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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 2 Jun 2022

Vol. 1023 No. 3

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Cost of Living Issues

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

85. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the degree to which household electricity bills here are more expensive than the European Union average; the reason for this and the measures that he will take in advance of winter 2022 to address electricity cost and energy and electricity security of supply challenges; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28788/22]

I ask the Minister the degree to which household electricity bills here are more expensive than the European Union average and the reason for this, the measures he will take in advance of winter 2022 to address electricity costs and energy and electricity security supply challenges, and if he will make a statement on the matter.

The Deputy is correct that this is a critical issue for our people. The most important factor affecting electricity prices in Ireland is the continuing upward trend in international gas prices, which is affecting electricity prices across Europe and the world. Nevertheless, it is true that Ireland has higher electricity prices than the EU average. In addition to Ireland's fossil fuel dependency, which is one of the reasons, it is due to a number of other factors, including geographical location, economies of scale and high population dispersion. In the longer term, deepening our interconnection with the EU energy market via increased interconnection and realising the full potential of our indigenous renewable energy resources is essential to addressing these structural issues.

The Government has already taken action, including: the €400 million electricity costs emergency benefit scheme that was introduced this year; increases to fuel allowance so that, for this fuel allowance year, recipients receive a total of €1,139 compared to €735 in 2020-2021; and targeted energy efficiency measures, which are critical. This year, 58%, or some €203 million, of the total Government retrofit budget of €352 million will be spent on dedicated energy poverty retrofit supports and local authority retrofits. This includes a new targeted €20 million scheme for the installation of photovoltaic, PV, panels for households that have a high reliance on electricity for medical reasons, and a reduction in VAT from 13.5% to 9% on gas and electricity bills from the start of May until the end of October.

In April, the Government published the national energy security framework, NESF. Response 6 of the framework tasks the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, with implementing a package of measures to enhance protections for financially vulnerable customers and customers in debt by quarter 3 of this year.

There were price rises again yesterday and we can expect the future to look the same. The Minister knows better than most that the price of a therm of gas was approximately 40 cent for a long time but there is a new normal upon us now, and estimations are that it will level off somewhere in the region of €2.50. There is a huge difference between 40 cent and €2.50. While there are mitigations, for the foreseeable future we are going to live in a reality where the price of gas is at €2.50 a therm or higher. That is the new reality and it is going to force people into poverty. We need a response from the Government and it needs to be aligned with these increases in costs. We need to protect people. The Government needs to go beyond the measures that it has introduced or else we will see more and more people driven into poverty. We heard from some of them yesterday on “Morning Ireland”, which was a perfect and depressing example of it.

The Deputy is right. The price of gas has gone beyond compare and up to higher levels. For more than 20 years, it was fairly steady and at a price range typically measured in pence sterling because that is where our gas market is priced from. As the Deputy said, it has gone from some 40 or 50 pence per unit up to about 180 pence in the UK pricing yesterday. I have just come out of a meeting with the European Commissioner for Energy, Kadri Simson. I understand the members of the committee will be meeting her later, which is a good chance to question her on the prospects. From listening to her this morning, this is an ongoing and real crisis. Just in recent days, we have seen that gas to the Dutch market is likely to be cut off, as I understand it, and it is something similar with the Danish market, and even in the German market restrictions are coming.

In all likelihood, as Europe switches away from the use of gas, there is an underlying need for us to do so for climate reasons but also now for security reasons. As much and as fast as we do that, given the switch away from Russian gas, and 150 billion cu. m of gas were imported from Russia into Europe last year, the commission has said that two thirds or three quarters of that cannot be replaced. That is why, first and foremost, we have to push the development of our own renewable power and really focus on energy efficiency as a way of saving on bills, and also introducing even further measures to try to help consumers through this difficult time.

I agree entirely on the transition we need to make. There is huge opportunity and I am sure some of it will be covered later today in terms of what the Government can do to achieve our transition to renewables more speedily. However, this winter, families will be facing increases of over 30% in electricity and gas prices. That is on top of the increases we saw for dual fuel users of €800 in January 2022 when compared to January 2021. Families will not be able to cope. When we meet with St. Vincent de Paul or the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, they talk about people who are self-disconnecting for fear of the shame of actually being disconnected. Sinn Féin has called for a mini-budget and for additional measures in terms of fuel allowance, a discretionary fund and cash payments for people in need. The Minister knows very well that we need to see action before October. Energy providers are indicating they will be increasing prices during the summer and in September, which is going to drive people further into poverty. We need to see a response from the Government.

I do not agree with the approach being advocated by Sinn Féin and I think the Government approach is better. We are sitting down and talking to a whole variety of partners, such as the social partners, Social Justice Ireland and the other groups who are part of the social pillar in the National Economic and Social Council, as well as the environmental pillar and also unions and employers. We work best in this country when we work in collaboration. I think it is better for us to engage in that process, to look to the budget in October and to look at what social welfare or other measures may be needed to help us through what is going to be a very difficult period in this country and in every country across western Europe. Our problem is that we have that very high use of fossil fuels. We are one of the countries that is most dependent on imported fossil fuels. The fundamental, most important thing we need to do, as well as having those interim, short-term, immediate measures to help people through, is to make the switch away from the use of those fuels. That is what serves the Irish people best.

Cost of Living Issues

Gerald Nash

Question:

86. Deputy Ged Nash asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications his views on the ways in which energy companies can assist the State and consumers to meet the challenges of escalating energy prices for domestic users; if he will outline the work being undertaken by his Department in this regard; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28586/22]

Nearly 20% of all households in this country are experiencing energy poverty. Up to March, energy prices had gone up by almost 50% in a year.

As the Minister knows this is hitting low-income households throughout the country the hardest. Energy companies, as the Minister knows, have posted hyper-profits this year. What plans has the Minister to ask the energy companies to do more to help the State and help citizens combat the ever-rising costs of keeping the lights and the heating on?

As Deputy Nash knows the responsibility for regulation of the electricity market, including the compliance of electricity and gas suppliers with their licence conditions, is a matter for the independent regulator, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU. The CRU was assigned responsibility for that role in the Irish electricity sector following the enactment of the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 and subsequent legislation. It is solely accountable to the committee of the Oireachtas for the performance of its functions and not to myself as Minister.

As part of its statutory role the CRU also has consumer protection functions and sets out a number of rules for suppliers to follow in the Electricity and Gas Suppliers Handbooks. These include special provisions for vulnerable customers around areas such as billing and disconnections. The CRU also oversees the supplier-led voluntary Energy Engage Code under which energy suppliers will not disconnect a customer who is engaging with them, must provide every opportunity to customers to avoid disconnection, must identify customers at risk of disconnection and encourage them to engage and are obliged to offer a range of payment options, such as a debt-repayment plan to those in arrears. In addition the National Energy Security Framework, NESF, recently published, tasks the CRU with implementing a package of measures to enhance existing protections for financially vulnerable customers and customers in debt by the third quarter of this year.

Suppliers have also played a key rote in the delivery of a number of governmental measures aimed at supporting people to meet their energy costs. They have a statutory role in implementing the electricity costs emergency benefit scheme where a payment of €200 including VAT went to each household. They were required to implement the reduction of VAT on electricity which has been reduced from 13.5% to 9%. They also have an important role in enabling households to become active energy customers through the clean export guarantee, CEG, to new and existing micro- and small-scale generators. Some suppliers have already advertised that CEG tariff whereby households will be able to export, and eligible micro-generators will start receiving their remuneration for that from 1 July this year depending on their billing cycle. Under the energy efficiency obligation scheme, EEOS, energy suppliers help householders to save energy through measures which include energy upgrades to homes as well as the funding provided by the Government for that important task.

The Minister's response will be cold comfort to struggling families across the country. We need political leadership on this. The best way the energy companies can help consumers is by Government slapping a windfall tax on the hyper-normal profits of energy companies. It is perverse that there is evidence of massive profit-taking going on at this time when customers are really struggling to make ends meet.

The Minister met the EU Commissioner for energy today and knows that the European Commission has given the green light to EU member states to introduce a windfall tax, if that policy decision is taken, on the super-normal profits of energy companies. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, said in a parliamentary question reply to me in April that his Department was considering such a move and he referenced the fact that the officials of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, were engaged in that work as well. The line at this stage seems to have gone cold. That is not good enough. Italy slapped a 25% tax on energy utilities and Spain similarly. The Tory government in the UK overcame its opposition to a windfall tax on the super-normal profits of energy companies and introduced such a tax last week. Based on the figures the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has, we could raise €60 million in windfall tax on energy companies to bring 65,000 additional households into the fuel allowance net. That would be a very important move. Notwithstanding what the Minister says about the responsibility of the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, we need the kind of political leadership that was shown in Italy and Spain.

Deputy Nash is right, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and his Department have a key role. We are working closely together on a full range of different initiatives, the summer economic statement, the Tax Strategy Group this summer and the work to which I referred in engaging with the social partners. I think the right approach for us is to get a blend and mix of different initiatives that we will need. It is right to get those in place and to design them with real thought and precision, really targeting those who are most at risk and also looking at a range of other tax or other initiatives and measures that we can do to manage this crisis. We have shown on numerous occasions in the last year a willingness to act quickly. It is right for us in this process to do it as part of our budgetary process which has already started. We are active, working together to look at a whole range of options in that regard. We will deliver them in the budget package.

Has the Minister ruled out a windfall tax in his discussions with the Minister for Finance? Deputy Ryan is the Minister with responsibility for energy. It is interesting that the €200 energy credit was very poorly targeted. I think everybody will agree with that. However, that did not cost the energy companies a red cent. That was derived from borrowing and tax revenue. The ESB, a citizen-owned company, posted €670 million in pretax profits and is paying a €126 million dividend to the Exchequer. It could be paying more and I think the Minister should demand that it pays more. The Irish arm of the company that operates the Corrib gas field, Vermillion Energy Ireland, posted more than Canadian $1 billion in pretax profits last year. Do not let it off the hook, it needs to be in the sights of this Government. We cannot and should not rule out the prospect of a windfall tax on what are hyper-normal profits being posted by the energy companies. I repeat what I said earlier, it is absolutely perverse when people across this country are struggling to make ends meet, when we will have more people in energy poverty this year than we had last year, that these companies are making super-normal profits on the back of this crisis.

We have been doing targeted measures as well as the likes of the energy credit or the reductions in VAT and excise which apply across the board. So many different Irish householders have been hit. There has also been a very significant increase in the fuel allowance and targeted measures such as the reduction in public transport fares which helped those on lower incomes in particular who often use public transport more. The combination of the energy credit and the fuel allowance increases for more than 300,000 families represents a €604 direct cash benefit in recent months. That was appropriate and right. I would not rule out any other measures. We will have to manage this through next autumn, and winter is going to be a particularly difficult period so I will work with the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and look at whatever range of measures might be needed to help further.

National Broadband Plan

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

87. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he will provide an update on the National Broadband Plan as regards design, build, premises passed and connections made and any works done on catching up on Covid delays and delivering on an accelerated roll-out. [28792/22]

I am asking for an update on the national broadband plan, including design, build, premises passed and connections made, and the particular works that need to be done to catch up on the dreadful Covid delays, and delivering on the accelerated roll-out we have spoken about many times before. We all know that this plan has been dogged by many issues. People really require delivery on Internet connectivity and the pressure is on us to ensure it is delivered.

The survey and design work for the new high-speed fibre broadband network under the national broadband plan is complete or ongoing by National Broadband Ireland, NBI, in every county in Ireland. Survey work feeds into detailed designs for each of the 227 deployment areas. I am advised by NBI that as at 20 May 2022, last month, over 327,600 premises have now been surveyed, more than 298,600 premises are designed or in design process, and more than 175,300 premises are under construction or complete across 26 counties, demonstrating that the project is reaching scale. I am further advised that almost 67,700 premises are now available to order or pre-order a high-speed broadband connection across 23 counties, with over 56,600 premises passed across 22 counties and available for immediate connection and almost 11,900 premises connected, demonstrating the project continues to gain momentum.

The Department has worked with NBI to agree an updated interim remedial plan, UIRP, which recalibrated the targets for 2022 to take account of the knock-on effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and other delays to the programme. The revised target is 102,000 premises passed by the end of January next year. NBI is implementing a number of measures to help lessen the impact that delays have had on the roll-out. Such measures include increasing the rate of pole replacement and duct remediation per month, bringing in additional NBI resources, earlier procurement of materials used in the build stages and bringing in additional subcontractors.

The focus will continue to be on ensuring the National Broadband Ireland build programme is back on track and is gaining momentum month on month.

I welcome the fact that when we are talking about premises surveyed, premises designed or in design and premises under construction, the numbers are considerable. That means there is a significant amount of throughput. I am hardly on my own in still being particularly worried about that figure of 56,600 passed whereas we have had multiple targets to hit 60,000 at the end of January and the end of March. The plan is to reach 102,000 by the end of January next. We need to make sure that target is at least met. Beyond that, I will need information.

At one stage, we were talking about catch-up on the Covid delays over the next two years. It happened fairly quickly. Beyond that, we were talking about an acceleration of the seven-year project. Initially, we thought we could bring it down to five years. The conversation is now about six years. It is a matter of ensuring that happens and then the interaction between NBI and Eir in relation to delivering that.

First, I will give Deputy Ó Murchú further details, maybe on his own county, County Louth, to give an example of more precise figures. As of 29 April last, more than 7,800 premises had been surveyed in the county with over 4,000 premises under construction or complete, almost 3,200 premises available to order or pre-order, and almost 2,500 premises passed and available for immediate connection. That is real and immediate. It is there today, here and now.

I would agree with the Deputy's closing comment about the need for real co-ordination between Eir and NBI. It is critical to the success and acceleration of this project. I had a meeting with the chief executive and chairman of Eir recently. We made the case, and they readily agreed, that the flexible fast operation between their contractors and National Broadband Ireland and the dovetailing between those two organisations to get poles up, to get ducts cleared and to get the process really moving fast will be key. My Department, NBI and Eir are working on an ongoing basis to make sure that happens.

I have had ongoing experience with SIRO. It is an example of another similar project involving the large-scale deployment of fibre. In many of these projects, it takes time to get up to speed. It is typical in large complex infrastructure projects such as these that in the first year or two - we were hampered by Covid - it takes time to work out the mechanism or the physical way of deploying the fibre. That is what is happening in the NBI plan, as happened in other big infrastructure projects. I am confident we will deliver for the Irish people.

I accept, particularly in the beginning, that problems arose specific to the pandemic. We all know that in big infrastructural projects one gets better as one goes along. That is accepted, but it is a matter of ensuring that this happens.

I have had conversations with NBI. It is obviously looking for what it terms "a self-install product" which would give it a greater capacity in relation to delivering on part of the build. Its conversations, as far as I understand, with Eir are that Eir has increased its capacity to make sure it catches up with the Covid delays so that we can deliver a seven-year project but it will be insufficient to deliver on an acceleration of a year. I think there are legal issues. I am merely looking for an update on where that conversation is, on whether we can deliver the self-install product, on whether Eir will increase its capacity and on where we are on putting it on a contractual basis to ensure that we get delivery in six years. Where people have been delivered fibre, it is absolutely brilliant. It is about all those who are not connected.

I also welcome the fact ComReg is working on offering people alternatives in their areas if they will be waiting another four or five years.

That is exactly right. ComReg is right to be looking at other innovate ways in which we can provide coverage. The more universal and the quicker we can get universal coverage the better. The Department, as I said, NBI and Eir are looking at a range of different ways in which we can accelerate and dovetail the work of the various organisations.

One of the other issues, which, coming out of Covid, is deeply frustrating, is that across so many sectors in the economy, it is hard to get contractors. It is hard to get many of the people one might need even for the most basic task, such as putting up poles or other contract equipment. Many of the same contractors that would be engaged in this project would also be engaged in other projects ongoing in the State, for instance, putting in renewable power and in retrofitting a range of different resources. One of the real issues is the scaling-up of our contracting capability, particularly in regard to physical infrastructure. That is one of the key issues that we are working on to try to accelerate and help.

Human Rights

Gary Gannon

Question:

88. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he has liaised with the ESB to ensure that a human rights assessment is carried out on the communities surrounding Colombian mines to ensure the protection of indigenous and local communities who have suffered as a consequence of these mines given that Ireland recommenced purchasing coal from Colombian mines. [28727/22]

My question pertains to the fact that the Government, through the ESB, is back purchasing coal from the Cerrejón mine in Colombia. My question is on whether we intend to carry out a human rights assessment on the indigenous and local communities surrounding that mine to see the impact the mine and the fossil fuel extraction around that location is having on their lives.

In 2020, the European Union imported almost 24% of its total energy needs from Russia, including 19% of its total coal needs. Ireland's largest power station, Moneypoint, in County Clare, which is owned and operated by the ESB, uses coal which has in recent times been sourced from Russia.

In April, the European Union adopted a fifth package of restrictive measures against Russia in response to Russia's illegal and unprovoked military aggression against Ukraine. The fifth package includes an import ban on all forms of Russian coal. This affects one quarter of all Russian coal exports amounting to an €8 billion loss of revenue per year for Russia.

Ireland fully supports this action banning that coal. It means that ESB - as well as other European users - is required to source coal for Moneypoint from alternative sources.

As the Deputy will appreciate, matters relating to human rights assessments being carried out on the communities surrounding Colombian mines to assure the projection of indigenous and local communities does not fall under my remit and I do not have a function in this regard.

In the medium term, Ireland must plan for an electricity system without coal-fired power. The National Energy Security Framework, published by the Government in April, sets out a single over-arching response to address Ireland's energy security needs in the context of the war in Ukraine. The framework includes a number of measures which will reduce our demand for coal, including reducing the demand for fossil fuels and replacing fossil fuels with renewables. Of particular importance will be aligning all elements of the planning system to accelerate renewables, reviewing the grid connection arrangements for renewables and expanding the role of microgeneration.

I do not accept that the Minister does not have a function when we take fossil fuel extractions and the impact it has on the community. I do not accept that from Deputy Eamon Ryan, as a Minister in government and in his position as the leader of the Green Party. Whatever these extractions happen, if they impact locally or globally, we all have a function in that regard, which is why I am raising it with the Minister today.

We are no longer taking coal from Russia for obvious reasons, which we all supported, but now we are taking it from Colombia instead. What is the standard that we apply? What if I told the Minister the only public service that seems to be around the Cerrejón mine is a large military base? What if I told him that communities, both indigenous and local, were forcibly removed from their land for the mine's extractions at the point of a gun? Does that standard apply? I am asking for what human rights and indigenous rights activists are asking for, be they in Colombia or in the rest of the world. It is for the same standards to apply.

We accept the fact that at this particular point we still need to take our coal from somewhere but we have a responsibility to the communities that are impacted by that as we do so. What I am asking of the Minister is to accept the responsibility to engage with the ESB to ensure that we have a human rights assessment, that we do not leave the communities there suffering as they have been for more than 40 years, although it is 20 years since we have been taking our coal from there. We stopped in 2018 because of the human rights injustices that were happening at that particular site. We cannot simply go back now because of human rights injustices that are happening elsewhere and pretend to be blind to Colombia.

I absolutely understand. In fact, I visited Colombia a number of years ago on a climate exchange and I was absolutely aware of the range of different issues around the extractive industries in Colombia and the human rights and other elements of it.

As I said, the Department and I do not have a direct role but the Department of Foreign Affairs does. It has been following developments closely with regard to this mine and trying to support human rights defenders to support open civil society space and protection and promotion of fundamental rights and freedoms in Colombia.

I understand personnel from our embassy in Bogotá have visited the regions of La Guajira, where the mine is located, and the mine itself. The embassy has also maintained regular contact with all relevant stakeholders in order to gain greater understanding of the circumstances and issues around the mine. It has also engaged directly with stakeholders through the EU delegation in Colombia.

This is the appropriate way of doing it and we are engaged in that process. We are in a particularly difficult position as we had to stop the importation of Russian coal. My understanding is that Moneypoint, where the coal is used, can only take certain types of coal, and that is why it has turned to this Colombian contract again. I absolutely agree that we must look at the human rights aspect. Our embassy in Bogotá is doing a very good job in that regard.

Several months ago I visited the Cerrejón mine with members of the Irish Embassy in Colombia and we saw for ourselves the impact that the mine and the potential expansion of that mine has on local communities. I was there and we saw the communities appeal to us as visitors and observers to take an interest in the fact that their lives and their children's lives have been grotesquely affected by our consuming of coal extracted from this mine. They also accept the mine will not close tomorrow. They have asked, however, that we ensure there can be a transition plan when Glencore removes itself from the industry.

They have asked that as we consume from their land, we should take an interest in it long after the coal has been burnt. They have asked for a human rights assessment and, if required, that we pay reparations to the communities and villages being destroyed by the demand for this coal. They accept we will need this coal for the next couple of years until we transition away from its use but they do not accept that they must suffer in the longer term because of that.

We have all campaigned on green issues and we all have a responsibility in this regard. Will the Irish Government and the Minister, as leader of the Green Party in the Government, commit to push for a human rights assessment and accept responsibility for what happens after the mine closes? We should not just pay Glencore or the Cerrejón mine but rather the communities that have been affected to ensure they can transition to a better life after we remove ourselves from this dependency.

We can all absolutely support that call for the promotion, support and protection of human rights. In its work the ESB plays a key role and it is working with other purchasers through what is known as the Bettercoal initiative, which is a global not-for-profit industry initiative established to promote the continuous improvement of corporate responsibility in the coal supply chain. The ESB has highlighted that the mine in question is subject to independent assessments and these are conducted in line with the Bettercoal code, which establishes principles and standards to manage and mitigate environmental and other risks.

I agree we can never step back from that work and we must continue to support the ESB and our embassy. I am glad the Deputy accompanied those staff in that visit because I am sure it had an impact on people knowing that although it is on the far side of the world, we stand up for those human rights.

I hope the Minister does not mind me saying that the Bettercoal initiative is industry-led. Those companies are benefiting from the industry and should not be allowed to dictate the conditions by which we combat its impact.

Renewable Energy Generation

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

89. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the way that he plans to address the high cost of renewable energy here in view of provisional renewable energy support scheme auction results; if he intends to establish a cross-government high-level task force to work with stakeholders in industry and State agencies with the aim of bringing forward policy recommendations within six months; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28794/22]

I do not mind conceding time to Deputy Gannon if it is useful. What way does the Minister plan to address the high cost of renewable energy here in view of provisional renewable energy support scheme, RESS, 2 results? Does he intend to establish a high-level cross-government task force to work with stakeholders in industry and State agencies with the aim of bringing forward policy recommendations within six months?

The renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, is one of the major Government policies to help deliver on the ambition in the Climate Action Plan 2021 of up to 80% renewable electricity by 2030. I recently announced the provisional results of the second RESS auction, which is expected to deliver an increase of nearly 20% in Ireland's renewable energy generation. Bid prices were higher than the first auction, owing mainly to international inflationary pressures in input costs. The International Energy Agency estimates the overall investment costs of new solar and onshore wind plants are from 15% to 25% higher than earlier in the year and last year. Some input costs to solar panels have quadrupled.

It is important to look at the total lifetime costs of technologies, rather than just auction prices which can vary across countries depending on the scheme design. Renewable energy delivered under RESS 2 will pay back to consumers when wholesale electricity prices are high through the public service obligation levy and will not increase over time with inflation. This will provide significant protection for consumers for the duration of the scheme, especially in the context of the current and unprecedented volatility in gas prices.

Through the measures set out in the national energy security framework and the Climate Action Plan 2021, my Department is working across the Government to rapidly boost the supply of renewable energy generation. Renewable energy delivered under the RESS 2 auction will shield consumers from higher prices and reduce our dependency on imported fossil fuels in the context of the phasing out of Russian energy imports across the EU. As I have said, it the best way of keeping prices down, even while auction prices were higher than previously, as they are still significantly below the cost of the wholesale electricity market price or the gas alternatives. As we said earlier, they have gone through the roof.

The Minister knows as well as I do that when these figures came out, there were wide eyes and people were whispering, such was the shock about them. We want to transition to renewables and they are cheaper the gas alternative but if the suggestion is we are going to move from, relatively speaking, super-high gas and electricity prices in Ireland to, relatively speaking, super-high renewables prices, we will have a major problem.

In the first instance the Minister must look at being aggressive at every pinch point and every factor contributing to those high costs. We support the call from the industry that a cross-government group could formulate policy recommendations. There are questions around grid costs and EirGrid's plan. There are also questions around planning and commercial rates. There are opportunities to reduce costs and the Government must heed that call, or else we will not be competitive on the international export markets that we want to create for hydrogen etc.

I am very supportive of that kind of approach. I agree we should work collectively and see how we can reduce costs. I agree that planning is one of the factors, involving long timelines and uncertainty in the Irish planning system. The Attorney General is working now to update and modernise the 2020 planning Act, and that will be completed by the end of this year. That is critical.

I also agree that some of the real uncertainty that may cause some of the slightly higher prices, along with the high price of steel and silicon etc., relates to curtailment and constraints costs. We must give certainty in that with grid investment plans and the regulatory system. That will help reduce the price in further auctions. These are the first of five auctions, so it is an iterative process. I have spoken to developers and people involved with the business and the costs of steel and silicon are the primary reason the higher prices were seen. We must be careful in comparing other countries with ourselves. Some costs are included here that may not be in other auctions. I absolutely agree with the fundamental point made by the Deputy and am willing to work with other Deputies here to see what can be done to bring down prices.

I welcome that but we need to see action. The Minister touched on one of the points, which relates to index-linking. Is the Minister going to reassess the position on that? It is something we do differently here than in other places. Is there an overall benefit and will that be reassessed?

In advance of budget negotiations, which I assume will get under way quite soon, there was a report from the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday and a report from the Climate Change Advisory Council at the back end of last year. They consistently point to the lack of delivery and implementation. Going into this budget cycle, will the Minister commit to additional resources for local government, as was mentioned at the climate committee this week? Will there be funding for the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, EirGrid and An Bord Pleanála to increase capacity in these vital organisations which facilitate the delivery of the ambition of renewables?

"Yes" is the answer and we are providing additional resources to the CRU, including staff, and EirGrid. They are less constrained.

They have an income stream that enables them to hire the resources they need and to bring in outside expertise as well. Critically, An Bord Pleanála needs additional staff resources. It is hard to get people with the planning and other skills that are needed but it is absolutely central to all of this that we do so.

The particular concern of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, in its report published yesterday was in regard to agriculture and transport. On the energy side, there is increasing confidence that we will meet the targets because the whole world is moving in this direction. The need for energy security, the cost-of-living aspect and the climate reason will see us delivering on our targets.

On the design of the auctions, I have always favoured not including index-linking because, in truth, the cost of wind or sun is not going to change. The upfront capital cost is set and it is covered in any auction bid. One other variation we may look at in the future design of auctions is whether we are right to go with a technology-neutral approach where solar and wind are included in the one auction bid. We may look to see whether their separation into two elements might be a further way of reducing costs. That is one of the measures we may consider collectively.

Before moving on, I appeal to speakers to stick to the time. There are Deputies in the Chamber hoping to get to their question. If everybody stays within the allocated time, we should get through as many questions as possible.

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