North-South Interconnector: Motion

I move:

That Seanad Éireann:

recognises:

- that the North-South interconnector is a vital piece of infrastructure in ensuring a safe and sustainable source of energy for both Ireland and Northern Ireland;

- that communities across counties Cavan, Monaghan, Meath, Tyrone and Armagh are very concerned about the present proposals for the North-South interconnector;

- that the recent decision of An Bord Pleanála to approve planning permission for the overhead pylon project did not consider an alternative underground option, which was not put forward by EirGrid;

- the negative impacts an overground interconnector will have on the landscape of these areas, particularly on their more scenic and ecologically sensitive locations;

- the potential detrimental consequences for the tourism sector in these areas;

- that the present plans for the North-South interconnector will have adverse effects on the livelihoods and farming practices of farming households along its route; and

- that some 2,550 homes will potentially be impacted on by the proposed overhead line;

acknowledges:

- the continued failure to address the concerns raised by local residents;

- the need and requirement that the communities' concerns must be addressed;

- that considerable technological advances have occurred since the most recent analysis of undergrounding was conducted in 2009, such that the cost and technical feasibility of undergrounding the North-South interconnector have changed greatly;

- that EirGrid has recognised that undergrounding the project is feasible; and

- that A Programme for a Partnership Government committed to and affirmed the need for "much better engagement with citizens and communities about the energy policy decisions that affect them" and committed to "effective community consultation on energy infrastructure developments"; and

calls on the Government to commission immediately an independent report incorporating international industry expertise to:

- examine the technical feasibility and cost of undergrounding the North-South interconnector, taking into account the most recent developments in technology and experience gained from existing projects abroad;

- evaluate the potential impacts of both undergrounding and overgrounding the North-South interconnector on surrounding areas, considering such aspects as its impact on local tourism, health, the landscape, agriculture, heritage, etc;

- analyse the real costs to date, and estimated future costs, of the current proposed overhead pylon project;

- ensure that no further work is done on the North-South interconnector until this analysis and a full community consultation are completed; and

- implement its commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government in relation to better engagement and community consultation about the energy policy decisions that affect them.

I welcome the opportunity to bring the motion before the Seanad on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party. The construction of the North-South interconnector has been a serious issue for the people of counties Cavan, Monaghan and Meath since it was first mooted back in 2007-08. As a result of the recent decision by An Bord Pleanála to award planning permission for the project, that is, the construction of 299 pylons between 25 m and 51 m in height, Fianna Fáil has felt compelled to bring the motion before the House and I hope all parties will support it.

As the Minister will appreciate, the North-South interconnector project has caused great stress and annoyance to the people who live along the route in counties Monaghan, Cavan and Meath, as well as in counties Tyrone and Armagh. I pass on my compliments to the communities that have banded together in total opposition to the project for the strong campaign they have waged since the first opposition was expressed to EirGrid's proposal to install the pylons. The campaign has been managed by two groups, namely, the Monaghan Anti-Pylon Committee and the North East Pylon Pressure Campaign, which have conducted themselves in a very professional and sensible manner. The resolve of the people against the project is as strong today as it was when the project was first mooted, if not stronger.

As a party, Fianna Fáil supports the upgrading of the national grid, thereby ensuring security of electricity supply in order to boost capacity for future economic growth. That said, it is concerned about the installation of pylons by EirGrid throughout the countryside near residential areas and in areas of scenic beauty. In its application to An Bord Pleanála, EirGrid only made a submission on an overground line. It did not consider the merits of the possibility of undergrounding the power line. This is blatant discrimination against the people who will be affected by the North-South interconnector. Why has the Government not listened to and investigated their concerns?

When similar concerns were raised over Grid West and Grid East, analysis of undergrounding options was undertaken. The people of counties Monaghan, Cavan and Meath are asking why their concerns are not being treated in an equal fashion. They deserve nothing less. In 2007-2008, when this project was first mooted, we were told that the cost of undergrounding the project would be somewhere between 20 to 30 times the cost of overgrounding and that it was not possible from either an engineering or technical perspective to underground these cables. Things have changed dramatically in the intervening period. By April 2015, EirGrid publicly admitted for the first time that it was possible to put these cables underground and at a much reduced cost than was first mooted. Furthermore, recent international experience has disproved claims that underground lines are not feasible for the development of projects such as this. This can be seen in the ALEGrO project, a project that runs between Germany and Belgium, which is approximately 90 km in length and which can carry 1,000 MW. The ALEGrO project will achieve these aims without infringing on the landscape along its routes. Not a single mountain vista or rolling hill will be tainted as a result of steel pylons being erected. No local resident will face land devaluations, health issues or reduced quality of life because of its construction.

We are asking for the Government to conduct an independent analysis of the possibility of undergrounding the North-South interconnector. This analysis must also assess and detail the impact that constructing the North-South interconnector will have on local communities. What would the impact be on the devaluation of property, local heritage sites and tourism? What would the impact be on farming land and agricultural production? What would the ramifications be for the health of local residents? These are the type of questions we are hearing from families in the counties through which the North-South interconnector is to pass. They have not been answered by the Government to date. Instead, it prefers to allow EirGrid to proceed over the will of local people, ignoring the concerns they so rightly raise. It is incumbent upon elected representatives of both Houses to give a voice to the people whom we serve and to give careful consideration of how decisions taken by us impact on their daily lives. It is very disappointing that the concerns of the people have so far been ignored by the Government. All we are looking for here is an independent expert review of the project and for the advances in technology that have occurred since it was first mooted to be taken into account. I ask Fine Gael Members present to fully support this motion. They have nothing to fear from it. Someone said once that it is never too late to do the right thing. I appeal to the Fine Gael Members to put their shoulders to the wheel, speak up for the people they represent and fully support this motion this afternoon. With the support of the Members of the House, I hope this motion will address the general fears expressed by the people of counties Monaghan, Cavan and Meath. I commend the motion to the House.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Naughten, to the House. I am delighted to see him here and hope he is recovering well.

I second the proposal made by my colleague, Senator Gallagher and thank the Sinn Féin Party Members and Independent Senators who have supported the motion here this afternoon. Since he entered the Department, the Minister is aware, as are many Members of the House, that this project has been going on for well over a decade. It is a decade in which communities in Meath, Cavan and Monaghan suffered greatly as a result of the concern about what will happen to them. It is ten years during which EirGrid has told untruths, has misrepresented the situation that exists and has misrepresented the consequences of its insistence on putting more than 290 pylons over one of the most beautiful parts of the island. In December 2016-----

Kerry is not the only beautiful spot in the country.

Forgive the interruption.

We would appreciate if the Leas-Chathaoirleach leaves Killarney out of this for the moment.

I did not mention it but the Senator did.

It is of great importance to the farming and tourism sectors and to families in this location. In December 2016, An Bord Pleanála granted approval of the proposed construction of the North-South 400 kV interconnector in counties Cavan, Meath and Monaghan. The highest voltage in use in the United Kingdom is 400 kV volts. An Bord Pleanála awarded planning permission to construct 299 pylons that are, as Senator Gallagher has pointed out, between 25 m and 51 m in height. EirGrid and Northern Ireland Electricity jointly planned this major cross-Border electricity scheme linking the existing 400 kV substation in Woodland, County Meath, with a planned substation in Turleenan, County Tyrone.

I appeal to all Members of the House, both in opposition and in government, to support this motion. I am disappointed the Government has tabled an amendment to this motion, a watered-down amendment which is not acceptable to the people concerned with this proposed project. Over the past ten or 12 years, members of the County Monaghan Anti-Pylon Committee and the North East Pylon Pressure Campaign in County Meath have been extremely active in conveying the views and concerns of local communities regarding these proposals. Those concerns have also been highlighted by their public representatives in counties Meath, Monaghan and Cavan. I attended my first meeting more than ten years ago in Kingscourt, County Cavan. I am glad to see in the Gallery this afternoon Councillor Clifford Kelly, a long-serving member of Cavan County Council representing that area. At a recent Cavan County Council meeting, Councillor Kelly, on behalf of Fianna Fáil, outlined very eloquently the concerns of these communities. In both Cavan and Monaghan county councils, all parties were represented and all were of the same view. This project, as it currently stands and as currently approved by An Bord Pleanála, cannot go ahead. That is the view of all political parties and none. I put that on the record of the House. The concerns of these communities have to be taken into consideration. EirGrid has shown nothing but disregard for the worries of these communities. That is also not acceptable. Senator Gallagher has pointed out the differential in what we were told the cost of undergrounding would be. Ten years ago it was over 20 times and five years ago it was six or seven times. Most recently at an Oireachtas joint committee meeting, it was said the technology was there to underground it, something that was continually denied for ten or more years. It was finally agreed over 12 months ago that the technology existed for this to be undergrounded but that it would be three times the cost. The most recent independent figures show it would be slightly over 1.2% higher.

Some studies indicate that it could be even cheaper than that. We are not against the interconnector project and neither are the communities we represent but they are against it being overground. There is no logical reason an independent review cannot be carried out to investigate once and for all whether this is feasible. We are confident that an independent review would show this option is feasible and that it would be on par with or only slightly dearer than the overground option.

I call the Minister, who is very welcome to the House.

Thank you, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. I note the amendment that will be moved to this motion and welcome this opportunity to address Members of the House and to discuss what is a very important energy infrastructure project, namely, the North-South interconnector. This proposed interconnector is a new 138 km long, high-capacity electricity interconnector along overhead lines between the transmission networks of Ireland and Northern Ireland. I had the same opportunity to debate this issue in Dáil Éireann on 14 February 2017 when an identical motion was proposed by Fianna Fáil. The Government proposed a counter-motion and the same counter-motion will be proposed here today. It is important to again advance this counter-motion in order that we affirm the need for the North-South interconnector, recognise the benefits it will bring through lower prices as a result of more efficient operation of the single electricity market and acknowledge the analysis that underpins the overground proposal.

On 21 December 2016, An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission for the interconnector in Ireland with a number of conditions attached. The decision concluded a lengthy planning process, which included an oral hearing completed over an 11-week period from March to May last year. The planning process in Northern Ireland is ongoing, with a planning inquiry having concluded on 27 February of this year. The proposed interconnector is a vital piece of infrastructure for ensuring a safe and sustainable source of energy for both Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is expected that its development will deliver significant benefits to electricity consumers across the island of Ireland through lower prices as a result of more efficient operation of the single electricity market. Developing the interconnector has the impact of reinforcing the electricity grid infrastructure in the north east of the State and, therefore, provides certainty for electricity generation and wider investment.

Many Members of this House and the Lower House have genuine concerns and I have no difficulty with that but some people have mischievously played politics with this issue. I want to put it on the record that if this project is not built, it will create uncertainty that may impact on the willingness of future investors on the whole island of Ireland to exploit the full potential of the single electricity market. I repeat, as it is important this is noted by all Members of both Houses, that if the project does not go ahead, it will create uncertainty that may have an impact on the willingness of future investors to invest in electricity projects on this island. I hope all Members of both sides of the House take note of what I have just said.

Any further delays to the development of the project add uncertainty and will increase security of supply risk to Northern Ireland, in the first instance, but also to both Ireland and Northern Ireland as the benefits of mutual reinforcement of the single electricity market would be delayed. In the context of Northern Ireland's security of electricity supply challenges post-2020, it is particularly important in terms of maintaining our excellent North-South relations in the area of energy that Ireland provides certainty in respect of developing the North-South interconnector. I also underline the crucial importance of continuing Ireland’s close relationship in the energy sector with both Northern Ireland and the UK in the context of our future energy relationship and Brexit. In 2015 Ireland had an energy import dependency of 88% and the UK is the conduit for much of this energy. For instance, 97% of the natural gas used in Ireland in 2015 was imported via the UK. Maintaining secure trade in energy with the UK and the continued effective functioning of the single electricity market are key Brexit priorities for Ireland. I note the UK Government’s continued support for the single electricity market, as set out in the UK White Paper on exiting the European Union and the letter of 14 October 2016 of Prime Minister May to the First and deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland.

Brexit is the most significant economic and social challenge of the past 50 years. It will impact our economy and society due to the close links between Ireland and the UK, of which energy is one of the critical sectors. Given the importance placed on the single electricity market and the key role of the North-South interconnector in this market, the uncertainty created by passing the proposed motion would be of significant concern. Furthermore, the bilateral relationship we have with the UK in energy cannot be viewed in isolation. We must consider the implications of any potential impacts a change in our energy relationship, perceived or otherwise, could have on other sectors. It is therefore critical, in the context of Brexit, that we maintain a close and positive relationship with the UK across all sectors.

In a wider European context, the North-South interconnector was designated a project of common interest by the European Commission in October 2013 and again in November 2015. Projects of common interest are energy projects deemed by the European Commission to be of strategic, transboundary importance. Any development of national infrastructure must strike a balance between the overall benefits of the project and the local impact on people, landscape, tourism, farming and homes. I am well aware of concerns that have been raised among the communities across counties Cavan, Meath and Monaghan about the proposals for the North-South interconnector. In fact, I am one of the few Ministers who has met the groups face to face. I believe I am the first Minister since the former Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who had the courtesy to meet them and hear their concerns.

I am also aware there is a long-held and passionately argued belief within some local communities along the route of the interconnector that the transmission lines should be laid underground, rather than built overhead. However, all evidence available to me and the advice of my chief technical adviser, even on foot of the recent meeting I had with the groups, indicates that this would cost substantially more and deliver less. In essence, the interconnector is proposed as a high-voltage alternating current overhead line because various studies, many of them independent, deem it to be both the best overall technical solution and the most cost-effective option for this project.

This proposal is fully in keeping with EirGrid’s statutory obligations to develop a fit-for-purpose electricity transmission system as cost-effectively as possible. The studies include the international expert commission report in 2012, which found the construction of an underground option to be circa three times the cost of the overhead option and the July 2014 statement of the independent expert panel, chaired by Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness, which found that in all material respects, the methodologies employed on the North-South interconnector were compatible with the methodologies employed on other grid development projects such as the Grid Link and Grid West projects. From a technical perspective, it should be pointed out that direct current lines would need to be used if the lines were laid underground over this distance and these do not efficiently integrate the electricity systems of Ireland and Northern Ireland into a single meshed grid system.

This is a key technical disadvantage that an underground option would have when compared with the proposed overhead project. All studies and information pertaining to undergrounding were available to An Bord Pleanála as part of the recent planning process. In the oral hearing the inspector heard testimony both in favour of and against the overground and underground solutions. The inspector examined those issues thoroughly and concluded that a high voltage alternating current overhead line is the best technical and economic solution for the North-South interconnector to achieve national energy objectives. I would stress, therefore, that the statutorily independent planning process has determined that the proposed North-South interconnector should be developed, and I fully accept the outcome of that planning process. Of course, I also understand the concerns of the communities of Cavan, Meath and Monaghan about the project, and I have met with and listened to representatives of these communities in the last fortnight and committed to further engagement. I know that my officials will be directly engaging with both of those committees. However, the reason the Government does not support the motion as proposed is due to the uncertainty it would create regarding our energy relationship with Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole.

An issue that has been raised, including by the community representative groups, was that there needs to be further independent analysis of international developments around the relative cost differences, technologies and engineering solutions of overhead and underground technologies. An update of the work of the 2012 independent study can provide this clarity, and my Department is working to finalise the terms of reference and procure expert advice on these issues. My intention is that this should be a short, focused piece of work and be placed in the public domain as quickly as possible. This is what the proposed amendment I have proposed seeks to do and it does it without introducing undue uncertainty to our energy relationship on an all-island basis and with the UK. I urge Senators to support the proposed amendment, which is both fair and balanced.

Before calling the next speaker I would like to welcome Councillor Clifford Kelly and Deputy Cassells to the House.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “That Seanad Éireann” and substitute:

“notes:

- the benefits that the North-South interconnector will bring to electricity consumers across the island of Ireland through lower prices as a result of more efficient operation of the Single Electricity Market and increased security of electricity supply; and

- the importance of Ireland’s close relationship in the energy sector with Northern Ireland and the UK, and the European Union and UK Government’s continued support for the Single Electricity Market against the backdrop of the UK decision to exit the EU;

and calls on the Government:

- to take account of the concerns of the communities of Cavan, Meath and Monaghan; and

- to publish an independent analysis of international developments in relation to the relative cost differences, technologies and engineering solutions of overhead and underground technologies fully integrated in an all-island electricity system and be cognisant of same.”.

I welcome the Minister. The Minister has mentioned the amendment in his statement. I want to compliment the Minister on his handling of the brief and also his handling of this issue. This issue has been around since 2007. There have been consultations regarding land and route selection since 2007. This Minister has gone out of his way to meet all parties, and that has to be acknowledged.

The issue we are trying to debate is the appropriate way forward for the country regarding the single market we have at the moment. We all realise that the interconnector has to happen. We have a situation where post-Brexit energy security will be one of the key issues for driving our economy. At the moment we have only one interconnector between here and Northern Ireland. This proposal concerns a second one. This is a crucial piece of infrastructure, not alone for Northern Ireland but for the Republic going forward. It is about energy security. Security is a key part of what we are trying to propose here. Security regarding energy and the ability to ensure that we have access to this energy is very appropriate.

We know what we are. We are an island nation just off the UK. Our nearest neighbour is the UK, and we need to have connectivity to that market. This interconnector gives us the ability to do that. It will affect people in Northern Ireland. It will affect people in Cork. It will affect people everywhere, and that is why this proposal, which has been around since 2007, is so important. That is why we have proposed this amendment because it is about trying to ensure that we have certainty in the market. A proposal has been proposed here today which is about certainty in the energy market. Going forward we can hopefully build our economy off the back of it. There are issues, which have been raised by other Members of the House, regarding pricing and the actual cost of the project. At the end of the day, the project was started in 2007 and ten years later it has not been physically started and is still going through the planning process. That shows the level of consultation that is happening on these issues.

The Minister made it very clear in his speech why we need to progress and move forward with this project. I have to support the Minister, because a key aspect behind this is that if we were to stall now again and start into another consultation period, where would we go? We also have an issue about Northern Ireland. We must show that we are on board so that we can develop in both the North and the South. Brexit is going to be the key issue in terms of energy security. We have a single market in Ireland, which has worked as we have seen, but now we need to build on that, and this interconnector is a key part of building that confidence in the market. Confidence is very important. We need to have the confidence of the investors and the marketplace so that we can provide this key piece of infrastructure. If we lose this confidence what effect will that have on other infrastructure projects, whether it is broadband or other issues? We will lose the confidence of the investors that we need to ensure that we can have these core infrastructure projects put in place so that the island itself can develop.

The Minister has shown his ability to engage with the communities, and that is something that has to be acknowledged. I am sure that Members from Fianna Fáil will acknowledge afterwards that the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, went out and met these people. That is a real key issue here. He has physically met these people on the ground, and that is a very important issue. We are engaging, we are working and we are going forward with the Minister. We can ensure that we can have this interconnector in place. It is important for all of Ireland that it actually happens, and I am sure the Minister will deliver it. More importantly, he will deliver it by consultation, by talking, by working with his chief technical officer, and by talking to the communities.

I would hope that we can have backing for the Government amendment because it is the appropriate step forward. If we can all work together we can hopefully achieve the security that is required so that the entire economy can grow. The Minister has proven by his meetings with the groups involved that he has an open ear and that he is open minded about these issues.

I welcome the Minister to the House. There is plenty of food for thought in his response. It is a detailed response, and I thank him for that. There are a number of issues raised that we must think about and be cognisant of.

I do not think that there is any disagreement about the North-South interconnector. We all need that. There is no point in rehearsing all the things that we agree on. We must discuss what we do not agree on and decide what the difficulties are. I have spoken to a number of Independent councillors. Might I say that Cavan is the only council in the country that has no Independent councillors, which is strange in itself. Perhaps they are efficient and are doing a good job up there. This issue has divided both political groupings, namely, the Government and the Opposition, it has divided communities and it has divided people. It is about the environment, sustainability and the environment in which people live. It also highlights shortcomings. I will not go into it, it is a matter for another day, but we clearly need a critical infrastructure agency that stands on its own. We are going to have many challenges right across this country in the foreseeable future in rolling out essential critical infrastructure for many reasons that will aid and support our economy, job creation, balanced regional development and a whole range of other issues. Critical infrastructure is essential, and this is another part of critical infrastructure. I do not see any problem with supporting the North-South interconnector.

When one looks at the motion and the proposals before us, they are calling on the Government to commission an independent report incorporating international industry and expertise to examine the technical feasibility and cost of undergrounding the North-South interconnector, taking into account the most recent developments in technology and experience gained from existing projects, and to evaluate the impact of both overground and underground options.

The motion also calls on the Government to "evaluate the potential impacts of both undergrounding and overgrounding". I believe it is right that it should be underground. While certain costs would be associated with that, what cost can be put on the health and safety of people living in communities? This whole case has shown up the lack of real public consultation, the failure to provide information to people and the lack of engagement with communities and elected representatives. I am disappointed that a number of the Senators who have vocally opposed this scheme are not here today.

This critical issue affects people in counties Monaghan, Cavan and Meath, in particular, but it also affects people in other areas. This is ultimately a question of independent validation. I know that this scheme has gone through the planning process and people are disappointed with the outcome. I have appealed many decisions to An Bord Pleanála and have been disappointed with the outcome. How can we clearly set out the facts? What are the exact costings for putting this underground? Is it possible to put this underground? Are there technical reasons this cannot happen? If so, do those reasons relate to costs or to delays? If it is a question of costs, those costs must be independently validated so that we can spell out to people the absolute costs involved.

This is a difficult decision for an Independent Minister. I do not know what is the Government Chief Whip's current stance, but she has spoken publicly on this issue in the past. One of the difficulties is that the representatives of all the affected constituencies are going to square up. This ultimately must be about trying to reach consensus. While value for money is important, we do not need to put a value on everything. If I lived in County Monaghan, County Cavan or County Meath, I would expect my local Deputies, Senators and county councillors to fight this case on behalf of the local people while remaining cognisant of the need for critical infrastructure. The Minister might share with us the details of the costs and elaborate on whether it is technically possible to go underground. I thank him for his comprehensive response. I will think about it before I decide how to vote. I thank him for clearly setting out in an unambiguous and upfront manner the difficulties he sees in this regard. Can we have some greater detail on cost?

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I am pleased to see him in good health. Sinn Féin is happy to support the Private Members' motion that has been proposed this afternoon. We have stood with the communities affected by this scheme since the beginning. In 2014, we passed a strong motion at our Ard-Fheis calling on EirGrid to put the cables underground. Residents along the proposed route will be faced with pylons of 45 m in height, some of which will be 50 m from their homes. While we absolutely support the development of the interconnector, we also support the right of residents to oppose these massive pylons, 229 of which will pass through counties Meath, Cavan, Monaghan, Tyrone and Armagh carrying 400 kV of power. EirGrid has failed to deal in a meaningful manner with the concerns of affected residents. Its initial claim that putting the lines underground would cost 25 times more than placing them overground is false. In fact, undergrounding was just 1.5 times as expensive at the time and this differential has probably reduced since the report was published.

I was a member of Mayo County Council when a representative of EirGrid appeared before it some years ago. I asked him on several occasions about the feasibility of putting lines underground. I wanted to know whether it was technically possible. He tried to fob me off with references to physics, but I told him to let me have a look at the physics so I could decipher it for myself. I said that what we were discussing was either feasible or it was not, taking the cost off the board. I am reluctant to say he told lies time and again during that presentation, but it has since been proven that he told lies. I do not like to call anybody a liar, but that is exactly what transpired at the presentation. If EirGrid had not taken such an approach, my colleagues and I would not be talking on this issue in the Seanad this afternoon. If EirGrid had come clean and told the truth from the outset, we could have worked with that. I presented international models of best practice at the time. Even at that time, there was a move towards the undergrounding of lines that were originally developed overground. Has EirGrid been reprimanded for telling lies to communities and public representatives in all of this?

We cannot name people who are not here to defend themselves. I do not think the Senator is doing so. I hope she is not.

No, I am not. I am naming EirGrid because I think it is responsible for the untruths it put out there. Successive Governments are responsible for not calling into question those untruths. They should have faced down EirGrid when it was telling people these untruths. The fact is that these lines can be put underground. The concerns that have been expressed about the cost of doing so are dubious, to say the least. Sinn Féin advocates that an all-island approach should be taken to our most pressing problems at all times. I have spoken previously in this House about the need for an all-island approach to be taken to health, economic recovery and transport. A sustainable power supply for the entire island in the future is no different. We support the interconnector project as a means of Ireland achieving its 40% renewable energy target.

We have heard arguments from those who favour the overground pylons approach. They have suggested that undergrounding is neither affordable nor achievable. The contrary was found to be the case when the Oireachtas commissioned an expert report, which stated quite clearly that undergrounding the North-South interconnector was a realistic solution due to "a significant technical development and a commercial breakthrough" in the most recently developed voltage-source converter HVDC technology. There are also benefits to having the cables run underground. Underground cables are disturbed less frequently than overhead lines. Overhead cables are affected by severe weather. Only outside influences can disturb and damage underground cables. Underground cables are low-maintenance, compared with overhead lines. While underground cables cost more than overhead lines at installation, they are low-maintenance, have lower transmission losses, have a longer lifespan and have no environmental or other negative impacts associated with them. All of this suggests that the additional initial outlay will be offset over time by many advantages. Sinn Féin has proposed, as a novel solution, that the underground routing of these cables could be done in conjunction with the development of the A5 dual carriageway. The cables could be ducted underground at the time of the construction of the new road.

An Bord Pleanála's decision to approve the construction of the EirGrid-led North-South interconnector pylons means the various undergrounding options will not be fully considered. There must be a full view of the measures taken so far and a commitment to consult and listen to the communities that will be affected by this scheme. While I understand what the Minister is saying in his amendment, I cannot agree with it. The amendment calls on the Government "to take account of the concerns of the communities of Cavan, Meath and Monaghan". There has been no proper consultation. The quality of the consultation on these gridlines across the country has been absolutely atrocious.

It does not fill me with confidence to hear the Minister saying now that there will be consultation. The Minister also indicated that a report will be drawn up to look at international best practice and relative cost differences in underground technologies. This should have been done years ago. It should have been done before now.

It should have been done in a right and truthful way that would have allowed people to have confidence in it. People should not have been fobbed off by being told they would not understand the physics. Those who claimed to know better tried to tell the public that this could not be done underground. It can and will be done underground. We must respect the will of the people in this regard. We want progress and development. If the blame for the lack of progress and development, and for everything else the Minister has cited this afternoon, is to be laid at any door, it should not be laid at the door of the communities that are affected and the public representatives of those communities - it should be laid firmly at the door of the Government and of EirGrid.

I welcome the Minister. It is good to see him back in good health. I support this motion. The communities directly affected by An Bord Pleanála's decision to give planning permission to EirGrid for the construction of overhead powerlines, which will result in the building of 299 pylons in counties Meath, Cavan and Monaghan, have expressed their anger and frustration about this decision.

There is general support for the upgrading of the national grid to ensure security of energy supply and that the North-South interconnector would play an essential role in preventing energy blackouts on the island of Ireland as well as bringing in an increased amount of renewable energy into the system while ensuring lower energy costs in the future.

There is concern around the installation of overhead pylons throughout the State by EirGrid near residential areas and areas of scenic beauty. Locals have expressed their opposition to the scarring of their beautiful historic landscapes with this infrastructure. The undergrounding of the North-South interconnector is the expressed wish of the people who are directly affected. Residents in Meath would be exposed to 45 m high pylons some of which will be only 50 m from people's homes and exposed to potential health risks. Studies have proved the increase in carcinogens in proximity to the electromagnetic fields from power lines. The European Commission's Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks, SCENIHR, found that the previous conclusion that electromagnetic fields are a possible carcinogenic chiefly based on childhood leukaemia results is still valid.

An Oireachtas commission expert report states quite clearly that undergrounding the North-South interconnector is now a realistic solution due to the significant technical developments and the commercial breakthrough of the most recently developed voltage source connector technology. EirGrid originally stated that the cost of undergrounding the cable would be 25 times that of erecting overground pylons. This does not hold true. In its application to An Bord Pleanála EirGrid only made a submission for an overground line. Why did EirGrid not consider the merits or possibility of an underground power line in its application? This is blatant discrimination against the people affected by the North-South interconnector.

EirGrid's inconsistency and overall unwillingness to engage with this is central to why the people of Meath, Cavan and Monaghan feel they are not being treated equally or fairly. People in these counties are asking themselves why no underground cabling proposals are outlined for the proposed North-South interconnector. In April 2015 EirGrid stated that an underground system would cost in excess of €500 million more than the overhead option, approximately three times more than the overground option. Again, this appears to be significantly reduced costs compared with what was previously relied upon to make a decision to go overground. An independent group of experts is now needed to assess the specific needs of the North-South interconnector and to calculate a precise cost estimate. EirGrid cannot be seen as independent when it comes to assessing the costs of undergrounding the North-South interconnector. Since the beginning of the process EirGrid has been intent on placing the North-South interconnector above ground and could be perceived as biased towards this option.

Recent international experience has disproved claims that underground technology is not suitable for developments like the North-South interconnector. A similar project in Belgium will ensure no area of natural beauty will be tainted as a result of the erection of steel pylons. No local resident there will face land devaluation, health issues or a reduced quality of life because of its construction. Why can the communities in Meath, Cavan and Monaghan not be treated in the same way? The international expert commission employed by a previous government found that putting the cables underground was a viable option. Why is there now an insistence that the project must proceed overhead?

There would be benefits in undergrounding that would result in long-term savings and maintenance. Underground networks do not require the same level of maintenance as overhead networks. Underground cables have lower transmission losses and a much longer lifespan than overhead lines. Disturbance to underground cables is less frequent than to overhead cables that are affected by severe weather. This is something we must take into consideration.

The Government should undertake a study to assess the possibility of undergrounding the North-South interconnector. This study should also analyse the possible impacts on the health of local residents and the possible loss of tourist revenue due to the tainting of the landscape by pylons. The cost of delays to this project also needs to be factored in to any costings because the level of local opposition to the pylons will undoubtedly lead to legal challenges. There is general agreement that farmers will not allow these pylons to be erected on their land because of health concerns for their families and their livestock. There is also the fear that the value of their properties will be reduced. The concerns of the residents in these areas need to be taken into consideration and I echo the concerns of the public in their opposition to the construction of these pylons. It is essential that this project is stopped and the people who are directly affected are listened to.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Naughten, to the House. I support this motion and I commend my colleagues Senators Gallagher and Wilson on calling for an independent expert review. I also welcome to the House Councillor Clifford Kelly who has been a long-term campaigner on this issue, as well as Deputy Cassells. I have spoken today to a councillor of more 33 years' experience from the region. He informed me that he has never seen such resolve by the public over one issue. It is his opinion, and I would have to concur with him, that any potential savings by placing these cables overground will be usurped through a lengthy legal battle in the courts and possibly in the EU courts. When we talk about costs it is also worth considering that €8 million was wasted on a flawed planning application three years ago, which was withdrawn at hearing stage. The current planning application by EirGrid to place cables overground may also be flawed as only 30% of the route was actually surveyed and 17% of the route was inaccessible. Obviously there are potential and widespread inaccuracies in this which could have subsequent cost implications.

In 2014, the then Minister for Health, our colleague, Senator Reilly, decided to inquire about the potential health effects on people who are living in close proximity to high voltage overground power cables. By doing so he made the point that people feel a deep unease about living next to major electromagnetic fields. There have been claims and counter-claims about various illnesses that can be attributed to living close to electricity pylons. As a GP, I can honestly say that if a patient who has attended my clinic for many years suddenly found themselves the unwilling neighbour of a 50 m high pylon and complained of symptoms they never had before, then I would wonder if there was a direct link. Scientific efforts to analyse electromagnetic fields around pylons and their possible relationship to cancer and other diseases began as far back as the 1970s, instigated in the US by reports of increased numbers of children with leukaemia who lived in the vicinity of power lines. Professor Denis Henshaw, the British physicist and professor of human radiation effects at Bristol University, has listed the increased possible health risks of living close to power lines such as childhood leukaemia, adult leukaemia, Alzheimer's disease, brain tumours, depression and many other illnesses. The EirGrid chief executive at the time, John O'Connor, did little to calm fears when he admitted, before an Oireachtas committee in 2013, that he would not like to live close to a pylon. EirGrid dismisses these concerns and insists there is no evidence to support them. It may not have been proved but that does not mean it does not exist. Professor Anthony Staines, chair of health systems in the School of Nursing and Human Sciences at Dublin City University has said that there is simply not enough certainty. I for one would not like to take the risk.

I welcome the Minister to the House but I seek clarification from him on where this situation is from a Government perspective. One Department of Government is flagging Ireland's Ancient East. It is pushing the area as the east's answer to the Wild Atlantic Way with our beautiful scenery and our historical locations. At the same time we have a Department that wants to spoil all that scenery and those locations by putting up pylons when the cables could be put underground. One side of the Government is working one way and the other side is working the other way. With regard to village renewal schemes and the smaller scale cabling from one street light to another, there is a major push on village renewal schemes and enhancement schemes where money is provided to enhance the beauty of villages and small towns by putting cabling underground, which had been overground since cables and streetlights were introduced. This is being done for aesthetic reasons but we still want to put this monstrosity of a project overground through three major counties.

I will now turn to the Government's stance on this and I would like some clarification on where the Government is with regard to the situation.

The morning after the Fianna Fáil motion was tabled in the Dáil the Government Chief Whip stated on LMFM that the Government would enact it. The Minister has come in here today with a watered down amendment that seeks to move the goalposts and change things back. Whom should we believe in the Government? Where is this project going if the Cabinet cannot agree? Why has one member of the Cabinet said the Government will implement the Fianna Fáil motion because it passed with great numbers in the Dáil while the Minister has come in here today asking to move the goalposts? We need the matter clarified. We also need a better answer than the one we got from the Minister in his statement on why the decision that was made has been made.

I thank the Minister for his response. He mentioned in his contribution that he met the action groups. I know he was in great physical pain at the time. On behalf of the elected Members present and the people from the communities that met him, I thank him most sincerely for meeting the action groups.

I welcome Deputy Cassells to the House and Councillor Clifford Kelly from County Cavan. Along with other public representatives, they have been a strong voice against this project as presented to us. Indeed, the councillors of County Monaghan, who are my former colleagues, and all of the councillors of Cavan and Meath, have also spoken with one voice on this issue.

I take issue with a number of points made by the Minister. He seemed to imply in his statement that we are against upgrading infrastructure and the project per se. I wish to make it very clear that we favour this project but we have an issue with the project going overground as opposed to underground.

The Minister made the point that some people have played politics with this issue. I can assure him that all of the public representatives who have spoken here today and, indeed, elsewhere against this project did not play politics. They have spoken for and represented the people in the communities in which they live.

I agree with what the Minister said about the delay. It is important that when one apportions praise or blame, it should go in the proper direction and in this case it is EirGrid. The delay occurred because EirGrid made a hames or a dog's dinner of the initial application at a cost to the taxpayer of €8 million. The delay was due to EirGrid's incompetence when handling the application, which was first discovered and cited by Councillor Owen Bannigan who has since passed away. He was a great champion, among others, of this particular project.

The Minister also mentioned the cost of undergrounding. It is important that we briefly touch on this matter. He mentioned in his statement that an expert group maintained in 2012 that it would cost three times the amount to underground this project than go overground. I accept that point. Four years earlier the same experts told us that it would cost 20 to 30 times more. In 2012 the cost dropped from 20 to 30 times to three times the amount. Five years have elapsed and I contend that the cost has reduced even more. Let us remember that advances have also been made in technology. An independent study will provide clarity on the true cost of this project.

I was disappointed to learn what the Fine Gael Deputies from the affected counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Meath have done. When they had an opportunity to put on record their opposition to this project they decided to keep their mouths closed and say nothing. However, when they speak on the local and national airwaves they have tried to fool the people into thinking that they are against the project. This evening the Fine Gael Members of this House have an opportunity to state where they stand on this project. I sincerely hope that they will join with the rest of their colleagues in this House and support the motion tabled by Fianna Fáil.

Amendment put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 14; Níl, 23.

  • Boyhan, Victor.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Hopkins, Maura.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
  • Reilly, James.

Níl

  • Ardagh, Catherine.
  • Black, Frances.
  • Clifford-Lee, Lorraine.
  • Conway-Walsh, Rose.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Horkan, Gerry.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Kelleher, Colette.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • O'Sullivan, Grace.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • Ruane, Lynn.
  • Swanick, Keith.
  • Warfield, Fintan.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Tim Lombard and Gabrielle McFadden; Níl, Senators Robbie Gallagher and Diarmuid Wilson..
Amendment declared lost.
Motion agreed to.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.55 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 2 March 2017.