National Broadband Plan Implementation

Questions (19)

Timmy Dooley


19. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the date by which the 542,000 homes and businesses in the national broadband plan's State intervention area will be connected to broadband; the date by which he plans to award the contract to connect these homes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7721/18]

View answer

Oral answers (16 contributions) (Question to Communications)

I will begin by wishing the Acting Chairman a happy St. Valentine's Day. I also extend that greeting to the staff of the House and to the Minister, lest he feel that there is no love between us.

I ask the Minister to outline, in light of recent developments, the current status of the procurement process for the national development plan. In particular, I ask him to provide some timelines for when he expects to have signed a contract with the remaining bidder, when work is due to begin and when it will be completed.

I am sure I will be love-bombed by Deputy Dooley this morning. I apologise, first of all, that I have a severe case of man flu. Were it not for Deputy Harty I would not be here at all today.

Deputy Naughten would not be in the Cabinet without him either.

He did warn me to be very careful. He said it is highly contagious.

He is a constituency colleague of Deputy Dooley.

In an institution like this it could grind the country to a halt, so keep clear.

I welcome the opportunity to speak again in the House on the national broadband plan. Right now, as I speak, seven out of ten premises in this country have access to a high-speed broadband service. By the end of this year I expect this proportion to rise to nearly eight out of ten, and by the end of 2020, when the roll-out of the national broadband plan State-led intervention is well under way, nine out of ten premises in this country will have access to a high-speed broadband service. The contract for a company to deliver high-speed broadband to approximately 540,000 premises in the intervention area will be awarded once a compliant technical and financial solution that delivers value for money to the Irish taxpayer is received.

Before Eir withdrew from the procurement process, I understand that the national broadband plan, NBP, procurement team was working to a timeline whereby it would have selected a preferred bidder by September. The procurement team is now considering whether the procurement timelines can be brought forward in a single-bidder scenario. Once a contract is signed and the State-led intervention has begun to roll out, it is estimated that the vast majority of premises in the intervention area will have access to a high-speed broadband service within three years. It is a reality of any infrastructure roll-out of this scale and scope that there will be those isolated and harder-to-reach premises and areas which may take longer than this to serve. This is an unavoidable fact. However, it is my firm resolve that the occupants of these premises will not have to wait one day longer than absolutely necessary to receive the service they need.

The Minister will have a further opportunity to speak on this question.

I thank the Minister. Will he confirm for the House that the one remaining bidder has yet to submit pricing details and a technical solution on the work to be carried out? Prior to the Minister's assumption of office the delay was estimated at six months. The programme for Government confirmed, based on the Minister's discussions at the time, that a contract would be signed in June 2017. Will the Minister now confirm, on behalf of the Government, that this has been delayed until today at least? Can he provide an estimate as to when he expects that agreement to be signed? He talks about proportions of seven or eight out of ten homes. I do not want to go back over this, but the Minister and I both know why and how this has happened, and it is not as a result of the Government's intervention. We need clarity around those 540,000 homes and around the timelines, or the Minister's best estimates thereof. That will allow us all to keep the process on track and on target.

First, I will address Deputy Dooley's question regarding the documentation that has or has not been submitted. The Deputy asked that question of me last Thursday and I told him that it was not within my competency to answer it. I believe Deputy Dooley has a meeting this week with the procurement team, which will respond to this query for him. I pointed that out last week.

That was at a committee, was it not?

The intention was to have a preferred bidder by June 2017, and we have missed that particular target, absolutely. There are reasons for that, and I presume that officials will go through some of those with Deputy Dooley when they appear before the committee later this week. However, the timeline at which we are looking at the moment involves having a preferred bidder by September. On foot of the decision by Eir, we are now reviewing those timelines to see if we can firm up, and to see where we can speed up this process. That is what we are doing.

For clarity, does that timeline aim for a preferred bidder by September? My understanding is that when there is only one bidder, that is the preferred bidder. Is the objective to have a contract signature by September, or is it just the announcement that the main bidder is the preferred bidder?

Let me be crystal clear on this. When there were two bidders in the process, it was our expectation that we would have a preferred bidder by September. There is now one bidder in the process. As the Deputy knows, the procurement team has been sitting beside me for the last fortnight dealing with specific questions which were rightly put by Members of the Oireachtas, both formally and informally, and I wanted to provide as much information as I could. I know there has been some engagement with the consortium within the last several days. I believe the procurement team is meeting with the committee tomorrow, and its members will provide information that is within their competency but is not within my remit.

My apologies for interrupting. The Minister will have one more minute. I will give Deputy Dooley a minute, and then I will give the Minister a minute.

I thank the Minister for that response. I need to be clear. My understanding was that the Minister had effectively achieved preferred bidder status now, and the intention was to have a contract signed in September. If the contract will not be signed in September, and the objective is merely for preferred bidder status to be conferred on the company, then there will be a further period before a contract is signed. I ask the Minister to provide at least a best estimate of when a contract will be signed, recognising now that September is the date for preferred bidder status.

Will the Minister also update the House on the actions he has taken since the vote here last week on the appointment of some external expertise to review the entire procurement process?

I cannot give the Deputy a date on when the contract will be signed because this decision was only taken last Tuesday week and was only notified to me at that stage. We have not had the opportunity to consider the implications relating to the procurement process. I have given the Deputy the timelines we were looking at prior to that. I have also said that, based on the information available to me, it is likely that we will get shovels in the ground quicker. The reason for that is that once we have a preferred bidder, that preferred bidder could then engage with the banks and the contractors which could build the network across the country. The SSE-Enet consortium can now start that process. Representatives from the European Investment Bank were with me last month. They are very anxious to invest in this process. They have been engaging with SSE-Enet and Eir on that. They can now directly engage with SSE-Enet. It allows them to truncate that entire process and get shovels in the ground. At this stage, however, I honestly cannot give the Deputy a date on that because we have to assess the full implications of it. We cannot be definitive in that regard until we sign that contract. At that stage, as I did with the Eir commitment agreement where we published as much of that documentation as we could and gave clear timelines in that regard every quarter, it would be my intention to do the exact same with this process to ensure that people clearly know when they will get broadband and the targets for that.

National Broadband Plan Implementation

Questions (20)

Brian Stanley


20. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the future of the national broadband plan in view of the fact there is only one bidder in the procurement process; and if there is a strategy in place to progress the national broadband plan if the procurement process fails. [7532/18]

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Oral answers (16 contributions) (Question to Communications)

The one bidder left in the procurement process has a lot of power in its hands, and 542,000 homes will be at the whim of that company, with no competition and very little leverage in the Department's hands. As we are in this very uncertain position, what options has the Minister considered and if the current process collapses, what is plan B?

As I have stated many times recently, it is my personal commitment and a key priority for Government to have high-speed broadband delivered to every house, business, farm and school in Ireland, and a future-proofed broadband service.  I have long advocated for this service for rural Ireland and I am determined that high-speed broadband will be delivered to every single premises in the country and that it will meet that timescale in the next 25 years of providing a quality service.  I know there is nothing between myself and the Deputies in this House on the policy or the objectives, and that we all want to deliver to the communities and businesses in the intervention area.

The procurement process to engage a company to roll out the broadband network remains at an advanced stage.  The remaining bidder, SSE-Enet, has already identified its final issues for discussion with the procurement team and these discussions are ongoing.  I am confident all parties will work to ensure the solutions will deliver a network fit for today's needs and with a capacity to adapt to new technologies over the next 25 years.

In all procurement processes, particularly where there are services to be rolled out over a prolonged period, all viable options for delivery are considered. The current procurement process is a robust process with strong risk management throughout and a broad range of scenarios and eventualities having been considered.  This process is entering its final stages, with SSE-Enet having reaffirmed its commitment to the successful conclusion of the process.

I consider that it would be imprudent to pre-empt the outcome of the ongoing engagement by publicly deliberating on other options for alternative delivery strategies at this time as this could potentially prejudice the outcome of the procurement process.

The problem with the Minister's position is that he is basing it on the hope that the Enet procurement process will not collapse. The Department and the Government must have a plan B but the Minister has not outlined such a plan. He said options are being considered, but that is within the current tendering process with just Enet involved. Some of the seeds of this disaster were sown when Eir announced the connections to 300,000 easy to reach households. While that is good and dandy for those households, as I pointed out to the Minister many times, the 540,000 homes and businesses outside of that process will be the difficult ones. That has allowed for a stranglehold of the system and yet another mistake in the entire procurement process.

Has a public ownership option ever been examined seriously by the Department? We have large pieces of State infrastructure. ESB Networks is serving 99.9% of the population. There is fibre cable running along the railway tracks. There is a back-haul system owned by the State of which we have a comprehensive map. There is also the metropolitan areas network system, MANS, so we have the MANS, ESB Networks and the back-haul system.

The Minister told me over two weeks ago that if he were doing the process all over again, he would do it differently. What exactly would he do differently? I am curious to know what he meant by that.

The Deputy has asked a lot of questions.

The final one is the most important.

First, I am restricted in what I can say because we are in a procurement process-----

You are the Minister.

-----and if I were to say something here that would jeopardise that, Deputy Stanley would be the very one who would come in here and criticise me for that, and rightly so. The procurement team will appear before the committee on Thursday and the Deputy will have the opportunity to talk directly to the individuals involved in this process.

On the issue of public ownership, that was considered. In fact, it was debated at length here in the House. I gave the Deputy my views on my reasoning for the approach we took on that.

On the Eir 300,000 connections, I have explained the reason we took that decision but one of my most vocal critics, who has a good understanding of this particular process, is Adrian Weckler. It would be worth the Deputy's while to read the article he published in the Sunday Independent last Sunday in which he clearly stated that the Government did not have a choice in that regard. What we did get, however, and which no other country in Europe in a similar situation in terms of other contracts got, was a binding commitment from Eir that has quarterly targets written into that and penalties for failing to achieve those targets. As I pointed out at the committee meeting last week, the European Commission outlined this as being a type of template that should and could be used by other member states in designing commitment agreements as part of procurement processes.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I did not see that Sunday Independent article because I do not buy it.

I will furnish the Deputy with a copy of it.

I would appreciate that.

I thought Deputy Stanley would buy it now that publication of An Phoblacht has stopped.

I have no problem reading a copy of it but I refuse to buy the Sunday Independent.

On the question of State ownership, the Minister said it was considered. I would be interested to know the reasons that was turned down because an ESB-type semi-State structure could have drawn together the MANS and the extensive back-haul systems that are being rolled out across the State, along with the other infrastructure belonging to the ESB that is in place. The Minister will have noted that the amended motion last week called for a full examination of that option. At a vital stage in the process, I do not see any problem in allowing an expert examine that option. It is vital if we are to have economic development in rural Ireland.

What has the Minister done regarding the amended Dáil motion, which was passed unanimously here in the House? According to the Minister's answers this morning, we still have no date for the contract to be signed. We know the pricing structure has not been supplied because the Minister answered that question, and the technical solutions have not been settled. The three key questions on this major national network have not yet been answered nearly two years into the term of this Government.

First, the Dáil motion was not passed unanimously.

I am sorry, it was passed by a majority. I will clarify that.

I made it crystal clear why it could not be passed unanimously. I pointed out that it would jeopardise the procurement process and, based on my best estimates, that it would delay it by six months. In his Sunday Independent article last Sunday, Adrian Weckler said it would delay it by between six and 12 months. I have given a commitment to the people and the Members of this House that I have no intention of delaying the process one day longer than is necessary. In its counter-motion last week, the Government set out the arrangements that are in place to underpin the national broadband plan procurement process. It is now time we took decisive action on this, continued apace and completed the procurement process. Having said that, I am committed to giving regular updates to colleagues in both Houses regarding the progress we are making. Members deserve that I commit to doing so.

Broadcasting Sector

Questions (21)

Timmy Dooley


21. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if he is satisfied with the manner in which Ireland's public broadcasting sector is funded; his plans for changes to the licence fee collection system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7722/18]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Communications)

Will the Minister outline whether he is satisfied with the manner in which Ireland's public service broadcasting sector is funded and whether he has managed to advance in any way the proposed changes to the licence fee collection system?

RTÉ is dual funded through a proportion of television licence fee receipts and the commercial revenue it generates. TG4 is funded by way of a combination of direct Exchequer grant-in-aid, television licence fee receipts and commercial revenue. The broadcasting sector continues to face very serious commercial, structural and market challenges, including, in recent years, a substantial fall in advertising revenues of over 40%. For example, RTÉ now earns less in commercial income than it did in 2008.

RTÉ has responded to this contraction in revenue by cutting operational costs and implementing major organisational restructuring. Despite these measures, in 2016, RTÉ had a deficit of €19.7 million. RTÉ remains in a very difficult financial position and further deficits are predicted. TG4 also posted a small deficit for this period, and has done so for several years.

I am very much aware of the challenges that face the existing TV licence system, including the current level of evasion which is estimated to be 14.6%. While the rate has fallen from 15.3% at the end of 2013, it is still very high and equates to a loss of €40 million annually to public service broadcasting.

To address this issue, my Department has been working with An Post and RTÉ on an ongoing basis to ensure that the TV licence collection system is working as effectively as possible. Measures such as marketing campaigns, more evening and weekend inspection and appointment of additional temporary inspectors are just some of the initiatives that have been utilised to enhance sales and improve compliance rates.

As the Deputy will be aware, I obtained Government approval last year to draft a number of legislative amendments to the Broadcasting Act 2009, including amendments for the tendering of the TV licence fee collection. The proposed amendments are under pre-legislative scrutiny by the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment, and I look forward to receiving the committee's report on the matter.

As the Deputy is also aware, I requested the committee to examine the longer-term issue of the future funding of public service media. The committee published its report at the end of November 2017 and I intend to bring the matter to Government shortly. 

I do not think that the Minister has that much time. He has painted a picture of which all of us should be aware in terms of the situation in RTÉ, but there is also an issue, which I have raised several times and on which I have published legislation, namely, the public service broadcasting element of local and regional radio stations. They also deserve some funding from any increased revenues coming from a renewed television licence system. It is vitally important for the national broadcaster, for TG4, and for the independent local radio sector that the Government moves quickly on this to ensure that the level of funding being lost through evasion, which is up to €40 million, is addressed quickly. Germany has an evasion rate of around 2% while the UK has an evasion rate of about 4%, so comparing like with like, we are way off the scale. I would like to see the Minister address this matter as quickly as possible and bring forward proposals. He will not find any resistance from Fianna Fáil or from most people on this side of the House.

I am somewhat confused. The joint committee commenced pre-legislative scrutiny of the broadcasting (amendment) Bill on 11 July. It was attended by my Department officials, representatives from RTÉ, TG4 and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. A further hearing was held on 3 October with the platform operators, Virgin Media, Sky, Eir, Vodafone, and TV3 to discuss both the scheme of the Bill and retransmission fees. That report is awaited. To be fair to the committee, it did seek legal advice on retransmission fees as part of its pre-legislative scrutiny, but I am waiting. It is to deal specifically with the €40 million shortfall. I am willing to move quickly on it. If the committee would return its report to me, then we can start working on it. I thank Deputy Dooley for his support on this and urge colleagues to refer that report back to me as quickly as possible so we can move on it.

My recollection of that legislation is that it has no implications for the licence fee or restructuring the licence fee collection system. I am sure it does not. Neither does it address the issue of a broadcasting charge at a broader level. It deals with some minor issues and retransmission is thrown in. Retransmission is an important facet of RTÉ's future funding, but the core issue relates to the licence fee collection system or moving towards a broader method of collecting that charge. That is what the report did. The Minister has received that report relating to the work he had asked the committee to undertake. I believe it sets out the future and how we address the question into the future. The short-term measure must be addressed by a more enhanced licence fee collection system. The Bill has no implications in that regard.

The Bill I referred to the committee is the broadcasting (amendment) Bill. One of its provisions is to amend section 145 of the primary Act to deal with evasion. On the legal advice received from the Office of the Attorney General, it is clear that the current legislation does not allow me as Minister to appoint a television licence agent by way of public tender. The amendment to section 145 in the broadcasting (amendment) Bill, as currently before the committee, allows me to rectify that. There are also amendments to sections 33 and 123, specifically dealing with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, levy which would allow for the allocation of funding to the BAI from the television licence receipts to meet its operating expenses. That would allow the BAI to reduce, by a maximum of 50%, the annual cost of the BAI levy to independent broadcasters, all of whom have publicly welcomed this. My intention, and the discussion I have had with the BAI, is that it would remove altogether the registration and licence fee for the community broadcasters. There is also an amendment to section 154 of the broadcasting funding scheme to allow for a bursary scheme to be introduced to encourage quality journalism in local and community radio. That is the legislation which is before the committee. As soon as it comes back, I will expedite it.

Exploration Licences Approvals

Questions (22)

Bríd Smith


22. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment further to the vote in Dáil Éireann on the Petroleum and other Minerals Development (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill 2017, if no further licences, undertakings or leases for fossil fuel exploration will be awarded until the issues are dealt with at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7712/18]

View answer

Oral answers (13 contributions) (Question to Communications)

Despite the Minister's man flu, I want him to address this very important question. Last July, quietly and without any notice to our committee or any notice on the Department's website, the Minister signed off on exploration licences for the Druid Drumbeg exploration field which is estimated to have 5 billion barrels of offshore oil.

Last week we passed Second Stage of a climate emergency Bill. I am now asking the Minister whether he is going to issue further licences, undertakings or leases for fossil fuel exploration before we deal with that Bill. It still has to go through committee and still has to be fully amended. Will the Minister respect the vote of the Dáil, which gave a clear indication to him last week, and desist from issuing any further licences?

The Bill referenced by the Deputy has been referred to select committee for consideration. As such, it remains a legislative proposal. Government policies in respect of climate action, energy and offshore exploration, and the application of such policies, remain unchanged.

The challenge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is well understood by Government and it is reflected in our national climate action and energy policy. Ireland will, within the EU and UN climate frameworks, pursue and achieve a transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable economy, underpinned by a secure and competitive energy supply, in the period to 2050. Within that context, it is accepted that Ireland will continue to require and use some, but significantly reduced, fossil fuels to meet the needs of our people, farmers, industry and businesses. In contrast, the Bill proposed by Solidarity will not reduce Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions and will not help Ireland meet its 2020 or 2030 emissions targets. The strategy outlined by Solidarity during last week’s Second Stage debate is for Ireland to rely entirely on imports for all our future fossil fuel needs.

As well as failing to actually reduce Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions, the proposed Bill would have an adverse impact on Ireland’s Exchequer resources through the loss of exploration acreage rental fee revenues and the potential loss of taxation revenue under the Finance Acts from any future commercial discoveries. In the face of such a loss to the Exchequer, it is my view that it would not be appropriate for a Government to issue a money message for this Bill.

The Solidarity approach fails to recognise, in contrast to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that natural gas can play a role as a transition fuel in combination with variable renewable sources. The Government and the public are willing to tackle climate change but the Solidarity Bill will not solve climate change. As I said last week, the energy White Paper clearly states that natural gas will play a huge part in our energy security into the future.

I remind the Minister of State that the Solidarity-People Before Profit Bill is, in fact, a climate emergency Bill. We call it a climate emergency because that is exactly what it is, and the vast majority of Deputies in this House agreed with that - if they did not, they might try to explain why not. There is a real worry here that we are not getting what this means. If the Minister of State accepts the science, it states that 80% of known reserves have to stay in the ground if the earth is not to overheat by 2° Celsius, which will begin to threaten many of the species already existing on the planet and human life itself, and will wreak chaos, not just in this country but in many parts of the planet.

Gas emissions do not have a nationality but unless we begin to acknowledge the science and say this must remain in the ground, we are codding ourselves, and being on this committee, having a national mitigation plan and anything else we do will be absolutely meaningless.

I would like the Minister of State to comment on that.

The Deputy will have another minute.

Even the licence issued last year that represents 5 billion barrels would result, potentially, in releasing the equivalent of all our greenhouse gas emissions for the next quarter of a century. How in the name of God does that make sense while, at the same time, we are supposed to be tackling climate change?

As the Deputy knows, the results of the oil well drilling in Drumbeg did not yield any hydrocarbons and the well has been closed and capped, so there was no 5 billion barrels of oil.

I absolutely agree with the science and the majority of Members of this House agree with the science. Listening to the contributions last week, there is clearly an appetite for a larger debate at committee on this issue. Deputies Stanley, Dooley and Lawless in particular, while supporting the Bill on Second Stage, also acknowledged there needed to be a wider debate on the whole area. I hope the committee takes up the opportunity for that debate on energy security. We want to see a reduction in usage of fossil fuels and that should be the principle of the House. However, banning offshore will not reduce usage, which has to be achieved by a change in mindset, a change in policy and continued investment by the State in the whole area of retrofitting and so on, as we are doing. The Bill put forward by the Deputy will not change the usage.

There is no doubt that it will not change the usage, and I never said it would, but it might give a kick up the backside to this Government to get on with developing renewables and alternatives because we cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels. Last year I asked whether there is an automatic entitlement for these companies to renew licences and continue exploration, and the Minister got back to me and said that, in the context of his ability to decide based on the record of companies, there is no automatic entitlement for renewal of gas or oil exploration. Yet, we have a company like Europa Oil and Gas boasting this morning that it is very excited about the potential of realising its drilling for another 5 billion barrels of oil, the same amount that would cause us to exceed our emissions for the next quarter of a century. We are dealing with science here. I am asking the Department to please be logical in its approach to this, not aspirational, as the Minister of State would accuse us of being.

We are being logical. The logical issue here is that there will continue to be a need and a demand for hydrocarbons, whether it be oil or, in particular, natural gas, for the next period of time. While stating that we should not explore our offshore, we would still be importing oil and natural gas. Post-Brexit we will not have energy independence from any other country in the European Union. For example, we are developing a Celtic interconnector with France, where we will be importing majority nuclear-generated energy supply. The target and the ambition of both myself and the Minister, Deputy Naughten, is to reduce the usage of fossil fuels. That is the important thing, no matter what party one is in. We want to reduce the usage of fossil fuels in this country, and that is where the ambition needs to be. Clearly, the State itself is not investing anything in offshore exploration. These are private companies and it is a hugely regulated sector in terms of environmental assessments, appropriate assessments and so on. Any decision will be made in the best interests of energy security and the strict adherence to environmental policy.

There is no security in a planet that is overheating.

Renewable Energy Incentives

Questions (23)

Thomas Pringle


23. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if he will report on the recently announced grant-aided scheme for rooftop solar panels; when the scheme will be rolled out to domestic users; when the scheme will be subsequently rolled out to businesses and farmers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7530/18]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Communications)

While I welcome the announcement the Minister has made to roll out the grant-aided scheme to domestic users, I would like to find out when it is likely to happen, the potential costs involved, what will happen to the individuals who may have been in the process of installing solar panels when he made this announcement in the first place and whether any excess energy will be fed into the national grid.

I will go through the reply and I will then come back to the Deputy on some of the issues. On foot of the October 2017 stakeholder workshop, hosted on my instruction by my Department and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, along with further engagement with the microgeneration industry, I have asked the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland to conduct a short study to assess the likely demand for and impact of microgeneration among the public. It is important that before we deploy further public money, we validate the demand and projected cost in an Irish context.

The proposed pilot scheme, which I announced at the recent renewable energy summit, will commence this summer and will target solar PV and self-consumption among domestic customers.  The data gathered during this scheme and throughout the behaviour and attitudes study will inform future phases of support for microgeneration in Ireland as we align with the ambition of the recast renewable energy directive, which recognises the rights, entitlements and obligations of renewable self-consumers.

My Department is developing a new renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, which is being designed to assist Ireland in meeting its renewable energy contribution to EU-wide targets out to 2030. Microgeneration, which typically involves an element of self-consumption, was appraised as part of the RESS economic assessment and the analysis identified a number of challenges that may need to be addressed before a support scheme for microgeneration can be developed.

The reality is that bringing microgeneration into a system designed for large generators is complicated. It impacts how we pay for the network, manage regulation and technically manage the system. My Department continues to work closely with the microgeneration sector and the SEAI to better understand how to validate and further develop these policies in a fair and cost-effective manner. This pilot scheme will be the first phase in a multi-phase implementation of the new directive and it delivers on the ambitions and commitments made in the energy White Paper and the programme for Government.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

As set out in the national mitigation plan, a very significant increase in effort is required to realise the potential of the residential sector to contribute to the low-carbon transition. Improving the energy efficiency of a home in order that it needs less energy to maintain levels of comfort is a prerequisite for moving off fossil fuels for heating to less energy-intensive renewable energy options. This is why I have been providing additional funding to include deeper energy efficiency measures, combined with renewable technologies, in the range of supports for residential energy efficiency operated by SEAI. Solar photovoltaics, PV, is already supported under the better energy communities scheme and the deep retrofit pilot. Crucial to these schemes are the advice and technical support available to groups of householders and businesses to undertake these measures and embrace renewable technologies.

I thank the Minister for his response. He has cleared up some of the questions in stating it is an introductory scheme and that it is intended to evaluate its success before it would be rolled out further. However, this raises other questions. It is clear the people are far ahead of the Government in respect of renewable energy. Many people are going ahead with solar PV installations despite the fact that the Government has not introduced an incentive scheme for homeowners. Again, will the Minister address the position of homeowners who may have engaged in this process prior to, or since, his announcement, not knowing that the Government was intending to come forward with a scheme? When is it likely the scheme will be rolled out to community groups, community centres and so on? Having these assessments in place could offset quite a lot of other costs. What is also vitally important is a very public, very in-your-face advertising process in order that people know the scheme is actually available to them. I think that would do wonders for the success of the scheme.

The Deputy has raised a number of matters. People who have installed solar PV on domestic buildings and engaged in self-consumption after my announcement of 31 January would fall within the final parameters of the pilot scheme when the details of it are announced. This is termed "grandfathering". I am sympathetic to their position, but grandfathering would be subject to discussions with the Directorate General for Competition, DG Competition, in the European Commission on any state aid implications that would apply. I intend to have these discussions with the DG Competition and I would be sympathetic to these people's position if they were to comply with whatever criteria will be set out by the scheme.

A grant for community centres is already available through the better energy communities scheme. Last year €26 million was paid out under the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland better energy communities scheme to 44 projects across the country, some of which included solar PV. This leveraged a total investment in energy efficiency of approximately €67 million. We also have a deep retrofit pilot which also allows for the use of solar PV, but this is for the general consumer.

Finally, will the Minister address the issue of public awareness to ensure that people are aware of the scheme? I think there will be quite a lot of demand and that the Department will probably be pleasantly surprised by it because I believe the people are way ahead of the Government in respect of renewable energy and want to see it happen. I ask the Minister to address this. In addition, if the scheme is rolled out in the future, what about the issue of the feeding of energy generated into the national grid? That is vitally important as well.

I am very conscious of public awareness. We have a new behavioural economics unit established within the SEAI to look at how we communicate. For any colleagues here writing newsletters, there is a box outlining the different grants, which can put into their newsletters. We can make that available to them. We have done so in the past and will do so again. There is a substantial amount of funding here. I want to see the scheme oversubscribed rather than undersubscribed because it is in the interest of all of us that it happens. I would be very open, as would the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, to any suggestions or ideas as to how we should package or promote the scheme. Perhaps it might help clarify matters for the Deputy if, in summary, I say my objective is to ensure that renewables self-consumers, those who generate renewable electricity and consume and-or store it in their own premises, will be entitled to receive financial remuneration for any excess electricity they feed into the grid. That is my ultimate goal. It will take a little time to get there, but that is my objective as Minister.

I remind everyone in the House of the way in which this business is laid out. Deputies have 30 seconds to introduce their questions, the Minister has two minutes to reply, Members have a minute for a supplementary question, the Minister has a further reply, and the Member then has another opportunity for a supplementary question. I ask everyone to stick rigidly to this. If we do not, some Deputies will lose out. I see Deputies who come here and sit for ages in the Chamber every day and then, after all their waiting, do not get their questions answered, so I ask Members to be conscious of this. The next question is in the name of Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher.