This is my first time in 19 years to address the Seanad. I am delighted to be back in the Chamber as the Minister with responsibility for communications, climate action and the environment. When I was appointed, I told senior officials in my Department that it was very much a facilitating one because we can drive much of the change required to achieve energy efficiency in the public sector and provide high-speed broadband in communities across the country. We will work with colleagues in other Departments to drive changes in society, not just in government. I want to be a facilitating Minister. As I said in the Dáil on the day of my appointment, I spent long enough on the Opposition benches to know how lonely, difficult and frustrating it can be when one has constructive suggestions to make but they fall on deaf ears. Senators should come forward with their constructive suggestions and ideas. I want to hear and facilitate them. I have asked my officials to examine Seanad amendments proposed to the Energy Bill and the Minerals Development Bill to see if we can facilitate their passage. The Energy Bill will be completed here before the end of this session and the Minerals Development Bill in the next one.
I welcome the opportunity to give an overview of my Department, set out the key economic sectors for which it is responsible and outline how Senators can assist me in delivering on its key priorities, in particular, those set out in the programme for Government. Many Members from rural communities will understand the basic difficulties experienced by families and businesses across rural Ireland arising from the absence of high-speed broadband. The national broadband plan, NBP, is one of the key priorities for the Government, with the aim of bringing high-speed broadband to every household and business in the country. It will involve 96% of the landmass and over 100,000 km of road network. The network, once developed, will be expected to serve at least 30% of the premises which cannot currently gain access to high-speed services.
Yesterday I brought proposals to the Cabinet outlining the ownership model for the NBP network and that we were moving to the next stage of the procurement process, with a view to having a tender in place by the middle of next year. The Government has chosen a commercial stimulus, or gap-funded, model as the optimum ownership model for the network. This model will see the successful bidder design, build, own and operate the network. For the next 25 years there will be absolutely no difference between either of the two ownership models. The main difference, however, is that if we had gone for a model where the State would own the network in 26 years, I would be announcing a minimum additional six-month delay in the tendering process. This would have been ten weeks after the Department had announced a six-month delay. In effect, in ten weeks, we would have announced a minimum of a 12-month delay in the roll-out of the network which would not have sent a positive message to families waiting for broadband, or encouraged existing businesses in rural areas to invest and create jobs or new businesses to locate in rural communities. This was the right decision. As Members know from my record, I feel strongly about the ownership of State infrastructural assets and have acted on it. There are few Oireachtas Members who have a record as strong as mine on this issue. I was one of the few Members, in either the Dáil or the Seanad, to publicly oppose the farming organisations, the then agriculture Minister and the European Commission when they decommissioned the sugar industry, an industry which some Members are now trying to re-establish. There were very few voices against the move at the time and I took a lot of heat for standing up against the decision, but I was proved right.
I was a lone voice in the Dáil in arguing that the Heathrow slots owned by Aer Lingus were a strategic national asset. I convinced the then transport Minister, the late Séamus Brennan, to include specific provisions in the Aer Lingus Act to ensure specific protections would be put in place for these strategic national assets. No one else raised this issue on Second Stage of the legislation at the time.
I was a lone voice in the previous Dáil when an Opposition amendment on Irish Water was accepted by the Government. My amendment sought to ensure no asset of Irish Water could be privatised or sold off without a democratic vote of the people, a point many Dáil Members today conveniently ignore.
When I first examined this issue, I wanted to keep the asset in State ownership, but I also gave a promise to the people after the election and before it in my constituency that I would ensure broadband would be brought to every single home and premises as quickly as possible. I was not prepared to stand over delaying this process for six, 12 or 18 months because the Government kicked the can down the road last December and failed to make the decision that I believe should have been made at that stage. The reason it did not make the decision last December is the same as the one I have difficulty with now, namely, an additional €1 billion would have to be made available and it would have to be taken out of the capital plan, which would delay schools building projects and other infrastructural projects across the country. Additional cash would have to be sourced up-front from the current budget. That is why the can was kicked down the road last December. I was not prepared to take that option although it was suggested to me that we delay further.
I want to make real on the promises given by the previous Government, by me as a Deputy and candidate in the general election and by all of us in both Houses on the rolling out of the national broadband plan. People in rural areas are sick and tired of being promised they will get broadband next week or month. When I give a date, I want to be able to stand over it. It is my intention to be able to say by the back end of next year exactly when every premises in the country will get broadband. It will not be 2018 or 2019 when they will find out. If I had gone down a different funding route, I would have to wait until then to provide information.
Once the contract is awarded next year, the roll-out phase will begin immediately in conjunction with the already planned commercial investment. Some 85% of premises in Ireland will have access to high-speed broadband within two years and I hope 100% will have it within five years. I hope it will be before five years. In the tendering process, we will try to ensure the broadband will be rolled out as quickly as possible. Some contractors are telling us they can do the work in three years. If so, we will take that into account.
Small businesses are the backbone of every provincial town and village. Consumers across Ireland are now spending almost €14,000 every minute trading online. It is essential that we capitalise on this to support the creation of new business and jobs. Sadly, of the €14,000 per minute, €10,000 per minute is being spent outside Ireland. My Department funds a trading online voucher scheme which is operated through the national network of 31 local enterprise offices, LEOs. This initiative has real potential to create jobs. We have seen from an analysis of the vouchers that have already been given out that sales have increased by one fifth and employment has increased by one third. Two thirds of the relevant businesses are now trading internationally. I encourage any business that is not currently trading online, no matter how small, to contact its local enterprise office and avail itself of the initiative. It is an opportunity and the funding exists to scale up the programme. I ask each of my colleagues here to engage with local businesses on this issue.
As committed to in the programme for Government, I am establishing a mobile phone and broadband task force to identify and recommend solutions to the broadband and mobile phone coverage deficit. The group will meet for the first time this month and will report to me by the end of the year on the actions we are taking.
Let me turn to climate change, the global challenge of our generation, which requires radical and ambitious thinking to implement the fundamental changes to achieve our national, EU and global objectives in this area. The European Union has set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% to 95% below 1990 levels by 2050. The first milestone towards achieving a low-carbon economy by 2050 is the delivery of the 2020 targets set by the European Union and the corresponding national targets. Ireland has a requirement to achieve a binding target of 16% of energy demand coming from renewable sources. We are making steady progress. At the end of 2015, just over 9% of Ireland’s energy came from renewables, including around 25% of electricity generation.
The period between 2020 and 2030 is the next critical phase in the evolution of EU climate and energy policies. In advance of the Paris agreement of December 2015, the European Union set out an ambitious 2030 climate and energy framework involving a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 40%, an increase in EU energy from renewable sources to 27%, and an indicative target of 27% for energy efficiency.
Domestically, following the enactment of the Climate Action Development Act 2015, Ireland is focusing on implementation, including preparing a national climate mitigation plan, targeting publication for consultation by the end of this year, and also developing the first statutory national adaptation framework, a draft of which is to be published early next year. We have committed in the programme for Government to establish a national dialogue on climate change that will address the key infrastructural, land use and economic issues to be considered in our long-term transition to a low-carbon future.
It is clear that Ireland's long-term interests are best supported by further decreasing our dependence on imported fossil fuels through increasing energy efficiency across the economy. On the energy efficiency side, we will continue to invest in the better energy programme, which has already provided grants to some 170,000 households. Some €54 million will be spent on the better energy programme in 2016, which will facilitate the upgrading of a further 21,000 households.
My Department will support the transition from peat power plants by using greater amounts of biomass and it will work with industry and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to develop sustainable indigenous supply chains. New support schemes will be developed to support renewable heat incentives and a range of technologies, including solar technology, in the renewable electricity sector. Newer technologies, such as wave and tidal energy technology, will have an important role to play in Ireland’s future renewable energy mix and we will support these through the research and development stages. We are supporting research and demonstration projects in this area, with a total of €17 million committed from my Department's Vote to ocean energy research in the period 2013 to 2016.
By November, the new Department responsible for housing, planning and local government, working with my Department, will bring to the Government revised wind energy planning guidelines to address issues of noise and shadow flicker and provide a structure for minimum setback distances. The issues of community engagement, participation and benefit will also be addressed. We have to achieve the right balance by ensuring the interests of local communities are heard and addressed and that there is the necessary regulatory and investment certainty to ensure ongoing investment in renewable energy projects.
A properly funded, independent public service broadcasting service is essential to the functioning of our democracy and society. My Department is responsible for the development of the legislative and regulatory framework for broadcasting and certain media in Ireland, including funding for the public service broadcasters, RTE and TG4. The Department oversees the collection of the television licence fee by An Post and payments to RTE, the BAI and TG4. The sector has been facing a very challenging funding environment in the past few years owing to a large fall in commercial advertising revenues arising from the increase in competition in the sector and the impact of advertising budgets being spent in different media platforms.
In the absence of a public sector broadcasting charge, I have asked my Department to consider what options are available to ensure a sustainable funding stream for public service broadcasting and to address the high levels of television licence fee evasion. I expect to bring proposals to the Government in this regard later in the year.
The Eircode system was launched in July 2015 to provide a unique postcode for every premises in Ireland. Approximately 35% of addresses are non-unique in this country and it is important that we develop a system that could make it easier to find and locate addresses, particularly in rural areas. As Senator Terry Leyden will know, townlands such as Milltown are quite common in our county, County Roscommon. It is the same across the country.