Forthcoming Energy Council: Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources

I wish to advise members that this meeting is being carried live on Virgin Media channel 207, eirVision channel 504 and Sky channel 574. Members are requested to switch off their mobile phones or switch them to airplane safe or flight mode, depending on their device. All sittings are broadcast on the channels in a replay loop over the following week. Any sound interference affects the broadcast, whether it is live or a replay. Apologies have been received from the Chairman, Deputy John O'Mahony. I believe the Vice Chairman shall arrive shortly.

I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White. The purpose of this afternoon's meeting is to hear from him about the forthcoming EU Council of Energy Ministers' meeting that will take place in Brussels on 26 November. On behalf of the committee, I welcome him and his officials to the meeting.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If witnesses are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons, or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Any submission or opening statements witnesses have made to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting.

I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or persons outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

The Minister is under a time constraint and, therefore, I hope to limit the meeting to a maximum of one hour, with the agreement of members. I call on the Minister to make his opening statement.

I thank the Acting Chairman and the committee for affording me an opportunity to brief them in advance of the meeting of the EU Council of Energy Ministers in Brussels on Thursday. This week the Energy Council takes place against the backdrop of the horror that has been recently visited on the people of Paris and France. The meeting also takes place against a backdrop of virtually unprecedented global co-operation on energy and energy matters. I was exposed to both topics together last week when I visited Paris to attend the ministerial meeting of the International Energy Agency. The French Government decided that the meeting should go ahead as planned on Tuesday and Wednesday last and we, the Ministers, agreed that we should demonstrate our solidarity with the French Government and people at this time.

The central focus of the IEA meeting is hugely in keeping with the main topic for this Thursday's meeting of the EU Council of Energy Ministers which is energy union.

Energy union can also be read as solidarity within Europe on energy matters. The very foundation of the International Energy Agency is energy solidarity. The agency was founded almost 41 years ago against the backdrop of the first oil crisis. Ireland and 28 countries have worked together since then with the goal of strengthening and ensuring adequate energy emergency response mechanisms. At last week's meeting, Ministers endorsed significant development of the IEA's future role in an evolving global energy system. For example, security of energy supply for IEA members is to be an expanded focus for the IEA. Ministers also agreed the addition of a third pillar to the IEA's international role to embrace a new focus on energy efficiency and new technologies. Overall, Ministers reiterated a firm IEA commitment to enhanced co-operation on energy matters right across the globe.

This Thursday's meeting of the Energy Council will be focused to a large extent on enhanced energy co-operation at EU level. Energy union is the firmest embodiment yet of this goal of energy co-operation at EU level. In essence, energy union can be described as a framework strategy for a resilient energy union with a forward-looking climate change policy. Ireland is a strong supporter of energy union and believes that its five key dimensions are worthy goals. These are: energy security; solidarity and trust; a fully integrated European energy market; energy efficiency contributing to moderation of demand; decarbonising the economy; and research, innovation and competitiveness.

Ireland is also a keen advocate of citizen engagement and empowerment and, in this context, is particularly pleased that energy union puts citizens at its core. This is fully in keeping with our own commitment to doing just that here in Ireland, in the context of the new energy White Paper that I intend to publish in December. The process involved in its preparation has been hugely focused on citizen and business engagement and consultation.

The energy union agenda is energetically championed by the EU Vice President for Energy Union, Maros Šefovi. Mr. Šefovi visited Dublin in September and we held substantive discussions. In Dublin and again at the Energy Council on Thursday in Brussels, I have and will continue to highlight Ireland’s agenda regarding energy union. As a member state on the periphery of Europe, I believe that Ireland will see significant benefits from the energy union. Just like access to the Single Market led to an economic transition for Ireland, energy union will be a key driver in our transition to a low-carbon future.

At the Energy Ministers Council on Thursday a key milestone in the evolution of energy union will be achieved with agreement on governance structures. These are largely focused on measurement and evaluation, key attributes Ireland supports. It is, therefore, my intention to welcome energy union and to support the proposed governance structures.

Energy union will not be without challenges. In particular - this is a second topic for discussion at the Energy Ministers Council on Thursday - the development of a single wholesale market design may not be appropriate for all national and regional markets in the European Union. Ireland believes that countries currently implementing the third energy package, including the electricity target model, should not be required to implement further significant changes prior to the necessary infrastructure being developed. In order to overcome this challenge, Ireland intends to increase the level of electricity interconnection. In particular, I would highlight the proposed electricity interconnector between Ireland and France as a critical component of Ireland's access to the integrated market.

The third and final key topic for discussion at Energy Council this week concerns a new initiative on energy efficiency labelling. At Council, Ministers will discuss an important new and improved legal framework for the energy labelling of energy-related products. The main objective of the new proposed framework is to encourage innovation and the production of ever more efficient products. It will enable customers to make informed choices about energy efficiency and consumption when making their purchases and thus contribute to the overall moderation of energy demand at Union level. There is considerable untapped energy saving potential in the field of energy-related products and appliances. Ireland has engaged positively in negotiations on this framework to date.

Energy union affords Ireland valuable opportunities to further strengthen our national energy systems. I plan to positively reflect Ireland's willingness to engage with the concept with zest at the Energy Council on Thursday.

As I will be appearing before the committee again next week - I very much look forward to that - to discuss wider energy policy matters, today I propose just to discuss topics associated with the Energy Council meeting on Thursday, as outlined in these opening remarks. Next week I can deal with those other topics members will undoubtedly wish to raise with me.

With those kinds of guidelines, I will stick rigidly to the agenda. The Minister spoke about energy efficiency. I suppose every business and homeowner is looking for efficiencies. The Minister is talking about the branding or marketing of what is efficient and what is not efficient. What is the status of that aspiration?

Will the Minister give some detail on the wholesale market and the status of Ireland's low-carbon targets? I will stick with those three points and particularly the one on energy efficiency which is important for householders and businesses. Will the Minister provide an update on that at both national and EU levels?

We could deal with the energy efficiency in two senses. We may have an opportunity to return to the topic next week. We can certainly talk a bit about Ireland if colleagues wish to do so but here it relates to an EU regulation in the context of energy union and a revised regime for energy efficiency labelling of products, including washing machines, fridges and other such products. We are working together in the European Union on a common standardised labelling system. We already have, of course, a labelling system that is recognised across the Union and that needs to be revised in a way that it is accessible and that ensures it is doing its job properly.

A new regulation will come into effect from January 2016, meaning that the current directive will be repealed. It will reintroduce the simple A to H scale in place of the current more complex approach with A, A+, A++, A+++ and so on. I said to officials earlier that it is a case of grade inflation in the energy labelling of products. It will reorganise that and make it a bit more sensible, allowing people to understand it better. The top-rating classes are becoming overpopulated so we are trying to bring it back down in order that it is realistic and understandable. It will be a system that people can abide by.

Energy labelling enables consumers to make informed purchasing decisions by providing information to them on the energy a product actually consumes. We had some concerns on the matter. Most of our concerns have been addressed and we now support the compromise text proposed.

The broader issue of energy efficiency is one we are very keen to advance and members will see it featuring very prominently in the White Paper. It is often said the cheapest energy is the energy we do not consume. We are progressing the necessary decarbonisation of our economy and, as every country in the world will have to do this, it will be a very relevant topic of discussion and debate in the context of the Conference of the Parties, COP. We need to pivot every economy away from the burning of fossil fuels towards renewable energy but, in particular, towards energy efficiency so that we use less energy in our homes, in businesses, in production and manufacturing, in public buildings, such as this one, and so on across the board. That is a big push. We now have more money in the capital programme to ensure this can be done here but we need to continue our efforts on energy efficiency. I agree with the Deputy on how important that is.

In respect of the market design issue, we have things to say which we will say on Thursday and which I have said before at Council meetings. We want to see progress but we also want a sensible level of progress for countries like Ireland. For example, we already have an all-island electricity market, and we are an exemplar in that regard. That has been in place for a number of years and we are progressing it through the integrated single electricity market, ISEM, for which a lot of work is taking place. We also have to complete certain actions under the third energy package. What we will be saying to our colleagues is, yes, let us progress, yes, let us advance this agenda, but let us do certain things properly first and let us not have a multitude of demands and changes all happening at the same time. We want to ensure we progress in a sensible way and in ways that work for individual countries like Ireland. There is a not a one-size-fits-all solution to these complex issues and we have to make sure our own conditions and requirements are respected in the changes that occur.

I thank the Minister for his presentation. I have many questions which I will hold off on until the next day. Are there member states which are not working with everybody else or are there difficulties of that nature? Is there a feeling security of energy supply is under threat at the moment? With regard to innovation, where are we in comparison to other European countries and is this just in terms of technology or also socially? The Minister might explain how that is moving forward.

All countries are working together. It has been my experience at these meetings that there is a high level of co-operation and interest in each other's conditions and circumstances. There is a very good level of debate. One learns a lot at these meetings about what is happening and best practice in other countries. One also learns about the views of other countries as to the advances we have made in this country, and it is important we should remember that. For example, on the renewables side, it is recognised among our European partners that we have made very good progress in Ireland. There is a high level of co-operation between countries.

At the same time, people have different perspectives, given where they come from. For example, to take the issue of nuclear, some countries are resolutely opposed, sometimes even opposed to discussion about nuclear, while other countries were prominent nuclear power countries that have changed their position. Germany has recently changed its perspective and the Austrians are very strong on the question of nuclear. There is often a reluctance to even have issues like that discussed, let alone any suggestion that people would take the same view on them. This is an interesting twist that is sometimes seen.

On the question of security, it is natural to think first of some of the countries on the eastern side of the EU which have a direct supply of gas from Russia and where there have been concerns in regard to potential interruptions in that supply.

That colours their approach to energy security and the geopolitical issues that are manifest in that part of the world in the post-Ukraine situation we are in. Energy security is important for everybody, including us. It is at the heart of what we need to do. When we talk about changes and moving to renewable energy, we always have to bear in mind the critical importance of security of supply. We can wax lyrical about the need to move to renewables, and I certainly do, but the first requirement is that we have a supply of energy for homes and businesses in this country. Therefore, security of supply is important for everybody.

Innovation is at the heart of what we do and it is a big part of the White Paper, given the sheer volume of innovation, ideas and products now coming forward. Just to take the energy efficiency area we were talking about, in terms of controlling consumption in a domestic setting literally through a mobile telephone, people will be able to remotely control the use of energy in their homes, such as when it comes on and goes off. With smart metering they will be able to manage their consumption of energy, not just through the day but also through the night, and they will be able to maximise what they can do in a home, in a business or on a farm. Innovation is going to drive this, and there are a many outstanding Irish firms and spin-offs that are prominent in this field.

We have a new energy research strategy, which I will be publishing at the same time as the White Paper and which pulls together many of the strands of this development. There have been great advances in the universities and research institutions, which have terrific people working hard to bring forward new ideas, and there are also those in the commercial sector looking to commercialise them. At the COP, as one would expect, there is a day focused on energy, one on transport, one on agriculture and so on, and I noticed there is also to be a day on innovation, which I believe is very appropriate. The Deputy is right that this will really transform things.

I know the Minister will touch on this in a week and a half but I have a follow-up question for him. About a year and a half ago, we had guests before us from Europe who essentially said that one of the biggest difficulties in moving forward, not just in Ireland but at a European level, was public opinion and public perception. Will this be brought up at the meeting, how will it be addressed and what is the view in this regard?

While it is not a specific agenda item on Thursday, it is ever-present because it is an energy policy for the citizens of Europe, not just for the governments. The extent to which the citizens of the EU, including Ireland, feel alienated from energy policy, do not understand why certain decisions are made, disagree with some of the decisions that are made or do not feel they have an opportunity for input, is very important. If that is the case, it cannot be a good backdrop for an energy policy or for any policy. There is a responsibility on governments, on Ministers and on politicians to first understand the issues, which I know the members of this committee do, but also to explain and debate those issues in public and to explain why we take decisions and why we have taken certain directions in our energy policy.

If we look at the changes that have to take place in Ireland and in every economy in the world, although we have discussed the 2020 targets, we must bear in mind that in February or March of next year we will have new targets for 2030. Those targets will not come out of Paris immediately because effectively there will be a negotiation at the global level to try to achieve a deal. There was already a commitment at the European Council meeting last year in terms of all-EU targets, which have been set, and Ireland’s new targets for 2030 will be set in the very early part of next year. We will have to make big changes in how we manage our economy and energy consumption, and not just on the energy side because this also affects agriculture, transport and all of these other areas.

We will all need to be at the top of our game as public representatives but we will also need to have a generous and open conversation with the people of Ireland on what changes are necessary, why they are necessary and how we propose to bring people with us. If we are serious about adjusting our economy in the way that will be necessary with these new targets, we will have to try to devise a better way of debating and agreeing these issues as a community. We have not done that sufficiently well. I will deal with that in the White Paper.

Judging by the Minister’s press release after the meeting in March, there seems to have been a good deal of discussion on energy co-operation. To what extent did that incorporate plans for exporting energy from Ireland? Are there discussions about plans to build an interconnector between Ireland and France and has anybody done a cost-benefit analysis on an interconnector between France and Ireland side by side with one between Ireland and Britain and the possibility of piggybacking on one system rather than developing two? What are the costs and benefits and the non-cost risks in that? Are there any discussions that would give us information from our European neighbours about their ability to reach renewable targets and the cost of doing that? I read that there are concerns in Germany that increased wind energy generation is resulting in sharp consumer price increases for customers.

There continues to be a stream of conversation, articles and commentary, some from credible sources, that question the real economics of planning for a major contribution from the wind energy generation to a low-carbon future not just in Ireland but in Europe and elsewhere. This needs to be addressed. We need hard facts to prove the real cost of providing wind energy. Public representatives and the public need that information. It is separate from the debate about the impact on the landscape and tourism, house values and quality of life and all those factors. We need to discuss the economics of generation, direct costs, indirect support costs and the price the consumer pays.

Agenda item No. 5 for the meeting on 26 November states that the Commission is "launching [a] public consultation process on a new energy market" and that it will deliver "a new deal for energy consumers". Presumably this will be done within the context of the Aarhus Convention and yet there are many major developments here, including the North-South interconnector, wind energy developments and studies on fracking, which are outside the convention because of their start date.

I would argue that the Aarhus Convention is there because there were deficiencies identified in the then existing public consultation and participation protocols.

We should not be proceeding with any deficient process based on a calendar date.

There are no plans to develop a renewable energy export plan, and they are not the subject of any discussion at these meetings. In respect of the interconnector there is funding for a joint research project between EirGrid and its French equivalent, RTE. I encouraged that because it is an important potential project and if it is found viable we should bring it forward because interconnections will be critical for us in the context of energy union. We are peripheral to Europe, relatively and geographically speaking, as an island behind another island. If we are going to benefit from the energy union we need to ensure that we have proper interconnection not just with the UK, which we value, but with France and the broader European Union.

Will there be an interconnector between Britain and France?

Yes, absolutely.

Technically, there could be an interconnector between Britain and Ireland which could take energy from France.

Technically, yes. There is also an interconnector with the North of Ireland.

Not yet, the Minister will come to that one when we talk about the Aarhus convention. Has a cost-benefit analysis been done or will it be done in the context of a France-Ireland connection side by side with Ireland-Britain and Britain-France connections?

Those are not specifically the riding instructions of the research project as I understand it but the broader context would have to be considered. If there is to be an interconnector between Ireland and France, part of the economics of that and part of the context for assessing the value of having such an interconnector would be the other interconnectors already in place, so from that point of view it is relevant. This is a project of common interest, PCI, between us and France, funded under the connecting Europe facility, CEF. It is a discrete project in respect of an interconnector between Ireland and France. It is not bound up or entangled with any other interconnector.

I assume it is a two-way flow.

It would be two way, as it would have to be to make sense. A cost-benefit analysis would always consider the alternatives. Part of the assessment would have to be what alternatives there are and how they would serve the same objectives and the cost set against the potential benefits. The money that Eirgrid and RTE have through the CEF is to consider the prospects of an Ireland-France interconnector.

When can we expect to see a report arising from that?

Next year might be soon; it is not long under way but the timeframe is the next year or two years.

On the question of the economics of renewable energy, I can assist the Deputy and other committee colleagues when I return next week with some background figures and data. Quite a lot of data are available in respect of the success of onshore wind as a cost-effective form of renewable energy. It is, undoubtedly, the most cost-effective form of renewable energy available to us, as matters stand. Up to 22.7% of our electricity is already generated from renewables, most of which is from onshore wind farms.

We are in a consultation process for a new refit scheme which will look at new technologies and the prospect of subsidising solar, for example, biomass, offshore wind and others energy forms. Some of these are at a fairly early stage of development, while others have made more progress. As I told the House last week, we have all read about the dramatic reduction in price for solar-generated energy. One has to assess whether it would make sense from an economic point of view to subsidise solar power. I must emphasise I am just commenting rather than indicating any energy policy decisions as we have not made any yet. While one wants to encourage renewables, does one need to subsidise them? Will some new forms of renewables happen anyway because the market will occur without the State having to subsidise them? I made the point last week in the House that some other countries in Europe regret having gone into solar power too early, subsidising it heavily, when now it looks like all of these developments could have occurred without such heavy subsidies.

We are coming close to the point where the Minister will be giving me credit for increasing consumer prices. I would prefer if he did not. He knows I did not intend that.

I never have any difficulty giving the Deputy credit.

This Thursday, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, will publish a document, Energy in Ireland, which would be a good backdrop for a discussion next week. It will have much of the information, the data and experience in respect of renewable energy in Ireland and the relative success of different technologies.

Ireland is not unique. Every country is addressing the move to renewable energy and wants to make progress in this regard. Many countries are making great strides. It is a process that has to accelerate, however. That might not necessarily be music to everybody’s ears but it has to be accelerated if we are serious about decarbonisation.

People point to the other technologies. We can diversify. Onshore wind does not have to be the answer on its own in this agenda. It will inevitably be a prominent part of the answer, given its cost effectiveness. We should diversify and we will diversify, however. In this refit consultation, we will be able to see what the best technologies for diversifying are, the most successful, the cheapest and what level of subsidies will they need. I am very excited about many of these new technologies, particularly offshore wind, which has amazing and incredible potential, particularly for a country like Ireland. However, it will take a considerable number of years for those technologies to come through and being capable of being funded and supported. As I keep saying, for whoever is in this job next year or for the next five years and beyond, decarbonisation is going to be one of the most critical, if not the most critical, issues this country will have to face, as will every other country. We cannot do it without some heavy lifting. If we decide to move away from one form of energy, we will have to replace it with another. There are no simple answers to these questions. There is great potential, however.

The other issue to bear in mind from an economic point of view is that climate change and its impact are spoken of too often as a threat, a risk and as something bad.

Of course, the adverse effects could be terrible for countries. Although they would not be felt most immediately in this country, they would ultimately be terrible for every country. We already see what is happening in some of the Pacific islands. The adverse effects will be huge. Let us stop talking about it all the time as a threat and a risk because there are great business opportunities for Irish companies to bring forward new ideas. We mentioned innovation earlier, as did Deputy McEntee. I think we should be positive about what the opportunities are while respecting the need to ensure we have a robust form of public engagement and consultation.

The past question concerns the Aarhus Convention and the discussions, debates and projects that are continuing outside the good practice we now practise in the convention.

The Deputy raised the issue in the context of the market redesign. That project is at negotiation stage, so it is under negotiation. I can tell the Deputy that consumers and citizens are at the forefront of those negotiations. The process of consultation begins this Thursday; it will be kicked off by this meeting on Thursday. The Deputy's sentiments that the interests of consumers and citizens must at the heart of this are very fair.

My question was whether we could make it retrospective for other projects.

Making things-----

Good practice-----

Making things retrospective is always problematic legally.

We are under a bit of time pressure. Can I ask Senator Brennan and Deputy Fitzmaurice to put their questions together?

I agree with the Minister about the importance of energy security, energy efficiency, a fully integrated market and the benefits of this for this country. I have looked at something that could conserve significant energy in this country and reduce carbon emissions. It relates to the different motorways. Having entered and exited on a straight stretch of road, I saw 80 high-powered lighting columns on either side of the road that I would contend are not necessary in most instances. The most recent motorways built in the South, such as the M8 and M7, which have barriers in the middle with reflectors, do the job adequately. This should be looked at, and I have seen it in the US. One section of a motorway here, which I will not name, contains more lights than one would find if one crisscrossed the US. If one took the main highway across the US from New York to San Francisco, I honestly believe one would find fewer lights than on a motorway in this country. The use of high-powered lighting columns from dawn to dusk should be examined. Could we do without them or dim them from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m.? There would be significant energy and monetary savings and a reduction in carbon emissions if we looked into that.

I thank the Minister for his presentation. I have a couple of questions for him.

Many of Europe's gas supplies come from Russia. We need to be realistic about where we are going in this regard in the next 20 or 30 years. Is it fair to say the plan is to continue to rely on Russia to meet up to 50% of Europe's gas requirements or is any change proposed in that regard?

The Minister mentioned the need for greater efficiency. I agree with him in that regard. Every public representative will have engaged with councils on the retrofitting of houses. While one council will offer only one incentive to increase energy efficiency, others will offer up to five. There is, therefore, no common denominator in the resolution of this problem across the country.

When attending European Council meetings the Minister should argue that Ireland is a special case. We have just come through one of the worst ever batterings experienced by any country. With luck, we hope to increase employment levels by up to 150,000 in the next few years. The more employment we create, the more people we will have in business and the more cars there will be on the roads. Electricity prices in Ireland are the third highest in Europe. On the need for increased efficiency and the proposed change to bio-energy, we need to be honest and tell the people that as we cannot produce biomass here, we will have to import it.

On solar energy, in a programme I saw last night on television it was stated that without subsidisation, the solar energy proposition would not work. Wind energy generation is subsidised. A person who sets up a business must be able to make a profit. If a business is not profitable, no one is going to give the businessperson €100 million to keep him going just because he is a great fellow who is employing people. In terms of the alternatives being considered, we are not stacking up to stand alone in bringing about a substantial decrease in the cost of electricity.

What is being said about wind energy generation does not stack up and there is no point in saying otherwise. In the context of European discussions, we need to make the point that Ireland is a special case. As I said, it has just come through a ferocious recession and is now starting to climb the hill in terms of the numbers now at work. The country is starting to recover, but let us live in the real world. As elderly farmers pass on their farms, with a little luck, there will be more cattle on every farm, which will result in increased carbon emissions. We need to make our case in Europe. In ten to 15 years interconnectors will have improved significantly. In terms of energy production, it will be cheaper for us to import energy supplies from France and Britain, where I understand it is proposed to construct five new nuclear plants, than to produce energy here with the biomass we propose to import from Africa. We need to be realistic about where we are going in this regard. Has consideration been given to hydro-energy projects? Is consideration being given to generating energy in that way, which may be a more viable alternative? At the end of the day we cannot live with a blanket over the country to try to eliminate all carbon emissions. People have to live, eat and work and the country has to survive. In terms of EU targets, we need to make the argument in Europe that we must first ensure people can live and work in this country.

I know that the Minister and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, are discussing the issue of distances. Will they make a decision in the energy strategy on the set-back distance of residences from turbines?

Before the Minister responds to the questions asked, I wish to ask him one or two questions.

That is okay.

As part of the move towards an integrated energy market - the Minister touched on this point - we can have a different influence on different countries with respect to their energy supplies. In eastern Europe much of the emphasis is on fossil fuels; in central Europe nuclear energy is a big factor, while renewable energy resources are a big driver in this country and others. There are huge challenges in securing a consolidated energy policy throughout the European Union. How are we going to meet these challenges? What is the opinion of eastern European member states that recently gained accession to the European Union and the economies of which would not be as robust as those of other member states in dealing with these changes? A consolidated energy market would result in greater competitiveness for consumers, but there would also be an inherent risk. Will the Minister be meeting his counterparts in the directorate general to discuss the opportunities such consolidation would present for large European energy companies through mergers and acquisitions, where they might become too big in delivering energy supplies in the European Union and if the balance would be tipped from being a competitive to an anti-competitive market in which there might be a monopoly? We must be careful in addressing the issue of consolidation of the energy market that we do not tip the balance in that regard.

I thank the Acting Chairman for his questions and members for their interesting questions and insights.

To respond to Senator Terry Brennan's comments, lighting is an important issue. He gave some good examples with reference to motorways. Adopting a dimming and trimming approach to public lighting is critically important in our engagement with local authorities on the public service energy efficiency plan. We have discussed the issues raised and there is an energy efficiency division within my Department, to which I will take back the points made by the Senator, of which I have made a good note.

The Senator did not specify the exact place which he said was like Route 66, but I very much take the point on board. Local authorities have responsibility in this regard. Transport Infrastructure Ireland, formerly the NRA, also has a responsibility in that regard. There are issues related to safety on the roads, with which it must deal. However, the overall push must be and is towards achieving energy efficiency, of which lighting forms a very big part. Other countries are also adopting dimming and trimming approaches, including the use of LED lighting and so on. There is a great deal that we could do in that regard. I agree with the Senator whom I thank for his comments.

Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice made a number of points and the one that stands out for me concerns the relationship between energy consumption and economic growth. He asked if we had more people in employment and more people driving on the roads and if that inevitably meant an increase in energy consumption. One issue all policy makers, both here and internationally, are trying to address is how can we decouple an increase in energy consumption from economic growth. Nobody wants to stem or stop economic growth, but we have to sunder the link that with economic growth which has meant greater consumption of energy. We have to try to change the graph and ensure economic growth does not necessarily mean an increase in energy consumption. That is why we are very focused on addressing this issue of efficiency and reducing and curtailing the consumption of energy in various processes, whether it be manufacturing or others.

Yesterday I was at the Abbott plant in Sligo. It and many other companies have energy-efficiency programmes within their operations. Abbott is obviously involved in a particular field of diagnostics and so on. Many other companies are doing this. It is not always a great idea to mention one company, but it is not alone in this. Many similar companies, large and small, are looking at this to try to decouple these two things. We want employment growth, but we want to reduce energy consumption. If there are more cars on the road in two or three years' time, there might be more electric vehicles on the road.

Last week representatives of the Irish EV Owners Association appeared before the committee. Those vehicles are fine for driving around the city, but one would be-----

That technology is changing.

I accept that, but it will take time.

That technology is improving. It will all take time. Everything in the area we are discussing takes time. We need to consider a timeframe not of just a few months, like the political cycle teaches us. We need to consider timeframes of five, ten or 15 years. We talk about offshore wind and other new technologies. We probably will not be here to see that, but we need to lay the groundwork now and make the right decisions to ensure that the people who come after us can bring these developments forward.

The Governor of the Bank of England, Mr. Mark Carney, used the phrase, "the tragedy of horizons", in a piece he wrote recently. Policymakers and even consumers in our own homes only see so far. We all have scarce resources and we need to decide what to spend it on. We do not tend to spend money on something that will give us a benefit in ten years' time. If that is scaled up to the level of governments and policymakers, the same problem exists. It is a tragedy of horizon. The members of this committee can see that these are long-terms calls that have to be made.

The Deputy made a comment on wind energy and we might talk about this again next week. Onshore wind energy is proven to be cost effective. It is subsidised; it would not have happened without a subsidy. It has required a subsidy and will in all likelihood require a continuing subsidy. We have to hope that in the medium to long term that we are discussing, it will not require a subsidy, and that the market and technologies will be such that it will be able to be rolled out, enhanced and expanded without subsidy.

The Deputy spoke about making a special case and so on. It is true that we have to make a special case to Europe about our own situation. However, every country, including this one, has to step up here. Every citizen will have to be part of this. While I am not suggesting the Deputy is saying this, there is no use in any of us claiming that something is not realistic. There will always be ten or 15 reasons for not doing something, but very often the alternative is worse.

If we decide to embrace decarbonisation, there are ways of implementing and delivering that over a period of ten, 15 or 20 years out to 2030 and ultimately 2050. The G7 is suggesting a completely decarbonised world by the end of the century. We can play our part in that now. I do not believe it is unrealistic for politicians to talk about that kind of a long term. People look back and ask what we did when we had an opportunity to make those changes. That is the responsibility we hold.

We have assessed the opportunities for hydroelectricity. We do not see potential for large-scale hydroelectricity in this country. It has been well assessed and well studied. Small projects might work. In 1927 when the plant in Ardnacrusha was constructed, that project accounted for in excess of 90% of our electricity-generation requirement. Now it is definitely in single figures. I am advised that it is 1%. Obviously, we live in a different world from the world of the 1920s.

Hydroelectricity was an incredible project then. It is a renewable energy. It was a fantastic, far-sighted project. However, we do not believe we have the potential for similar-type large-scale projects in this country in the period ahead.

I made a careful note of the Deputy's point about county councils.

The Acting Chairman made a point about the difficulties attendant on trying to bring all the member states together, given their different histories, requirements and pressures. He is correct. However, it is important to remember, and Deputy Colreavy raised this with me previously, that the decisions on fuel mix remain member state competencies and there is no proposal to change that. Fuel mix sovereignty will remain, even in the context of energy union. Of course there are big challenges in trying to bring together all of the member states across the Union given their different requirements.

The Deputy is correct that where there are very large operators there is a risk of them crowding out smaller operators and crowding out the opportunities there might be in countries such as Ireland. I agree with the Deputy that it is a real risk. We are very conscious of that in these discussions.

The Minister forgot to deal with one question. He and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government are discussing the set-back distances for wind turbines. Has that been agreed or when will it be agreed? Will it be agreed before the end of the Government's term?

There are guidelines in place. Admittedly, they are in place since 2006 and require updating. There has been a discussion between the two Departments on what change would be appropriate. I have made it clear that we can and should change the guidelines to deal with issues such as noise and shadow flicker. It is hard to justify a set-back distance that is not linked to the issues of noise and shadow flicker, in other words just set-back distance simpliciter. We had a consultation process which addressed the issue of set back, but it was in the context of noise and shadow flicker. I believe we can do something real on noise that will allay many concerns on the issues of noise, noise restrictions and shadow flicker.

I have been open about this. People say that Ministers and Departments disagree. Yes, there are different perspectives. I am in charge of energy policy and I must be clear about the changes that some people are proposing, and I do not mean the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly. The changes others have proposed would radically alter the prospects for onshore wind and in some cases the proposals would wipe it out. I would not be doing the job I am paid to do if I did not make those points clear.

Will that be decided before the end of this term?

I hope it will be decided soon.

I thank the Minister and his officials, Mr. Kevin Brady and Mr. Enda Gallagher, for attending the meeting. We thank him for briefing the committee on the agenda and we wish him well at the Council meeting.

As there is no other business, the committee will adjourn until 9.30 a.m. tomorrow when representatives of the Road Safety Authority, RSA, and the Garda Síochána will appear before it to discuss drink driving convictions.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.48 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 25 November 2015.