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Tuesday, 14 Dec 2021

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Energy Prices

Questions (31)

Neale Richmond

Question:

31. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if his Department has had engagement with stakeholders, including other Departments and energy suppliers, on the cost of utility bills for consumers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [61261/21]

View answer

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Environment)

This question will be taken by Deputy Griffin.

This question is about the rising cost of utility bills. I want to know what engagement the Minister of State and his Department have had with utility companies on the situation faced by consumers throughout the country. I refer to the rising costs and the massive difficulty they are placing on householders. What can we do about it?

The Government is acutely aware of the impact the recent increases in energy prices are having on households. This is a global phenomenon. Expert commentators, including the International Energy Agency, have attributed it to a range of demand and supply factors that have contributed to a tightening of the European gas market supplies and the upward trend in wholesale gas prices we have witnessed since mid-2020. The best long-term approach for Ireland to insulate consumers from volatility on international wholesale energy markets is to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy, to expand interconnection with our European and neighbouring markets and to deepen internal electricity market integration.

The Government's immediate response to address the increase in domestic energy prices has been to utilise the tax and social welfare system to counter rising costs of living. Budget 2022 increased the weekly rate of the fuel allowance such that €914 will be paid to eligible households over the course of the winter. Increases to the qualified child payment, the living alone allowance and the income threshold for the working family payment were also announced.

Consumers should continue to switch or to engage with their energy supplier. Many households could still save on their bills if they did so. As recently as 9 December, switching supplier could save a customer consuming the average amount of electricity up to €313.

The CRU has in place a suite of protections against disconnection that are set out in the supplier handbook. In brief, priority customers cannot be disconnected, while vulnerable customers are protected over the winter months, from 1 November to 31 March each year, and a CRU moratorium on disconnections for all customers comes into effect over the Christmas period.

In addition, under the supplier-led voluntary energy engage code, a supplier will not at any time disconnect a customer who is engaging with them. Furthermore, due to the ongoing pressure on households, the Government agreed today to provide a once-off credit of €100 to every domestic electricity account holder through their electricity supplier in the first quarter of 2022.

I welcome all of the measures that have been introduced. Anything that helps, is a help. The social welfare adjustments and the announcement today in respect of the €100 credit for account holders are important. It is not a perfect scheme. It is quite crude, but the credit is for €100. Those who need the credit will welcome it. I wish there was a quicker and more targeted way of doing it. Perhaps that can be worked on in the long term. The measure is welcome, but I still feel that a lot more needs to be done. From my research in this area, I know that in the year up to November, petrol prices increased by 27.5%, diesel prices by 26% and gas, water and heating prices by 12%. All of these increases are having an impact on householders. We need to do more. It is really squeezing people and causing massive hardship for them. We need to do more. I ask that we also look at taking a more co-ordinated approach at European level, because it is something that is happening throughout Europe.

I accept that we need to do more. We need to do everything that we possibly can. The Deputy spoke about petrol and diesel prices. I note the recent protest by the truck drivers. The fundamental problem here is that the international price of commodities holds us to ransom, and has done for decades. When the international price of gas or oil goes up, we cannot make that go away. We can try to chase the prices and give subsidies and so on, but we can never really overcome that. The price of a barrel of oil increased, over a few years, from $10 to $140. It is a fundamental weakness in the system. People talk about renewable energy and say that it is variable and we do not know when we are going to get it, but there is huge variability and volatility in the price of fossil fuels. That puts us at risk. It is an ongoing strategic risk to our country that will be removed by the switch to green energy.

I agree with the principle of carbon taxation. I think it is something that we have to do, unfortunately. I do not like any taxes, but it is something that we have to do for the sake of the planet. There are times when there are peaks in global oil prices like those we are seeing now. We are experiencing a really high peak at present. There has to be a flexible approach from the Government. We control things like excise. The State and the coffers do very well when there are high prices because a percentage of those high prices comes back to the State. There must be intervention from the State at peak times such as those we are experiencing right now. The Minister of State is not the Minister for Finance. I have raised the issue within my party. I am deeply upset about the lack of movement on the issue. There has to be flexibility on the part of the Government to avoid fuel poverty and the almost hyperinflation resulting from extremely high prices that are being contributed to by the State's own excise duties. As I said, the carbon tax is getting a bad name. It only makes up a small percentage of the price. Action in respect of excise duties can make a big difference, and that needs to be examined. I urge the Minister of State to contact the Department of Finance on the issue.

On the topic of energy suppliers and the cost of utility bills, it is really important that we consider the number of people who, on the advice of the Government, are working from home. Working from home is having a huge impact on the cost of utility bills, as well as the general increases that we have been talking about today. Many people are spending a lot more time at home, which is contributing to increases in their bills. I have been contacted by a number of constituents who have taken steps to retrofit their homes, and who are opting to go for the renewable forms of energy because they are concerned by the prospect of rising energy costs and spending more time at home. While the Government does whatever is in its power to tackle rising energy costs, this is also the perfect opportunity to encourage homeowners to make the switch to long-term, more affordable and sustainable sources of energy. The announcement earlier of the €100 credit will be welcomed by many families throughout the country. I thank the Minister of State and the Government for introducing it.

In response to Deputy Griffin, I accept that we need flexibility. We are not taking a rigid ideological approach on this issue. It is important to think about our long-term future and what we will be doing in ten years' time, but we also need to think about what is happening next month and whether people can make their bills for that month. We must be open to that. I am willing to discuss the issue with the Deputy at any time. He is right that it is also a matter for the Minister for Finance. I will talk to him about it.

In response to both Deputies, I would say that the one thing everybody can do is either consider switching energy suppliers or contact their energy suppliers and say they are considering doing so. Customers can save hundreds of euro on their bills by doing that - much more than the €100 that we are going to give account holders in the first quarter of next year.

On the issue of working from home, a tax relief has been brought in for people's energy costs in working from home. I ask Deputy Higgins to ask her constituents to look at that. It should also be considered that there are reduced commuting costs when working from home. It is not easy. People need extra space to work from home, and not everybody can do it. I understand that.

Electricity Generation

Questions (32)

David Stanton

Question:

32. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the steps being taken by his Department to ensure security of electricity supply this winter and beyond; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [61273/21]

View answer

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Environment)

I ask the Minister of State the steps that are being taken by his Department to ensure security of electricity supply this winter and beyond, given the fact that there was a danger of brownouts and blackouts earlier this year.

The CRU has statutory responsibility to ensure security of electricity supply. This includes the duty to monitor security of electricity supply and to take such measures as it considers necessary to protect security of supply. The CRU is assisted in its statutory role by EirGrid. The challenges to security of electricity supply are set out in EirGrid's All-Island Generation Capacity Statement 2021-2030 and Winter Outlook 2021-22, which were published in September and October, respectively.

In September, the CRU published an information note, setting out the programme of actions they are leading in order to address these challenges. These actions include increasing the availability of existing generators; developing new generation capacity, including temporary generation capacity in advance of winter 2022; extending the operational life of some existing generators; and actions to enhance demand-side response, including large consumers reducing demand when the system margin is low. Last month, the Government approved and published a new policy statement on electricity security of supply, which supports the CRU's programme of actions. My Department continues to work closely with the CRU and EirGrid to implement the programme of actions and ensure security of electricity supply.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. On a calm winter's day like today, what is the typical electricity demand? On a day like today, when there is very little wind and it is cold, how much of that is produced by renewables, and how much is produced by the thermal suite of coal, oil and gas?

On the question of the current demand for electricity on a day like today, I do not believe that the demand for electricity alters with the wind. The typical energy peak demand is something like 6 GW or 7 GW. On a day when there is no wind, we are faced with challenges, because a lot of our energy comes from wind. We could get as little as 0% on a day when there is no wind. We also get renewable energy from other sources. For example, we have hydropower and so on. We get as much as 75% of our energy from wind on a windy day. We are transitioning to a completely different energy system from what we had before, which was based on baseload and adding to that. We are moving away from that towards peaking power plants to balance dips in the power supply. It comes back to Deputy Bríd Smith's question about why we are adding 2 GW of additional wind power over the next ten years.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. If the demand is 6 GW per day, what is the supply? Is the supply matching that? What amount over and above that 6 GW is available? Does the Minister of State agree with me that the cutting-edge way to store wind energy is through the use of green hydrogen? How close are we to seeing the production and availability of green hydrogen become a reality?

Whitegate is one of the power plants that was shut down, which, as I understand it, contributed to some of the difficulties relating to the supply of electricity. Further delays in the return to operation have been reported in the past number of weeks. Has testing started at Whitegate? When might the plant be back up and running?

I am really pleased to hear the Minister of State confirm that we have secure electricity supplies. It was not long ago that we heard the leader of the Opposition predict that the Government would not be able to keep the lights on this winter. Scaremongering like that can have a profound impact, especially when it happens in this Chamber. I am pleased to hear the Minister of State confirm that there are no planned blackouts and we are not preparing for that.

On the question of what we are using for power on a day when there is no wind, principally, we are using gas.

We also have coal from Moneypoint when it is functioning. We also have cables connecting us to the UK which provide us with electricity. We are building what is called the Celtic interconnector, which will be a connection directly to France that will provide us with an additional 700 MW. These interconnectors are huge. Each one is equivalent to a large power station.

With regard to whether green hydrogen is something for the future, it is, and the second half of the decade is when it is likely to be commercially viable. I hope it will be a way of storing wind power. We will be allowed to inject it into the gas grid and reuse it in this way.

Deputy O'Rourke asked about Whitegate. Whitegate and Huntstown power stations produce approximately 400 MW. They help with our security of supply. Huntstown came back on stream, while Whitegate did not come back on stream as fast as was hoped. There were a number of tests. I do not know whether Whitegate is on stream right now. I have not heard that it is. I can get back to the Deputy on that.

Energy Policy

Questions (33)

Brendan Griffin

Question:

33. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he considers non-fracked liquified natural gas to be a transition fuel to guarantee energy security during the transition to a decarbonised future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [61549/21]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Environment)

This question follows on from the previous question. It is on the role that liquefied natural gas, LNG, can play in energy security for this country. Will the Minister of State outline the approach he intends to take on the role of LNG.

The Government's policy statement on the importation of fracked gas was published in May of this year, fulfilling a commitment set out in the programme for Government. As set out in the policy statement, the placing of a legal prohibition on the importation of fracked gas in national legislation was being considered. However, in the context of European Union treaties and the laws governing the internal energy market, it is considered that a legal ban on the importation of fracked gas could not be put in place at this time. The policy statement identifies the highest risk of fracked gas being imported into Ireland on a large scale would be via liquefied natural gas terminals, if any were to be constructed.

The policy statement provides that, pending the outcome of a review of the security of energy supply of Ireland's electricity and natural gas systems, it would not be appropriate for the development of any liquefied natural gas terminals in Ireland to be permitted or proceeded with. I am aware of one application for a liquefied natural gas project that has been made. In relation to that project, I have written to An Bord Pleanála setting out Government policy on such projects, to which An Bord Pleanála is statutorily obliged to have regard.

The security of energy supply of Ireland's electricity and natural gas systems, which is under way, is focusing on the period to 2030 in the context of ensuring a sustainable pathway to net zero emissions by 2050. The review will consider what role, if any, LNG should have in Ireland in future. I expect the review to complete in mid-2022 following which it will be submitted to the Government.

I thank the Minister of State. The review is very important and it is also important that it is completed on time. Time is of the essence with regard to the concerns and fears of householders and industry about energy security. We know that with what is quite a volatile geopolitical situation in eastern Europe we cannot just rely on Russia and pipelines for our natural gas. There is an alternative here. There is an option for us to avail of LNG. I emphasised in the question that it is non-fracked LNG and this is very important. If we accept the principle that a transitional phase up to 2030 and perhaps beyond will be required, we have to be realistic. If natural gas is acceptable, LNG should also be acceptable provided it is non-fracked gas. It is like saying we are in favour of steam but not water. We need to be more open-minded and realistic on this. I very much look forward to the findings of the review.

I thank the Deputy for his comments. As he understands, the problem with fracked gas is the fugitive emissions. Scientists discovered that in the process of fracking gas a lot of methane escapes into the atmosphere. This has a strongly detrimental effect which is so bad that using fracked gas turned out to be as bad as burning coal. I understand that for a long time in north Kerry there was a promise that this much-needed infrastructural investment and jobs were coming to the area. It is very difficult to have this taken away or ended. I understand that creates considerable disappointment. What north Kerry needs is more investment in sustainable and long-term infrastructure that will withstand this type of international policy. It will not be Irish policy that will stop this from happening in the end. It will be European policy and what was agreed at COP26. Kerry is a beautiful county with an amazing tourism product. It can develop and produce far more jobs than would have ever come from the LNG terminal.

I thank the Minister of State. I emphasise again that we are not talking about fracked gas. The question clearly and specifically refers to non-fracked LNG. I emphasise that point. Sometimes we feel as though we are not being listened to. Fracking keeps coming into the discussion. We are speaking about non-fracked gas. We have to be realistic because 2030 is a long time from now. I have a vision for north Kerry. It has a massive future in hydrogen and many other renewable sources of energy. In the meantime, something has to keep the lights on. If the lights go off, no one should go blaming the people of north Kerry. We certainly do not want to end up saying we told you so.

There is a commitment with regard to non-fracked LNG. The Government needs to take this realistic proposal on board. It cannot continue to bury its head in the sand. None of us likes fossil fuels. During the transitional phase something will be needed to keep the country and industry running. We have to be realistic, which is why we have to look again at non-fracked LNG. That is a solution. While it is not a long-term solution, it is certainly an intermediate solution.

I point out to the Minister of State that in my original question on the extra gas being allowed to fuel the data centres I stated the Minister was opening the door for a proliferation of fossil fuel infrastructure in gas and LNG use, and here we have it. The Deputy from Kerry is advocating for the first application for an LNG terminal. This is exactly what I was talking about. The Government's action of introducing the new gas infrastructure to facilitate data centres is exactly what is leading to the justification for the proliferation of LNG. That is not sustainable. The Government will tie us into a future where we cannot meet our targets. This is what its actions will do. It is exactly what I was getting at in my first question.

The plan is to reduce gas consumption. Between now and 2030, the quantity of gas being used will be reduced. We will have a reducing need for imports of gas rather than an increasing need. This is one of the reasons LNG is not a good answer. LNG is a large, very heavy, long-term investment. For this reason, the Government policy statement does not use the word "fracked". The policy statement notes that pending the outcome of a review of the security of energy supply of Ireland's electricity and natural gas systems, it would not be appropriate for the development of any liquid natural gas terminals in Ireland to be permitted or proceeded with. It is a general prohibition. The Deputy is probably aware of this. It does not just refer to fracked gas. The gas power stations to be built will be contracted on a capacity basis for ten years. That is the term of the contract. I was asked what the term was. It is a ten-year term for capacity.

Energy Policy

Questions (34, 36)

Colm Burke

Question:

34. Deputy Colm Burke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if a national retrofitting plan will be accompanied by additional supports in order to assist households with the cost of retrofitting their homes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [61308/21]

View answer

Brendan Griffin

Question:

36. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the position on a national retrofitting plan for households, particularly older housing stock; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [61550/21]

View answer

Oral answers (13 contributions) (Question to Environment)

Will the Minister and the Department consider providing additional supports to assist households with the cost of retrofitting their homes alongside the national retrofitting plan? I ask the Minister of State to make a statement on the matter.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 34 and 36 together.

The national retrofit plan, published last month as part of the climate action plan, set ambitious targets to retrofit 500,000 homes to a building energy rating of B2 or carbon equivalent and to install 400,000 heat pumps in existing buildings by the end of 2030. These targets represent a significant increase in the volume and depth of retrofit activity in Ireland.

The national retrofit plan is designed to address barriers to retrofit across four key areas. These are: driving demand and activity; financing and funding; supply chain, skills and standards; and governance. The initiatives outlined in the plan will cover all housing types and consumer segments. This includes a commitment to develop a new guidance document on retrofitting older homes built before 1940.

SEAI grant schemes will continue to be a central element of the Government's strategy to encourage homeowners to retrofit their homes. A new national retrofit scheme will be launched early next year which will focus on the delivery of B2 retrofits with heat pumps as well as the development and expansion of the one-stop shop and retrofit market.

The plan provides an unprecedented €8 billion in Exchequer funding to support homeowners to upgrade their homes through SEAI retrofit schemes, including free energy upgrades for households at risk of energy poverty. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will also provide additional funding for the local authority retrofit scheme. This is in line with the principles of fairness and universality which underpin the plan.

My Department is also engaging with the Department of Finance and the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland on the development of a residential retrofit loan guarantee scheme. This will enable credit institutions to offer loans with reduced interest rates to private homeowners and non-corporate landlords to make comprehensive home energy efficiency upgrades more affordable to consumers. The target for the introduction of the loan guarantee scheme is mid-2022.

Only 18% of Irish homes secured a building energy rating, BER, of B3 or higher in 2019. A great deal of work needs to be done in this area. We also have an additional problem now in that the cost of all building materials has increased dramatically. Have we sufficient supports in place at this stage? I am aware the Minister of State is talking about further announcements later on in 2022 but we are talking about 500,000 houses being retrofitted by 2030? There are issues about the skill set, the number of people to do this work and I am not sure if we have done enough detailed planning in this area. Can the Minister of State outline what plans are to be put in place over the next number of months to deal with this issue?

I agree with Deputy Burke. It is very important that we prioritise this area. All one has to do is to go on any property website, including daft.ie, to see the amount of stock there which are BER C, BER D, BER E, BER F or BER G. I refer to many of the houses I would have called to, although not many in the last two years but prior to that, particularly the older housing stock of older people who are living in very poorly insulated houses. This has to be a priority and we have to give people an option to avail of grants and loans so that when they are repaying the money, they are repaying money that they would otherwise be spending on fossil fuels and are now paying towards their insulation and warmer home, which ultimately they will be able to stop paying. This cannot come quickly enough.

We have to have a labour force to be able to do this but can the Minister of State speak to the level of research that has been done on the potential for wool to be used in insulation? We know that we have a very significant sheep industry here. I called for research to be done on this and there is potential there.

I will start with Deputy Griffin. On wool insulation, I can say that I know absolutely nothing about that and I will get a proper answer for the Deputy. I will not attempt to answer that without knowing about it.

Turning to Deputy Burke, this is a very significant plan for 500,000 homes and it requires 25,000 staff. A very significant amount of planning went into this even before the programme for Government was drawn up last year by the Green Party, the Government and the former Minister, Deputy Bruton’s Department, which had been investigating how to do this. There are some 25,000 people involved with a €28 billion investment, €8 billion of which was to come from the Exchequer. It is an enormous project and a great deal of work has been done with the Minister, Deputy Harris, to ensure we have a sufficient number of apprentices. This is very skilled work and is a completely new way of doing plumbing, in addition to the other work that is being done.

On the issue of inflation, I am working on that with the Office of Government Procurement. Public procurement in general and the whole national development plan are affected by these changes in inflation. That will also affect the retrofit plans.

My real concern is that I was speaking to someone in the past week who submitted their application to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, two years ago. It was only in the past week that the house was inspected. We have something to clear up in that particular area. What plans are being put in place to expedite inspections so that the work can start at an early date?

I concur with Deputy Burke on the need for speed which is really crucial. This has been talked about for so long and the current mechanisms that are there are just not going far enough or doing enough for people.

With the indulgence of the Chair, I wish to flag a matter that has come to my attention tonight. In my constituency, John and Fidelus Foley are well-known pillars in the community in Inch, County Kerry. In a matter related to the Minister of State’s portfolio, a monstrosity of a telecommunications mast has been built today right next to their house. I am asking the Minister of State to intervene with Eir to see if it can find a more suitable location. This is heartbreaking for the family and for the community. It is right next door to their house. It is an emergency situation and it has only arisen today and seems to have slipped through the planning process during Covid-19. It has left the family and community heartbroken. Could the Minister of State please investigate this matter and raise it with Eir as a matter of urgency as it is causing very significant hardship for people and, in particular, the family?

I want to use this opportunity to put a query to the Minister of State that I got through my constituency office from a couple-----

The issue has be related to the question.

It is. This relates to a couple living in Lucan who wish to install a new solar panel system which is coming in at a cost of €9,000. They are hoping to apply for, and are likely to get, the grant for €3,000 towards that. That still leaves a shortfall of €6,000. Would couples like that be eligible for the no-interest loans that the Minister of State is speaking about or is there the opportunity to enhance the schemes of those grants to make these solar panels and renewable energy products more affordable to people?

I will allow Deputy O'Rourke in but if I keep allowing Members in on a discretionary basis, those who are waiting for their questions will not get in. I ask the Deputies to use this facility sparingly. I know that the Deputy has not-----

I will literally be five seconds, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. If the Minister has not got them, can he provide us with the up-to-date figures on the amount of retrofitting that has been actually completed this year?

I will start with Deputy Higgins's question on solar panels. It is envisaged that one portion of the funding is provided through a grant, and another portion, presumably the remainder, through a low-interest loan which is unsecured on the property. That is what the intention of that is and it is to be brought in in the middle of next year.

There was also question on the roll-out and the rate of the delivery of these works. The funding for this increases every year because the money for it comes from the increases in the property tax. There is a constant ratchet effect where more and more homes can be upgraded every year. That allows us to build the capacity of the people who are trained to carry out the retrofits. We are expecting that 22,000 energy upgrades will be carried out over the course of the next year with the money that is available. It is in three slices. There is €85 million for upgrading council houses, €109 million for people who are homeowners but on low-incomes and another €100 million for people who are outside of that, which may presumably address Deputy Higgins’s question.

I will take Deputy Griffin’s question outside of the Chamber, which I think is the right approach because he has contacted me directly.

Deputy O’Rourke’s question was on the number of homes and I have given that answer.

Climate Change Policy

Question No. 36 replied to with Question No. 34.

Questions (35)

Bríd Smith

Question:

35. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications his views on the recently published Teagasc report on farm sustainability which found that greenhouse gas emissions from dairy farming rose in 2020 largely due to an increase in the average herd size; the way he plans to address this; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [61542/21]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Environment)

Recently we saw more protests to highlight the ongoing concerns that ordinary farmers have that they are going to have to pick up the tab for the failures of big agrifood corporations. What are the views of the Minister of State on the recently published Teagasc report on farm sustainability which found that greenhouse gas emissions from dairy farming rose in 2020 largely due to an increase in the average herd size? How does the Minister of State plan to address that and will he make a statement on the matter?

I thank the Deputy. The Climate Action Plan 2021 commits to reducing emissions from the agriculture sector to 16-18 MtC02eq by 2030, a 22% to 30% reduction from 2018 levels. This will be achieved by committing to a set of core measures which will deliver a minimum level of carbon emission reductions and also by a set of other measures which will aim to go even further. My Department has engaged proactively with the public, stakeholders, and other Departments to deliver an ambitious, fair, and achievable climate action plan.

The core measures outlined in Climate Action Plan 2021 include efficiencies across the agriculture sector and also diversification measures, including increasing organic production and the production of biomethane. Further measures will be required to meet the targets set for this sector and include the introduction of a model for carbon farming, exploring feed-related methane reduction solutions and conducting a diversification review which will include an assessment on the wider production of biomethane. Combined, these measures will ensure that the agriculture sector meets its targets for 2030 while also setting pathways towards climate neutrality by 2050.

The key metrics for the delivery of our climate ambition will be greenhouse gas emissions, farmers incomes and other key environmental indicators. The measures set out in the climate action plan will offer farmers ways to reduce carbon emissions at farm level by becoming more efficient and will also offer opportunities for diversification. These are opportunities which will protect farmers income and at the same time Ireland's reputation for producing high quality and sustainable produce.

I do not know if the Minister of State noticed that there was an article in The Journal reporting from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a non-profit organisation.

The article showed that the quite shocking increase in greenhouse gas emissions from the beef and dairy sector expansion was accounted for by two Irish companies, namely, Larry Goodman's ABP Meats, and Dawn Meats, to the tune of 7.5% of all European Union emissions. I contend that the increase in the dairy herd is not sustainable. I ask the Minister of State to address that point It is an intensity model that was adopted by the previous coalition his party entered into with Fianna Fáil in the Pathways for Growth initiative and it amounted to what has become a message to smaller farmers to get big or get out. That is why the smaller farmers are continually protesting their plight. Funding to the tune of €70 million was recently given to the meat industry. Where is the money for the smaller farmers? Where is their just transition? Why does the State keep pampering Larry Goodman and the meat industry?

The goal of our agricultural emissions reduction policy and our agricultural climate policy is not to reduce, increase or stabilise the herd. The goal is to cut emissions and, at the same time, to increase farm incomes. Those are the two things we are trying to do at the same time. How we get there is another question. We do not have to state that farmers must do it in a particular way. Methane is extremely damaging to the environment. The IFA is beginning to understand that this is a significant opportunity, that cuts to methane emissions will be very beneficial to the climate and that farmers have an opportunity in the context of methane not being released. The Teagasc report discussed many ways in which methane can be reduced but, whatever ways are chosen, farmers will be a significant part of the solution. Farming and agriculture are a different kind of sector from other sectors because they have the opportunity to sequester carbon. That opportunity does not exist in the transport or energy sectors, for example. Farmers have the possibility to have negative emissions.

There is a shocking level of emissions from the agricultural sector. I think the Government has just talked itself into saying it cannot do this. It says it must not do it, but it does not know how we are going to reduce emissions. We can do it in many ways but the Government will not reduce the herd. That is absolute nonsense. There has been a policy in this State to increase the herd steadily since 2011 and to create export markets abroad where they never existed previously. The entire policy is based on a food strategy that is unsustainable. At some point, this Government is going to have to answer for that. Even the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has shown that the agricultural sector accounted for 37% of greenhouse gas emissions last year in this country. There is no way around that. The Government is going to have to do something about the size of the national herd and the demands from the meat processing industry in particular. It is not smaller family farms that are responsible for this; it is being driven by a food policy that is all about exports from the meat industry.

The goal is to cut emissions and increase farm incomes. Farmers may choose to reduce their herd if that is the best way for them to get there. The Deputy referred to the Teagasc report. It states that total farm greenhouse gas emissions in dairy increased in 2020, largely due to an increase in the average herd size. However, greenhouse gas emissions per hectare on dairy farms remained relatively stable because the average dairy farm area increased. The greenhouse gas emissions intensity of milk production or, in other words, the CO2 per kilo of milk, improved. Effectively, this means that the average kilo of milk was produced with a lower carbon footprint. However, this improvement in greenhouse gas emissions intensity was offset by a higher volume of milk produced on the back of a larger average herd size. As such, farm-level greenhouse gas emissions increased on dairy farms in 2020. On non-dairy farms, however, farm-level greenhouse gas emissions on sheep and tillage farms remained stable in 2020, while farm-level emissions on cattle farms declined slightly in terms of per hectare emissions. Agricultural emissions are incredibly complex and a very simple solution to reducing them will never be found. It is much more complex than the other sectors. There are emissions and then there are removals going into soil, plants and animals.

Question No. 36 replied to with Question No. 34.

Energy Conservation

Questions (37)

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Question:

37. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if consideration has been given to converting oil heating systems to eco-friendly hydrotreated vegetable oil, HVO, biofuel instead of kerosene and other fossil fuels; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [61338/21]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Environment)

Has consideration been given to converting oil heating systems to run on eco-friendly HVO biofuel instead of kerosene and other fuels?

At the request of my Department, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, is currently developing a comprehensive national heat study for Ireland. The study aims to examine options to decarbonise the heating and cooling sectors in Ireland to 2050 and includes the examination of a range of options and pathways. These options include the potential use of sustainable bioenergy such as bioliquids in place of fossil fuels in heating systems. The national heat study is almost complete and I expect that the SEAI will publish the outcome of the study early in the new year.

My Department recently carried out a consultation on the potential introduction of a renewable energy obligation in the heat sector. If introduced, such an obligation would require the suppliers of fossil fuels for use in the heat sector to also supply renewable energy. The level of renewable energy that would have to be supplied would be based on a proportion of the fossil fuels supplied. The obligation could potentially be met through the supply of renewable gas, biomass or renewable fuels such as hydrotreated vegetable oil.

I expect the national heat study and the outcome of the consultation on the introduction of a renewable energy obligation to inform future policy and provide clarity on the potential role of alternative fuels in the heating sector.

That is an encouraging response. As the Minister of State is probably well aware, there are 700,000 oil-burning boilers at present in the country and nearly 700,000 gas boilers, not to mention 100,000 liquefied natural gas boilers. It is important for that fact to be recognised. There is a gain to be made in the short term here. We can reduce CO2 emissions by between 80% and 90% by converting many of those gas and oil boilers and availing of HVO. It goes without saying that up in the North technology is being trialled by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which is retrofitting many of its stock of houses with this technology. Other countries in Europe are rolling it out. Finland is a world leader on it. It is only a matter of time before Ireland unlocks this potential. It is very encouraging that is under consideration.

To give the Deputy more information on the SEAI national heat study to which I referred, it will focus on achieving net-zero emissions in the heat sector by 2050 but it also aims to provide a detailed evidence base, including technology and policy pathways, data and insights for the Government, industry and other stakeholders, and enhanced energy sector modelling capacity developed by SEAI. The completion of the heat study is expected in mid-January 2022. The publication will come out in a number of different sections, including: low-carbon heating and cooling technologies; district heating and cooling; electricity infrastructure; green hydrogen as a potential fuel for heat; sustainable bioenergy for heat; carbon capture use and storage; net-zero emissions by 2050; exploration of the decarbonisation pathways for heating and cooling in Ireland; spatial analysis; and energy efficiency potential. I look forward to seeing that report in January 2022.

As I stated, it is welcome, but I wish to put on the record that these boilers can be converted for as little as €200 and will reduce emissions drastically. Carbon tax is not a very popular topic in these Houses but, of the €9.5 billion over the life of the national development plan, approximately €5 billion will be reinvested into retrofitting programmes such as those we are discussing. I ask the Minister of State to provide clarity regarding the SEAI and the grant system it currently runs. Am I right in saying that anyone who has previously availed of an SEAI grant is unable to log a second request or application? Is that likely to be reviewed or changed? That is my understanding at present. As regards the full retrofit programme, many of the heat pumps that it is proposed to install in properties have a life expectancy of seven to ten years. We need to be cognisant of that in terms of affordability into the future and providing loans or other measures to people.

The Deputy asked earlier about examining the experience of other jurisdictions, including Northern Ireland. Of course, we will do that very carefully and we will see what experience they had with their renewable heat obligations and incentives.

He also asked about the SEAI and whether a person who previously received a grant can apply for another grant. He indicated such people are excluded. I will have to check out the rules of its scheme in that regard.

As to whether we can convert boilers to alternative fuel sources, part of my remit is the circular economy and trying to fix and remediate things rather than building new. Therefore, if at all possible, I will consider that. Of course, the Deputy can contact me if he has specific recommendations in that regard.

National Broadband Plan

Questions (38)

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

38. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he will address the issues raised in articles (details supplied) relating to the national broadband plan, including National Broadband Ireland’s corporate structure, financial arrangements, long-term viability and ability to deliver on the national broadband plan. [61546/21]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Environment)

I will not repeat myself completely but I ask the question again about the €175 million equity investment and whether it could be achieved by way of debt. Was that understood from the very beginning? Will the Minister of State go into some detail on what seems to be the early release of the performance bond? On the question of premises passed, the Minister of State has indicated the figure will be 35,000 by the end of December but are we talking about 50,000 or 60,000 by the end of January? Will he give an exact timeline on that?

The first question is about the equity investment, how much money went in, what form it was in and so on. The investors are providing equity funding in NBI Infrastructure and NBI Deployment through the purchase of shares and the provision of shareholder loans. Using both of these instruments is a standard form of investment infrastructure and this is in compliance with the project agreement. The interest earned on shareholder loans forms a large part of the overall commercial returns for the investors and this is aligned with the tender submission, which met the minimum requirements regarding financial standing and funding.

Clause 40 of the project agreement requires that payment of shareholder contributions on or before the effective date be in accordance with schedule 3.12 and for the agreed funding to be in place. The funding takes the form of a subscription guarantee agreement between Metallah and NBI Infrastructure and NBI Deployment plus a guarantee in favour of NBI Infrastructure and NBI Deployment from Granahan McCourt Limited. Subscription agreements between Metallah and NBI Infrastructure provide for a subscription for 1 million shares of €1 each, or €1 million, in each of NBI Infrastructure and NBI Deployment. We know this funding requirement is contained in the clause dealing with equity investment. There is also the issue of up to €178 million of 12% unsecured loan notes to NBI Infrastructure and up to €43 million in 12% unsecured loan notes to NBI Deployment, to be drawn down in tranches, with €4 million of this being a standby shareholder loan. We know these funding requirements are contained in clauses 2.2 and 2.3 of each agreement, entitled shareholder loan and rescue loan, respectively.

In fairness, the Minister of State has already agreed we need another forum and there was discussion on this earlier. We are possibly talking about a Topical Issues matter. I request publication of the results of the review to whatever degree it can be done. At least we can have the information in front of us before we have the wider discussion. I will go back to get the detail correct in my head.

The 35,000 premises are to be passed by the end of the year. When will the 50,000 or 60,000 premises be passed? We need that information. Could we have some information on the early payout of the performance bond? On the wider information, we will need some publication of all the detail.

I am absolutely happy to discuss with the Deputy the best way to get him the most information as quickly as possible. The whole purpose of this relates to the number of premises passed. We have a fixed-price contract for a fixed term and we must deliver 540,000 homes in seven years connected to fibre. That is the overall point of the exercise. It is to be done for a fixed price of €2.1 billion. We have a larger budget than that but that is what the contract states.

We have been informed that by the end of December, the number of homes passed will be in the order of 35,000, while between 50,000 and 60,000 premises will be able to order or preorder a service by the end of the year. For more than 121,000 premises, build is under way, demonstrating the project's reach and scale. In parallel, the Department is working with NBI to recalibrate the targets for 2022 and beyond to take account of the knock-on effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The focus is to continue to build momentum in the build, catch up on the delays experienced due to Covid-19 and plan for acceleration. Final targets for 2022 are expected to be agreed early in the new year.

The figure I am going to need is what we think is going to be passed by the end of January. We had it in our heads that it would be 60,000 and the big worry is we are also meant to get in that year that there would be catch-up on Covid-19 delays. We are expecting a plan for that around March, although we accept it will not kick in until 2023 and beyond. We also expected the seven-year programme to be accelerated into a five-year programme, with all this laid out contractually in and around March. The fact we will not make a reduced target is incredibly worrying, especially in combination with the reports from the Business Post and others, which have put into the public domain the serious questions that remain about the financial and corporate arrangements. I will be sending the questions I have put on record directly to the Minister.

I have given the Deputy figures for the end of December and they are projections. I do not have figures for the end of January but I will come back to the Deputy with those tomorrow. I am happy to do that.

ComReg's quarterly report details what is going on in the broadband market and it is completely independent of the Government. It reports that 120,000 Irish households were connected to fibre in the past 12 months, which is a 50% increase on where we were a year ago, which itself was a 50% increase on where we were two years ago. We are in the position where Virgin has announced that 900,000 of its customers are being upgraded over three years to fibre and Eir has announced it is substantially upgrading all its customers to fibre. SIRO has passed 400,000 homes and is planning to pass another 350,000 homes. We are probably looking at €5 billion in fibre investment and there is a major desire and demand from the Irish public to be connected to fibre. We are seventh in Europe for broadband connections and we are doing incredibly well. We are a technological centre of Europe and the numbers of our broadband and fibre connections are accelerating because of that desire. I will do everything I can to ensure the Government subsidies provides that fibre connection to people in rural Ireland on the dates they are supposed to be.

Waste Management

Questions (39)

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Question:

39. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he will expedite legislation to amend the Litter Pollution Act 1997 and the Waste Management Act 1996 to provide a lawful basis for local authorities to use closed-circuit television, CCTV, to detect and prosecute illegal dumping; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [61339/21]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Environment)

I ask the Minister of State about plans to expedite legislation to amend the Litter Pollution Act 1997 and Waste Management Act 1996 to provide a lawful basis for local authorities to use CCTV to detect and prosecute illegal dumping.

I thank the Deputy. It is a question close to my heart. I spent several years in local government and came across this matter. My Department published the general scheme of the circular economy Bill 2021 on 15 June 2021. It is my intention under the Bill to facilitate not only the use of CCTV but also the use of a broad range of audiovisual recording equipment in order to assist local authorities in their efforts to combat litter and illegal dumping. Drafting of the Bill is well advanced, as is, I understand, the pre-legislative scrutiny process before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action. The Bill will be published and enacted as soon as possible after pre-legislative scrutiny has been completed and I have considered the report of the committee. I look forward to receiving the committee's recommendations and will respond constructively to them.

A combination of legislation and guidance will help to ensure the processing of personal data obtained through the use of CCTV and audiovisual equipment may be carried out by local authorities tasked with enforcing both litter and waste legislation, thus providing an important deterrent in order to protect our environment from the scourge of illegal dumping while at the same time respecting the privacy of our citizens.

The Deputy knows this type of crime is often furtive and it is a shameful act. People do it when they think nobody's looking. We cannot cover the country with CCTV but in certain locations, such as at council recycling facilities where people might just rock up and throw stuff on the ground, it would really help with the problem. The use of audio equipment also helps and I have seen cases where local authorities call out people who are dumping through a loudspeaker. They record the details of a car, such as the registration number, and send them a fine afterwards.

Penalties are not the only element but there is a persistent recidivist section of the population - a small minority - that causes much of the waste being thrown around. I do not want to drive through rural Ireland and see sofas, cars and things thrown into fields. I would be very happy for us to improve enforcement and catch people doing this.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. As he said, none of us wants to drive through rural Ireland or even the outskirts of Cork city in my case, where we can see sofas, washing machines, dishwashers; you name it and it is there, unfortunately, in many of the ditches and dykes, especially on the county boundaries with the city.

The Minister of State mentions the response of the local authorities and all the local authorities I deal with are excellent in cleaning up initiatives and anti-littering units. They are well resourced and very good at their job. Unfortunately, much of the interaction I have with local authorities in Cork indicates their wariness at being saddled with becoming a data controller.

They say they are not resourced to do that and that is their big concern. If any changes are coming down the track, they need to be followed up with the appropriate resources and money. Naming and shaming is a contentious issue but, insofar as possible and practicable in regard to the general data protection regulation, GDPR, it needs to be considered.

Privacy concerns are the issue here and a number of local authorities have gotten into hot water where they have been found, by whatever State agency, to be breaching privacy concerns. With that in mind and in light of the precepts of the GDPR legislation, one of the rules concerns whether it is lawful to do something that is permitted under primary legislation. That is why, when I bring in the circular economy Bill in the spring with, I hope, the Deputy's help, we will provide in primary legislation a statutory underpinning for when CCTV can be used to enforce the law and to provide evidence for the prosecution of people who dump litter.

It goes without saying the Minister of State will have overwhelming support for that Bill when it comes before the House.

Does the Department have details on the numbers of offences and prosecutions that have been taken by Cork city and county councils over recent years? That would be illuminating. I recall sitting on Cork County Council with Deputy Cairns, when the numbers of prosecutions initiated or cases that came before the courts were minute. That is a cause of concern for me and others. This is about providing a deterrent to people in regard to their activity. As the Minister of State noted, it is a small minority who are destroying our beautiful countryside but we need to tackle them head on. I would welcome any information he might be able to provide on prosecutions and offences.

I echo Deputy O'Sullivan's comments and very much welcome the Minister of State's commitment to legislating for this. Waterford City and County Council was one of seven local authorities that were reprimanded by the Data Protection Commissioner on the basis the Litter Pollution Act 1997 and the Waste Management Act 1996 did not provide legal grounds for its actions. It is a case of legislation having to catch up with technology and with the GDPR to ensure councils will be covered in this regard because this issue is a significant draw on resources, in terms of both policing it in the first instance and the subsequent clean-up for those instances that are missed. As was noted, it is a significant kind of recidivist cohort of the population who engage in this, and we should use the full rigours of the law to stamp it out wherever we can. I am glad to hear the Minister of State's commitment to legislating in order that Waterford City and County Council will not again find itself in this position in future.

The statistics are really important because they show whether the law is functioning. I fully commit to providing county-by-county details on successful waste prosecutions and I will be happy to revert to the Deputies on that. Most people go to a lot of trouble to dispose of their waste correctly and wonder whether an item should go into the green or black bin or whatever the case may be. They are conscientious and they represent the vast majority of the population. They can be contrasted with somebody who, as was highlighted, might throw a washing machine into a field in a suburban area, well aware of what he or she is doing. That kind of person cannot be converted by a public information campaign. We cannot appeal to their better nature. The only thing they understand is prosecution, a fine and shaming, so that is the approach we are going to take.

I thank Deputy Ó Cathasaigh for his comments. I understand his local authority suffered under the privacy laws. The changes to the privacy legislation within the circular economy Bill will not be unlimited. They will be available to be used in certain circumstances only.

Waste Management

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.

Questions (40)

Emer Higgins

Question:

40. Deputy Emer Higgins asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if local authorities will receive support in 2021 and 2022 to help fund anti-dumping initiatives. [61307/21]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Environment)

My question is related to the previous one in that it concerns illegal dumping. Will additional money be made available next year to fund anti-dumping initiatives?

I was very happy to manage to secure additional funding in the budget for next year for anti-dumping initiatives, for exactly the reasons I was talking about in response to the previous question. Public information works for most people but not for that small cohort of society who are recidivist, shameful, furtive dumpers.

The annual anti-dumping initiative, ADI, was introduced in 2017 to encourage a collaborative approach between local authorities, communities and other State agencies in tackling the problem of illegal dumping. Delivery of the ADI is co-ordinated by three waste enforcement regional lead authorities and supported projects are selected based on their impact on four key criteria, namely, prevention, abatement, enforcement and awareness. Since its introduction, funding of more than €9 million has been provided by my Department under the initiative, which has supported the delivery of more than 1,000 projects in all 31 local authorities. Full details of funding, broken down by local authority and individual project, for each of the years 2017 to 2020 are available on gov.ie.

A further €3 million has been allocated to local authorities under the 2021 anti-dumping initiative. Payments are being processed and details will be made available on gov.ie when the process is complete. Allocations under the initiative for 2022 have yet to be finalised, but it is likely a similar sum will be made available to local authorities under the initiative.

The Department also continues to invest significantly in the local authority waste enforcement network under the local authority waste enforcement measures grant scheme. More than €7.7 million has been provided to local authorities under the scheme in 2021 to support the recruitment and retention of more than 150 local authority waste enforcement staff throughout the country.

That update was really great to hear. Unfortunately, littering and fly-tipping have become bigger and bigger issues recently. I commend the work of Tidy Towns throughout the country and particularly in my areas of Clondalkin, Rathcoole, Saggart, Brittas, Newcastle and Lucan. They do tremendous work using some of the grant funding the Minister of State mentioned and working with local authorities to make a big difference on the ground.

Fly-tipping is a particularly big issue in the rural areas I represent, such as Saggart, Rathcoole, Newcastle and Brittas. Unfortunately, items such as old mattresses and furniture are dumped in areas including Mount Seskin, Mahon's Lane and Baldonnel. Is there a role for CCTV, the audio equipment the Minister of State mentioned earlier or perhaps even drones to help stamp that out? Councillors Shirley O'Hara and Baby Pereppadan have done a great deal of work with the local authority on this. I would appreciate hearing the Minister of State's views on it.

Yes, there may be a way to use CCTV in places that are repeatedly used for fly-tipping. That is the way it happens. There may be a certain place or laneway that is very quiet, people will begin to use it all the time and the entire field will start to fill up. I will certainly examine the legislation to see whether CCTV can be used in those circumstances.

In my initial reply to the question, when I spoke about where money is being spent to reduce littering and improve waste enforcement, I mentioned that 150 local authority waste staff are being financed, which is really important. It is all well and good to give some money to local authorities to use but they cannot use it if they do not have the capacity or the staff. The funding was provided to ensure they would have that. They have that combination of capital and current funding. As a result, I would like the Deputy and any other Deputy with concerns to ask their local authority how it is doing with that. They should ask what the local authority's policies on this issue are, talk to their local councillors - I am sure the Deputy knows many of them - ask them to speak to their executive and to put this on the agenda of their council meetings, remind them they have the money, the staff and the capital and ask them what progress they are making.

That is really good advice and I will certainly pass it on to the county councillors in my area. Councillors Shirley O'Hara, Kenneth Egan, Vicki Casserly, Baby Pereppadan and others are doing a great deal of work to respond to littering in particular.

Turning to on-street recycling, I acknowledge we have invested substantially throughout the pandemic in new bins for parks, villages, towns and cities. With so much of our waste now capable of being recycled, is there a greater opportunity to consider on-street recycling? South Dublin County Council recently held a bulky waste recycling event in the run-up to Hallowe'en, where it charged a nominal fee for the recycling of bulky waste and took the hassle out of it all for people such that they would not have to travel to Ballymount or another recycling centre. It was a great success and we definitely saw the impact of that at Hallowe'en from the perspective of there being less bulky material available for illegal bonfires. What are the Minister of State's views on that extending that?

I have spoken to the Lord Mayor of Dublin, who brought in a scheme whereby there are yellow bins, which are not to everybody's visual liking, in the city centre that can be used for recyclable items, and I welcome that kind of initiative. The idea for bulky waste the Deputy mentioned is good. I had not heard of it but it could be something we would promote through other local authorities.

The Tidy Towns groups really came to the fore during the lockdown. There was little else to do and it is was hard to meet up with people other than by carrying out outdoor activities. Picking up rubbish was a safe enough thing to do. Much of the stuff people were picking up consisted of plastic drink bottles and cans. In the coming months, I will be bringing in a deposit return scheme. Anyone who picks up cans or bottles can take them to any supermarket or any place that sells such drinks and get a refund. The amount we will target is probably 20 cent per item. That will cut down significantly on litter. This particular type of litter has been very visible over the past year or two as a result of the outdoor drinking and parties that were happening when pubs and restaurants were shut. However, the overall volume of litter went down last year. We managed to reduce waste but the litter that was there was much more visible.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
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