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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 14 Sep 2022

Vol. 288 No. 1

Energy: Motion

I move:

That Seanad Éireann:

agrees that:

-while Ireland rebounded strongly from the challenges of the pandemic, in recent months it has become increasingly clear that the increase in energy prices is rendering the international economic outlook very serious;

- these inflationary pressures on the price of energy have been exacerbated, to an enormous degree, by the illegal and reprehensible Russian invasion of Ukraine;

-with this invasion, increased energy prices became a very real challenge for households and businesses in Ireland - bringing with them great concern and worry;

-we must ensure that our people are supported in the face of rising costs of living, that the services they expect are effectively delivered and enhanced, and that we are making the investments necessary to ensure a prosperous future;

-we need to prioritise protecting those most vulnerable in society, those dependent on medical equipment at home as well as assist families and businesses to cope with these rapidly increased energy costs;

-Budget 2023 will be a cost-of-living budget, and must contribute to, a larger perspective, of medium and longer-term challenges, including climate, demography, housing and public service demands;

-addressing these challenges is not easy and will require sustained and consistent efforts over many years;

acknowledges that the Government:

-has acted and will continue to act in response to the challenge rising prices are having on households and businesses;

-has already taken steps to help through grants to households for energy costs, temporary reductions in excise duties and VAT on fuel, and through substantial targeted supports for those most vulnerable in receipt of the fuel allowance;

-as during Covid-19, will work in partnership with Trade Unions, employers and other stakeholders in responding to these unprecedented energy cost challenges;

-will maintain a carefully calibrated and targeted response to the inflation challenge and to balance addressing the rising cost of living while not chasing inflation;

-can, must and will continue to help, it cannot mitigate the entire burden of inflation;

and calls on the Government to:

-ensure, to the greatest extent possible, measures are focused on those who need them most;

-continue sustainable investment, prioritising strategically important investment, in housing, in our public services and in climate action;

-provide specific and targeted financial support to households and businesses to help with the soaring cost of energy prices and to prevent job losses;

-proactively engage with energy companies to address rising energy prices for households;

-prioritise the development of renewable energy infrastructure, including expediting planning decisions for such infrastructure;

-carefully manage the risks we face, including the increased corporation tax receipts to our exchequer returns.

I wish to share time with Senator Murphy.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The Minister is very welcome to the House. It is great to be here and starting Seanad Private Members' business on a very important issue. All of a sudden, it seems that energy is the cornerstone of everything in the economy and society in terms of how we survive but, in reality, that has always been the way. It is the fuel that feeds us, drives us, heats us and it has always been central to how an economy or society functions. Sadly, it is now a weapon of war. The crisis has also made energy a threat to our democracy.

Fianna Fáil has tabled this motion, which draws particular attention to the increase in rising prices due to inflationary pressure on the price of energy driven by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the unprecedented challenges faced by households and businesses. We must ensure that people are supported and protected in the face of the rising cost of living. We must protect those most vulnerable in society. Budget 2023 must be a cost-of-living budget that should contribute to helping every household and business in the country.

As we all know, energy poverty impacts hundreds of thousands of families and individuals every day in Ireland, yet, at the same time, hundreds of millions of euro of clean energy is being dumped as well. The recent ESRI report on energy poverty and deprivation in Ireland warns that up to 43% of households are at risk of energy poverty. The motion specifically calls on Government to ensure to the greatest possible extent that measures are focused on those who need them most such as vulnerable households, carers, persons with disabilities, pensioners and the many thousands of families who can be described as the working poor or the squeezed middle. We must provide specific and targeted financial supports to households and businesses to help with the soaring cost of energy prices and prevent job losses. We must proactively engage with energy companies to address the rising energy prices for households and prioritise the development of renewable energy infrastructure, including expediting planning decisions for infrastructure. This is an emergency. Let us not waste this emergency to do something positive for our people, our climate and our economy. Indeed, all of us are acutely aware of the impact of rising energy prices on households. These households are our friends, neighbours and parents.

It must be highlighted that the Government has taken action throughout 2022. The electricity cost credit of €176, excluding VAT, was applied to 2.1 million households. This was a €377 million measure on top of a range of measures introduced in February to tackle the rising cost of living, including the lump sum of €125 for people in receipt of fuel allowance. People received a fuel allowance payment of €1,139 this year compared to €735 in 2020-21. The Government also ramped up the very welcome home retrofit supports for households. Month by month delivery of free energy upgrades for households at risk of energy poverty have doubled in the past year. This is an achievement and must be recognised. Unfortunately, as we all know, and this is why we are speaking here this evening, these increases and good supports will just not be enough at the minute because of the external costs and the energy crisis. I believe there is a need for a new short-term fuel assistance payment for struggling working families who do not qualify for fuel allowance. Families just will not be able to pay their bills.

I was very glad earlier that Ms Ursula von der Leyen outlined in her state of the Union address to the European Parliament that the European Commission is proposing a cap on revenues of companies that produce electricity at a low cost. These companies are making revenues they never accounted for and never even dreamt of. In a time of such crisis, it is immoral to make such profits on the backs of struggling citizens. In these times, profits must be shared and channelled to those who need them most. We will provide those direct supports to our citizens and businesses and we will take money off those energy companies that are making unjustified gains. There is no other solution and we must do that.

I read that senior Government officials said they are awaiting further details on that European Commission announcement and how much Ireland could expect from those new revenue raising plans. This is welcome news. I am sure it will cushion the blow to the Exchequer of the energy crisis. The emergency levy that will be placed on oil, gas and coal firms alongside the separate measure to cap revenues from renewable electricity generators at less than half the current market price is good news for Ireland. Ireland has the second highest share of wind in its electricity mix with 31% in 2021. Only Denmark is ahead of us at 44%. It shows that we are one of the top two European countries producing wind energy. As has been said previously, a lot has been done but there is a lot more to do. It shows the capacity, however. We are at too low of a level at the minute but it shows the capacity of what this State can do in creating wind energy and sustainable clean energy. That is something to be relished.

I have told the Minister on several occasions that we must work within our own resources to ease the burden on vulnerable homes. We should utilise some of the wasted energy to tackle energy poverty while helping Ireland meet its climate targets. We must ask EirGrid, ESB Networks and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, to work with the Government and Minister and immediately publish a strategy to utilise as much of that wasted energy as possible as we curtail a colossal amount of energy in this in this country. Some €400 million worth of energy was curtailed when the turbines were turned off. We need a way to harness that energy when supply needs are low to create a place for that curtailment to go. We must commence a dedicated programme of work targeted at those who are in or most at risk of energy poverty, seek to reduce the amount of renewable energy wasted in 2023, create targets and mandate the companies to make sure they are reducing wastage. We all know that waste of energy at this minute is a greater sin than it ever has been. We should not waste clean green energy. We must find collective solutions and put mechanisms in place to divert that surplus renewable energy into Irish homes that are experiencing or at risk of fuel property.

One way I outlined to the Minister previously, which I introduced in the Seanad as a Commencement matter few months ago, is EnergyCloud - a not-for-profit way of managing how we can use that wasted energy and put it back into people’s homes. By installing a small bit of infrastructure in someone's hot water tank, he or she can wake up in the morning and the hot water tank will be warm for that home. We can identify the vulnerable households easily. We can install that technology in people’s homes easily and EirGrid can press a switch and direct that wind energy to those vulnerable homes. It is not the whole solution; it is part of the solution. It will create the impetus to make sure wind energy companies are not wasting any energy.

We have much work to do. We need to be ambitious for our renewables. I am so ambitious for what we can do in this country. We can be an energy superpower on the west coast on the periphery of Europe and use our natural resources. Our natural resources are free and thankfully, they are available every day. We need to use them.

Going back to our motion, however, budget 2023 needs to be a cost-of-living budget. It must be targeted to help people, keep people in businesses and keep them warm in their homes.

I welcome the Minister. Like all my colleagues and the Minister and his officials, we now recognise that we have a serious crisis on our hands. All of us politicians must give hope to the Irish people now. We do not need to frighten and upset them. We need to tell them we will get them through this. I ask that everybody works together, even if we disagree on some issues. I know the Opposition will have different views on different issues. However, we need to get people through the next six months in particular. That is the one plea I would make.

Following up on what my colleague, Senator McGreehan said, a number of weeks ago, I highlighted in the local press in my area in the west and the midlands quite a number of family-run supermarkets, in particular, whose energy bills have gone from €8,000 and €9,000 to €15,000 and €16,000. I was shown one bill yesterday when I met retailers in a local town in east Galway that had risen to €24,000. In general, if that were to last for a year it means those types of family businesses and supermarkets would be spending up to €250,000 on one expense. I do not care what type of turnover a person has in a small business, that is not sustainable. Some domestic users also contacted me whose bills have gone from €350 or €360 up to €700.

That increase took place over the two-month period from 28 June to 26 August. Admittedly, that family has looked at the usage of electricity in their home. They have showers and a pump for their water and that is a big user of electricity. I accept that we can all make some savings and be more efficient in how we use electricity but we have to try to keep the lights on and keep industry going. I welcome the fact that a package is being readied for domestic users and businesses because there is no doubt that it is much needed.

Like Senator McGreehan, I want clean energy. We want to get away from fossil fuels but we have to be careful. I refer to the great work being done here but even Alliance 90/The Greens in Germany see that they have to stall the digger for a little while to ensure they keep the lights on there and keep the energy coming. We cannot walk ourselves into darkness. We must use every opportunity available to us to keep those lights on, while having the debate about people being more efficient. I agree with the Minister about lights in public buildings. All of that is important because in some regards we have become careless about the way we use electricity. It often amazes me that we do not always turn off the lights when we leave our offices. At the same time, we need to bring our people with us. We need the wind to blow these weeks and it is not blowing greatly. It is beautiful weather but we need the wind to blow to generate electricity to get us over this.

We cannot shy away from having a reserve of gas. If we need to have a reserve of gas in our country, then we need it. This is the reality of keeping life, people and business going. We cannot shut the country down. This is the Government's responsibility. It will be addressed properly. It is the Government's responsibility to use every common-sense avenue open to it to ensure we have that power. I go back to Lanesborough and Shannonbridge power stations. I agree that fossil fuels are expensive and hard to run. The Government has pumped money into our area and that is gradually getting through, but we should get somebody to investigate Lanesborough and Shannonbridge power stations to see if we could reactivate them in some way. Maybe there is some fuel we could burn in them. Why not get somebody working on that straight away? It may only have been a small percentage that was being generated in those two power stations - in fact, it was very small - but every extra percentage of power we have is important to us. Maybe all these things are going through the Minister’s mind as he considers what we should do. I ask him not to go back to fossil fuels but to see if there is some use we can make of these stations in the short term, particularly Lanesborough because that was quite a new station. I accept that it will not happen overnight. We could even have the reserve there. If we look at something and get some experts in, we could do something with some other type of fuel. Crops can be grown. It is possible and it can be used. Perhaps hydro energy can be used. There are opportunities and possibilities out there.

By the way, I accept that we should continue the progress of clean energy as much as we can. I am a fan of wind energy and it can work. We need to get energy generation at sea working. When energy generation takes place inland, we need to be careful that we do not upset people too much. We have been waiting for regulations for a long time to ensure wind turbines are more than 500 m from any person's house. That has not changed. It has been going on for years and it needs to change. There is a general acceptance of wind power, and it can work, but maybe we put the cart before the horse in some ways. Maybe we should not have slammed the brakes on some of the power stations we had before we got all these things up and running. Having said that, it is important to have our own supply and our eyes are open to that now. We must ensure we do not have to rely on somebody else for it; that is the road to go down.

In the short term, I urge the Minister to ensure that we do everything to keep the lights on and that there is a package for domestic users, retailers and businesses in general to help them out. We cannot allow a massive recession to come out of this and that could easily happen. I thank the Minister for listening to me.

Before I call the next speaker, I want to remind Senators that each speaker has six minutes and the Minister can come in whenever he indicates. The Minister will have 15 minutes.

I welcome to the Visitors Gallery Matthew McGreehan, who is Senator McGreehan's brother. I thank Matthew for coming, along with the other members of the Louth branch of the Irish Farmers Association, TJ Meegan and John Carroll. They are most welcome and I am sure we will see them later. Matthew's sister is making a valuable contribution to Seanad Éireann. Her contributions are passionate, well thought-out and well structured. She is making the difference Matthew always thought she would make when she was arguing with him many moons ago. She does not do that anymore.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I fully accept the anxiety expressed by Senator McGreehan about the short-term consequences for many people in this country, particularly for small businesses, arising out of the massive increase in energy prices. These increases are right across the board, from shopkeepers and hoteliers whose electricity bills have shot up to restaurants, small traders and small manufacturing businesses. They are extremely vulnerable. I know the Government is proposing to bring in a suite of measures to address that issue but it is a serious economic threat in the short term. I accept that between now and the end of March of next year, there is a serious threat to many Irish small and medium enterprises and consequently to jobs.

Like the Minister, I do not think this energy crisis is something that will just blow over some time in March of next year. It is greatly to be hoped that that will happen, but the Minister said this is like the oil crisis of the 1970s. I am of the view that we have to plan for the next five to ten years in a way which consolidates Ireland’s economic interests. The first duty of a Government is to ensure the economy keeps functioning. At the moment, 52% of our electricity consumption is gas-generated and more than 70% of that comes through two interconnectors which converge on the Moffat interconnector in Scotland. That is a serious thing because if anything went wrong there, this country would simply be blacked out and we would fall on our knees economically. We are extremely vulnerable, therefore. Now that the UK has left the EU, it is not bound by the energy sharing equality arrangements that applied before. I do not believe that because of the Single Market in Ireland, the UK will put the boot into us with regard to gas supply. It is probably the case that if nothing goes wrong, there will be an adequate supply from Norwegian waters and the North Sea gas reserves.

That is probably the case but we have nothing to be complacent about. Our native gas fields are rapidly depleting. The Corrib gas field will be gone in a number of years and even though there is potential for its further expansion, the Minister is not speaking publicly in favour of that. The Minister has said that the Barryroe field is in deep water but it is not; it is only 100 m deep. That is potentially one of the largest hydrocarbon fields as yet unexplored in Europe. I do not accept the proposition that it should not be explored. I accept the proposition enunciated by the Minister in 2007 that we should maximise exploration in order, as far as we can, to have a degree of energy security.

On the Ballylongford LNG proposal, I am not particularly tied to LNG coming from one part of the world or other. It does not matter to me whether it comes from the Gulf, Texas or wherever. I just want to be sure that we have adequate storage facilities in this country. The Minister has indicated that he expects to get the report of a study on our options in the matter in the near future. While that is welcome, that work should have been done a long time ago. He has said that batteries is one option and gas storage is another. We need gas storage. In one shape or another we will be dependent on gas reserves from somewhere for the next 30 years. On any view, we must develop our own gas storage facilities.

The Minister has melted his position slightly. Although he is still against Ballylongford, he is now saying that if there is to be gas storage, it will be under Government management. Is it to be under Government management and what does that mean? I am not particularly worried who manages our storage, but who will build it? Will the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications build it if the Minister succeeds in persuading An Bord Pleanála to refuse permission for the present proposals for Ballylongford? These kinds of issues are really important.

This is the basic point. We, as a country, want to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, but we do not want over the next three, five or eight years to be in a crisis that causes major problems for the country. We do not want to be vulnerable to shortages for whatever reason arising in the North Sea or the Norwegian gas fields if we can avoid it. Therefore, LNG importation is a good idea and, as Senator Murphy said, the Minister should now embrace the idea of gas storage to ensure as far as possible we do not have blackouts and brownouts. I fully accept, as the Minister has said on a number of occasions, that we need to alter our energy consumption patterns. Doubtless, the increase in prices will have that effect no matter what. However, it is not simply a matter of just turning down the thermostats or taking shorter showers if our industry and small enterprises end up buckling under this crisis, which may last for years. The responsibility for failing to deal adequately with that scenario lies with the Government.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I think the last time we met was at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action in Leinster House. I am not a member of the committee, but I took the opportunity to attend so that I could be briefed on this important issue. We had four hours of debate that day. This debate is still ongoing and we still need clarity on many issues. Obviously, what the consumer will pay will be addressed in the budget. Businesses also need to be included in that. For small shops, such as a Centra, the cost of electricity and other power has gone from maybe 15 cent or 16 cent per kWh and is heading towards 50 cent per kWh at the moment. That is a significant burden, which will be passed on. We need to debate how we deal with that at the primary level as part of the budget. I hope the budget will introduce measures for everyone in that regard.

I am always concerned about people in one section of society - widowers. When their partners die, they lose €250. While they get the living alone allowance of €20, they still must heat their house and have the same living costs. They are down at just over €200 a week. They probably do not have the ability to earn that anywhere. In the budget we need to ensure that section of society is energy security-proofed when it comes to the cost of heating their houses. Some of these houses have been heated by solid fuel and there will be a major change there. I wonder if they will have the interest, ability and energy to go through that process. I ask the Minister to take into consideration how we might deal with that group.

I wish to speak about Ireland's potential. Ballylongford is quite far away from Cork. There is a proposal relating to a gas main from the old Kinsale gas field. During the summer it was spectacular to see the enormous cranes take up the platform over three days. That pipeline infrastructure is still there. Is there potential to have a floating LNG terminal in the harbour? We have the pipeline and we have the infrastructure at Aghada. People have talked about the ability for us to become part of the solution with a floating LNG terminal in Cork Harbour. It would provide a short-term solution to that problem. We may then see the gas field used for a carbon-capture project in the future.

I have previously asked about the potential for anaerobic digestion. Anaerobic digestion is a significant tool that is underused in the State. We have 12 active anaerobic digesters. Northern Ireland has approximately 74. Our policy regarding these has been totally underutilised. We need to find a mechanism to allow anaerobic digestion to be used. During the summer I had the privilege to visit one of these. They told me it took them six and a half years to get planning permission. Some 1.5 labour units per year are spent on the compliance work relating to these entities.

The co-operative movement needs to play a role in the roll-out of anaerobic digestion. It has been successful in other parts of the agricultural industry. Government needs to get all the actors together to ensure we can deliver a network of anaerobic digestion throughout the country. That would be welcome by everyone in rural areas. Throughout the agricultural industry and commercial industry there is potential to join all the dots for the benefit of society.

I am concerned over the potential for amber alerts and how we might deal with them. I have listened to the regulator, representatives of EirGrid and everyone else regarding the key issues with energy generation. They spoke about of having a special tariff between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. in the hope that industry and households might change their approach. However, we milk cows between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. We cannot milk them at 2 p.m. or midnight. It would be totally inappropriate to apply a special tariff to 6,500 dairy farmers between 5 and 7 every evening.

During the hearings I attended in Leinster House a few weeks ago, it became obvious that the regulator never even considered it. I ask the Minister to intervene personally to ensure that people milking cows are not caught by a tariff increase of 12.5%. Otherwise, there will be lads and ladies working at midnight to milk cows or else milking cows at 2 p.m. There is a practical solution that the Minister needs to address. I ask him to consider the issue. It affects 6,500 farm families and would mean another surcharge on an already expensive electricity cost.

It has got to the point that farmers are now investing in generators because they think it might be the cheaper option for evening milking. I do not think that is appropriate. Unless we get direction, we will have this cohort of society who cannot change their processes and workload working at midnight. I ask the Minister to look into that issue personally.

Of course, the real issue will be the price we pay for energy. The approach the Minister has been taking, if I read the media correctly, of helping out through the budget with two or three extra payments, is the appropriate way forward. That is a real, welcome initiative that, it is to be hoped, the budget will deliver on. I sincerely thank the Minister for listening.

The Minister is welcome. I thank the Fianna Fáil Senators for tabling this important motion. When it comes to energy, we need to do three things. One of the most important of those in some ways, and the most immediately important for the people of Ireland, is to deal with the issue of cost. We must be very clear with people that the cost of energy is not related to energy security. Those two issues have to be decoupled when we discuss the motion and the matters raised by Senator McDowell, which I will come back to. The third important issue is the climate crisis, which is not going away. We have to follow the climate action plan because the things we do to address the climate crisis are the things that can help us with the other two issues, namely, bringing down the cost for everyone - not immediately, which is why we will put a whole suite of measures in place in this budget and have in fact done so over the past year to the tune of €2.4 billion - and, critically, the issue of energy security.

I am not trying to target Senator McDowell on this, but he happened to speak not long before me. There is no point in talking about where energy security was 15 years ago. When Wind Energy Ireland representatives appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action, they spoke about how offshore, floating, renewable energy was pie in the sky 18 months previously. It was just an idea and a notion. It was not something they could see being delivered as quickly as it can be now. Likewise, hydrogen is something we are now talking about and seeing delivery of. Aberdeen has a hydrogen hub that is being used for services there. It is quite correct that we should put investment into sustainable energy and a secure energy future. Gas and fossil fuels are not that. The 80 GW off the coast of Ireland are what is secure. We know that any amount of exploration off the coast has found relatively small pockets of fossil fuels. We can choose to keep on going down that same trajectory, enforcing on the Irish people a lack of energy security and rising prices, or we can choose to continue with the plan, which has already in the term of this Government seen 3 GW contracted for offshore renewable energy. That is what will bring us out of this. It is very important to point that out to people.

I note the amendment tabled by Sinn Féin. It is important to point out that the plan it refers to is about putting a price cap on energy prices, but it does not deal with the cost of energy. One way or the other the Irish people will pay, whether it is through their bills or debt, which the UK is looking down the barrel of. Sinn Féin's plan is a bailout of energy giants. It puts money in the pockets of fossil fuel elites in Russia and right around the globe because an energy cap will guarantee energy company customers will only have to pay a certain amount, those companies can charge what they want and we will just keep on shovelling money into them. The approach we take is that we will support the most vulnerable, that we will also provide support universally for everyone because everybody is suffering right now and, crucially, that we will work within the European Union. It is important to do that to ensure we have what people here call a windfall tax but ensures we take money from the energy companies and put that money back into countries so they can support their people. That is the honest way to do it to get the people and the companies who are making the most to pay for it. When it comes down to price caps, those with larger houses, the richest people in the country, are the ones who will benefit more than the poorest. This is why I agree with Fianna Fáil Senators that we ensure to the greatest extent possible that measures are focused on those who need them most.

Let us look at what we have done since January and since the previous budget. This includes: a fuel allowance increase of more than 50%, or €1,139 compared to €735 in the previous year; an emergency electricity credit and if reports are to be believed, we will now see several more of those credits; an excise duty reduction; a VAT reduction to 9% on all electricity and gas bills from May until October; a working family payment increase of €10 in the previous budget; back to school clothing and footwear allowances; and a 20% reduction in public transport fees and a 50% reduction in those fees for young people. These are measures that are targeted and that matter to people. Let us do more of that. Let us not talk about giving money to companies that are profiting. The other point, and this is where the two issues cross over, is the more and the longer we give money to these companies and fossil fuel elites around the globe, the longer we will see fossil fuel companies instead of seeing investment in renewables, which is the only thing that will ultimately lead us out of this.

I ask Sinn Féin to look again at this incredibly flawed policy. I hope it is just a flaw and not just populist because we have to be honest with people. These are difficult times. We are in the middle of a war. That war is what is creating these price hikes for people. We are asking people to play into the hands of Putin by speaking about an energy cap as if that is the way out; it is not. It is leading to more problems for Ukraine and Ireland.

The Minister has indicated that he wants to contribute. On behalf of the Seanad, I pass on our sympathies on the death of his mother. It is just over a month since he lost her so suddenly. We express our sympathies to him and all the Ryan family on such a tragic loss.

I thank the Cathaoirleach. I very much appreciate that.

I thank Senators for raising these important matters and allowing us time to discuss them today. Clearly, the current situation where we are witnessing significant increases in energy bills and the cost of living is a matter of real and serious concern. The Government is keenly aware of the growing pressures this is placing on families and businesses. As Senators will be aware, in recognition of this situation, we have already put some €2.4 billion in place as part of a package of support policies and measures to help our people in this difficult time over the past year. The increased cost of energy is an issue that is affecting not just Ireland but all European states. Increased international gas prices as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have experienced a serious knock-on effect in the market.

In speaking to the motion, I will deal with substantive issues of Government policy and household supports for energy costs. First, I will set out the global market developments that have affected Irish energy prices. I will then set out the functions of the independent regulator, the CRU, in respect of these matters, including its highly relevant activities in consumer protection and monitoring competition. Finally, I will outline Government policy and what we are doing in providing significant assistance for households' energy costs, both in terms of energy efficiency and welfare supports.

First, it is important that I outline what has been happening to prices in the market. I want to clarify that the energy price increases we have seen are not Government, or even regulatory, decisions and are not due to Government or regulatory decisions. Price regulation of the energy market ended many years ago. Suppliers compete with each other and set their own prices accordingly, as is to be expected in a competitive, commercial and liberalised market. Increases in wholesale energy prices, following rises in international gas prices, have been the principal driver of these increases.

International wholesale gas prices began to rise in 2020 and unprecedented increases have continued as a result of the volatility in the international gas market driven by the ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war. These gas increases feed directly through to retail electricity prices because the wholesale price of electricity correlates strongly with the price of gas. As this is a European-wide phenomenon, an extraordinary meeting of the EU Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council was held on 9 September in Brussels. The purpose of this meeting was to address the extraordinary situation of energy prices in the EU, and to agree to advance work on possible emergency measures to mitigate the impact of higher prices on consumers and support demand reduction for gas and electricity to strengthen the EU's winter preparedness. Following the meeting, ministers invited the Commission, by late September, to propose additional potential measures, including capping the revenues of inframarginal electricity producers with low costs of production such as renewables like hydro, nuclear, biomass and wind, and to propose emergency and temporary interventions, including a wholesale gas price cap. These are very important developments. At that meeting, I worked very closely with my European counterparts, and I will do so again over the coming weeks.

I will turn to the role of the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities, CRU, in these matters. Senators will be aware that CRU, which is the independent energy regulator, has a wide range of economic and customer protection responsibilities. As part of its statutory role, CRU has consumer protection functions and monitors energy retail markets to ensure competition benefits the consumer. CRU also overseas non-price aspects of competition. It has taken, and continues to take, steps to increase transparency and consumer engagement in retail markets. This includes, for example, developing various codes of practice that set out customers' rights. These can be found in the suppliers' handbook. Additionally, CRU can certify price comparison websites. It leads the roll-out of smart metering and participates in initiatives like the supplier-led voluntary Energy Engage Code, which is where suppliers will not disconnect a customer who engages with them.

In August, following Government-enacted legislation that allows a negative public service obligation, PSO, levy, CRU published the annual PSO levy decision paper that outlined an annual saving of €89.10 per year for household electricity bills from 1 October. This will be reflected in bills as soon as possible within the 2022-23 PSO period. In August, following engagement with customer representative groups, energy suppliers and network operators, CRU announced enhanced consumer protection measures. They include an extension to moratoriums on disconnections, extended debt repayment periods, reduced debt burden on pay-as-you-go top-ups, better value for those on financial hardship meters and the promotion of a vulnerable customer register. In terms of Government policy, the best long-term approach for Ireland is to insulate consumers from volatility on international wholesale energy markets by investing in energy-efficiency and renewable energy, expanding interconnection with European and neighbouring markets and deepening the internal market in energy. Increased market integration, as noted by the EU agency of energy regulators, has introduced significant benefits for customers, including cheaper electricity.

The renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, has already begun delivering sustainable and cost-effective indigenous renewable electricity projects, as recommended by Senator Pauline O'Reilly. Projects under the first RESS auction, RESS 1, are expected to contribute an increase of approximately 15% in our renewable energy generation capacity by the end of next year. Projects under RESS 2 are expected to deliver an additional increase of nearly 20% to our renewable energy generation by the end of 2025. The nature of RESS auctions means that renewable generators partaking in them pay back to electricity customers when electricity market prices are high. CRU has calculated that RESS 1 projects are expected to return €313 million to consumers through the PSO over this year and next year.

The cheapest energy to produce is the energy we do not use. The Government has committed to supporting households with their energy costs through promoting energy-efficiency measures. The wider package of energy-efficiency supports, which are available from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, make it easier and more affordable for homeowners to undertake home energy upgrades for warmer, healthier and more comfortable homes that have lower energy bills. It is through the warmer homes scheme and grants for cavity wall and attic insulation that we can do this best. This year has seen the highest ever allocation for SEAI retrofit schemes. A total of €267 million has been allocated for these schemes in 2022 and this will support almost 27,000 home energy upgrades. Of this sum, €118 million has been dedicated to energy poverty schemes which will deliver over 4,800 free energy upgrades. The average retrofit value per home has increased significantly from €2,500 in 2016 to €18,750 today. In addition, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage will invest a further €85 million as part of the local authority retrofit programme in 2022, thereby delivering approximately 2,400 B2 retrofits of local authority homes this year. Furthermore, an unprecedented €8 billion of funding from the national development plan will be available to support the implementation of the plan through SEAI residential and community retrofit schemes through to 2030.

I will highlight the extensive Government supports in place to support consumers to meet their energy costs. Throughout 2022, the Government has taken action in response to rising prices through a variety of measures. The electricity costs emergency benefit payment saw 99% of domestic electricity accounts being credited with a payment of €176.22, at a total cost of over €377 million. This scheme was part of a €505 million package of measures that was put in place to address the increasing cost of living. These measures included increases in the fuel allowance and a reduction in VAT on electricity and gas bills from 13.5% to 9%. A €350 million measure, which was included to temporarily reduce excise duties on petrol, diesel and market gas oil, cut excise by 20 cent per litre of petrol and 15 cent per litre of diesel.

The Government is committed to supporting households with their immediate energy costs through targeted ongoing schemes. The fuel allowance payment of €33 per week is paid for 27 weeks from late September to April, and is a total of €924 each year. This supported over 370,000 households last year. The estimated cost this year is €366 million. The purpose of this payment is to assist those households in most of need with help with their energy costs. As part of a package of measures totalling €500 million, an additional lump sum payment of €125 was paid to all households in receipt of the payment. This fuel allowance payment is the equivalent of almost four weeks of additional fuel allowance. A further lump sum of €100 was paid to all households in receipt of the fuel allowance in May as part of the measures included in the national energy security framework. This means that low-income households saw an overall increase of 55% in the fuel allowance support provided through the fuel allowance season, compared with last year. A recipient household, which would have received €735 in fuel allowance last year, saw that increase by €404 to €1,139 this year.

The household benefits package consists of a set of allowances that help with the costs of running a household. This was also increased to help to cover electricity and gas costs. Recipients are paid €35 per month. Under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, a special heating supplement may be paid to assist people in certain circumstances. Exceptional payments can be made to help to meet an essential once-off cost which an applicant is unable to meet from his or her own resources. Additionally, the living alone allowance, which is targeted at recipients of certain social welfare payments who live alone and often have significantly higher heating costs, is paid at a rate of €19 per week in addition to primary social welfare payments such as the State pension. The back to school clothing and footwear allowance was increased by €100 for each eligible child under the scheme this year. The amount being paid for each eligible child aged four to 11 years is €260 and the rate payable for each eligible child aged 12 and over is €385. Furthermore, funding for the school meals local projects scheme, which is financed by the Department of Social Protection, was increased from €47.5 million in 2017 to over €68 million this year.

To date, 1,361 schools and organisations have received funding.

My Department recently published a review of the strategy to combat energy poverty alongside a public consultation which closed on 5 September last. This will inform the development of a new action plan to combat energy poverty which will set out the whole-of-government response to energy poverty to be implemented ahead of the coming winter, as well as key longer term measures to ensure that those least able to afford increased energy costs are supported and protected. It is intended that the new plan will be published shortly after the budget.

As I have highlighted, the Government has long provided and will continue to provide practical supports for those struggling with their energy costs. We are in unprecedented times. I listened to Senators' contributions and they are correct that this requires further Government action. My speech has concentrated on some of the measures that have been introduced in the last year. Obviously I cannot outline the measures that will be introduced in the budget because the budgetary process will be completed over the next two weeks. That said, we are committed to a range of measures similar to those that have already been implemented because they are targeted and practical ways to get our country through an incredibly difficult period. It will not be easy.

We have to be careful that we are not divided from our European colleagues in the measures we take. One of the ways in which this war is being played out is through the European Council, whereby the Russian Government is looking to divide us. It is important in order to provide protection to our country and support for our people that this war does not see the division that is being sought in the measures that are being taken. We can and will get through this. This will be done through investment in energy efficiency measures and investment in alternative, non-fossil fuel supplies and in energy storage in the interim period. We can and will do that in a way that is practical, most affordable and that helps us with our low-carbon transition so that our country is more reliant on its own resources rather than being able to be blackmailed and held to ransom by distant fossil fuel producers, which is the cause of this crisis. We have to be strong and resolute in taking on that blackmail but we can and will do it. The Government is committed to giving every resource and support it can to Irish people to get us through this.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “acknowledges that the Government:” and substitute the following:

“- has failed to protect households and business from energy price rises adequately;

- has failed to adequately target the response to those who need it most and instead gave an energy rebate to owners of holiday homes, vacant properties and millionaires;

- has failed to ensure Travellers living on halting sites received the electricity rebate, with many families splitting the rebate with several other families and many more receiving nothing at all;

- is focused on electricity credits which are a short-term measure, has failed to address the root of the problem which is the coupling of gas and electricity prices, has rejected calls from Sinn Féin for the decoupling of electricity from gas prices in 2021 and wholesale market reform in 2020;

- needs to tackle war profiteering and introduce a windfall tax on energy companies;

- should develop a plan for energy demand reduction, that data centres are the single largest source of new demand for electricity and gas and that the plan cannot expect households to do heavy lifting;

- has failed to replace the energy poverty strategy which lapsed in 2019 and this failure makes addressing the present and looming energy price crisis significantly more difficult;

- has failed to deliver lower renewable energy prices through the Renewable Electricity Support Scheme 2 (RESS 2) and needs to establish a cross-Government high level taskforce to bring forward recommendations on how to lower the price of renewable energy;

- should establish a price cap on energy prices pegging them to pre-crisis levels;

and calls on the Government to:

- ensure measures are focused on those who need them most and to specifically outline how Travellers will not be excluded from any future electricity rebate schemes; engage constructively with Sinn Féin to exclude owners of holiday homes, vacant properties and millionaires from future rebate schemes and to outline how it proposes to support those dependent on medical equipment at home;

- denounce those corporations capitalising on Russia’s illegal and reprehensible war on Ukraine by profiteering from the resulting energy electricity price crisis;

- support Sinn Féin’s calls for decoupling of gas from electricity to deliver long-term, systemic price reductions;

- adequately resource the planning system and prescribed bodies so that they can expeditiously deal with infrastructure proposals to meet the climate crisis;

- support Sinn Féin’s Energy Poverty Strategy Bill;

- engage with the Sinn Féin alternative Budget which is fully costed and carefully manages the risks we face through the sustainable use of public money for the benefit of society."

I second the amendment.

While I am going to speak mostly about the issue of the cost of electricity, it is important to address some of the points that were raised today, particularly around liquified natural gas, LNG. There is a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of people are exploiting the current situation to try to argue the case for an LNG terminal in Shannon. What they are not saying is that LNG will do nothing to address the costs that people are facing. Those of us who follow this closely and understand the energy wholesale market will watch the LNG tankers turning in the ocean and going to the highest bidder. It is not realistic to expect that Ireland, a small country, would be able to bid against Asia when it comes to getting LNG tankers to come here for a price that we can afford to pay. This is a commercial industry which will be selling LNG at market prices to Ireland. That is why a State storage facility is a much better approach, if we must have a storage facility at all. It also matters where the LNG comes from. If it is coming from fracked gas, it is destroying communities. If we believe we are entitled to drink fresh water and have a healthy environment to live in, then so are people in other communities. Buying in fracked gas means that we do not support that belief and are quite content to have other communities destroyed in order for us to have gas

It is bizarre to hear calls for the opening up of exploration licences as we watch mainland Europe experience heatwave after heatwave and widespread drought. The River Rhine has dropped to levels such that energy supplies cannot be transported along it. We have nuclear power stations being shut down in France because they cannot be cooled. One third of Pakistan's land surface is under water while people in this House are seriously calling for more fossil fuel exploration. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, report is absolutely clear that there can be no new fossil fuel exploration and no new fossil fuel infrastructure.

It is important to point out that those who are arguing for an LNG terminal need to be honest with people. It will not bring down the cost of energy for anybody on this island. There is also confusion on another point. It does not matter how full that energy storage is. Our problem at the moment in terms of possible blackouts has nothing to do with the supply of gas but with the generation of power. That is a separate issue. There is a lot of conflating of issues here to further certain agendas. People are effectively exploiting a war to further their agendas.

I will now turn to the amendment, included in which is a reference to the issue of demand and why we are facing blackouts in this country. We know it is because the demand for electricity could outstrip supply. We have arrived at that position because we have rolled out the red carpet for data centres. While it is a Green Party Minister sitting in the Chamber today defending Government policy, we all know that Fine Gael for the past ten years has had a policy of not asking any questions and not putting in place any strategy to enable us to accommodate all of these data centres. Its policy was to keep on taking them in while not asking any questions about what sort of data they were storing or whether these data were critical for our economy. We are now dealing with the consequences of that policy. It has led to the catastrophic failure of our energy system and it is jeopardising our grid. In the context of gas and gas security, what is also not being looked at is the fact that because there is a moratorium on data centres getting connected to the electricity grid, they are putting a huge amount of unsustainable pressure on our gas supplies. Gas Networks Ireland, which I met this week, is saying clearly that it is really concerned because it will not be able to connect data centres to the gas network due to the unsustainable pressure this would produce. All of this is happening at a time when we are trying to reduce energy demand by 15% to do our bit for the war effort in the context of gas supplies.

The amendment makes reference to the Government's data centre policy. It also refers to the Government's failure to adequately protect households and businesses. The energy poverty strategy lapsed in 2019. I welcome the Minister's statement that the new strategy will be published after the budget but I hope it takes on board some of the points that were made in the previous energy poverty strategy. We need to be collecting data on household incomes because we cannot have a strategy if we do not actually measure how bad the situation is around energy poverty. Likewise, we need to make sure the recommendations will be followed up this time. The CRU was told to conduct an analysis of the barriers that prevent people from switching energy supplier. The CRU keeps telling people, through radio advertisements, to switch supplier to save on their energy bills but we know from organisations like Age Action Ireland, the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, and Citizens Information, as well as various Traveller organisations, that there are barriers to switching which include credit ratings and difficulties with direct debits. The CRU has not produced the data it was asked to produce in 2019. That is why the Government is reaching for blunt instruments like the energy credit which is causing frustration. Many Travellers did not even get the energy credit and are hearing of more credits being rolled out in the budget. I want to hear guarantees that members of the Traveller community will get those energy credits and will not be let fall through the cracks as they did previously.

I heard some criticism of Sinn Féin's policy on an energy cap but our energy cap goes hand in hand with a windfall tax to make sure fossil fuel companies are not profiteering on the back of the war. We have repeatedly called, since as far back as December 2020, for the energy market in the EU to be reformed and for the decoupling of gas and renewable energy. However, the Irish State was one of nine states that opposed that. I note that there has now been a shift in position and while I welcome that, we have lost time on it. Particularly for countries like Ireland which have so much indigenous renewable energy, we need to ensure that this renewable energy is leading to reductions in people's bills.

It will not do that when it is coupled with the cost of gas because the vast majority of the renewable energy produced in this country at the moment is under the old arrangements whereby the energy companies do not pay back the public service obligation, PSO, levy when they are making excess profits. I could go on and on about energy because it is one of my hobbyhorses. I hope the Minister of State will take on board some of the comments in our amendments. I know he will not accept our amendment but I think he needs to work constructively with the Opposition on this matter. Perhaps when the Government brings forward the credits, it may look favourably this time on the amendments we brought forward last time which excluded holiday homes, second homes and the homes of millionaires. That can be done using data from the Central Statistics Office.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House on this matter. There are two issues at play. This will be the winter of energy. There is a need for Ireland to transfer from a fossil fuel-based economy to an energy system based on renewables. We must exploit the significant potential we have in wind. That need is now more pressing than ever.

The cost of energy is spiralling out of control. That has people worried and staying up at night. They are wondering whether they can afford to heat their houses. People will inevitably fall into energy poverty. It is up to the Government to have a Covid-type response to the immediate concerns around the energy crisis. Energy costs will be unsustainable for people, families and, in particular, small businesses over the course of the coming winter. We are hearing reports from people whose energy bills are in some cases ten times as expensive as they were last year. Coming off the back of the Covid pandemic, many businesses will not be able to support that. Many people who are now working from home will not be able to support that. We need immediate action from the Government to alleviate the pressure and tackles the outrageous prices.

The Labour Party has said we need to take three crucial steps and they must be adopted by the Government to address the soaring costs of energy for households. We need the immediate introduction of a windfall tax on the excessive profits of energy companies. I take on board Senator Pauline O'Reilly's comments in that regard. However, a windfall tax is needed. We also need a maximum price cap on energy bills. Our neighbours are doing that. The Conservative Government in the UK is doing that. We also need to extend the eligibility for the fuel allowance for low- and middle-income households to protect those who are most at risk of energy poverty. These are significant short-term measures that will help people to get through the winter. We cannot justify a society in which exorbitant energy company profits are taking precedence over families in energy poverty. Some may say that cannot be done because we cannot afford it. We need to be cognisant of the fact the Department of Finance figures show a surplus of more than €6 billion so far this year. Many of our EU partners are already taking radical action in this area.

The Minister has said, and it has been reiterated in this House, that a longer term strategy needs to be involved. That strategy does not include things such as liquefied natural gas, LNG, or allowing turf to be commercially used. The strategy is not reliant on fossil fuels. We cannot use this crisis as an excuse for allowing that or allow certain people to use it as an excuse to make that argument. We are in this precarious position because of our lack of long-term planning. We must use this crisis as an opportunity to transition away from our current energy policy and not fall back on the old reliables. Beyond the emergency measures needed this winter, we need to adapt a long-term strategy and change our attitudes and policies to meet our climate targets through an approach that involves wind energy and exploiting our natural resources. We must not fall back on the old reliables. Diversifying our energy supply by pushing for more renewables will also enhance our energy security and ensure we will not be in this precarious position if another war breaks out on our eastern side in ten years' time.

Ireland has one of the best wind resources in the world. Wind energy could potentially make enough energy every year to power each home in this country and allow us to make money by selling it back to the European grid. We need to be become a superpower of wind energy. However, we will only do that through a strategic vision. We must not use every crisis as an opportunity to fall back. We hear whataboutery in respect of long-term energy policy in this country. I am glad Senators O'Reilly and Boylan, who are more expert than I am in this area, have tackled Senator McDowell's comments about LNG. I fear that is the debate that will come forth.

The Minister of State is welcome to the Chamber. I commend my Fianna Fáil colleagues on tabling this Private Members' motion. It is timely in advance of the budget. There is no doubt the cost-of-living inflation is to fore of everybody's mind as we approach budget day. There is possibly a long winter ahead. The cost of energy and fuel is of particular concern. We all hope we have a mild winter. It would be excellent if that were to happen. We hope to avoid a winter similar to that of 2009 and 2010. I remember a morning in that period when my car registered a temperature of -17°C. If we were to have similar conditions this winter and the wind did not blow, it would be serious. That would be serious at any time but would be particularly so when supply and demand in our energy system are so finely balanced. That is a concern and a worry. The Minister of State cannot prevent it if the weather turns in that fashion. It is a matter of concern to me and to households throughout the country.

The budget has been brought forward because of the cost of living and inflationary pressures. I hope and expect the Government to sign off on a package of supports in respect of energy costs for households throughout the country. It is vital those people who are facing higher energy bills will have support to make it bearable and realistic for them to afford the bills that will fall due. The money that has been spent heretofore to support people in respect of the cost of living has been welcome. It is worth pointing out that those supports are possible because the economy is in good order as a result of how it has been managed over a long number of years. We have a surplus we can reinvest in supporting people who are under financial pressures at the moment.

I will move to consider the balance of supply and demand. There are some medium- to long-term plans, including the France-Ireland interconnector, which will be important for the provision of energy security. The interconnector will provide linkage to another EU member state. We have linkage to the UK, which is important, but it is no longer a part of the EU. It is important we have the solidarity with the EU that the Celtic interconnector will provide between Ireland and France when it is up and running.

In respect of fuel costs, gas will be the main concern, especially on the east coast. There are many parts of Ireland that do not have a reliance on gas and, therefore, will be particularly dependent on home heating oil. The issue of turf has been discussed. If ever there was a year when it was important for people to have turf and for us to get a positive solution in respect of the regulations for smoky coal and turf cutting, this is the year. Home heating oil remains important as a heat source for many rural dwellers. It is important that assistance is provided for those who will have to pay high costs for home heating oil this year.

We also know the electricity credit was well received. I hope a similar targeted measure will again be considered. I cannot pre-empt the budget but that is an important consideration.

In respect of the longer term, the Bill to create the Maritime Area Regulatory Authority, MARA, has been passed and the office needs to be established. That process is going through the various stages that are necessary. There is, however, still some concern about the delivery of offshore infrastructure and the speed with which that can realistically be achieved.

We have seen commentary in the UK going back to the era of Prime Minister Tony Blair in which he spoke of "rustling up" a nuclear power station. An offshore wind farm cannot be rustled up in the space of a week, month or year. We need to be acutely attuned to the issues here and the fine balance between supply and demand. We have these natural resources but there will be a period of time or gap in which supply will still be constrained. However, we can plan to ensure we maximise the great resource that offshore wind presents to us.

The Derrybrien wind farm has been mentioned previously by other speakers in these Houses. There are legal issues involved in the ins and outs of this. It is hard to explain to anybody in the midst of a crisis why we would dismantle a wind farm. Again, while it is a legal matter, it does not make sense and it is hard to explain to people why it might happen.

Regarding energy prices, many of the current problems we have relate to the cost of gas. We know the reason for that is the illegal actions being taken by Putin and Russia. We have to mitigate those as we cannot prevent or change them. We are a buyer on those terms, as are countries across Europe. While we do not get Russian gas directly, obviously there is an impact on the cost of sources in Scotland, Norway and elsewhere. I commend the motion and I fully support it.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this motion and I thank the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ossian Smyth, and also the Minister, Deputy Ryan, who was in the House earlier.

We are seeing the rising costs of energy. I thank the Senators who tabled the motion. The budget will be very much about mitigating and reducing costs and we will see that in a number of different areas. One of the key areas will be around the fuel allowance and the people who are most vulnerable. I am looking forward to seeing what will be done in that regard and also as regards supports for businesses. On a matter that has been raised previously, small businesses, such as retailers, hotels and restaurants, are out on their feet because they are being forced to deal with incredibly high costs. It will not be easy to manage how we support them. There are long-term solutions such as engaging more renewable energies. We have done so much over the lockdown and during Covid-19 to support these employers and employees of businesses and now we need to be smart and innovative about how we will support them going forward. They are dealing with challenges. We have seen positive developments such as the increase in the minimum wage announced today. However, when it comes to energy costs, I look forward to seeing what will come out of the budget in terms of supports for businesses.

I am sure the Minister of State will get a chance to speak at the end of the debate. I know the Minister, Deputy Ryan, has spoken already. I am interested in the short-term measures the Department will potentially take. We know about the long-term measures and what has been done under just transition. There is legislation on microgeneration pending that will deal with solar energy and give farms and schools access to renewable energy, which they will then be able to sell back into the grid. I ask the Minister of State to comment on the timeline for some of those measures and the short-term measures that can be implemented quickly.

How will the Government use new technologies? We often speak about how we are going to reduce energy costs. People are going to be smarter and maybe think about reducing usage during the peak period between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. That will indicate the cost of electricity. How are we using new technologies? We see sensor lights that turn on and off when people walk into the room. How do we support those technologies? Are there short-term measures that would help businesses reduce costs? Are there any grants or funding for those types of technologies that could be rolled out very quickly and would help those businesses in the months ahead? This a difficult time and we have a very challenging time ahead. I look forward to finding out how we are going to be smart in dealing with that and engaging with and using innovation to support us.

I thank the Minister of State for attending for this important discussion. This issue affects every house and business in the country. Much of the debate has been focused on households and their costs. One of the major issues businesses have is uncertainty as they have no idea what is coming in the budget. They have no idea how to manage in the next few weeks or what they will do in the winter months. People have a fair idea of what households are going to get. Figures of €500 and €600 have been mentioned a number of times. I do not know whether this is true but households have an idea of the kind of support they will get from the Government. From listening to comments made by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Ryan, they are certainly of the view that households will be supported over the Christmas period and into next year. I suspect some money will be held back for next year because we do not know where we will be in a number of months.

It is clear from talking to businesses that they have no idea what the Government will do for them. They are in a very difficult position. The problems they face range. The annual electricity bills of businesses such as Centra, Spar and SuperValu stores have gone from €90,000 to €220,000, which is a massive increase. Energy bills for coffee shops have gone from €5,000 to €10,000 and the bills for pubs have also increased massively. News reports from the UK show that pubs are closing because of the cost of energy. We obviously do not want to get to that point.

The fear I see among people is that they believe they may have to make a decision to reduce production because of the cost of electricity. Reducing production reduces employment. We are very fortunate that more than 2.5 million people are employed in this country. We do not want to get to a position where, through no fault of their own, businesses are having to make harsh decisions that have an impact on employment. They do not want to do it but they are in a precarious position. If we can do anything, it should be to give businesses some sort of certainty over the winter months.

Another issue people raise with me concerns supports. Businesses want to change their ways. Sometimes we struggle to get individuals, for example, farmers, to change their ways and become more environmentally friendly. Businesses want to do this. They want to purchase solar panels and invest in renewable energy but they do not have the types of supports that are given to households and individuals. Something has to be done to support businesses this Christmas and over the winter period in addressing the immediate issue. However, they also need grants or some sort of support to help them change their ways by purchasing solar panels and investing. Many businesses are doing this already and spending massive money. Centra shops and so on are now investing €130,000 in renewable energy to reduce their heating and energy costs because their bills have gone from €90,000 to €200,000. They need to be supported in this because it is a massive investment. There is a long-term effect obviously. However, if we are going to support every household in the country, surely we can also do it for businesses.

I would appreciate an answer on this next point because nobody ever has one. Someone living in a house on the main street in Clonmel can get electricity as a private domestic unit for approximately 20 cent per kilowatt hour. However, if someone else opens a coffee shop next door, that business will pay over 50 cent per kilowatt hour. The product being provided is exactly the same. There is no difference between electricity that goes into a private household and electricity going into a small business, yet the price is totally different. The only thing I have ever been told by someone who works in the sector is that one of the reasons the price is much higher is that businesses are less likely to pay the bill fully than households, which will always pay. This is an outrageous viewpoint because it means businesses that pay their heating bills are subsidising those that may not pay them.

It makes no sense that the same product goes to two different buildings for a totally different price. Businesses feel like they are being taken for whatever. It does not seem fair. At a time when they are at the pin of their collar, simple issues like that need to be addressed. Those energy companies need to answer honestly about how and why that is happening.

The most important thing is to give businesses certainty and hope that they will be supported. We have been through crisis after crisis in recent years, including Brexit, Covid and now Putin's war in Ukraine. We have supported those businesses through Covid and I do not think we are a Government that wants to let them go under this winter because of energy costs. They know the Government has supported them for the past two years when they needed it. They are calling on us again and I ask that the Minister of State and the Department give that support. I know they will do so, but ask them to give clarity as quickly as possible.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Motion put and declared carried.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar athló ar 7.02 p.m. go dtí 10.30 a.m., Déardaoin, an 15 Meán Fómhair 2022.
The Seanad adjourned at 7.02 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 15 September 2022.