I thank the committee for the invitation to attend this meeting. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has nominated me to serve as chairperson of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI. If I may, I will begin by briefly summarising my career before setting out my vision and priorities for the authority.
I joined the ESB as a graduate engineer in 1973. As members will know, this was at the tail end of the rural electrification scheme that underpinned one of the greatest societal transformations that this country has seen in terms of its impact on people's lives. One of my last assignments in the ESB was to head up the newly formed ESB Networks directorate and, in that capacity, to revisit and upgrade the rural electricity networks to make them fit for service in the 21st century.
In 2005, I was appointed as the CEO of the newly formed EirGrid. Over the following years, we assumed responsibility for the all-island electricity market. We also built the east-west interconnector, which was a €600 million project that we brought in on time and within budget. I am particularly proud of the work we did in setting EirGrid on a path to be a world leader in integrating wind energy in the power system.
Since retiring in 2012, I have been active in a number of energy-related activities. On behalf of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, I chaired an expert group to develop an energy research strategy to support the transition to a low-carbon energy future.
For the past six years, I have chaired Vita, an Irish development agency that works in east Africa with a mission to reduce poverty, hunger, and inequality among rural households through knowledge backed, community-led initiatives leading to sustainable livelihoods. Climate action, both mitigation and adaptation, is a core element of our work with these African communities who are on the front line of the climate crisis.
As president of Engineers Ireland in 2016 and 2017, I witnessed and worked with a community of professionals who are determined to play their part and lead on climate action, and, critically, to inspire the next generation to take on the technological and societal challenges that we face.
The reality of the existential threat posed by climate change is, I believe, beyond question. The science is very clear. The Paris Agreement sets out a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C and closer to 1.5°C. The Government is committed to an average 7% per annum reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030, a halving over the decade, and to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. We saw last week in the joint report by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, that emissions last year reduced by 6% on the previous year, and that was largely due to the impact of the pandemic. We know the size of the challenge we face in the next ten, 20 and 30 years.
However, having a clear goal to aim for, one we all subscribe to, is extremely powerful as a means of unlocking the energy and creativity of all sectors of society to deliver that goal. A good example was the target of 40% renewables in the electricity sector by 2020, which many believed to be unattainable back in 2008 when it was set by the then Government. That target had the effect of changing the mindset and delivering a major energy transition on the supply side, a transition that is still under way with the development of solar, offshore wind and further interconnection.
The focus now changes to the demand side in transport, industry, the public sector and residential homes, where our decarbonisation efforts have been less successful to date. This is perhaps not surprising. Here we are looking for behavioural change and investments at the household and community level at a time when many households are struggling with the impact first of the financial crisis and now the Covid-19 pandemic. This societal transformation will take leadership, time and collective effort. Nevertheless, we know from past experience that societal transformations, underpinned by major energy transitions, can and do occur and bring us to a better and more sustainable place. I mentioned the rural electrification scheme earlier as one example of that.
The good news is that momentum is building. The moral and ethical imperative, as expounded by Pope Francis and Greta Thunberg among others, reinforces our sense that sustainable living is the right thing to do. Government policy, incentives, regulations and emerging technologies are helping to turn this ecological awareness into behavioural change and sustainable investments at the household, community and business levels. It is also the right thing to do economically, in terms of the new jobs and business models created and the new and innovative products and services developed and taken to a global market.
That brings me to the role of the SEAI. We are an agency of government working directly with homeowners, communities and businesses in delivering a cleaner energy future for Ireland. Over the last decade SEAI has delivered major impacts for Ireland. We have helped to inform and shape policy, we have provided access to genuine solutions and been the portal for many people and communities to engage with new technology and sustainability. Thanks to SEAI, more than 250,000 homes are warmer and cheaper to run, more than 500 communities have started their sustainable energy transition, thousands of businesses are more competitive and Ireland’s public services are exemplars in energy efficiency.
To build on this platform and to deliver on the targets set out in the programme for Government and the climate action plan, we in SEAI are now in the process of stepping up a gear. We are putting in place the leadership team to drive the organisation forward and we are recruiting the people with the necessary skills - technical, communications and community engagement. We are preparing our next statement of strategy for the period 2021-2025, a key theme of which will be collaboration. This will include: collaboration with businesses, industry and the public sector and with other State agencies, such as Enterprise Ireland, collaboration with the SME sector, for example, in the establishment of a national climate cluster, collaboration with our energy research and innovation sector, to help develop the technologies and innovative approaches needed and, most importantly, collaboration with all actors in the retrofit sector, with local authorities and primarily with citizens and communities to drive the national retrofit programme forward. Collaboration is at the heart of our work. We deliver through others. We in SEAI will be providing the leadership, the expertise, the ambition and the innovation that will drive and inform the change.
In regard to governance, SEAI is entrusted with significant Exchequer funds and we are very conscious of the need to be transparent and accountable in all our spending decisions. Since 2011, SEAI has maintained SWiFT 3000 corporate governance certification from the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI. I assure the committee that the maintenance of this standard certification remains a key objective for me as board chair and for the SEAI board, to ensure that SEAI operates to the highest international standards of corporate governance.
I am deeply honoured to be nominated by the Minister to lead the SEAI board at this critical juncture. I can assure members that I will be giving it my full attention, working closely with the board, the executive team and the fantastic and dedicated staff we have in SEAI. Through my work in Africa with VITA and other organisations, I have seen the consequences of climate change and ecological degradation on households and communities. Climate action is for each and every one of us and I am committed to playing my part as chair of SEAI.
Again, I thank the Chair for the invitation and I will be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have.