I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I welcome the Minister of State. Contrary to what we tell ourselves, we have sun in this country but we do not have enough solar panels to use that sun. Think of all the roofs and buildings that could convert the natural energy of the sun into electricity, yet only a handful do. Of all the roofs throughout the country, surely those on schools should be at the top of the agenda. It is almost impossible for schools and for other public buildings to install solar panels because of red tape.
I would love to see my children and children throughout the country at the heart of the climate transition, which is exactly where they want to be. Children learn through heads, hands and hearts. Caring for and being part of the environment covers all of those bases and it is a truly rounded education. The educational work I have been involved in has been about being out in nature, messing around in the woods or simply planting a potato in a small pot. Energy is a key untapped resource. Children could get involved in planning how many panels they could put on their school buildings and where, work out how much energy they could generate, keep track of it daily, and then see their whiteboards and computers powered by that electricity. When it comes to Saturdays, Sundays and any day when they are not in school, they would be able to sell that energy back to the grid as soon as microgeneration is truly a reality in this country. It cannot come too soon.
When I looked at getting this over the line a couple of years ago for a school in Galway, there were issues related to matched funding and there was substantial red tape, so it was not possible in the end. This Bill came about because of relentless campaigning by students, teachers and Friends of the Earth, who are sick of the red tape involved in getting solar panels on their roofs. As education spokesperson for the Green Party, I cannot think of a better education than one that puts children in the driving seat, closer to nature, and helps them to understand the technicalities around producing their own energy. This Bill would solve the planning problem. There is little point in one Department progressing microgeneration unless all Departments are on board and take away the planning issues that are having a chilling effect from the start.
With this Bill, schools, libraries, museums, town halls, and community centres would all be exempt from planning requirements unless they are listed buildings. At present, they need planning permission for even one panel on the roof. Farm sheds and industrial buildings have a limit on the number of panels permitted and this Bill would see an end to that. This week, in the Joint Committee on Climate Action, we heard from Macra na Feirme that farmers want to be environmentally friendly. They want to be able to sell their products to market and to demonstrate they are green, but they need support to do it. Part of what they asked was for the provision of ecologists. There is an opportunity to make a contribution with this Bill. Part of that would be through selling energy back to the grid to make money and part would be through using the energy themselves in their work. All of that means eliminating the arbitrary size restrictions for solar panels in planning.
What is that red tape specifically? All development, unless specifically exempted in section 4 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 or in Schedule 2 of the Planning and Development Regulations 2001, requires planning permission. That includes solar panels. Some buildings have had size allowances. Until now, schools and other public buildings have not been exempt at all.
In bringing this Bill to the Seanad, I acknowledge the work of Senator Dooley, who is here today, who had a Bill which aimed to address the issue in a slightly different manner, but the Government fell before it was added to the Order Paper. I am delighted to see Senator Dooley here today. I acknowledge the work of Friends of the Earth Ireland, which has sent extensive background notes and asked Senators to support this Bill. I thank Kate Ruddock, our dedicated researcher who has worked on this in the background for aeons. I offer particular praise to the children and young people of Ireland, who continue to lead the way on the environment. Our group is here, with Senators Garvey, Martin and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, to support them.
A week ago, Councillor Claire Byrne brought me to a school in south Dublin where the young people have a really active green committee. They recently erected 11 kW of solar panels. It is one of only a handful of schools in the country that have been able to jump through all of the hoops to get this over the line. The principal, John McKennedy, told me that it took over a year and a half to get through planning. That does not include the years of fundraising. When one roof was found to be unsuitable by those erecting the panels, they should have been able to move to another roof but instead had to go through the planning process all over again. This does not just take time. The architectural drawings can cost upwards of €3,000. That is no small obstacle. It is stopping the advancement at speed of the climate transition. There is an opportunity for the State, with this Bill, microgeneration, and through providing more mentors through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, to give every child an energy education. I know the Minister for Education is doing work on retrofitting and supporting schools which are changing their electricity system to solar and other energy forms.
With this Bill, planning permission would no longer be required for solar panels on schools and public buildings. It would be possible to install larger arrays of solar panels on homes without planning permission and they would no longer be limited to 12 sq. m or 50% of the roof area.
Industrial, business and agricultural buildings would be able to install larger arrays without planning permission and no longer be limited to 50% of roof area. We are currently bringing a climate Bill through this House and, as a member of the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action, I believe passionately that the transition to a climate-neutral society can empower children and young people, making their lives better. They may not have solar panels on their roofs at home but they should have the ability to contribute and share in the transition in their classrooms, public libraries and community centres.
I hope Senators will support this Bill that I am introducing along with my colleagues, Senators Garvey and Martin, and which is supported by the Minister of State, Senator Hackett.