Priority Questions

Post Office Network

Timmy Dooley

Ceist:

18. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if ongoing sustainability issues at An Post will be addressed; the reason many small communities are likely to lose post offices; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18304/18]

In light of An Post outlining a rationalisation programme in recent days, will the Minister, Deputy Naughten, update us on concerns that exist in rural communities where there is now a real prospect that post offices will close?

As Minister, I am responsible for the postal sector including the governance of An Post. I am acutely conscious of the value placed by communities in both rural and urban areas on services provided by post offices and am concerned to ensure the needs of those communities continue to be met. As part of the strategy for modernising the post office network, An Post has established a dedicated business unit within An Post, An Post Retail. Last week An Post announced its plans for a modernised post office network.  The vision centres around the availability of new services in a modernised, revitalised network. Such services will include a better range of Government services, financial services and e-commerce services for shoppers and small businesses. The announcement by An Post is supported by an agreement reached with the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU, executive following three months of intensive negotiations under the guidance of Mr. Turlough O’Donnell SC. While I am conscious that final acceptance of the agreement is still subject to a ballot of IPU members, the announcement represents a positive first step in reinvigorating our national post office network and making it a viable service that meets the needs of communities across the country, particularly in rural areas.

Operational matters relating to the company’s retail business, including the post office network, are matters for the board and management of An Post. I understand An Post has not made any definite decision on post office closures but there is no doubt that the move to electronic transactions has affected the post office network. Changes to the footprint of the post offices network, where they occur in the longer term, will be a consequence of the modernisation process as opposed to an objective of the modernisation process. That means over the next four years, some post offices may close, but that is solely a matter for An Post and the postmasters to work out through a defined process. The fact that there will be no compulsory closures of post offices is a highly significant outcome of the negotiations. The deal will see An Post invest €50 million in growing and modernising the network and includes agreement on a protocol which I specifically sought to help manage the modernisation of the network in a transparent and community focussed manner. IPU members will be balloted on the proposals later this month.

I am also pleased to advise that Government funding of €80,000 has been secured, through the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, for the roll-out of a pilot digital assist scheme. Ten post offices will be equipped to help citizens with online Government interactions. The ten pilot schemes will be located in rural post offices and will be in place later this year. Given the challenges it is facing, the company will have to pursue an ambitious agenda across its various business areas and there is likely to be significant change and new business models implemented in the coming years. This should be viewed positively as it will result in a solid, sustainable business future.

While financial and structural challenges remain, achieving a common view of the steps to be taken to regenerate the network is of great significance as the company rebuilds and takes action to secure the future of the company and the network. The agreement is a significant milestone and shows that An Post, the IPU and postmasters have the potential to work together to deliver a viable and sustainable future for the post office network to the benefit of all parties and the public.

The Minister may be aware that An Post over the last two days has offered, I believe, some 400 postmasters the voluntary opportunity to terminate their contracts for a severance package. That may well meet the needs of many of the postmasters concerned. However, I am sure it will not meet the needs of the communities that will be left without a post office. In his response, the Minister put a lot of stock on what the postmasters think and what An Post thinks. What about the communities that are losing a service? I can understand why An Post is taking this approach. The board of An Post has to look to profit and loss and to viability.

The Minister spoke of viability in his response, but what about the viability of the communities that will be left without perhaps the only service they have had for some time? Garda stations have closed and small schools have closed. I refer to the only facility with the harp over the door and that gives some inclination that the Government still cares about those villages. I want the Minister to put a plan in place to ensure those communities are not left without a service. It will require an input from Government. I refer to a public service obligation to ensure the services of a post office are available, even though in some of those communities we all have to accept that the services may not be viable on a profit and loss basis. However, if the service is not left there to facilitate the communities that still exist, then that community will cease to exist in a short time. In addition to the work An Post is doing, there is work to be done by the Government to identify what Government services can and should be delivered. We have heard a lot of talk about that for a long time with little action. We need Government investment to sustain a service that may not be viable otherwise.

They are two key aspects of this issue on which I have been highly focused. That is why, as part of the overall process, an agreed protocol has been put in place. Just to give an example, we could have a situation where there are two post offices within 700 m of each other. There is a broad range of situations here. It is not just about isolated rural communities. We have to try to develop a modern, robust network. Under the protocol that has been agreed between the Irish Postmasters Union and An Post, if a postmaster does not want to continue to provide a service it would be offered to another business within the same community or the business would be transferred to the next nearest post office. As I said, in some instances the next nearest post office may only be 700 m down the road.

The Deputy is correct in saying that we need to do more on the transfer of Government services into the post office network. As Deputy Dooley knows, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, made an announcement last week with regard to social welfare services. I have publicly advocated in the past and made a submission to the post office network business development group chaired by Mr. Bobby Kerr to the effect that we should be diverting more Government services, particularly off-line services, through the post office network.

I accept that but there has been a lot of talk on that from Government, particularly from the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, and others. In fact, the Minister and Deputy Ring had a dispute when they were senior and junior Ministers as to who had responsibility in this regard, the net result of which is that we are no further on.

The Minister made reference to 700 m but the reality is that the document refers to 15 km. It refers to a commitment that there will be a post office within 15 km for 95% of the rural population. The notion of having to travel up to 15 km to avail of a post office service is hugely problematic in many rural areas. That is beyond the reach of a vast amount of people who live in rural Ireland. Incidentally, there is no big concession here as that is what is required of An Post, as I understand it, under its contract with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. It is not as if something major has been given here. In reality, 15 km is far too far to expect people in rural areas to travel. I appeal to the Minister to work with An Post over the coming months to fill the gap the company cannot fill. The State must provide an appropriate level of subvention under a public service obligation, PSO, to meet the needs of rural communities. Nothing less than that will ensure that those communities have the capacity to thrive and be sustained into the future.

The Government gave An Post a €15 million loan before Christmas specifically to allow it to look at the modernisation of the post office network. The first practical step that the Government is taking is the digital assist pilot programme. Under that programme, post offices will provide access to a wide range of Government services. We have picked out ten locations for the pilot programme across the country at Austin Friar Street in Mullingar, Ballaghaderreen, Bandon, Buncrana, Claremorris, Dingle, Loughboy in Kilkenny, Oranmore in Galway, Portarlington in Laois and Tramore. The Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty and I are actively engaged in this to ascertain how we can bring more Government services into the local post office network. We are determined to ensure that is happening.

We are going to start sticking to the clock, as is my usual way of doing things. Questions Nos. 19 and 20 are grouped together. I call Deputy Stanley to introduce his question.

Departmental Reviews

Brian Stanley

Ceist:

19. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if his Department applies additional safeguards to maintain as much transparency as possible when both he and his officials are interacting with private and commercial interest groups, in view of the areas of the economy with which his Department interacts and the immense private and commercial interest parties from media, telecommunications, electricity and gas in addition to oil and gas exploration involved. [18303/18]

Timmy Dooley

Ceist:

20. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if he is reviewing his Department's protocol and internal procedures with regard to lobbyists; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18305/18]

I will not be expecting any more latitude than that given to the previous speaker.

The Minister's Department interacts with a lot of powerful and profitable commercial interests in the energy sector, including oil, gas and electricity companies, as well as in the media. There is a public service obligation, PSO, levy, for example, of €500 million to the renewable energy sector, while the national broadband plan will see the Department spending in excess of €500 million. In that context, what measures are in place to ensure transparency and fairness?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 19 and 20 together.

Deputy Stanley should not forget that my Department also deals with a lot of environmental NGOs.

My Department is responsible for a number of areas critical to economic and social development such as energy, climate action, cyber and environment which are complex and cross-cutting areas. As Minister, I am required to make significant and sensitive decisions to support the effective operation of the sectors for which I am responsible. It is not possible to make correct decisions without understanding their impact on those operating in those sectors. Therefore, of necessity, it is important to meet and engage with the sectoral stakeholders, including industry, to get a better understanding of the environment in which they operate if I am to make informed decisions in areas that underpin economic and social development. 

In recognition of my ministerial position, I and my officials are subject to a number of statutory requirements including requirements under lobbying and ethics legislation. The Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 provides that the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, an independent body, is the registrar of lobbying. The Act is designed to provide information to the public about who is lobbying whom about what. It provides for establishing and maintaining a register of persons who carry on lobbying activities and for a code of conduct relating to carrying out lobbying activities. The registrar has pointed out that lobbying is an essential part of the democratic process which enables or facilitates citizens and organisations to make their views on public policy and public services known to politicians and public servants. SIPO has established an easily searchable and free to use online register of lobbying at www.lobbying.ie.

Public bodies have specific responsibilities under the Act. Section 6(1) of the Act provides that the following persons shall be regarded as designated public officials or “the lobbied” for the purposes of the Act, namely, Ministers and Ministers of State, Members of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann, Members of the European Parliament for constituencies in the State, members of local authorities, special advisers appointed under section 11 of the Public Service Management Act 1997, public servants of a prescribed description and any other prescribed office holders or description of persons.

Section 6(4) of the Act requires each public body to publish a list showing the name, grade and brief details of the role and responsibilities of each “designated public official” of the body. The list must be kept up to date. The purpose of the list is to allow members of the public to identify those persons who are designated public officials and to serve as a resource for lobbyists filing a return to the register who may need to source a designated public official’s details.

In accordance with the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015, my Department publishes a list of designated public officials which includes myself, as Minister, the Minister of State assigned to my Department, currently Deputy Kyne, and my special advisers. It also includes the Secretary General of the Department, the five assistant secretaries and the Department’s head of technical section, petroleum affairs. In addition, the Department makes available the Act itself by linking to the Standards in Public Office Commission's www.lobbying.ie website, containing all relevant information regarding the Act, requirements for public bodies, list of public bodies, designated public officials and the transparency code. My Department's information on lobbying and its list of designated public officials is accessible on the part of the Department's website dealing with compliance. 

Section 5(7) of the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 provides that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform shall prepare and publish a code, to be known as the "transparency code", which sets out how certain relevant public bodies, such as ministerial advisory groups, may conduct their activities in a transparent way. By adhering to the transparency code, communications within these bodies would meet the exemption from the requirement to register and report on lobbying activities. This would be actively used within my Department in relation to many groups.

Finally, while I am satisfied that I and my Department adhere to all the statutory requirements on lobbying, I have discussed the issue with my Secretary General and he will review the situation and consider whether any changes need to be made to the procedures in my Department to bring further clarity to this area.  

I thank the Minister for his reply. He mentioned NGOs but I think he will appreciate there is a world of difference between, for example, the Stop Climate Chaos group, which is a non-profit voluntary group, and the likes of Independent News and Media, INM, Enet and other commercial companies. SIPO has published a code of conduct for public office holders. Under the heading, "Principles of Ethical Conduct", it states that holders of public office "have a duty to keep faith with the public trust placed in them" and it continues in that vein.

Section 1(5) states that in relation to the highest ethical standards, "office holders should at all times observe the highest [possible] standards of behaviour and act in good faith with transparency, fairness and impartiality to promote the common good". It further states they should "not be influenced in their official duties by personal considerations". The Minister is correct about the lobbyists. Contact between officeholders and lobbyists is to be expected but it should not give rise to a conflict with public duty or private interests. The issue here is that it is unofficial and official contact. Regarding records of meetings and contacts, in all cases where meetings are arranged for the purpose of the transaction of official business, the Minister should be accompanied by an official who would act as a note-taker. Considering the large amount of commercial interests involved in the Minister's Department, does he and his officials adhere to all these provisions? Are there two types of meetings with his Department and two types of contacts, both official and unofficial? How many of those occur?

We do comply with all the standards and the legislation as set out. As I said, I have discussed this with my Secretary General and he is reviewing the position to consider if any further changes are necessary. I can tell the Deputy that I will not be taking any phone calls from lobbyists in the future. The reality is that we do comply with it. If the Deputy looks at the register he will see there are 951 occasions on which my name is mentioned in regard to various interest groups that have lobbied me since I was appointed Minister. On average, that is approximately 50 per month covering a wide range of areas from the environmental sector through to communications, energy, broadcasting, media and across the spectrum. It is a very busy, complex Department. Many aspects of it are very technical and, as I said, I have discussed this with my Secretary General.

I thank the Minister. Can we try to bring this matter to a conclusion rather than have it drag on, which does not suit any of us? We all have a responsibility to this House to try to get it tidied up. There are a couple of straight questions the Minister needs to answer. First, will he accept that he provided confidential information, in other words, an insight into what his future intentions might be? Let us not dance on the head of a pin on that. Will he accept that three weeks later he came in here and misled the Dáil, albeit, I suspect, inadvertently? There is potential for all of us to do it. It is just a matter of addressing it and getting beyond it. Will he accept that his actions amounted to wrongdoing?

I do not bear the Minister any ill-will whatsoever. I have considerable sympathy for him in this instance in terms of the way he wandered into such a fire-storm. Nonetheless, he is responsible to the House so there are three things the Minister needs to do. First, he needs to accept that confidential information was given because it gave an insight into where the might ultimately go; he can put a caveat on it. The second issue is about misleading the Dáil, and the third is accepting that there was wrong done. It does not require the Minister to resign. Nobody has been demanding that, but it requires him to be answerable to the House. This issue will then come off his desk and those of everybody else.

No. I did not give confidential information, and I am categorical about that. I sincerely regret that conversation and acknowledge that it was a political mistake to have had it. I have learned from my experience and I sincerely apologise for that, but I did not give confidential information because I did not have any information available to me at that stage. The information I had was the information that everyone else in this House had or was available on Google. I regret giving my opinion in regard to it at that point. The reality was that three weeks later when I was here in the House I had an active file in front of me and it was a very different situation at that point. I have been at pains to try to point that out and I do sincerely regret it.

On the Minister's reply, the problem is that I asked him about this in October 2016. I asked him a priority question here in the House on 6 December 2016 on his intentions regarding that merger and what he intended to do and he told me, and the Official Report of that debate is available, that he had absolutely no idea. I think he even shook his head in terms of what he intended to do about it. The Minister can say he did not have the file in front of him at that point and that he had not entered into the process. I know how that works. I have looked at all of that in detail and I was following it very carefully at the time because we had huge concerns about it, and I had been raising it with the Minister for months before that. That is where the problem arises. I accept that the Minister has apologised. What we must do now is make sure that we tighten up this entire area.

The chairman of the company in question is also the chief executive officer, CEO, of a solar development company. I refer also to Bord Gáis Energy. He also sits on the compliance committee of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. I am not suggesting any impropriety on the part of any member of that company but I am saying that there is a very small circle. Dublin is a big city but it is a small town, so to speak, in that there are many people who have contacts. The Minister has told us his Secretary General will look at this issue. What particular steps does the Minister have in mind to tighten up this area? Will he agree that unofficial contacts with Ministers by lobbyists has to stop?

In my initial reply to Deputy Stanley's supplementary question I said I will not be taking calls from lobbyists. I have said to him that I have discussed the issue with my Secretary General and he will be reviewing the position to see if any other changes in procedures are necessary, but procedures are set out clearly in this regard. I have apologised for it. I sincerely regret it. I just want to move on and focus on the work in front of me, which is a very demanding job and a very demanding Department. I know that all Deputies present want to do the same. There is nothing more that I can say on this issue.

I want to let the Minister get on with his job. I want to get on with mine but I am still at a loss to understand why he regrets taking the call, why he has apologised for taking the call and why he has asserted that he will never take a call again if he did nothing wrong in the first instance. The facts remain that the Minister failed to understand that by providing an insight, a hunch or a personal opinion on his thinking, whatever it might be, that was confidential information. It is the confidence of the Minister's own personal information that is at play here, not access to some information in regard to his officials. The Minister had a hunch as to where this process was going and he gave that information to the lobbyist who passed it on. That is now forming part of evidence the Director of Corporate Enforcement is using as part of his campaign to appoint investigators. It was confidential information. That is what the Minister needs to accept. That is what he has identified as being regrettable in terms of taking the call. That is what he apologised for and he needs to start at the beginning and accept that he provided confidential information and that it was wrong. It is on a relatively low scale and it can be addressed in this House. Will he, please, bring this matter to a conclusion?

First, I did not give any confidential information. Second, I made it crystal clear that I would be guided by whatever advice I got from my officials, and the file shows clearly that is exactly what I did. The reason for my apology is because this is the fourth day in a row this House has been discussing the issue of a 30-second conversation I had in which I gave an opinion that I sincerely regret giving. That is why I am apologising to this House and to the public. The House has been preoccupied with this issue for four days in a row.

Broadcasting Authority of Ireland

Mick Barry

Ceist:

21. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment when the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland will begin its review of the ownership and control policy of media companies; if he will make a submission to the review; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18302/18]

I ask the Minister when the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland will begin its review into the ownership and control policy of media companies and if he intends to make a submission to that review.

Under the provisions of the Broadcasting Act 2009, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland is the contractor for broadcasting licences for both television and radio stations in Ireland.

In the context of that role and its obligation under the same Act to promote diversity and plurality in broadcasting services and the wider media landscape, the authority operates an ownership and control policy. This policy sets out how the authority will consider applications for broadcasting licences and variations to existing licence conditions in light of its obligations.

The authority is independent in the issuing of broadcasting licences and I, as Minister, have no function in this matter or in respect of the development, operation or review of the authority's ownership and control policy. I am aware that the authority has announced its intention to review this policy and that it has commenced a targeted consultation with relevant stakeholders. Dublin City University has been engaged by the authority to co-ordinate the consultation, in which my Department will participate.

The authority has indicated that this consultation will be completed by mid-July. Following this, the authority is expected to consider if any revisions to the current policy are warranted. If revisions are considered necessary, the authority intends that a revised draft policy will be the subject of a public consultation later in the year.

The authority has also commenced the drafting of a new plurality policy, which will be the subject of a targeted and public consultation later this year.

Both the authority's ownership and control policy and its proposed plurality policy are separate to the authority's role in the media mergers regime, as provided for in the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014.  In this respect, it is worth pointing out that the authority will be producing the second ownership and control report for the period 2015 to 2017 later this year.

This report describes the ownership and control arrangements for undertakings carrying on a media business in the State, outlines the changes to the ownership and control arrangement over the previous three years and analyses the effects of such changes on the plurality of the media in the State.

Does the Minister feel that changes are needed? On his watch, Reporters Without Borders has said that, in terms of press freedom, Ireland has slipped from ninth to 14th in the world. Last year, an EU report raised concerns about press freedom in Ireland. It said that there was a high risk as a result of the concentration of media ownership. The Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014 was put in place but despite its existence, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission gave the green light for the Independent News and Media acquisition of Celtic Media. The Department saw fit to refer that matter to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, which raises questions about whether the legislation is fit for purpose. Does it need to be strengthened? What is the Minister's position and what is that of his Department on the issue?

I will deal with the Deputy's final question first. On foot of the Celtic Media-Independent News and Media phase 2 assessment, I asked my officials to review the process to see if there were weaknesses in it and if it could be streamlined to operate in a better way. One of the criticisms of it and potentially other ones that would come forward is the time lag involved in turning around the reports. I am waiting for that from my officials.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has two functions. One is the ownership and control policy, which is different from the ownership and control report. Under the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has two specific roles in media mergers. One is in the phase 2 assessment, which has been discussed at length over the past four days. The authority's second role is that it must prepare a report that describes the ownership and control arrangements of undertakings carrying on media business in the State. The first report was published on my Department's website and the second is in the process of being compiled.

The Minister is as aware as I that there are serious concerns about media ownership and control in this country. There is the huge role Independent News and Media plays within the Irish media scene. One individual, a billionaire, has a near 30% stake in that company. The information coming out in the courts has raised serious questions. The Independent News and Media servers were handed over to Trusted Data Solutions for what is known in the trade as interrogation. The Independent News and Media board did not seem to know about it. The bill seems to have been paid by a company called Blaydon, which, according to the Paradise Papers, is a Denis O'Brien company. Those servers would have sensitive data, important issues regarding journalistic sources-----

I caution the Deputy about being mindful-----

Yes. The company would have had sensitive data about journalistic sources and yet it seems to be used as a plaything by a billionaire media mogul. This has given rise to serious concerns. Does the Minister have anything to say on the matter?

They are very serious allegations. The Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon, is looking into these matters and I have every confidence in her carrying out her inquiry into very serious allegations. There are two processes. One is about to commence and the other, which relates to ownership and control policy, is ongoing. It has implications, as has the ownership and control report. Let us see what will emerge from both.

Renewable Energy Generation

Thomas P. Broughan

Ceist:

22. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the national policy of his Department regarding solar arrays, solar power and the contribution such power may make to sustainable energy generation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16263/18]

We have all noticed over the past year or two a major number of planning applications for solar power arrays, particularly in counties Wicklow and Limerick and in Fingal in north County Dublin. What is the current level of proposed solar array power generation? How does the Minister see it fitting into the renewable energy strategy? He announced photovoltaic, PV, grants for households in respect of solar microgeneration on rooftops and so on a couple of months ago. What are the targets in that area? Why is the Minister loath to allow the microgenerators, which is all of us, to access the grid?

I will read the reply and then try to address the Deputy's questions.

The 2016 programme for Government and 2015 White Paper on energy recognise that solar PV has the potential to provide a community dividend, thereby enhancing citizen participation in Ireland’s energy future, and that it has the potential to contribute to meeting Ireland’s renewable energy and climate change objectives. While the White Paper identifies the long-term strategic importance of diversifying Ireland’s energy generation portfolio and, largely, decarbonising the sector by 2050, it does not set out targets for specific renewable technologies but rather provides a framework to guide policy between now and 2030.

My Department is developing a new renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, to assist Ireland in meeting its renewable energy contributions to EU-wide targets by 2030. The design of the new scheme has included an extensive economic appraisal which compared the cost of supporting solar PV, both rooftop and ground-mounted, and a range of other commercial renewable technologies, at various scales, to ensure that the new scheme delivers value for money for energy users whilst also delivering on the energy pillars of sustainability and security of supply. The analysis indicates that a number of renewable technologies, including solar PV, have converging and in some cases overlapping cost ranges and it is widely recognised that solar PV technology has become more cost-competitive for electricity generation over the past number of years, not only compared with other renewables but also compared with conventional forms of generation.  I am keen for this new scheme to encourage the diversification of renewable energy technologies in Ireland while being mindful of the need to minimise the costs to consumers through the public service obligation.

I am well aware of the very strong level of interest in solar PV in Ireland due to its potential role in Ireland’s future energy mix and I have written to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, highlighting my view that planning guidelines will need to be developed. In this regard, officials from my Department are engaging with their counterparts in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.

In January, I announced a proposed pilot scheme for microgeneration that will target solar PV and self-consumption among domestic customers, which is due to commence this summer.  Further details of this scheme will be made available when I have received a study being undertaken by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland into the likely uptake and demand for the scheme and have had an opportunity to consider its analysis.

I thank the Minister for his answer and I welcome his comments on planning. He referred to specific targets but surely he should have targets set for the 2030 and 2050 deadlines. The UK has 8.4 GW of solar capacity and Germany has approximately 35 GW. The Irish Solar Energy Association's chief executive, a former Deputy, Mr. Michael McCarthy, stated that the potential in Ireland was approximately 3.7 GW. Cost and the question of how it will impact on consumers are relevant issues. Has there been a cost-benefit evaluation of a subsidy for solar arrays via the public service obligation? Is such a subsidy being considered?

Regarding microgeneration, there was disappointment that the Minister did not introduce supports for the SME sector and farms. That would have encouraged wider microgeneration nationally. There seems to be great reluctance to allow microgeneration to feed into the national grid. In fact, the Minister stated that it is difficult to manage but surely that would be a task for ESB Networks.

Some supports are available for SMEs through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. Once we get microgeneration off the ground, I intend to see those supports expanded. The experience across Europe is that there are technical challenges with microgeneration. Strengthening the grid to deal with microgeneration output would require a significant amount of investment. In light of electric cars and so forth, the current trend is towards self-consumption. We can provide a cheaper and more effective solution to homeowners through microgeneration and self-consumption. We want to pilot this approach in order to determine whether it can work.

There are 658 applications to connect solar arrays to the grid. This would bring 6.533 GW to the grid. However, the current winter peak demand is 5.5 GW. As such, there is a significant oversubscription to meet existing, not to mention future, demand.

The number of proposals is extraordinary. It is welcome that the Minister and his colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government will work closely together on the planning front. When examining some of the applications, we were all struck by how one needed to cover the space of a GAA pitch plus a rugby or soccer pitch under an array just to generate 1 MW. Some 25 acres would be required to generate 5 MW. This means that there is a considerable issue regarding land use. Other issues have arisen during planning processes such as, for example, the impact on landscapes, the question of electromagnetic fields, inverters and transformers and the noise created by some of the systems that have to be used. That there have been so many applications is welcome, but the situation needs to be kept under observation.

Regarding the 2030 targets, does the Minister believe that microgeneration and solar arrays will play a fundamental role in supplying a more sustainable base load?

Yes. Microgeneration, rooftop, SME and ground-mounted solar power will form part of the energy mix over the next decade. To be honest, though, I suspect that the heavy lifting will be done offshore. This country's potential, in particular off the coast of Deputy Dooley's constituency, is significant. We need to develop that resource. We are on the cutting edge of research in that regard but we also need to be on the cutting edge in the context of deployment. We have many of the fundamental building blocks in place but we need to build on them. Solar will play a greater role in the first half of the next decade than it will in the second, when, in my view, offshore renewables will play a key role.