Employee Shareholding Scheme

Questions (13)

Barry Cowen

Question:

13. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources his views on the ESB Employee Share Option Trust; its future viability; its impact on the strategic direction of the company; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35046/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

An Employee Share Ownership Plan (ESOP) was put in place in the ESB in 2001. The ESOP was an element of the Cost and Competitiveness Review (CCR) agreed between the Government, ESB Management and ESB Group of Unions in 1996. Under the CCR, 5% of the shares in ESB were made available to employees, without actual cash transfer from the employees in return for specific, substantial, verifiable, future changes to be delivered.

The terms of the ESB ESOP are in line with Government policy and Revenue rules on Employee Share Ownership Plans, which also applies to ESOPs in other semi-state companies. Under the terms upon which the ESOP was established, ESB has no ability or rights to exert control over the assets or management of the trustee company, which is chaired by an independent professional trustee director, with two trustee directors representing the company and four trustee directors representing ESB employees.

Responsibility for the management and operation of the ESB Employee Share Option Programme (ESB ESOP) therefore rests with the ESB ESOP Trustees (ESOT) and I have no role or function in the matter.

An ESOP is designed as a tax efficient mechanism to enable company employees to acquire shares in that company or its parent company. In acquiring shares, this mechanism enables employees to share in the success of the company, in terms of aligning their goals with those of the company and for their shareholding to have a positive impact on the company and its future. Alignment of objectives is particularly important in the current climate as ESB seeks to address several difficult challenges while also seeking to continue to innovate and invest for the future.

Broadband Services Speeds

Questions (14)

Martin Ferris

Question:

14. Deputy Martin Ferris asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he will provide a breakdown of the average broadband speed by county; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35022/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

The Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, has established a callcosts website which provides information to the public on the alternative broadband services marketed by competing service providers on a county by county basis. ComReg does not publish averages of the available broadband speeds.

The ESRI published a working paper last year, based on the callcosts data, which compared median broadband speeds marketed by county across Ireland. The report, concluded that the number of broadband plans, download speeds and prices were relatively comparable across all counties in Ireland, whilst concluding that there were variations in speed within counties, especially in more rural areas of the country.

Since the publication of the ESRI report, investments by the commercial sector are underway in cable, fixed line and mobile high speed broadband services, particularly in urban and semi-urban areas.

The variation in access to higher broadband speeds is therefore more likely to be a consequence of residing in an urban, suburban or rural area rather than any assessment of average or median broadband speeds on a county basis.

The Government’s National Broadband Plan, which I published in August last, aims to radically change the broadband landscape in Ireland by ensuring that high speed services are available to all of our citizens and businesses. For rural areas in particular this will mean much higher speeds.

During the preparation of the National Broadband Plan, the commercial market operators indicated that they expect to provide high speed broadband services to 50% of the population by 2015. In tandem with these commercial developments, intensive work is underway in my Department to progress a State-led investment to secure countrywide access to next generation broadband services by ensuring high speed broadband is accessible in the less densely populated areas.

My officials have commenced a comprehensive mapping exercise of the current and anticipated investment by the commercial sector to identify where the market is expected to succeed and, more importantly, to identify those areas of the country where the competitive market will not deliver high speed services.

The results of this mapping exercise will identify the level of Government intervention that may be required and the areas that need to be targeted in the State-led investment so as to deliver on the target for high speed broadband services access for to all.

Through the implementation of the National Broadband Plan, we are committed to increasing the availability of next generation speeds significantly, with a view to ensuring that all citizens and businesses can participate fully in a digitally enabled society.

Sugar Industry

Questions (15)

Martin Ferris

Question:

15. Deputy Martin Ferris asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources his views on the potential to develop bioenergy from the sugar beet industry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35026/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

The Government is committed to increasing renewable energy in the electricity, transport and heating sectors in order to meet the binding target of 16% of all energy to come from renewable sources as set out in the EU Renewable Energy Directive.

Currently, Ireland imports around 90% of its fuel to meet demand at a cost of approximately €6bn per annum. Developing indigenous renewable sources of energy, including bioenergy, will help Ireland reduce its dependence on these imports.

Just over 5% of sugar beet production in the EU is consumed in the EU as biofuel. The development of any plant in Ireland for the production of bioenergy from sugar beet would be a matter for commercial decision by interested parties.

In this regard, I understand that there are consortia which have been examining the feasibility of restarting the production of sugar from sugar beet with a view to also producing bioethanol which can be used as a biofuel in the transport sector. I also understand that the absence of a sugar quota for Ireland was seen as a stumbling block to the proposed projects. However, recently, agreement was secured by the EU Council of Agriculture Ministers to abolish the sugar quota regime by 30 September 2017, and I understand this development has been welcomed by those who are interested in seeking to re-establish a sugar industry here.

The Biofuel Obligation Scheme was introduced in July 2010 as the primary means to meet the target of 10% renewable energy in transport by 2020. The scheme works by obligating large road transport fuel suppliers to bring a certain amount of biofuels to the market. The current obligation is 6% by volume, which I increased from 4% at the beginning of this year and which will be increased further in the coming years. This will see Ireland’s biofuel market grow even further by 2020 and will continue to create opportunities for indigenous industry to produce biofuels here in Ireland.

Alternative Energy Projects

Questions (16)

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

16. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the way his Department can assist the development of biomass and wave energy power stations here; if any actions are planned by his Department in this area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35061/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

The REFIT scheme for biomass (REFIT3), which was opened in February 2012, is designed to incentivise the addition of 310 MW of renewable electricity capacity to the Irish electricity grid. The technologies being supported include anaerobic digestion and biomass combined heat and power. REFIT3 also provides incentives for co-firing of biomass in peat powered generation plants.

The scheme operates by guaranteeing a minimum price for renewable electricity generated and sent to the grid over a 15 year period. The REFIT schemes are funded through the Public Service Obligation (PSO) levy which is paid for by all electricity consumers. Separate to the above, public funding has been allocated to the wave and tidal energy sector in recent years. This sector is still at the research and development phase and is not yet commercially viable. However, Ireland has some of the best ocean energy resources in Europe. Much work has been done across Government to identify the potential of this sector. The Strategy for Renewable Energy, the Research Prioritisation Report and ‘Harnessing our Ocean Wealth’, the Government’s integrated Marine Plan for Ireland, all identify Ireland’s potential to become an international leader in research, development and innovation for ocean energy.

A range of supports have been deployed since 2009 in support of wave and tidal development. The cumulative amount of expenditure on Ocean Energy in the period 2009 – 2013, including the estimated 2013 allocation, is almost 21 million euro.

The Ocean Energy Development Unit in the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) has been taking forward the development of the sector through administration of a Prototype Development Fund of grants for industry, aimed at supporting industry led development and deployment of ocean energy devices and systems. SEAI is currently holding a call for expressions of interest and applications for this fund.

SEAI has been allocated funding by my Department to progress development of the grid connected wave test site – known as the Atlantic Marine Energy Test Site or AMETS – off County Mayo. In April this year I launched a call for expressions of interest from organisations wishing to use AMETS at the SEAI Energy Show. The call remains open with SEAI, and I understand the first memorandum of understanding has already been signed by the SEAI with an interested company.

Other supports for the sector include support for Irish Maritime Energy Research Cluster (IMERC), which is seeing the upgrading of the Beaufort Laboratory as part of the IMERC campus at Ringaskiddy in Cork. This work, which is being part-funded by my Department and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, will see a re-housing of the wave tank facility and will bring together researchers in the area currently based in the Hydraulics and Maritime Research Centre (HMRC) and the Coastal and Marine Research Centre (CMRC), as part of a broader campus approach with the Naval College, UCC and Cork Institute of Technology.

All of these developments are critical to ensure that Ireland provides the world class research and deployment infrastructure necessary to support the future development of the ocean energy sector, and realise the potential it holds for sustainable economic growth and job creation, not least in our coastal communities which are among those areas most in need of economic stimulus.

Finally, my Department is currently finalising an Offshore Renewable Energy Development Plan. The process began with the carrying out of a Strategic Environmental Assessment. Informed by the findings of the SEA, the OREDP will identify how best to coordinate action across the environmental, energy and economic development policy areas in order to best facilitate the realisation of Ireland’s abundant ocean energy potential.

Alternative Energy Projects

Questions (17)

Clare Daly

Question:

17. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he will report on the progress and or status of the smaller Irish wave energy developers (details supplied), all of whom received grant aid from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland's ocean energy development unit. [34275/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

I am advised by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) that the wave energy developers to which the Deputy refers have all received payment in respect of funding approved and allocated for their projects with the exception of one, which was deemed to be of insufficient technical merit and, therefore, was not approved for funding. All of the approved projects were completed between 2009 and 2012. I understand that, based on their contacts with the SEAI, 5 of the 7 companies listed remain active in the area of wave energy research and development.

Wind Energy Guidelines

Questions (18, 40)

Billy Kelleher

Question:

18. Deputy Billy Kelleher asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources his plans to seek the publication of renewed wind energy guidelines; if he is satisfied with the current planning process for wind farms; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35052/13]

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Bernard Durkan

Question:

40. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources in the context of proposed wind generation of electricity, the extent to which it is proposed to address the concerns of persons living in the vicinity of such wind farms; if guidelines have been set down regarding minimum distances from homes, schools or buildings accommodating persons; if regard will be had for best international practice of the highest possible safety standards in deciding on the location of such installations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34972/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

I propose to take Question Nos. 18 and 40 together.

The Wind Energy Planning Guidelines were developed by the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government in 2006 to offer advice to planning authorities with regard to their preparation of Development Plans and their consideration of applications for planning permission from wind farm developers. The Guidelines were issued under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, which requires both planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála to have regard to these guidelines in the performance of their functions.

However, since 2006 there have been a number of new developments: wind turbine technologies have evolved; experience has been gained from applying the current guidelines; new research has been undertaken internationally on wind turbine noise; and the EU has set legally binding targets for renewable energy for Member States by 2020. Ireland must achieve 16% of all energy from renewable sources by 2020. In order to achieve this, Ireland is committed to ensuring that 40% of electricity is generated from renewable sources by 2020.

In light of the above, and in order to ensure that Ireland continues to meet its renewable energy targets, while at the same time ensuring that wind energy does not have negative impacts on local communities, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government – in conjunction with my Department and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland – is undertaking a targeted review of certain aspects of the existing Wind Energy Planning Guidelines. This review will examine the manner in which the Guidelines address key issues such as noise (including separation distance) and shadow flicker. It is expected that revised guidelines will be published for consultation later this year, with a view to the finalisation of the new guidelines in the first half of 2014.

The development and operation of a wind farm in Ireland requires planning permission from the relevant planning authority. The issue of planning permission is a matter between the developer of a wind farm and the relevant planning authority, subject to the Planning Acts, which include requirements for public consultation. I do not have a role with regard to the permitting of wind farms.

Broadband Services Provision

Questions (19)

Bernard Durkan

Question:

19. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if, in the wake of recent announcements, it is expected that the highest, quality and speed of broadband service is likely to become available in the short and medium term in all areas throughout the country; the extent to which the quality of services is likely to compare with the best available throughout Europe and worldwide; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34973/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

The Digital Agenda for Europe set out specific targets for the achievement of high speed broadband services across all Member States. Ireland's National Broadband Plan which I published in August last, aims to radically change the broadband landscape in Ireland by ensuring that high speed services of 30Mbps are available to all of our citizens and businesses in advance of the EU's target date of 2020, and that significantly higher speeds are available to as many homes and businesses as possible.

The Plan aims to deliver high speed broadband to all parts of Ireland through two principal means:

(a) by providing a policy and regulatory framework that assists in accelerating and incentivising commercial investment, and

(b) by providing a State-led investment for areas where it is not commercial for the market to invest.

Since the publication of the Plan, investments by the commercial sector are underway in both fixed line and wireless high speed broadband services, particularly in urban and semi-urban areas. There is evidence that industry is investing beyond the targets to which they committed in the Plan with investments of up to €1bn underway. Some of the key developments in the short and medium term are as follows:

- Eircom launched its next generation broadband services on 16th May last, with speeds of up to 70Mbps, immediately available to over 300,000 premises. By the end of this year, Eircom aims to reach more than 600,000 homes and businesses. It has a target to pass 1.2m premises by June 2015;

- UPC is continuing with its investment in the cable network, which should see 750,000 homes able to access services at data speeds of at least 150Mbps by 2015;

- Other fixed operators also continue to invest in Local Loop Unbundling (LLU). BT Ireland now supplies broadband access to both Vodafone and Sky Ireland, and along with other operators, is also investing in fixed infrastructure;

- Mobile wireless operators are making plans for the rollout of 4G services later this year. The operators are obliged, under the terms of the licences, to cover 70% of the population.

- ESB is currently considering the prospect of utilising its distribution network to rollout fibre broadband services.

In tandem with these commercial developments, intensive work is underway in my Department to progress a State-led investment to secure the countrywide introduction of next generation broadband access. The National Broadband Plan commits the Government to investing with the private sector to deliver high speed services to areas, which are not commercially viable and will not be provided by the market alone.

In order to progress the State-led investment, a full procurement process must be designed and EU State Aids approval must be obtained. My Department has recently launched a formal mapping exercise, the results of which will inform the level of Government interaction that may be required and the areas that need to be targeted in the State-led investment so as to deliver on the targets envisaged in the National Broadband Plan.

Intensive technical, financial and legal preparations including stakeholder engagement will be ongoing throughout 2013 with a view to the launch of a procurement process in 2014.

It is the case, in Europe and elsewhere that all countries are seeking solutions to the challenge of rolling out quality broadband services. A study published by the EU Commission in June last, based on data gathered in March 2012, compares marketed headline broadband speeds to the speeds experienced by users over cable, fibre and fixed lines in the EU 28, Iceland and Norway, found that the average download speed accessed in Ireland was above the EU average of 19.47 Mbps or 74% of marketed speeds. It is difficult however, to draw definitive conclusions on inter-country comparisons because of the range of variables in identifying actual, marketed speeds and locations.

I can however, assure the Deputy that the Government is committed to increasing the availability countrywide of quality next generation broadband services through the implementation of the National Broadband Plan. This will ensure that citizens or businesses, wherever they are located, can avail of a broadband connection which meets their needs to interact effectively with society and business in a global digital environment.

Electricity Transmission Network

Questions (20)

Dara Calleary

Question:

20. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the barriers that remain in the integration of the Irish electrical grid with the rest of the European grid; the actions he will take to ensure the full integration of the Irish grid with the rest of the EU; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35039/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

The interconnected power systems of Ireland and Northern Ireland form a single synchronous power system and all electricity generated on the island is traded in the Single Electricity Market (SEM), the wholesale electricity market for the island of Ireland, regulated jointly by the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) and its counterpart in Belfast, the Utility Regulator (UR). The Irish system is not physically connected to the synchronous system of continental Europe. It is connected to electricity system of Great Britain system via two Direct Current (DC) interconnectors, the Moyle Interconnector and the East-West Electricity Interconnector (EWIC).

The Moyle subsea Interconnector links the electricity grids of Northern Ireland and Scotland. It went into commercial operation in 2002 and has a capacity of 500 Mega Watts (MW). EWIC links the electricity grids of Ireland and Great Britain. It has a capacity of 500 MW, and therefore doubled Ireland and Northern Ireland’s electricity interconnection with Great Britain when it went live in 2012. The two interconnectors allow market participants to trade electricity between the SEM on the island of Ireland and the British Electricity Trading and Transmission Arrangements (BETTA) market in Great Britain. EWIC’s increasing of this island’s interconnector capacity greatly enhances our ability to trade electricity with our neighbours and accelerates the integration of Ireland with other electricity systems.

Further interconnection across the entirety of the European Union is necessary to achieve the goal of completing the Internal Market for Energy in Europe. The European Commission estimates that, by 2020, around €200 billion will be needed for the construction of gas pipelines and electricity grids, of which €140 billion will be required for high-voltage electricity transmission systems, storage and smart grid applications.

At the European Council of 22nd May last, it was noted that significant investments in new and intelligent energy infrastructure are needed to secure the uninterrupted supply of energy at affordable prices and that the financing for such investments should primarily come from the market. All stakeholders in the European energy system, including governments, regulators, energy industry and energy consumers, as well as the Europe Union’s institutions such as the Commission, have parts to play in ensuring the required investment is achieved.

In this context, the implementation of EU Regulation 347/2013 on Guidelines for trans-European energy infrastructure, known as the Energy Infrastructure Package, should assist in securing that investment. The Regulation gives priority to twelve strategic trans-European energy corridors and areas. It provides for the identification of projects of common interest necessary to implement them.

The Commission will adopt the first Union-wide list of projects of common interest on the basis of the regional lists by 30 September 2013. Subsequently, the Union list will be drawn up every two years. Irish project promoters have a number of candidate projects on the list. Some of them, if developed and implemented, will further facilitate increased cross-border electricity interconnection and integration of the Irish grid with the rest of the EU.

Community Radio Stations Funding

Questions (21)

Dessie Ellis

Question:

21. Deputy Dessie Ellis asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he will provide funding to non-profit community radio stations from the new broadcasting charge; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35030/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

In terms of public funding, the Broadcasting Funding Scheme represents an already significant source of support for non-profit community radio stations. This Scheme is currently funded by way of a set proportion of net television licence fee receipts and I do not expect this position to change with the introduction of the new Public Service Broadcasting Charge.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) is assigned responsibility under Part 10 of the Broadcasting Act 2009 for the administration of the Broadcasting Funding Scheme which aims, inter alia, to develop local and community broadcasting by providing funding for the provision of high quality, diverse and innovative programming by community broadcasters.

In addition, the BAI operates the Community Broadcasting Support Scheme, which is a development fund that allows community radio stations to conduct evaluations of their activities. The scheme provides funding for stations to carry out key review work to assist with their overall performance and to build capacity.

Community radio stations in Ireland also receive funding from various other sources, including funds derived from donations, advertising and sponsorship.

Prize Bonds

Questions (22)

Michael McGrath

Question:

22. Deputy Michael McGrath asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if his attention has been drawn to the concerns expressed by postmasters over the changes to the anti-money laundering requirements for prize bonds purchased; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35063/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

I received correspondence from the Irish Postmasters' Union in which they outlined their concerns regarding the application of anti money laundering requirements in respect of the purchase of prize bonds. I understand my colleague the Minister for Finance is exploring with the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) and the Minister for Justice and Equality whether or not exemptions available under EU Directives may be applied to small value purchases of prize bonds facilitated on behalf of the State by An Post and the Prize Bond Company. I have written to the Minister for Finance to indicate my support for this course of action. I have also written to the Irish Postmasters' Union and informed them of my position in this regard.