Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Questions (44)

Matt Carthy


44. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he will reconsider commissioning an independent report incorporating international industry expertise to examine the technical feasibility and cost of undergrounding the North-South interconnector in line with the resolution of Dáil Éireann on 16 February 2017. [13090/21]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Environment)

I firmly believe that the proposed North-South interconnector can be undergrounded and that the technology is available internationally in order for that to happen. I would go so far as to say I believe it will happen only if the Government changes tack and instructs EirGrid and SONI to pursue that route. In 2017 a motion was passed in this House calling on the Government to commission an independent report to examine the technical feasibility and the cost of undergrounding the North-South interconnector. Will the Minister now commission that report?

The North-South interconnector is critical to improving the efficient operation of the all-island single electricity market and increasing security of electricity supply in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It will also help Ireland to move towards our 70% renewable electricity target by 2030. A resilient and well-connected energy infrastructure is vital for Ireland's economic well-being and the ability to respond to the future needs of energy consumers.

The Government does not have any role in the delivery of electricity infrastructure on the ground. This is consistent with the 2012 Government Policy Statement on the Strategic Importance of Transmission and Other Energy Infrastructure, which states: "The Government does not seek to direct EirGrid and ESB Networks or other energy infrastructure developers to particular sites or routes or technologies."

The option of undergrounding the North-South interconnector has been comprehensively assessed on several occasions. Most recently, and fully in line with the resolution of Dáil Éireann of 16 February 2017, my Department commissioned an independent report incorporating international industry expertise to examine the technical feasibility and cost of undergrounding the North-South interconnector. The report from the international expert commission was published in October 2018 and it found that an overhead line remains the most appropriate option for this piece of critical electricity infrastructure. I do not intend ordering a repeat of such a review.

EirGrid and ESB Networks, as our electricity system operators, always seek to work in close collaboration with landowners and stakeholders in the delivery of electricity infrastructure. Both companies are engaging with those living closest to the route of the interconnector. In that regard I note that EirGrid has already set in place a variety of engagements locally, including the appointment of community liaison officers and a mobile information unit active in the area. I expect such engagements to intensify in the coming weeks and months, subject to national Covid-19 public health guidelines.

I hope the Minister does not believe what he is saying because if he does, it means he is completely out of sync with his role and his responsibilities. The Government does have a role. EirGrid itself has been on the record on a number of occasions telling the Government that if Government policy directs it to underground the interconnector, it will be forced to oblige. The Government has never implemented the resolution of this House. Yes, a report was commissioned and carried out in 2017 and published in 2018, but it did not do what this Dáil asked it to do. It did not examine the prospect of a full underground route in terms of feasibility and cost. Even if we are to take that report, however, does the Minister know that the report states in its findings that undergrounding the interconnector is "a credible option"? Those words are taken directly from the report. The question that needs to be asked is this: will the Minister continue to allow EirGrid to proceed along a route that will lead to further delays and increased costs or will he engage with the communities concerned and come up with a viable option that will allow us to deliver this interconnector?

I was on the Oireachtas joint committee back in the early 2000s when this issue first arose, and the need to strengthen our grid infrastructure and interconnection with the North of Ireland was set out with real urgency. In the meantime, there have been a lot of positive developments: the creation of a single North-South electricity market, the meeting of 2040 renewables targets and an all-Ireland approach to energy. Everything I have seen over the past 18 years looking at this tells me that this is a critical piece of infrastructure and that not having it would threaten the economic strength of the areas through which it passes because having an AC grid infrastructure strengthens economic prospects. It is different from a DC underground connection in what it can do. Its absence would risk all the progress that has been made on an all-island policy on energy, and that would be a huge cost to the people north and south. It would make it almost impossible, I think, to meet a lot of our climate objectives. We would be forced to look at new investments in the North and an effective separation again of the two systems, which would be hugely damaging in a variety of ways. Therefore, having looked at this for 18 or 19 years now, I believe that the approach and the objective that EirGrid is setting is the correct one.

Does the Minister wonder why it is 18 years later and there has not been a single move to erect a single pylon in the intervening period? It is because, crucially, in all the objectives and all the parameters EirGrid set itself, it is missing a crucial component that is at the heart of projects such as the ALEGrO interconnector, a very similar project happening between Belgium and Germany, which has one fundamental difference: it is being undergrounded. The reason it is being undergrounded is that the objective I talk about is the objective of public acceptance. That is a criterion that EirGrid has never taken into consideration. If the Minister wants, as I do, to see this interconnector developed, he will need to talk to the campaigning communities. I ask him again today: will he engage with those communities? Will he speak to them to hear their concerns? Will he actually engage with EirGrid, not to take its word verbatim as gospel, as he and successive Ministers in his position have been doing, but to engage critically with it to ensure we can deliver this infrastructure through underground technology? It is the only way that the project will be delivered.

The Minister knows that the communities completely united against the North-South interconnector. We could be talking about it in another 18 years if we do not look at the option of undergrounding. The communities are furious with EirGrid, which led fancy public relations and marketing campaigns while ignoring the concerns of the communities and the people involved. There must be a new review of this project involving the North East Pylon Pressure group, and all the relevant stakeholders, or we could be looking at in ten to 15 years' time again. As the Minister will be aware, the communities are united and the only way to get this project on track and moving is for the Government to bring the people with it.

While it is true that we need to have the people with us, they will expect and want an energy system that will work and will deliver all the goods that power supply does deliver for us, namely, heating and lighting our homes, and helping to provide jobs. EirGrid is a public service company with no interest in this project other than serving the public. That is its entire objective. I believe that it is correct in its engineering assessment that it will not be possible to meet those two objectives by putting power lines underground. It would not be able to meet its obligation to the public to provide a secure electricity system this way. If, in the past 18 years, in the series of international reports that we have looked at, an alternative way of doing it emerged, then we would have all jumped at it. However, I do not believe that it exists.

That brings us to what we do have to do. EirGrid has to engage with the local community to make sure that we maximise the level of public acceptance and address concerns on the ground. The company is best placed to do that. That is the critical next step that we must take as we start to construct the project.

Question No. 45 replied to with Written Answers.