This week the national fuel allowance scheme starts. It is a means-assessed payment. It will be paid for 28 weeks to an estimated 370,000 households across the country. Last winter a total of 16,284 households across Tipperary received fuel allowance through the scheme and they will automatically receive payments again this year, beginning yesterday. The scheme plays a vital role in ensuring families across my county of Tipperary have the security of knowing they will be able to pay their heating bills over the winter months. It will be especially important to people this year in the context of rising fuel costs globally. I encourage the Minister of State to factor this into account in the upcoming budget. In fairness the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, increased the weekly rate of payment by €3.50 in last year's budget. Over the last year, we have witnessed record increases in the prices of wholesale gas, coal, oil and carbon on European markets. Wholesale prices have rebounded since economies have started to recover from the initial stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, energy markets have experienced declining UK and European natural gas production and a reduction in gas supplies from Russia and the US have also contributed to record price increases.
The Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, has said that the electricity supply to Ireland will be tight for the next three to four years and that the big data centres which use an enormous amount of energy could not expect to be exempt from the national requirement to conserve energy in order to meet climate change commitments. There are also concerns that Ireland's electricity generating capacity could deter multinationals from investing in infrastructure such as data centres in Ireland. A piece by John Mulligan in the Irish Independent warned of just that. According to one source: "For the data centre sector, for any multinational investing in Ireland, they look immediately in terms of sites, at the availability of power, the availability of water and the availability of very robust data connections." The article noted, "Ireland is home to major data centres for multinationals including Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft... A number of amber alerts have occurred in recent weeks, where electricity generators have been warned that any unexpected event could result in a failure to meet demand." The sustained rise in demand from such centres, which are energy intensive buildings that house computer systems for storing Internet and business data, was the same as adding 140,000 new households to the network in each of the last four years. EirGrid, the semi-State company that manages Ireland's electricity grid, has acknowledged that maintaining the balance between supply and demand has become increasingly challenging.
The problem is not going to go away and clearly going to get progressively worse. There could be rolling blackouts if steps are not taken to curb new centres. Has the Minister of State or the Minister, Deputy Ryan, been assured that the two power plants which have been offline for the last number of months will be back online for the winter period? The expected new data centres will be required to install on their own emergency generation as a condition of gaining a connection to the grid. EirGrid and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, will publish capacity statements this week with their paths to manage demand. What does the Minister want to see in those statements to reassure him that we will not have power outages over the winter months?
Fuel allowance is means tested and there are some simple changes we could make in this year's budget to help the most vulnerable get through the winter months with the costs. The fuel allowance is based on age, income and social welfare payments. I give the example of a couple that contacted me recently. They were claiming a pension and she was on half-rate carer's allowance. Their income was €601 a week. Their cut-off was €575. They pay €140 on health insurance and the husband has dementia. If the means test was to rise for those claiming pensions, particularly those who also claim carer's allowance, it would dramatically help people of pensionable age. Fuel allowance is also a factor in eligibility for the warmer homes scheme. Many people of a pensionable age live in older homes with substandard insulation. Grants such as these would protect these homes.