Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Energy Prices

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

27. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the actions he will take to reduce energy bills for households this winter; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [61986/21]

I wish to ask the Minister the actions he will take to reduce energy bills for households this winter and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I am here on behalf the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who has a cold and cannot be here and sends his apologies. The Government is acutely aware of the impact the recent increases in energy prices are having on households. This is a global phenomenon and expert commentators, including the International Energy Agency, IEA, have attributed this to a range of demand and supply factors that have contributed to a tightening of the European gas market supplies and the upward trend in wholesale gas prices we have witnessed since mid-2020.

The best long-term approach for Ireland to insulate consumers from volatility on international wholesale energy markets is to invest in energy efficiency, renewable energy and to expand interconnection with our European and neighbouring markets and to deepen internal electricity market integration.

The Government's immediate response to address the increase in domestic energy prices has been to utilise the tax and social welfare system to counter rising costs of living. Budget 2022 increased the weekly rate of the fuel allowance so that €914 will be paid to eligible households over the course of this winter. It increased the qualified child payment and the living alone allowance and an increase to the income threshold for the working family payment was also announced.

Consumers should continue to switch or engage with their energy supplier, and many households could still save on their bills if they did so. As recently as 9 December, switching supplier could save a customer consuming the average amount of electricity up to €313.

The Commission for the Regulation of Utilities, CRU, has in place a suite of protections against disconnection that are set out in the supplier handbook. In brief, priority customers cannot be disconnected, while vulnerable customers are protected over winter months from 1 November to 31 March each year while a CRU moratorium on disconnections for all customers comes into effect over the Christmas period. Additionally, under the supplier-led voluntary energy engage code, suppliers will not disconnect a customer who is engaging with them at any time.

Further, due to the ongoing pressure on households, the Government agreed today to provide a one-off credit of €100 to every domestic electricity account holder through their electricity supplier in the first quarter of 2022.

It is quite incredible a week out from Christmas that we are here with nothing more than an outline of a plan to do something on runaway electricity bills and nothing on home heating oil or fuel. Everyone could see the trend. As far back as 3 February Sinn Féin brought a Private Members' motion on the issue. The Government said its hands were tied. Wholesale gas prices increased by 400% and electricity by 200%. The Government said its hands were tied. Over the course of this Dáil term, every time we met in this forum on Priority Questions, I raised this issue and the Government said its hands were tied, pointing to international markets. It is two full months since the European Commission published its toolbox and said the Government's hands were not tied.

When is the measure agreed at Cabinet today to come into effect? Is it the case that the legislation will be in for January? Will the credit be applied to bills in March or April? Is there a way this can be done sooner? The Opposition will work with the Government to make this happen sooner. In our opinion it needs to happen before Christmas.

I welcome the Deputy's offer to co-operate with the Government to bring this in as soon as possible. That absolutely makes sense. I also welcome Deputy McDonald's comments today that she welcomes this initiative and that it will bring some relief. In terms of when this can be done, we cannot legislate before January but we will bring this in as soon as possible. With the co-operation of the Opposition I think we can bring it in very quickly. The target is to get it done in the first quarter.

Of course, there are two parts to this. There is what happens in the short term during this winter and how we avoid this type of situation occurring in the long term. That is what the toolbox discusses. The toolbox asks us to target people in energy poverty. It asks us to make sure we are broadly helping those who need it most and also finding long-term solutions in terms of switching to renewable energy and energy efficiency. That is why there is nearly €200 million of retrofitting funds being targeted specifically at low-income houses over the course of the next 12 months.

To what degree has an assessment been made of alternative ways to introduce this legislation or regulation in the quickest way possible? What does quarter 1 of next year mean? Is it the case that we will be dealing with this legislation for the first three months of next year? When will people see this impact on their bills? That is the real question people have. They want to see it before Christmas. This has been on the agenda for months at this stage and the Government has failed to act on it. The toolbox from the European Commission has been there for two months at this stage telling the Government it can act.

In addition, as the Minister of State has said, this needs to be part of a broader suite of measures. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has indicated that targeted measures including the provision of a discretionary fund for utility debt should be considered and implemented. Is that something the Government will look at?

As for the options that are considered for dealing with energy poverty, a lot of work went into this before the budget. These were the discussions and calculations that took place to try to find who in the population needs the payment most, the best way to target it and the most efficient way to get that money out there. There was a range of things that went beyond the traditional measures such as increasing the fuel allowance by a number of euro. There was also an attempt to target people through the living alone allowance. Older people who are living alone have much more difficulty heating their homes than those who have a number of people in their household. That type of targeting exercise and options had been considered right up to the budget.

On the toolbox, it is recommended. It is not mandatory. It provides a suite of options to reduce suffering and people living in energy poverty during the winter. We have taken the best of what we could do and brought it in as quickly as possible. With the co-operation of the Opposition, I think we can get it into people's homes within the first three months of next year.

Natural Gas Grid

Bríd Smith

Question:

28. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the way the addition of 2GW of gas-fired power will affect Ireland’s carbon emissions and reduction targets; if the policy is driven by the needs of energy intensive industry, such data centres as suggested by the CEO of EirGrid in recent comments; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [61539/21]

I wish to ask the Minister of State about the addition of the 2 GW of gas-fired power that will affect Ireland's carbon emissions and reduction targets, and if the policy is driven by the needs of energy-intensive industries such as data centres, as suggested by the CEO of EirGrid in recent comments and if the Minister of State will make a statement on the matter.

The Government's policy statement on security of electricity supply sets out that the development of gas-fired generation is a national priority and should be permitted and supported in order to ensure security of electricity supply and support the growth of renewable electricity generation.

The policy statement supports the need to deliver about 2 GW of new gas-fired generation which is set out in the National Development Plan 2021-2030 and the Climate Action Plan 2021. The need for this level of new gas-fired generation capacity was identified by the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities, which has statutory responsibility for security of electricity supply, and EirGrid, the electricity transmission system operator.

As set out in EirGrid's Generation Capacity Statement 2021-2030, much of this new capacity is needed to replace older high-emitting power stations, such as those fuelled by oil and coal, which are due to close over the coming years. It is also needed to meet growing demand from large energy users, such as data centres, and the electrification of the transport sector and of heating in our homes and businesses. It is important to note that the development of flexible gas-fired generation is to provide security of supply and support high levels of renewable electricity generation. The new capacity will only run when needed and therefore the level of associated emissions will be minimised.

A number of actions are being taken to manage the impact of data centre growth on our electricity system and emission reduction targets. The Commission for the Regulation of Utilities has published a direction to EirGrid and ESB Networks that requires each of the system operators to prioritise data centre connections based on location, the availability of on-site generation and flexibility in reducing demand when required. In addition, the Climate Action Plan 2021 commits the Government to reviewing its strategy on data centres to ensure the growth of such users can only happen in alignment with our sectoral emissions ceilings and renewable energy targets.

I would argue that when we strip away all the rhetoric, the Green Party in government is presiding over the expansion of fossil fuels and our reliance on them in the State. The Government is tying us into another 30 years at least of dependence on gas and facilitating arguments that will be made by proponents of liquefied natural gas by deepening our reliance on gas. Gas is not a bridge to anything. It is a fossil fuel and the expansion of its use and infrastructure is a betrayal of the climate movement the Green Party is supposed to represent and the pledges made by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, in Glasgow. There is really nothing short term about this. Building gas stations will tie us in for 30 years.

It is very clear from recent statements by Mr. Mark Foley of EirGrid - the Minister of State should familiarise himself with the meeting he had with the data industry - that this is to facilitate the growth and proliferation of that industry. It makes a complete nonsense of the claim that we can somehow magically continue to have unlimited data centres, reduce our emissions and reach our targets.

I thank the Deputy. The use of fossil fuels in Ireland is being reduced. We are now moving towards a target of having 80% of our electricity generated through renewable sources by 2030. That necessarily means a reduction in our fossil fuel use. Although we have more gas plants being built - I am sure the Deputy understands this point - an extra 2 GW of gas plant capacity does not mean we are burning gas in the plants all the time. It means we have the capacity in an emergency to bring up enough gas to continue to supply electricity to those who need it around the country. There will be a capacity option shortly to allow for the 2 GW. That is for people to have the ability to receive electricity from gas over the next ten years; it is not to allow it to be burned all the time. It is for use when it is absolutely needed. I agree that gas is not a transition fuel. This is not a policy of the Government but it is a policy of the Government that liquefied natural gas, LNG, stations are not to be built pending the review of energy security.

The next question concerns why we have an energy-security problem and why we may have blackouts this winter. Already, many have been reported around the country. Part of the answer is related to the dependency on the data industry. At present, it accounts for 11% of our national grid. I am aware that the Minister of State and the Minister would argue that we must move rapidly towards renewables and offshore wind energy, but why do we not have these yet? We do not because those who sat on licences for more than 20 years and did not develop the offshore wind capacity that they could have developed did so because of their profit margins, not because of the needs of the State, national grid or country. Therefore, the Minister of State is attempting to bulldoze in changes. It is absolutely shameful for the Green Party to sit in government and recommit to having gas infrastructure in the country. If we are to deliver wind energy at scale, the Minister of State's party should be advocating a national renewable energy company to do it for us, just as the ESB provided electricity in the past. Thus, we will not be reliant on the profit margins of the developers of renewable energy.

We have an energy challenge because there is a major transition in which we are moving away from fossil fuels towards a low-carbon economy and renewables. Obviously, that is difficult to do. I agree with Deputy Bríd Smith that we should have installed offshore wind infrastructure ten years ago. When I see the great offshore wind farms built by Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium, I think that we should have built them also. We have a windy area around our country. We cannot go back in time, however. We have been in government for a year and we are building offshore wind facilities as fast as we possibly can.

On the Deputy's question as to whether we should have a national body to develop renewable energy, there will be considerable involvement by the State. The ESB has for a long time been building renewable energy facilities. Bord na Móna, Coillte and all such large State bodies will be significantly involved, as will EirGrid.

Broadband Infrastructure

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

29. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he will address the issues raised recently in articles (details supplied) in relation to the national broadband plan, including National Broadband Ireland’s corporate structure, financial arrangements, long-term viability and ability to deliver on the plan. [61987/21]

Will the Minister of State address the issues raised recently in articles in the Business Post and The Currency on the national broadband plan, including National Broadband Ireland’s corporate structure, financial arrangements, long-term viability and ability to deliver on the plan. The Government has had its review so we want the results. We also want to know how many premises will be passed, how many connections have been made and whether we will reach the target of 60,000 by the end of January.

The contract for the national broadband plan State-led intervention, which was signed with National Broadband Ireland in November 2019, is a comprehensive and detailed document. To protect the State investment and ensure that the national broadband plan milestones and deliverables are met, the contract has been designed to include extensive protections, quality checks, reporting and monitoring obligations.

I am aware of recent commentary in relation to the national broadband plan contract, in particular with regard to the ownership of National Broadband Ireland and the investment of shareholders' funds.

On the matter of ownership, Metallah Limited is the 100% owner of the shares in the capital of National Broadband Ireland, save for the special share of the Minister, which does not provide ownership rights. Granahan McCourt Dublin Limited is the 100% owner of the shares in the capital of Metallah Limited and is owned 50.9% by Granahan McCourt Fund Limited, a David McCourt controlled company, and 49.1% by Tel-IE Broadband Sari, an entity managed and controlled by Oak Hill Advisors. The ownership structure remains as it was at the signing of the contract.

The investors are providing funding through the purchase of shares in National Broadband Ireland and the provision of shareholder loans. I am advised that utilising both instruments is a standard form of investment in infrastructure companies and that the reference to both as "equity investments" is common practice.

The initial drawdown of committed shareholder funds by National Broadband Ireland was €100 million in January 2020. This was drawn down before the release of any subsidy by the State. I am advised that no shareholder distributions have been made to date. I am also advised that a further drawdown of investor funds of €20 million will be made in the coming weeks and that the full amount of committed equity, €175 million, is covered by guarantees.

When the contract was signed, was it understood that the €175 million equity investment could be by way of debt? What exactly are we talking about in respect of the guarantee? There is information available on the fees paid in 2020 but, in his review, did the Minister come up with figures for 2021? What is the current interest bill? What is the position on the high-cost loans, in particular? At this point in time, we understand the figure is about 11.8%, but we want to know where we are. David McCourt spoke about seeking new investors. Have any names been put in front of the Department for approval? Has there been any interaction between the Department and these people? If so, could the Minister of State tell me who they are? Could he explain the early release of the performance bond? Did it need to be agreed by the Cabinet or was it just agreed by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications?

I cannot answer all those questions in one minute but I welcome the scrutiny and questions and the requests from the media for further information. I am delighted to answer any question asked to me directly.

One of the stories that appeared last week had the headline, "How a hedge fund quietly took over the National Broadband Plan". The next day, 8 December, Deputy Mary Lou McDonald said in the Dáil that the majority shareholder of the consortium, National Broadband Ireland, is Oak Hill Advisors. Neither of those statements is true. A hedge fund has not quietly taken over the national broadband plan, although I was worried when I read the headline. Naturally, I went to the corporate lawyers and corporate accountants and asked whether there was any truth to the story. As it turns out, the majority share ownership continues as it was on the date of the signing of the contract. The ownership has not changed. If the ownership had changed, it would have required the consent of the Minister. It is not that there is a mistake in the story or some kind of error; it is that the whole thrust of the story, the headline, and repeated elements throughout to the effect that there had been a secret takeover by a hedge fund is simply untrue.

I accept the Minister of State is not going to have all the answers but, on that basis, I believe we are going to have to have some sort of forum in which we can have a proper over-and-back discussion. We have all been very frightened about the ability of National Broadband Ireland to deliver on the national broadband plan.

I will ask a few more questions for the record but I would like the Minister of State to deal with the issue of delivery and state whether the target of passing 60,000 premises will be reached by the end of January. What exactly is the current position? We will look for some detail on the exact amount that Granahan McCourt owns in monetary and percentage terms. Is the minimum share capital €2 million? If so, will the rest be in debt? I am looking for figures because the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, disputed the duplication figure as regards Eir in the Business Post a number of weeks ago.

I will be delighted to take part in any forum to share information about this. I absolutely believe in transparency.

I have asked my officials how much more of the contract we can publish. A huge amount of the contract has been published. Some parts have been redacted. As I understand it, that is in line with the mandatory provisions of section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act 2014. In so far as it is possible, I have asked my officials to ascertain what they can do to expedite the process.

The Deputy asked about the number of homes that have been passed. NBI has confirmed that, as of early December, almost 150,000 premises are under construction or constructed across all 26 counties. In line with the remedial plan to address Covid-19-related delays, which was agreed with the Department earlier this year, NBI was to have passed almost 60,000 homes available for immediate connection by the end of 2021. As would be expected with a large-scale infrastructure build, challenges have been encountered as a result of Covid-19 and other issues. NBI is actively working with its network and build partners to address these issues as they arise and recently confirmed to the Department that the number of premises passed by the end of December will be approximately 35,000, while between 50,000 and 60,000 premises will be able to order or to pre-order a service by the end of the year. For more than 121,000 premises, build is under way. This demonstrates that the project is reaching scale.

Climate Change Negotiations

Denis Naughten

Question:

30. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the detail of the discussions he has had with the just transition commissioner; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [61989/21]

The just transition commissioner was appointed by the Government to facilitate dialogue and bring forward concerns from affected communities, residents, workers and businesses from right across the midlands. I am deeply disappointed that the Government does not support the continuation of the commissioner's advocacy role. Kieran Mulvey very honestly exposed the duplicity of some of the so-called support measures, ensuring that midlands families were the primary focus of all supports.

The Government is committed to a just transition in the midlands region and has dedicated significant funding to supporting workers, companies and communities affected by the closure of the peat-fired power stations and the end of peat harvesting by Bord na Móna.

As part of this commitment, the just transition commissioner was appointed in November 2019 with the mandate to engage with those affected by the accelerated exit from peat for electricity generation and to recommend to the Government the essential elements of a just transition for those workers and communities. The commissioner has made an important contribution to the Government's overall just transition response in the region, helping to facilitate dialogue and bringing forward concerns from affected communities, residents, workers and businesses.

The Government has responded to the commissioner's recommendations by publishing an implementation plan for the midlands region as part of the 2021 climate action plan. The key responsibilities, steps and timelines to deliver the actions under this implementation plan will shortly be published as part of the annexe of actions to the climate action plan.

I have had various engagements with the commissioner during 2021, most recently in July, in a meeting with the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. We have discussed a range of matters, including the Department's proposed response to the commissioner's recommendations in his progress reports, progress on the delivery of funding into the region, and the commissioner's work for the remainder of 2021. The commissioner's work continues to be supported by my Department on an ongoing basis.

As I have noted previously, and given the significant progress that has already been achieved, the Government does not propose to continue the commissioner's term beyond the end of his current mandate, which concludes at the end of this year. I look forward to receiving the commissioner's final report and recommendations and being further briefed by him at that stage.

The midlands regional transition team, which is convened by the midlands local authorities, continues to provide an important forum for local authorities, State agencies and others to co-ordinate their ongoing work and to engage with the Government on a just transition in the region. My Department will continue to engage with and support the work of this group into the future as the midlands implementation plan is delivered.

It is deeply disappointing that Kieran Mulvey or his replacement will not be appointed from the beginning of next year, particularly when the EU just transition fund will not be in place until later in the year. Kieran Mulvey has exposed weaknesses in the existing just transition fund, pointing out that communities such as Ballyforan, County Roscommon, where €1 million in investment was secured through the just transition fund, should not be overburdened in providing co-financing. We are effectively asking communities that are being decimated through a loss of jobs to fundraise for replacement jobs. That is fundamentally wrong. Kieran Mulvey has highlighted this on numerous occasions to the Department. What is the Department doing about the issue of co-financing?

Although the term of the commissioner, Kieran Mulvey, is not continuing, a just transition is being set up under legislation for next year. Kieran Mulvey is universally respected and his area of expertise is industrial relations. As the just transition continues, there will be a change of focus as to what is required to be the expertise or the focus of the commission. It was absolutely right that it was industrial relations to begin with. We intend to progress and develop proposals on the mandate on the statutory just transition commission in 2022, in advance of drafting the legislation. A just transition working group will be established in 2022 alongside the just transition commission to co-ordinate the provision of strategic advice and research to the proposed just transition commission.

Kieran Mulvey, in his engagement with the ESB, pursued the company on the release of the Dalton building in Shannonbridge and the tomato shed in Lanesborough for community use. As the Minister of State will be aware, the commissioner has highlighted the fact that the tomato shed will not be released to the local community for now. The ESB is making its release dependent on it being taken off the EPA licence, and the ESB is not prepared to seek an alteration of the licence to support the community and instead is determined to submit the licence for the full site before it will expedite that. The ESB has committed €500,000 to the local community in Lanesborough, which is now being informed that the money is dependent on the ESB having the licence lifted from the EPA and being granted planning permission for new energy services on the site. The latter is completely contrary to the original intention.

I note the Deputy's comments and his passion. I commit that I will take his comments to the Minister and that he may contact my office or the Minister's office and I will reply.

The ESB provided a €5 million contribution to the just transition fund in 2020 to support a just transition in the midlands. I understand that the ESB continues to explore the development of infrastructure in the midlands for use by local community groups. The just transition commissioner facilitated ongoing discussion with the ESB and key stakeholders such as the midlands regional transition team to develop, mobilise and deliver opportunities for the midlands for workers directly affected and the wider community. The ESB is currently developing planning applications for both station sites as renewable energy centres to facilitate growth in the green technology sector. This is in anticipation of future competitive tenders to be held by Eirgrid and the CRU. The proposed technology includes synchronous condensers and energy storage capabilities at both locations. I also understand that the ESB provided an update on its plans for both sites to the most recent meeting of the midlands regional transition team on 1 December. The ESB remains committed to the midlands through the development of these projects, its €5 million contribution to the just transition fund and its network operations, which employ more than 400 highly skilled engineers, technicians and office workers in the region.