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Energy Infrastructure

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 4 November 2021

Thursday, 4 November 2021

Questions (6)

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

6. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the status of the review of the North-South Interconnector; the impact the judicial review decision in Northern Ireland will have on this project; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53684/21]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Environment)

I ask the Minister of State the status of the Government review on the North-South interconnector and the impact the judicial review decision in the North will have on this project.

I thank the Deputy. 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 target of up to 80% renewable electricity 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 option of undergrounding the North-South interconnector has been comprehensively assessed on several occasions. Most recently, the key finding from the international expert commission's report of October 2018 was that an overhead line remains the most appropriate option for this critical electricity infrastructure.

Notwithstanding this, a further short review was commissioned to assess if the overall finding from the 2018 report remains valid. Terms of reference for this study were published on my Department's website on 21 April. On 7 May, the Department initiated a procurement process to appoint an independent expert to undertake the review. International consultants are now engaged on the review and their work is well advanced. I understand the review will be completed by the end of the year.

A judicial review decision from the High Court in Belfast upheld the planning permission for the project in Northern Ireland, which means that the project now has approval from the planning authorities in both jurisdictions, with all legal challenges dismissed. EirGrid and ESB Networks, together with their counterparts in Northern Ireland, are continuing their on-the-ground engagements with landowners as well as the procurements necessary to support the delivery of this vitally important piece of infrastructure.

The principle that applies here is one that needs to apply across our transition to a zero-carbon economy. It is one of community engagement and consultation. It is not being applied here in the way it should be. It seems that the Government is determined to do this transition by megaphone diplomacy on the picket line or at the farm gate. It is already a major problem and that will continue to be the case unless the Government changes tack.

I got information from the Department yesterday that two leading Italian consultants in transmission grid infrastructure are now engaged on the review and that their work is well advanced. Could the Minister of State indicate when the work will be concluded and when the report will be published? At the same time, the CEO of EirGrid is telling us that the project is in execution mode. How can those two positions be accurate if the ongoing review is to have any real impact or relevance?

In short, the benefit of the project is that at different times of the year, depending on the weather, there will be a surplus of energy in the North and a deficit in the South, or vice versa. By being able to move the electricity and balance the supply around the island, we can ensure better reliability and security of supply and also reduce prices on both sides so that we are not dumping load or shedding load in one part or the other.

The review will be finished by the end of the year. In response to how that fits with EirGrid saying it is in execution mode, as I stated, this is a fully consented project, which has passed all legal hurdles. We have agreed to make sure that the conclusions of the 2018 assessment are still valid, and that something has not changed. We are carrying out an assessment and we will see what the report says. I will not prejudge the report. I do not know what is going to be in it. The report will be done by the end of the year and we will act according to what is recommended in it.

Given the way this review has been framed, I do not think many hold the expectation but, in theory, one of the conclusions it might come to is that the review does not hold firm and that the project should change tack. From listening to the CEO, it appears to be proceeding full steam ahead. That raises the question of the purpose of the desktop review that is being conducted by the two Italian consultants. Is it not the case that it is a waste of taxpayers' money to fudge the issue for the Minister of State's colleagues in government and to provide them with some political cover when, in truth, it is a meaningless exercise and that this project is proceeding regardless? We know that there has been further progress by local authorities in terms of the discharge of some of the planning conditions. What level of community engagement has happened? There is full resistance from the community to the project and I do not accept that it will be delivered.

The 2018 international report concluded that undergrounding the North-South interconnector was a credible option. It is important to put that on the record. It was a political decision to allow EirGrid to proceed with the overhead option. I am firmly of the view that the ongoing review is a waste of taxpayers' money because it is conducting an examination of something that nobody asked for. What people asked for was a proper, full assessment with a cost-benefit analysis of an underground option, which has never happened.

On what legal basis will EirGrid now be able to proceed onto the lands of people who have said they are not going to permit EirGrid to enter their lands? What level of interaction and conflict is the Government willing to allow to occur between EirGrid and local communities before it instructs EirGrid to consult them constructively, properly and adequately?

Community engagement is essential to any major infrastructural project. It is essential out of a sense of fairness but also to make sure that it is accepted, that it proceeds and that the right answers are found for it. This project could not be described as one that was rushed: it has been running for 15 years. I do not think we can have it two ways: we cannot say that we need to make sure we do this right, listen to the public and have engagement and then say that we should not have this final review to make sure all the conclusions of the previous reports are valid and that this is a waste of taxpayers' money. Either we are going to have the review and examine the project and listen to people or we are not. We are not building the infrastructure until we see what is in the review and that the conclusions of the previous report are valid. In terms of undergrounding cables, we had previous protests at underground cables. It is not the final solution that makes everybody happy. There are other concerns. A different set of people will come forward and say that they are not happy with underground cables.

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