Western society is plagued by a series of addictions but the one which affects us all, whether we are allowed to live among the wealth of the rich countries or in the developing world, is our addiction to finite resources. Nowhere is this more true as in our obsessive use of electricity. We live in a society which craves electricity. Even the offices which many of us occupy in Kildare House depend on air conditioning as the windows are sealed. We see our children turning from traditional toys to computer games and battery powered Furbies. Electricity seems to underpin these trends.
We must think seriously about how we can provide most efficiently the cleanest energy to the most consumers be it to industry or our homes. The Minister said this Bill will take into account environmental concerns. I am not sure whether she is referring to a gesture in the direction of environmental issues while concentrating on profits which private companies will be anxious to glean from this development and liberalisation or whether she has in mind sustainability and the activities in which the electricity industry would involve itself in being sustainable. Somehow I believe it is the former.
This Bill will enable the liberalisation of the national utilities. We saw this happen in other places. We probably know most about Margaret Thatcher's Britain and the mixed results there. In Margaret Thatcher's heyday we saw water, train services, electricity and mines fall into the hands of the highest bidders. Inevitably, it is harder to control a private company operating with a strict profit motive rather than those which operate with the public good in mind. In Britain this is evident in the privatised sector where the quality of water supply is dangerously unpredictable. Indeed, English horticulture suffers from droughts almost every summer and the trains are equally unpredictable.
The efficiency envisaged through privatisation has not always manifested itself regardless of what the mantra of the free marketeers might say. It has also had enormous human costs in redundancies and job losses. By letting foreign companies into the Irish market, we and the workers in the ESB need assurances that their jobs will be secure. If these assurances cannot be given, we must ask who is being served by this Government. The workers are not being served if that assurance is not given nor is the environment because the free market will not put it at the top of its priority list.
We have seen the dedication of workers in the ESB, especially when the Christmas storms forced them from their Christmas break to provide the valuable service for those who were without power. It is also important that the individual consumers are protected when such a fundamental amenity is privatised. The most vulnerable in this situation are those who live in remote areas. If it is no longer financially viable to supply a service to a local area, there is an imperative need for the State to ensure that everyone is provided with a high quality service. We must not see a situation where people living in remote areas are forced to pay huge amounts for a basic and necessary service compared to those living in urban areas where competition is thriving and proportionately costs can be lower.
On the other hand, deregulating the markets can have some positive effects. Examples may be seen in Britain where the market has been opened up and power producers may supply renewable energy to individual consumers. This Bill, however, shows the Government has rowed back on a number of positive assurances given by the previous Government in relation to renewable energy and that is of concern to that industry, as the Minister may know. These are tentative steps but they send the right signal to individual customers who want to make up their own minds about from where the electricity they use comes.
In Northern Ireland, individual households are allowed to choose what type of electricity they desire and are given the option of choosing energy from renewable sources. In this sense, deregulation can open up markets to those willing to supply energy from renewable and sustainable sources. Why has that not been followed in this jurisdiction? I will table a number of amendments to the Bill to ensure we do not slip and fail the renewable energy industry at this time.
The sections which call for firm targets on how much energy must come from renewable sources are weak and inadequate. Giving the customer the choice creates the impetus for the electricity companies to buy electricity from independent green producers or to provide the renewable sus tainable energy themselves. This country has for too long relied on brown energy from burning of fossil fuels.
The Government has, in accordance with the Kyoto protocol, committed itself to a reduction of the harmful greenhouse gases which are beginning to wreak havoc across the world. Ireland was given strict limits on its emission of greenhouses gases but already we have reached the target of 13 per cent over the 1990 levels. These levels were supposed to cover this country until the year 2012 and yet we have already broken that limit. We are seriously at odds with the commitments we gave. If Ireland does not put in place a proper greenhouse abatement strategy, we will exceed the 1990 levels by between 30 per cent and 50 per cent and will face the prospect of enormous costs in penalties.
There are a number of causes for the emissions of greenhouse gases. Many of these greenhouse gases stem from energy sectors reliant on fossil fuels. As we heard at the electricity directive forum on 22 January of last year, the ESB is by far the largest contributor of CO2 and that imposes a huge responsibility on this legislation and the energy sector. Ireland's failure to reduce CO2 and the emissions of other greenhouse gases will be deadly for future generations both here and elsewhere. Already, the issue of rising sea levels is having an impact on our coast. I have just come off the telephone having spoken to people in Malahide who have noticed damage to the coast which was not there before. Higher sea levels are obvious when the weather turns bad, and that is another aspect of global warming which is not being sufficiently acknowledged.
The Chernobyl disaster showed us how air emissions and environmental destruction knows no national borders. In that regard, we have an international as well as a national obligation in terms of this legislation. The price will not only be the environmental effects of such depletion of the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect. It will also prove costly to the taxpayer when Ireland has to buy greenhouse gas credits to allow us continue to spew out toxic gases. To stop this nightmare scenario we need firm action from a number of Departments, not least from the Department in charge of controlling the electricity markets. By inviting large companies into Ireland to pursue big business with the promise of cheap energy, we are stepping away from the energy conservation goals we set.
I met with the management of the ESB and a number of those at the meeting expressed concern as to who will continue carrying the responsibility for energy conservation when deregulation has brought about a liberalised market. The answer given by people in Government is the Irish Energy Centre, and that is supposed to be sufficient. I can tell the House, however, that the activities of the ESB in the area of energy conservation, from what I have seen, are much greater than any the Irish Energy Centre could hope to match. When I ask about legislation on the Irish Energy Centre I am told by the Taoiseach that it has been put on the long finger – perhaps to the end of the year 2000 – but we have heard those types of promises in relation to other legislation. There is a lack of seriousness when it comes to making provision for our huge obligations in relation to energy conservation.
Any marketing strategy by a new competitor in the electricity market will use the supply of cheap electricity to attract new customers, but there is no such thing as cheap electricity since the devastating effects on the environment must be taken into account. There is always a price to pay in relation to the destruction of finite resources.
Power producers hoping to gain a large market share in the deregulated marketplace will not tell the large companies that they can buy electricity from them at a cheap price and advise that they should try to use as little as possible. The ESB has had to promote energy awareness, not only to benefit customers financially but also to take responsible steps in relation to our environment. As a State body, the ESB has carried out this responsibility but with a number of interested companies the responsible attitude towards energy conservation may fall by the wayside in an effort to maximise profits.
The Irish Energy Centre is still waiting for the necessary legislation to set it up on a statutory basis. Now, more than ever, there is a need for a body which will advise on and campaign for energy conservation and achieve the kinds of targets we promised would be achieved. In Scotland, a percentage of each electricity bill is set aside, with the customer's knowledge, for energy conservation. Groups like Energy Action, operating on a voluntary charitable basis for many years, need the necessary funding to make a realistic difference in our energy consumption.
We must impress the importance of energy conservation on industry, which is the largest user of electricity in the State. As the Bill will open up the electricity market to the 300 largest users of power, this deregulation will benefit large companies that use vast amounts of power. On the other hand, the private customer is not given the right to buy green energy and is being asked to subsidise the ESB which will lose out on the deregulation. In California, where retail competition was introduced last March, competition transition charges account for nearly 30 per cent of residential bills. Should the individual customer be forced to subsidise over-use by the large energy users?
Irish people rightly have a negative view of nuclear power. By opening up the European electricity market we may be supplied by French or British companies which draw their energy from nuclear sources. This opens up new markets to the nuclear industries and removes the pressure to reduce and decommission nuclear power plants throughout the European Union. It is vitally important that there are strong rules which make it clear that we do not want to import electricity produced in such a hazardous manner. I urge the Minister to ensure this policy is continued.
It is vitally important also that when the household markets are opened up to competition there is proper legislation to enforce source labelling so that the consumer is aware at all times where and how the electricity has been generated. We know what it is like to live near nuclear installations without having a say as to how they are run or when they will be shut down.
In increasing the number of electricity generators and distributors in Ireland there may also be a doubling or tripling of pylons and substations. We have seen community protests at the siting of communication masts. Bearing in mind the environmental and visual impacts of pylons and sub-stations, there should be strong legislation forcing new companies to co-locate their transmission equipment.
In relation to section 27 to which Deputy Yates referred earlier, the Green Party agrees that this section restricts the possibilities of introducing green energy on a large scale. The Green Party will table amendments to the effect that the definition of "final customer" in section 27 should be changed. There are many instances where we have found that people want to purchase renewable electricity but do not conform to the criteria of the final customer. If a customer has any number of premises, he or she may not be seen as an eligible customer. This provision needs to be amended so that bodies such as health boards, banks and credit unions can buy together in order to give a large cash boost to renewable energy producers. If we are providing for liberalisation and increased consumer choice, it is crucially important that this applies to the individual customer or groups of customers who want to buy green electricity.
Increased competition is the mantra of the neo-liberals who want to increase the choice of the customer. This is said to lead to a healthy marketplace. It is blatantly obvious that what might seem to be healthy to that unknown beast, the free market, is often destructive to the earth in general, its tenants and the future generations who will inhabit the planet. The Government should do everything in its power, through legislation and policy, to encourage the production and use of energy from renewable sources as well as maximum conservation of energy.
It is instructive to note that an electricity generator supplying wind energy could supply a customer approximately 40 per cent of the time. Similar or lower figures apply in the case of hydro, wave and tidal energy.
In order to supply the customer who has opted for energy from renewable sources, there is a need for the traditional and dominant brown energy suppliers to be compelled to make up the balance that cannot be supplied by the green energy producer. A customer who decides to opt for green energy will be billed with two invoices at the end of the month. The technology is readily available to allow for this switch from traditional brown energy to green energy.
Renewable energies come in a random arrival pattern. The main positive aspects of renewable energy, however, is that the source is free. There is no ownership of the wind or the waves whereas oilfields are so heavily restricted they are a cause of military action. The exploitation of Irish boglands has destroyed over 80 per cent of a natural heritage unique to this country, a subject dealt with earlier by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands.
It makes sense to generate electricity in a way that is free and causes little or no pollution and health risks. Through the Bill the Government needs to strengthen its commitment to green energy by allowing for an amendment to compel traditional energy producers to supply the top-up electricity not supplied by the green energy producer. Unless the Bill takes into account the way the traditional brown energy suppliers will interact with the providers of renewable energy, the brown energy supplier can simply refuse to co-operate with the renewable energy supplier, and the latter will be left high and dry.
If a customer decides to buy green electricity there must be regulation so that the traditional supplier does not simply cut off that user. Allowances must be made for the use of more than one source of electricity since the renewable energy sector will not be able to provide 100 per cent of electricity from the outset. It is important that legislation introduced to liberalise or deregulate the electricity market in Ireland should take into account the enormous impact of electricity generation on the environment. We must ensure that in opening up the markets we do not open the floodgates to nuclear power and the careless over-use of power by large companies. That places a huge responsibility on the Minister of State to ensure the Opposition amendments are carefully considered so that the future of the electricity industry in Ireland will help and not hinder our international obligations and our progress towards a sustainable future.