I thank the committee for inviting me to intend. Friends of the Earth met the current Taoiseach at Electric Picnic a few years ago. He signed our petition to support a fair payment for solar power. At a food truck late at night, our director spoke to him. He considered the petition, smiled and said: "A fair payment seems reasonable. I cannot see anything wrong with that." Now he is our Taoiseach. This issue is one of fairness. The petition now has almost 21,000 signatures, and I thank the Chair for accepting it today.
Ireland's record on climate change is not inspiring. Despite agreeing to do so, we have failed to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in any significant way. Like the Taoiseach, I am not proud of our reputation as the climate laggards of Europe. People are angry about that and scared. This committee is well aware of the terrifying reality of climate change and the injustice that those who have done the least to cause it are suffering, and will continue to suffer, its worst effects. It is painfully unfair.
As scared and angry as people are about climate change, they are also motivated to participate in and embrace solutions that transition our energy system from fossil fuels to renewable energy. This is where our communities come into it. Ireland excels at the community level. We have a rich history of community spirit, for example, organisations like the GAA and Tidy Towns. Supported by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, a network of more than 200 sustainable energy communities are working around the country developing plans to decarbonise their towns and villages, create jobs locally and build local resilience. When it comes to renewable energy generation, though, they have been severely constrained and restricted in their efforts. They cannot do it. This is not because they are lazy or not committed enough or because they have not thought about it hard enough, but because the rules for generating energy do not work for communities and citizens. Rather, they work against them.
It is not only about selling power. As Mr. Kenny articulated, the rules around connecting to the grid and planning permission do not work for small generators. It is too difficult.
We at Friends of the Earth are working to support a network of local power generators with some of the truly inspirational energy co-operatives to build community-based virtual power plants. This is a system where communities and individuals invest in renewable energy generation, the power is sold into the grid and other members of the communities can buy it back.
We are also supporting those communities to install solar panels on the schools in their locality. With initial support from a philanthropic trust, we have applied for match funding through the SEAI grants programme to put solar panels on schools. Schools are beacons of the community. They are centres of education and they host the people who in our country will be most affected by climate change.
Students were invited to come up with ideas on what they would do on the energy transition. We were overwhelmed by the number and quality of applicants and, to help pick the winners, held an online public vote which in one week received 20,000 hits. Not surprisingly, students in Ireland want to play their part in the solution. Under normal circumstances, however, it does not make sense for a school to investment in microgeneration because schools are not open 50% of the days in the year. However, energy bills come out of capitation budgets and every euro not spent on energy bills is a euro for the students. If income could be generated from the roof, there would be more money directly for the schools.
Unfortunately, for the likes of these projects to be replicated and scaled up, a business case is necessary. That is the reality. For people and groups to take the decision to support a sustainable energy development, the power that they generate needs to be measured, to be counted and to be valued. Not paying ordinary citizens and communities for renewable energy is akin to supermarkets only paying corporate farmers and forcing small farmers to eat all they produce or give it away for free.
Microgeneration may not offer the megawatts of renewable power that will put us on track to our Paris Agreement obligations and it may be marginally more expensive - we will certainly need continued investment in major energy infrastructure and large-scale renewable development - but if we do not offer people the opportunity to fairly benefit from this energy transition, to see, touch and feel these technologies locally, their fears and opposition, however rational or irrational, will derail any best laid plans. Currently, our energy subsidies are paid to professional developers, large utilities and semi-State organisations with a charge on all consumers' bills. The forthcoming renewable electricity support scheme will include further subsidies and includes a separate subsidy for community led projects which are bigger than microgeneration, but, notably, not at first. That is not fair either. While any subsidy regime can have distributional impacts, we see no logic for demanding that bill payers only subsidise professional developers, and why rooftop generators or community generators are different to these other actors. They should be able to benefit the same as the big guys.
The benefits could be huge. A recent study by European think tank, CE Delft, estimated that almost half of EU citizens could be producing almost half the EU's energy by 2050. From a national point of view, as far back as 2014, the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, recommended building social support to enable continued wind-energy development and strongly supported community and citizen participation to realise local benefit. The White Paper on Energy recommends paying market generators. The Citizens' Assembly similarly included paying microgeneration. It is going to happen. As has already been outlined, it is only a matter of time. The EU has granted new rights for consumers to produce, store, consume and sell renewable energy. The only choice we now have, and the committee has, is whether we get dragged, kicking and screaming into it by Europe at a later date or we welcome it now and do it ourselves. In doing so, we would build the democratic, fair and renewable energy system we need. Climate change is not waiting. We need to completely transform our energy system. Let us give some power to the people to do it. We are supporting this Bill.