while ignoring the concerns of the communities and the people involved. There must be a new review of this project involving the North East Pylon Pressure group, and all the relevant stakeholders, or we could be looking at in ten to 15 years' time again. As the Minister will be aware, the communities are united and the only way to get this project on track and moving is for the Government to bring the people with it.

While it is true that we need to have the people with us, they will expect and want an energy system that will work and will deliver all the goods that power supply does deliver for us, namely, heating and lighting our homes, and helping to provide jobs. EirGrid is a public service company with no interest in this project other than serving the public. That is its entire objective. I believe that it is correct in its engineering assessment that it will not be possible to meet those two objectives by putting power lines underground. It would not be able to meet its obligation to the public to provide a secure electricity system this way. If, in the past 18 years, in the series of international reports that we have looked at, an alternative way of doing it emerged, then we would have all jumped at it. However, I do not believe that it exists.

That brings us to what we do have to do. EirGrid has to engage with the local community to make sure that we maximise the level of public acceptance and address concerns on the ground. The company is best placed to do that. That is the critical next step that we must take as we start to construct the project.

Question No. 45 replied to with Written Answers.

Climate Action Plan

Paul Murphy

Question:

46. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he will seek to future proof the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2020 against potential misuse of negative emissions technology to delay reducing overall greenhouse gas, GHG, emissions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1498/21]

The so-called Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2020, or at least the first version of it, amounted to vague promises but no plan for real action. One important area that raises concern is the statement that "the means of achieving a climate neutral economy ... may evolve over time through innovation, evolving scientific consensus and emerging technologies". This amounts to kicking the can down the road and hoping for some technological fix to solve our problems. Will that be removed from the Bill?

I will not read out the prepared response, as it is very similar to that which I read out in response to Deputy Smith's question earlier. I will come to key point at issue if I understand the Deputy's question correctly, that is, whether we know exactly what the technologies are that are going to deliver the scale of the decarbonisation we want. We do not know this yet. This may even form part of a response to the previous question. The management of the electricity grid will continue to evolve in a way that is not yet clear. We will develop new interconnection and grid technology. The super grid concept that has been discussed will allow us to shift power in different directions. It is new and innovative technology that will enable is to balance a grid. It is just one example of an area that I am confident will be central to meeting our objectives. While the technology is not yet here, I believe it will be developed. Over the past 20 to 30 years, solar and wind technology have evolved in a way that nobody could have predicted. We have seen the development of electric vehicle, EV, technology in a way that nobody would have expected ten years ago.

The broad parameters of where we are going will involve the electrification of everything. The balancing of the management of variable power and demand will be at the centre of a new industrial revolution. There will be some other technologies, as I mentioned earlier, such as green hydrogen, and it is not yet clear how they will be used, but I have a very strong expectation that they will be central. Across a variety of different areas, I can indicate where I believe that there will be significant technological innovation. We should lead it, because by learning by doing, we will develop an economic advantage that we can share with other countries throughout the world. It is right to be honest and upfront and to invest in that innovation with confidence, because what we have seen over the past ten to 20 years is that this delivers a better system. Low carbon will be better and will win.

I have no problem with, or objection to, using technology in respect of electrification, better battery storage and better and more efficient renewable energy. The question relates to what is being spoken about here and whether this can be used for relying on technological sequestration solutions - the idea of carbon capture. It is the idea that in the future, a person will invent something we can use to suck all of the carbon out of the air, and basically we do not have to worry about it. The Minister knows that that is a ploy used by fossil fuel companies, much like that used by cigarette companies historically. They did not stop selling cigarettes when all the public health evidence emerged. They came up with new marketing spin and added filters. They tried to make it seem like their cigarettes were safe. The talk of carbon capture and technological solutions for the future is about avoiding taking the action that is necessary to take now, and putting it on the long finger. Does the Minister agree that we cannot rely on technological sequestration solutions arising in the future?

I agree with the Deputy that we should not be blinded by techno optimism. A variety of the technological solutions that we have heard mentioned are highly problematic, and we should not go next or near them. For example, people talk about putting particulates in the upper atmosphere. That would have major knock-on consequences for other aspects of our complex life systems and we should not go next or near it. There is false optimism that we will be able to suck carbon out of the air. We should be very wary about false promises. However, that does not mean that we should not avail of certain technologies when they are proven and as they develop. Carbon capture and storage is one of those that is in existence. There are environmental issues around it and one must be very careful with it. Primarily, storage within existing geological structures and the use of gas fields, and so on, is more likely. We do not have may such storage locations in our country. It may involve us shipping carbon to other jurisdictions because they may have better locations for it. However, it is not a magic bullet. It is only one of the elements on which we should rely. I keep going back to that figure. For example, if it is possible, using carbon capture and storage along with other technologies for us to decarbonise heavy industries such as cement production, we should not rule it out.

If this is the Bill that is going to be published, and I would like to know when we are going to see the next version of it, then the Minister is going to provide a big escape clause for those who have to take action now, by implying that there will be big technological solutions in respect of carbon capture in the future. It is most problematic. The main carbon capture that we know of relates to forests and grass. They are things that we know and understand today. We cannot rely on these kind of miracle fixes for climate change as a way of avoiding what is necessary, which is a radical, eco-socialist green new deal that improves people's lives at the same time as completely transforming the nature of our economy and taking on fossil fuel capitalism. It involves taking the big oil companies and business polluters into public ownership so that we can plan to cut emissions as part of a rapid, just transition to a zero-carbon economy by 2030. Anything else is just kicking the can down the road and not following the signs, which are absolutely clear, in respect of what needs to be done.

The Deputy is absolutely right. The first real technology we turn to is rewetting our bogs and managing that. Nature-based solutions are going to be at the centre of our response to climate change, for example, in how we manage our bogs, what type of farming we do and storing carbon in our pasture land and forestry. In the process, we will improve water quality and reduce ammonia, nitrogen and other pollutants. That it the first priority. The second priority is in changing our everyday transport system and our homes.

It is not about one big technological solution. We need to look at everything. We must not put all on the focus on the farmers and make them the major problem, which they are not. In fact, they are part of the solution. Another thing we should not do is just go down the market solutions route where it is all about what one buys or what one does with one's car or home. It should be about a system change for the better. Included in that is industrial system change and how industrial emissions are managed.

As the Deputies who tabled Questions Nos. 47 to 49, inclusive, are not in the Chamber, we will move on to Question No. 50 in the name of Deputy O'Rourke.

Questions Nos. 47 to 49, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

North-South Interconnector

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

50. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he has spoken to an Taoiseach regarding the concerns in regard to the proposed North-South interconnector; his plans to address the significant concerns of local representatives and communities across counties Meath, Cavan and Monaghan; if funding will be provided to underground this important project for the grid; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13261/21]

I again raise the issue of the North-South interconnector. I want to know whether the Minister has spoken to An Taoiseach about the significant concerns of local representatives in regard to the project and what his plans are to address those concerns. Fianna Fáil was the party that tabled a motion on this issue to the Dáil. Its representatives at local and national level say they want a review. Have they made that request to the Minister and will he support them in it?

I speak to the Taoiseach on a weekly basis, including on issues such as the one the Deputy has raised. Last Monday week, we had a special Cabinet sub-committee meeting on climate change, which included a presentation from EirGrid and, as part of that, a discussion around the North-South interconnector. I have discussed the matter with the Deputy's party leader. I have also discussed it with Ms Nichola Mallon, the Minister responsible for infrastructure in the North, and Ms Diane Dodds, who is the Northern Ireland Minister with responsibility for industrial energy policy. In our discussions, we spoke about the critical all-island dimension of this project. We had a very interesting event in Government Buildings two weeks ago where we talked about how we can co-operate on environmental protection on a shared-island basis. That was mainly about nature-based solutions and climate adaptation.

I keep coming back to the point that the development of the North-South interconnector is crucial to all-island co-operation. When I mention it to the Taoiseach, I often put it to him from that shared island perspective. I fear, with absolute certainty, that if we do not proceed with the interconnector, we will lose what has been gained, as I said earlier. That tends to be one of the aspects that I refer to in my discussions of the project with the Taoiseach, the Deputy's party leader and anyone else who cares to listen.

A judicial review is to take place in the North in the time ahead regarding the decision taken by the Minister, Ms Mallon, on her own, as is the nature of the executive in the North. Will the Minister insist that no works will progress on the interconnector project in the South until such time as the judicial review has taken place in the North? To prevent throwing good money after bad on this project in terms of design and the procurement of pylons and infrastructure, will the Minister insist that this does not happen until the outcome of the judicial review is known, at the very earliest? I sincerely believe that it is a case of throwing good money after bad. In my very clear opinion, until such time as the project is undergrounded, it will not proceed.

We will not have any comment on the judicial review, as such, which involves proceedings before a court.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for her direction because it is similar to the approach I would take in discussing this matter with the Minister, Ms Mallon, or anyone else. It is not appropriate for us to comment on the legal proceedings taking place in the North, which will have to be worked through in their own time.

As I said in response to an earlier question, EirGrid's management of any project is a matter for the company and we do not get down to specific project management details like that. EirGrid will make the call in this matter. It is a single project and it must connect North to South because that is the very definition of it. There would be no point in running it to the Border and stopping there. There must be a cross-Border perspective on it. The details are a matter for the company. My discussions with the Minister in the North were not around the legal aspect relating to the project. They were around the strategic benefits of co-operation, in which I firmly believe.

In my priority question earlier, I raised the issue of EirGrid's ambition. In his response, the Minister referenced the public consultation. The truth is that what is happening in this area is a perfect example of how not to do planning. At a meeting of the climate committee yesterday, where we discussed ambition in terms of transport, one of the contributors raised a point around the planning process and the concept of procedural justice. The communities in counties Meath, Cavan, Monaghan, Tyrone and Armagh feel that their voices have not been heard in this process. Time and again, their opinion has not been noted. The Minister needs to recognise that.

There is a solution to the problem, namely, a co-design process involving all the stakeholders and an independent review. Everybody should have their say in terms of how that review is designed and then the review can be conducted. I am confident that this proposal will get cross-party support. If the Minister does that, he will find a solution to what currently seems to be an intractable problem.

Again, I am reluctant to refer to court proceedings but my understanding is that the decision of An Bord Pleanála in December 2016 to grant planning consent for the interconnector was the subject of two High Court judicial reviews. On 22 August 2017, the High Court upheld the development consent granted by An Bord Pleanála for the interconnector. That decision was appealed in the courts over two days in December 2017 and, on 11 January 2018, the High Court refused leave to appeal the initial judgment. The High Court decision of 11 January was subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court, with a two-day hearing taking place on 15 and 16 October 2018. The Supreme Court dismissed that appeal on 19 February 2019. The right to legal questioning of process in this matter has been very much exercised, as I understand it, and the Supreme Court has made the decision in that regard.

Energy Infrastructure

Denis Naughten

Question:

51. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the discussions he has had with stakeholders regarding the future use of Lough Ree power station; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44952/20]

As the Minister will be aware, Mr. Kieran Mulvey, the just transition commissioner, outlined in one of his reports the pristine condition of the two power stations in Lanesborough and Shannonbridge. Both of those power stations have a remaining lifespan of ten years. The Minister has asked the ESB to carry out a review of the feasibility of retaining the plants for some other energy operation. I am asking for a commitment from him that there will be an independent review of all available options.

I thank the Deputy for his question. The first progress report of the just transition commissioner, Mr. Kieran Mulvey, published on 22 May 2020, included a recommendation that a study be undertaken of the future potential of the ESB power stations at Lanesborough, Lough Ree power station, and Shannonbridge, West Offaly power station, for the establishment of a dedicated energy hub in the midlands. This was subsequently included as a commitment in the programme for Government. A feasibility study into the establishment of a green energy hub using the existing infrastructure of the West Offaly and Lough Ree sites has been under way over the past number of months. This has been overseen by a steering group chaired by the ESB and includes representatives of my Department, relevant local authorities, the just transition commissioner and other stakeholders.

To inform the group's work, the ESB commissioned an internal engineering report to examine how the power plants might be reused in the future. This report was subsequently reviewed on behalf of the ESB by Fichtner, an international consultancy firm with acknowledged expertise in these areas. I expect the group to finish its work shortly and that it will reach conclusions on the viable uses of the existing infrastructure. I have separately been informed by the ESB that it intends to lodge planning applications shortly to develop additional energy services at the sites. This will include synchronous condensers and energy storage capabilities at both locations. These applications are in anticipation of future competitions to be run by the energy regulator and EirGrid for the provision of those services. The future use and management of ESB-owned facilities remains the responsibility of the board and management of the ESB.

Therein lies the problem. The board and management of the ESB are responsible for the future use of these two power plants. As the Minister knows, the report will recommend their demolition, which is wasting €176 million that Irish electricity customers right across the country have already paid towards their cost. There are alternative options. I said here last December that three separate proposals have been put forward, independent of the ESB. As the Minister knows, the Just Transition Fund approved by his Department has funded a study in Lanesborough to consider alternative uses of the site. There are also options for Shannonbridge. Surely we should have a completely independent review, independent of the ESB, to examine all available opportunities for both plants.

I do not believe we should pre-empt the review and whatever options are presented. In my mind, nothing has been excluded. I have said throughout the process that if Deputies have proposals or plans they want to submit or share, they should by all means put them into the mix. There are no exemptions regarding potential uses. The ESB does have an interest. It has a long-standing involvement with the plant and local community, with genuine benefits and commitment. People from the local community are involved. The interest of those involved is the same as the wider State interest.

It may be difficult. If there is not an obvious and immediate solution, we may have to consider a variety of options. The various just transition projects the Deputy referred to are progressing. I understand from talking to officials today that the concerns that arose some months ago on state aid clearance may be possible to address. The Deputy is correct about Lanesborough. The option mentioned is one of many. Out of the options, we may see new economic shoots, green shoots, in the midlands, including from the ESB, Bord na Móna and other interested parties.

If the ESB is so committed to the midlands, why would it go to the regulator to seek to recoup the €5 million it paid over to the just transition fund expecting electricity customers across the country to pay for it? That is the commitment of the ESB to the midlands. All the local public representatives were told last month that the report will recommend that the two plants be demolished. The fact is that the ESB is compromised because it has a vested interest in both of the sites which is not necessarily in the interest of the taxpayer or electricity customers across the country. It is definitely not in the interest of the local communities. I asked the Minister to have a completely independent review of all potential options for the two plants rather than having them demolished. He should not repeat the mistakes made with the sugar industry in Mallow and Carlow.

As I said in my earlier response, an international consultancy firm with absolute expertise in the area has reviewed the proposals coming forward. I accept that while one listens to what international experts have to say, one should listen to views that contradict them. If the Deputy believes there is an economic solution that has not been considered, he should submit it. I will ask my officials or others to examine why it was not considered. This was an open process. It is not as if people are trying to protect a vested interest that has a genuine, obvious future. The ESB is considering some of the measures I mentioned, such as synchronous condensers and other storage facilities. There are many such developments in the midlands that comprise new economic opportunities.

There are no jobs in battery storage

No, but as discussed previously, there will be jobs in the development of this balancing system, this energy system, and there will be jobs as the ESB works with Bord na Móna, Coillte and other developers in developing new renewable power supplies. On the back of those jobs, other jobs will come because we will locate the industry close to the power. That is where the ESB has a vital role in the midlands and elsewhere.

Yet the data centres are still being built in Dublin.

Questions Nos. 52 to 58, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Broadband Infrastructure

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

59. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the way in which he plans for all persons in Ireland to have access to high-speed broadband when commercial operators are reluctant or refuse outright to extend existing lines, even by a few metres, to other homes and businesses in need of high-speed broadband; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13263/21]

What are the Minister's plans for all persons in Ireland to have access to high-speed broadband when commercial operators are reluctant or refuse outright to extend existing lines, even by a few metres, to other homes and businesses in need of it? Will he make a statement on the matter? I am referring to the gap areas.

I said earlier, in response to Deputy Pringle I believe, that the key is to have a variety of developers. The national broadband plan is key, particularly for those areas that the market cannot serve, but investment of the kind that Eir has made in the 300,000 additional houses in rural areas is critical. It probably now needs to start focusing on some urban areas also because some of these areas may not be accommodated by the cable network operator or other high-speed Internet providers. We need to move towards a system whereby every house in the country has access to really high-speed broadband so we can also develop social services on the back of that. I cite the co-operative arrangement between Vodafone and the ESB in the roll-out of SIRO, which has been an exceedingly successful innovation in using electricity wires as a conduit to get broadband into people's homes. The ongoing delivery is critical. Where a service can be delivered effectively in a small number of specific locations where some houses have a service while their deeply frustrated neighbours do not because they are not covered in the plan - for example, where Eir provides a new extension in a rural area - we would encourage it and seek for the regulatory authority to facilitate this in whatever way it can. Through a series of interventions by a variety of companies, including cable, mobile broadband and fixed-line companies such as Eir and SIRO, and through the national broadband plan, we are on a path to having universal coverage, ahead of most of our comparator countries. That will be of great benefit to the country.

The Minister touched on the issue. Any public representative can give an example. Stamullen, a growing urban centre, became very built up over the Celtic tiger period. When we made requests repeatedly, be it to Eir or National Broadband Ireland, we encountered the scenario in which areas were incorrectly categorised, thus requiring recategorisation. Regarding other areas within the group, we were told it would take a number of years before Eir, for example, would be back with the network bringing fibre to the home. The Minister touched on the fact that a large number of people are caught in the gap in that they are not covered by the national broadband plan and not in the intervention area. It does not make financial sense for Eir to go the extra 100 yd up a road because there are thousands of such cases. When one adds them up, one realises it does not make financial sense. Eir has no interest in addressing this and it has been very clear about it. Rather than hoping for a solution, I am asking the Minister to state there is a clear plan to provide a solution for all those affected. I am not blaming him for the problem but just saying we need a solution. It is a problem.

On the broad strategic approach, I make reference to the network operators. The infrastructure is strange because one wants the process to be both collaborative and competitive.

One wants that competitive tension so companies are forced to make investments for fear that their competitors will take the market from them. At the same time, one wants it to be collaborative with a shared infrastructure. The national broadband plan was designed with such an approach. It uses National Broadband Ireland. It is open access and all other retailers will use it. It works in collaboration with Eir in making ready and using its poles. It will also be collaborating with the ESB and will use some of its network. The solution to the problems the Deputy rightly identifies in Stamullen and elsewhere will be further collaboration and co-operation to make sure that it is universal and that we go the extra hundred yards so we do not leave houses behind. It will take some time. The national broadband plan will, as everyone knows, take a number of years but that collaborative approach will get us that 100% coverage.

I thank the Minister and Deputies for their co-operation. That concludes questions to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
The Dáil adjourned at 8.31 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Thursday, 11 March 2021.