Other Questions

Bioenergy Strategy

Brian Stanley

Ceist:

23. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his plans to create an indigenous biomass industry in view of the fact that importing biomass for electricity production has been shown in studies to increase emissions; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that the power station in Edenderry, County Offaly, is using imported biomass and the ESB power station at Shannonbridge, County Offaly, plans to convert to biomass; and the further actions he will take to reduce emissions through carbon sequestration crops. [18026/18]

The issue of renewable energy is close to my heart. In 11 years' time, no more peat will be burned in power stations because of our international commitments. At best, though, we will only go a quarter of the way towards meeting our obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Under the programme for Government, we are supposed to reduce emissions by 20% by 2020. According to the EPA, however, the best case scenario now is 4% or 5%.

The programme for Government states, "We will support the transition of peat power plants to greater amounts of biomass, and we will work with industry to develop a sustainable indigenous supply chain." Where stands this commitment? The Edenderry power plant in north Offaly is importing biomass from the US. At one point, it imported biomass from Indonesia. The carbon footprint involved in transporting biomass all the way to Ireland makes a mockery of any attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental impact of burning palm oil husks from Indonesia and levelling forests in the southern US to feed energy plants in Ireland is crazy because it is causing an environmental disaster in those countries.

Does the Deputy have a question?

What will be done about this situation?

No more than is the case with Deputy Stanley, this issue is very close to my heart. I have a large personal interest in it. I should also declare two vested interests, those being, Lanesborough and Shannonbridge.

There has been significant progress to date in the use of biomass in Ireland. In 2016, 6.8% of energy consumption in the heat sector came from renewable sources. Of this, three quarters came from biomass. Biomass also contributes to renewable electricity production, including through co-firing at the Edenderry power station. In addition, bioenergy in the form of biofuels makes up the majority of the renewable energy used in the transport sector.

The draft bioenergy plan, published in 2014, establishes the broader context for the development of Ireland's bioenergy sector. It recognises that meeting the demand for biomass from indigenous sources could deliver significant economic and employment benefits and contains measures to stimulate and support the supply of Irish biomass. The plan highlights a range of supply-side and demand-side measures that are needed to release the full potential of the domestic biomass sector in Ireland.

Supply-side measures, such as support for bioenergy crops, fall within the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed. However, I highlight the recent significant increases in support under the forestry for fibre scheme that were made as part of the mid-term review of the forestry programme. These supports will provide an increased incentive for landowners considering planting forestry to supply the energy sector.

A key demand-side measure is the support scheme for renewable heat. I secured Government approval for this scheme in December and expect it to become operational later this year, subject to EU state aid approval. The objective of the scheme is to increase the level of renewable energy and reduce emissions in the heat sector. In addition, the scheme will open up new opportunities for indigenous biomass feedstock producers by incentivising opportunities for renewable heat technologies, including biomass boiler installations. I note that the scheme will include strict sustainability criteria covering the biomass supply chain.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

As operator of the co-firing power plant in Edenderry, Bord na Móna prioritises domestic biomass supply, with every domestic tonne of biomass displacing an imported tonne. I am informed that approximately 80% of the biomass supplied to Edenderry in 2017 was indigenous. Bord na Móna supports the development of the domestic biomass market via its bioenergy division, which works to mobilise the biomass supply potential of privately owned forestry, thereby providing further opportunities for sustainable indigenous employment.

The ESB operates the power station at Shannonbridge, known as West Offaly Power. I understand that the ESB plans to convert this plant to co-firing with biomass, along with the power station in Lanesborough, known as Lough Ree Power. While there may be a need to source some of the biomass for the stations internationally in the short term, the conversion of the peat plants to biomass over time can facilitate the development of domestic and local biomass supply chains. This is important in the context of the economic and employment aspects of the transition to a low-energy future, as set out in the national mitigation plan.

What I am trying to get across to the Minister is that while converting to biomass is great, we are only doing more damage if we are hauling it thousands of miles and levelling forests in other countries. I welcome that Bord na Móna has abandoned the plan to build a wood pellet plant in the US to feed plants in Ireland. Apart from the carbon miles on such imports, the environmental implications meant it would have been a crazy enterprise from day one.

Biomass must be grown in Ireland. There is an opportunity to do so on land that is not suitable for tillage. There are thousands of acres of such land across north Offaly, Laois, Westmeath and, I am sure, Roscommon. While travelling through that area down the years, I have seen land that is not good for arables but can grow willow and other crops that can be used to generate renewable energy and create employment. We must start creating a native biomass industry. The miscanthus scheme was a disaster and there were only four applications in respect of the willow scheme in 2015. What analysis has there been of which crop grown on marginal land is best for the sequestration of carbon?

What work is being done with Coillte, Bord na Móna, the ESB and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine? Farmers are burning straw and bushes all over the place, which is biomass. In addition, forestry thinnings are not being utilised properly. We need to join up those pieces and start to utilise biomass in a native industry, in addition to getting farmers on marginal land to grow willow and other crops for renewable energy.

First, 80% of the biomass used in Edenderry in 2017 was from indigenous sources. The objective is that the biomass in Edenderry, Lanesborough and Shannonbridge will be from indigenous sources. The supplier of the biomass to those three plants, and one of the major suppliers in the country in relation to the support scheme for renewable heat, will be Bord na Móna BioEnergy, which is a joint venture between Bord na Móna and Coillte.

To clarify, willow will not grow on marginal land so as to provide any type of yield. Deputy Durkan will confirm that for me. He is a far greater expert on the subject than I am. Willow will only grow on arable land. We have a lot of land that was traditionally used for beet plants not just in Thurles, but also in Tuam, that could supply biomass.

The most successful crop to date for planting on marginal land seems to be eucalyptus. That is being piloted on marginal land by Bord na Móna at the moment. Sustainability is one of the conditions in Lanesborough, Shannonbridge and Edenderry, and in the support scheme for renewable heat and for Bord na Móna BioEnergy, and every possible tonne of cuttings and biomass that is available in Ireland is to be utilised before we would consider any imports.

Farmers are burning in fields all over the country.

Farmers are burning in fields all over the country. One can see the smoke blowing out over the road. It would be preferable to use cuttings for biomass to feed the energy plants.

I impress on the Minister to need to get moving. We have had trials with miscanthus and willow. I know willow will not grow on very poor land but land is available that was used for arable purposes that is close to boggy areas that will grow willow. I welcome the trials the Minister mentioned that are being carried out on eucalyptus. We must involve the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in addition to Bord na Móna and Coillte. The joint venture is to be welcomed but the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has a significant role to play. Farm waste must be utilised. We must move beyond a view that the only products coming out the farm gate is beef, milk or pork. There are many other products, including farm waste, and cash can be earned from utilising farm waste properly. I urge the Minister to talk to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine about the issue to see how we can best approach it because it is not best practice to burn biomass in the corner of fields.

I agree wholeheartedly with everything Deputy Stanley said. All of those engagements are taking place right across the board. Specifically on farm waste, Deputy Stanley is correct. Within the national development plan, there is a specific provision to look at utilising farm waste and the brown bin waste for use in biogas or biomethane plants that would supply district heating systems to towns. That has been done very effectively in Wales and there is no reason that we cannot do it here. We are engaged on the issue. A working group is examining district heating at the moment. We are looking specifically at the Irish Glass Bottle site in Dublin. We are also engaging with South Dublin County Council on its plans for district heating. The intention is to have a blueprint that could then be replicated elsewhere across the country using farm waste and domestic organic waste as the feed stock for such district heating systems.

I hope the Minister has read my paper on biomass.

It is on my desk.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

24. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the extent to which he expects to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets as set by the EU and UN; if alternative energy sources have been sufficiently enhanced to meet the challenges ahead without damaging the economy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18017/18]

My question is somewhat along the same lines. I am seeking to ascertain the extent to which it is anticipated that we can meet the targets to which we have already signed up in terms of emissions.

Meeting Ireland's EU targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and 2030 will be extremely challenging. The latest projections of greenhouse gas emissions, published by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, in April 2017, indicate that emissions from those sectors of the economy covered by Ireland's 2020 targets could be between 4% and 6% below 2005 levels by 2020 in the context of a target that emissions should be 20% below their 2005 levels. The projected shortfall in our targets reflects both the constrained investment capacity over the past decade due to the economic crisis, and the extremely challenging nature of the target itself. In fact, it is now accepted that Ireland's 2020 target was not consistent with what would be achievable on an EU wide cost-effective basis. For 2030, the recently agreed EU effort sharing regulation sets out binding annual greenhouse gas emission targets for each member state for the period from 2021 to 2030. Ireland’s target under this regulation will be for a 30% reduction in 2005 levels of emissions by 2030.

To meet these targets, Ireland's first statutory national mitigation plan, which I published in July last year, provides a framework to guide investment decisions by Government in domestic measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The purpose of the plan is to specify the policy measures required in order to manage Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions at a level appropriate for making progress towards our long-term national transition objective as set out in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, as well as to take into account existing EU and international obligations on the State in relation to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Although this first plan will not provide a complete roadmap to achieve the national transition objective to 2050, it begins the process of development of medium and long-term options to ensure that we are well positioned to take the necessary actions in the next and future decades.

Building on the national mitigation plan, the publication in February of the national development plan will lead to a significant step change in funding available for climate action over the next decade. Almost €22 billion will be directed, between Exchequer and non-Exchequer resources, which is €1 in every €5 of all the funding set out in the national development plan.

Will the Minister consider a multifaceted accelerated programme, each facet of which would make a major contribution in its turn to a reduction in greenhouse gases? I refer, for example, to a greater encouragement of and reliance on electric cars, a greater reliance on forestry which can utilise marginal land such as bogland that only needs to be harvested once every 30 or 40 years, and greater use of existing solar and wind energy where possible. Solar energy can and should be generated on marginal land to a far greater extent. We must also consider the plantation of species more readily capable of sequestering carbon such as the ones that are well known like Sitka spruce and western red cedar, which have the capacity to absorb something like four times the level of carbon as ash, sycamore or other such species of tree.

Exactly - where to begin? Biodiversity is also an issue to be considered in this regard. Right across my own part of the country there is effectively a monoculture in relation to forestry. The investment that we make today in terms of forestry will really only have an impact on our climate targets post 2030. The investment that we made 15 or 20 years ago is having an impact today and for the next decade. That is already counted in. Part of the problem is investing today to get a long-term dividend.

Deputy Durkan raised other issues such as biodiversity and land use management. There is a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change report due out at the end of next year which will look at land use and land use change, which I think will drive a lot of the discussion in that regard.

We are now rolling out a programme across the country for electric vehicles. A substantial number of motor dealers now provide test drives. A roadshow will be rolled out at agricultural shows, shopping centres and at various events with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, over the summer months so that people get the opportunity to test drive electric vehicles.

There is no doubt that an electric vehicle is the solution for the vast majority of commuters today.

I thank the Minister. From my own information, I believe that there are a number of options, including forestry, that will have a greater effect than is anticipated, and much earlier than anticipated, because some of the species grow rapidly and, in so doing, absorb a great deal of the gases that we are so concerned about. I do not think biomass is viable as a long-term solution. It would not be a good idea to become dependent on it since the entire country would need to be planted in biomass, and half the neighbouring island too, and I am not sure it would agree to that. It would be hugely beneficial if the Minister were to set a new campaign in motion to identify those issues that are most likely to have a considerable impact with the least impact on the environment other than a beneficial one, and, more importantly, less of an impact on agrifood businesses on which this country depends greatly for a living.

I need more than a minute to answer that question.

With regard to biomass, in the long term, biomass is an effective feedstock for heat. In the short term, we are looking at it with regard to power generation but it is far more effective for heat. As we start harvesting our forestry crops, the leftover residues will be the main bulk to provide that feedstock. Biomass crops can complement that to ensure that we are not importing biomass from halfway around the world. The Deputy is right that there needs to be a far broader debate. It comes back to the conversation I had with Deputy Stanley earlier about some of the resources that we have on farms. One of the biggest challenges I have relates to air quality in the short term, meeting our ammonia targets, and the better management by farmers of the use of slurry, not just from an environmental and water quality perspective. Also, this year, because of the financial constraints on farmers, we need to use slurry as a fertiliser rather than it being perceived by farmers as a waste.

I propose to move on to Question No. 27. Would Deputy Durkan be free to take the chair for about four minutes to cover my question?

I can manage for four minutes if it is coming up quickly because I have questions at a committee too.

It is coming up immediately. We will take Deputy Stanley's question No. 27 first and then come back to mine.

Question No. 25 replied to with Written Answers.
Question No. 26 taken after Question No. 30.

Recycling Policy

Brian Stanley

Ceist:

27. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the way in which he plans to reduce the amount of plastic packaging being produced in view of the pollution levels in oceans and rivers from plastics. [18027/18]

Kevin O'Keeffe

Ceist:

30. Deputy Kevin O'Keeffe asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if there is a strategy in place or planned to provide incentives to establish a plastics recycling unit here. [16262/18]

My question relates to the major problem with plastic packaging. The Minister knows that the Sick of Plastic campaign day last Saturday by Friends of the Earth and others was a big success. There is a significant public appetite for change and the public is switched on to this issue. Young people specifically are tuned into what we need to do. We need to step up to the plate in this House, turn industry in a different direction and reduce the massive and completely unnecessary volumes of plastic waste.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 27 and 30 together.

Tackling the negative impact of plastic on our environment is a national and global challenge. I am working with my colleagues in Government and internationally to ensure that Ireland acts to protect our environment and at the same time provides new opportunities in a circular economy. I recently wrote to EU Commissioner Karmenu Vella, who has responsibility for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries, to welcome the European strategy on plastics. I assured him that Ireland will fully embrace the ambition of the new strategy and indeed will strive to go beyond it. In response to the list of measures announced, I asked the Commissioner to focus, in particular, on the more difficult non-recyclable plastics, such as soft wrapping, film and single-use items like coffee cups and plastic cutlery. The Commission has indicated that an announcement will be made next month about its intentions in this area. I believe that this will support EU member states in taking action on single-use items and will result in new legislative proposals to take action at a European market level.

In that context, since I first mooted the introduction of a levy on single-use non-recyclable coffee cups, some retailers are now moving to replace their non-recyclable cups with compostable cups. To support the elimination of single-use plastic cups by industry, I do not intend to introduce a levy on compostable cups. However, I am looking at a range of other potential levies on single-use plastic items, unless there is constructive engagement by industry with my Department to eliminate these environmentally damaging plastic items. I am also looking at the plastic strategy's recommendations for national administrations to see what else can be delivered in a short timeframe. Many of the measures recommended in the strategy are already well-embedded into Irish resource management. These measures include the existing extended producer responsibility schemes run by Repak and the Irish Farm Film Producers Group, the landfill levy, and the plastic bag levy, as well as robust enforcement around illegal dumping and landfilling.

Although I am pleased that consecutive annual national litter pollution monitoring surveys have shown that the litter situation has been generally improving across the country, I am still concerned that fines for offences under the Litter Pollution Acts do not serve as a sufficient deterrent. Therefore, it is my intention to seek Government approval for substantial increases in the near future. Similarly, consumers need to be supported in their efforts to do the right thing around plastic recycling. The recent national recycling list and recycling ambassador programme try to ensure these valuable materials are used as a resource for our communities and economy rather than being wasted. I have asked the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment to look at the merits of a deposit and refund scheme at a national level. I look forward to working with the committee when it delivers its final report. In the meantime, I have asked my officials to set up a pilot scheme. This will allow me assess the likely impacts of the deposit and refund scheme in an Irish context. On marine plastic, my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, will bring in a Bill to prohibit the manufacturing, selling, importing or exporting of cosmetics, personal care products, detergents and scouring agents containing plastic microbeads that are liable to be washed into wastewater systems with the potential to reach our rivers, lakes and seas.

I thank the Minister for the reply. Some 983,380 tonnes of packaging waste were created in 2015, with 32% of plastic waste escaping collection, and that is a huge figure. The Minister referred to marine plastic. The study published by NUI Galway showed that 70% of fish in a remote part of the North Atlantic had plastic in their stomachs, having ingested it, which shows that we have a real problem. We saw the plastic islands in the ocean on television recently. This issue is now coming to the top of the public agenda. I ask the Minister to bring in a ban on microbeads. There is no need for microbeads in toothpaste or washing powder. There is no need for it in anything. It is simply a gimmick on supermarket shelves. Let us ban microbeads completely. I ask the Minister to do that.

China said it will not take our waste mountain of plastic because much of it is contaminated. If we have to send plastic waste abroad, we are trying to stop it at the wrong end. We need to stop and reduce the manufacturing of it. What are the alternatives to China and what will happen to the mountain of plastic waste that was being shipped out?

We will ban microbeads. It would have been more helpful if this could have been done at a co-ordinated European level rather than a domestic level but we are determined to bring forward legislation in this area to ban microbeads.

With regard to China, a reason that the Chinese closed the market was the scale of contamination. We are trying to reduce the contamination and that is why we have, as of last November, a uniform recycling list across the country. Whether one uses a green bin or a blue bin in different parts of the country, the same recyclables go into it. We are trying, through recycling ambassadors, to encourage people to present the recyclable material in a clean manner. The Deputy is right that the priority must be not to generate the waste in the first place or if we are generating that waste, for it to be in a manner that can be easily recycled. I am taking this up with my colleagues on the Council of Ministers, both privately and publicly, and directly with the Commission. I hope that we will make progress in this area in the short term.

One might wonder what would happen if we did not have voluntary groups picking rubbish from the rivers and canals. The Minister may have seen the group on television the other evening of people in Dublin picking up plastic rubbish from rivers and canals around the city. That happens right across the country and we support greater enforcement. The "Sick of Plastic" campaign run last Saturday indicates there is a major appetite among citizens to reduce this huge volume of plastic, as 40% of Europe's plastic is in packaging. We need a new initiative. The Minister mentioned a deposit and return scheme and I brought forward a Bill to reduce the amount of plastic waste and to put in place such a deposit and return scheme based on the model being used in other countries.

We also need to have changes to the household waste collection process as in parts of the country it is not fit for purpose. I ask the Minister, through Repak and the Department's enforcement activities, to encourage a reduction in the production of plastic. We must get this across to manufacturers. If we can stop the supply being fed through manufacturers to wholesalers, to retailers and to the shopper, we will be winning.

I am concerned by Deputy Stanley's comment on the collection system not being fit for purpose. If he has any specific details, I would like to hear them. I do not like hearing such comments and we want to ensure we have a system that is fit for purpose.

The Deputy is 100% correct that the priority must be on trying to reduce generation of this in the first place. What comes to mind is something on Twitter recently where a retailer in Italy sold peeled oranges in plastic containers, and this led to a huge public outcry. Consumers are moving against such a practice. The initiative taken by Super Valu on Saturday and which is practiced by some of the Super Valu supermarkets across the country on an ongoing basis is like something we have been discussing privately with the retail sector. Super Valu must be complimented on that. If much of the waste is collected in supermarkets, the retailers and producers will very quickly realise they must take action quickly on the matter.

The Minister should start discussing it with Dunnes Stores.

Waste Disposal

John Lahart

Ceist:

26. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the measures being taken to combat the emerging challenge of the shortage of sites for the licensed disposal of construction waste; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16265/18]

I ask about the measures being taken to combat the emerging challenge arising from a shortage of sites for the licensed disposal of construction waste and whether the Minister will make a statement on the matter.

I thank Deputy Lahart but I did not think he was going to ask the question.

Waste management planning, including that regarding infrastructure provision, is the responsibility of local authorities under Part II of the Waste Management Act 1996, as amended. Under section 60(3) of that Act, I am precluded from exercising any power or control in the performance, in specific cases, by a local authority of its statutory functions under the Act. However, my Department has and will continue to engage with the three regional waste management planning lead authorities and other environmental regulatory bodies on the issue of having sufficient capacity and systems in place to manage construction and demolition waste.

Soil and stone waste management capacity challenges were raised by the Construction Industry Federation in 2016. In December 2016, the regional waste management planning offices jointly published a report on national construction and demolition soil and stone recovery and disposal capacity. Meetings were held in 2017 between my Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the County and City Management Association, the regional waste management planning offices and the Construction Industry Federation to discuss construction and demolition waste issues arising, primarily the capacity of the sector's arrangements to manage its soil and stone. It has been acknowledged that the granting of a number of waste licences by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2017 for clean soil and stone facilities has addressed this issue.

Additional options for clean soil and stone capacity are being considered. In January 2018, my Department issued a short consultation paper to stakeholders on the tonnage thresholds for waste management facilities for the recovery of soil and stone. My Department is currently considering approximately a dozen submissions received in that regard. Finally, it is also intended shortly to convene a construction waste resource group, which will comprise the key construction and demolition waste stakeholders. It will provide a useful platform to discuss and monitor construction and demolition waste issues, including the capacity of the sector to manage its construction and demolition waste.

This question was prompted as a result of a recent article in a Sunday newspaper. There is always the possibility of illegal dumping as a result of a lack of capacity. Is the Minister satisfied the capacity is there to deal with the problem, particularly with the ambitious plans that the Government has in the context of Project Ireland 2040 in the Dublin area, for example? An amount of excavation work would be required for a number of projects. I note the Minister's comments on the convening of the group and I know he does not have direct responsibility for this. Will he agree to revert to the Dáil on the progress made with the group?

I am absolutely quite happy to report either through the committee or in another way about the group. There is no problem in doing that.

There are three types of construction waste and I need to get my own head around this. There is "clean" or greenfield construction waste, which is topsoil and stone on a greenfield site. There is brownfield construction waste, which could include the demolition of an existing building or brownfield site that contains non-hazardous soil. There is also construction and demolition finds, sorting of residues and rubble. We have sufficient capacity to deal with greenfield sites. We do not have enough capacity to deal with brownfield sites and rubble. There is a concern that in the second half of this year we will not have enough capacity in the country to meet demand. That is why this group has been set up.

There is currently engagement with the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, looking at possible uses for some of this waste and a licensing regime must be gone through. I understand the EPA is currently awaiting information from the Construction Industry Federation on that aspect, and this would allow it to be in a position to make a decision on alternative uses for some of the construction and demolition waste.

Broadband Service Provision

Bobby Aylward

Ceist:

28. Deputy Bobby Aylward asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the measures contained within the national broadband plan to ensure equality in the roll-out of broadband services for rural areas, rural communities and regional towns; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18015/18]

Will the Minister outline the measures contained in the national broadband plan to ensure equality in the roll-out of broadband services for rural areas, communities and regional towns?

I welcome the opportunity to provide the house with an update on the Government's national broadband plan. The plan aims to ensure that every citizen and business has access to a high-quality, high-speed broadband service. This will be achieved through a combination of commercial investments and a State-led intervention in areas where commercial services will not be provided. The intervention area to be served by the State intervention includes some urban areas but it predominantly covers rural and regional Ireland, which requires a step change to bridge the digital divide separating it from urban counterparts.

As the Deputy knows, my Department is in a formal procurement process to select a company that will roll out a new high-speed broadband network in the State intervention area. That procurement process is now in its final stages. My Department will engage with the successful bidder on the most efficient roll-out of the network. As part of the deployment, the successful bidder will be required to provide early high-speed connectivity to the previously identified high-speed strategic community access hubs across the country. The network that will be built by the successful bidder in the State intervention area will be a fully open access network providing wholesale telecommunications services. The contract will mandate that all retail service providers have open access to the infrastructure, which should result in consumers having access to a range of providers. The terms and conditions of this access will be monitored through the contract.

To answer the Deputy's question, there will be equal access to this network. It will be built by enet-SSE.

It will be a wholesale company and will lease that line to the traditional retailers available in Kilkenny city and every other city across the country to provide the same package and offer to people in rural areas.

I wish to point out that the mechanisms currently in place for public representatives to follow up on behalf of their constituents in respect of broadband are basically non-existent. That is important. I recently contacted the Department’s dedicated broadband email helpline regarding a constituent of mine in Ballybeg, Rossbercon, New Ross, whose case I have previously raised with the Minister. The residence is located in the middle of a dark blue area on the national broadband plan map but has no access to broadband. It took a month to secure a response from the Minister's Department stating that it is aware of a number of residences in dark blue areas which cannot access high-speed broadband and that it is keeping a list of same. I had to read that a few times before I could believe it. I had to wait a month for an email telling me that the Department is keeping a list. Meanwhile, my constituent is surrounded by neighbours who all have access to high-speed broadband but he cannot access it and no one can explain why. As the endless wait for works to commence under the national broadband plan rumbles on, will the Minister speak to his officials about providing an adequate service to public representatives? Will he speak to Eir about setting up a dedicated Oireachtas query line similar to those for the ESB, Electric Ireland and Ordnance Survey Ireland, OSI? It is important that is done to facilitate Members in representing their constituents.

I apologise to Deputy Aylward for the delay in responding to him, which is not good enough. I have previously raised the issue with my officials and I will do so once more on foot of the Deputy's comments.

As regards Eir, I hope to meet with its new owners early next month and I will inform them of the Deputy's comments on a query line for Members.

On the dark blue area, there is a problem across the country with areas in which we are told by private operators that high-speed broadband is available but it is not so available at a minimum of 30 mb per second 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That is why on several occasions in the House before we locked down the map I asked Members to make the public aware that if they were in a dark blue area but were not receiving that minimum basic standard, they should come forward with their postcode so we could amend the map. We are noting all such areas. We will amend the map to reflect that, and those areas and premises will be addressed through a universal service obligation or the national broadband plan. All premises, whether in O'Connell Street in Dublin or the most peripheral part of County Kilkenny, County Roscommon or County Clare, will have access to high-speed broadband.

I ask the Minister to request that service when he speaks to Eir. A similar service is available with other organisations such as the ESB and is very helpful for Members in making representations. I ask the Minister to facilitate that dedicated line with Eir such that Members of this House can represent their constituents and find out what the problem is, unlike the situation I have raised whereby I received no response for a month and the response then received was negative.

Is the Minister worried that there is only one bidder left for the contract to roll out the national broadband plan? We started off with three or four, which became two and then, eventually, one. In terms of competition, is the Minister satisfied that the remaining bidder will be able to provide the service he envisages according to the timescale he has set out? Is 2020-21 still the date for the roll-out of that broadband? Will the Minister stick to that target or will it be pushed out in six months' time, as has happened before?

I will take up with Eir the issue of a dedicated line for Members.

As regards there being one bidder remaining for the contract, I am confident that we can roll this out. From engagement with the company, I believe it is ascertaining how it can fast track the build and it is already engaging in that regard. Significant progress has been made since this issue was last discussed in the House and I am determined that the contract will be signed as quickly as possible and, more importantly, that the final phase of the roll-out across the country will begin. We expect that 90% of the country will be covered by 2020. The Comreg quarterly reports indicate significant ongoing improvements in the quality and coverage of broadband that people have and provide evidence of a significant step up in that regard. However, I will not be happy until every home, business and farm has access to high-speed broadband.

Question No. 29 replied to with Written Answers.
Question No. 30 taken with Question No. 27.

National Broadband Plan Implementation

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

31. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the progress expected in 2018 in the upgrade of broadband telecommunications infrastructure throughout counties Cavan and Monaghan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18012/18]

Niamh Smyth

Ceist:

43. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the status of the roll-out of the national broadband plan; and if his attention has been drawn to the fact that businesses, students and public services in counties Cavan and Monaghan have been negatively impacted due to poor access to high-speed internet in many areas. [17845/18]

The Minister is aware from the ongoing representations I have made to him in meetings that the totally inadequate broadband telecommunications infrastructure in Cavan-Monaghan is a source of serious concern to households, businesses, farmers and the entire community. Although there have been some launches of upgraded infrastructure by various companies, there is a constant concern about the delays and tardiness in having the infrastructure upgraded. Can the Minister ask the companies to give some priority to the Border region in view of the many difficulties we currently face and those we will face due to Brexit?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 31 and 43 together.

I am glad to return the topic of the national broadband plan and to speak on the matter of broadband services in counties Cavan and Monaghan in particular. As I have related to the House previously, I am only too aware of the impact a lack of reliable high-speed broadband has on the ability of citizens to carry out important tasks in their daily lives. I fully acknowledge the impact this has on people in Cavan and Monaghan which, along with my own county of Roscommon and County Galway, are among the areas with the lowest percentage of premises having access to high-speed broadband. I am certain the Deputies’ constituents have voiced their frustrations and concerns on this matter just as strongly as mine. The importance of this service to all citizens underpins the Government's continued commitment to the national broadband plan. 

Some 19,500 premises in County Cavan and 15,000 in County Monaghan currently have access to high-speed broadband. Approximately 2,300 of those in County Cavan and 2,000 of those in County Monaghan received that access via the ongoing commercial roll-out by Eir.  The roll-out is subject to a commitment agreement I entered into with the company in April 2017 in regard to its plans to provide high-speed broadband to 300,000 premises in rural areas on a commercial basis. Eir has committed to completing the roll-out by the end of this year. A further 5,500 premises in Cavan and 2,500 in Monaghan are to be completed as part of that ongoing roll-out. The remaining 17,000 premises in Cavan, and 15,500 in Monaghan, will receive a high-speed broadband connection via the national broadband plan State intervention phase.

My Department is in the final stages of a formal procurement process to select a company that will roll out a new high-speed broadband network in the State intervention area. The Department will engage with the bidder to ensure the most efficient deployment as part of the contract. The intention is that will be deployed across the country at the same time.

In the interim, practical initiatives will continue to be addressed through the ongoing work of the mobile phone and broadband task force to address obstacles and improve connectivity in respect of existing and future mobile phone and broadband services. Of the 40 actions identified by the task force for 2017, some 29 have been completed. Work on the remaining 11, along with 23 new measures, is part of the 2018 work programme of the task force and will lead to further improvements in services for consumers, including those in Cavan and Monaghan.

Under the task force, engagement between telecommunications operators and local authorities through broadband officers continues apace.  The broadband officers act as single points of contact in local authorities for their communities.  The appointment of these officers is already reaping rewards in terms of ensuring a much greater degree of consistency in engagements with operators and clearing obstacles to developing infrastructure.  There is a link to a list of these local broadband officers on my Department's website.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He is well aware that target dates have not been met in the past. Will he ask the telecom companies to ensure that some priority is afforded to counties such as Cavan and Monaghan? He is well aware that our local economy is very much based on agrifood, construction products and engineering products.

Those particular sectors are heavily dependent on exports to the British market. They face particular challenges at this time, and they will face further challenges when Britain leaves the European Union. They need whatever assistance the Government can give in ensuring that infrastructure is upgraded. It is not acceptable that some of those companies cannot conduct their business online as they need to. Can the Minister ask the companies to give some priority to regions that will be adversely impacted by Brexit?

I accept the point that Deputy Brendan Smith makes. He is correct. Rural communities that are dependent on agriculture, light engineering and the agrifood sectors are the ones that are most exposed to Brexit and have the most to gain by the delivery of the national broadband plan. That is why I am determined to ensure that we get this contract signed as quickly as possible, and more importantly, that we see the physical roll-out of infrastructure right across this country taking place as soon as possible. On an ongoing basis, I am engaging with fibre, wireless and mobile providers to see how the State can facilitate them in the commercial deployment of that infrastructure in order that the businesses to which the Deputy refers at least can be provided with a service, albeit not the gold-plated service they will get under the national broadband plan. At this stage, many of those businesses need a service. It would be great to have a high-speed service but a service is better than none. We are trying to ensure that at least that happens in the short term to ensure those companies have a service that meets their day-to-day needs, pending the roll-out of the national broadband plan.

I agree with the Minister. I know of instances where small-scale employers must drive into the nearest town to email quotes and invoices to businesses. It is not acceptable. I ask the Minister to ensure that the companies he spoke well about in the sectors that need particular assistance and are heavily dependent on the export market, especially the sterling market, are given particular attention by the telecommunications companies to ensure the necessary infrastructure is put in place as quickly as possible.

In response to Deputy Brendan Smith's point about businesses being obliged to travel into the local town, it is absolutely soul-destroying to see that happening in this day and age. That is not something that I want to see continuing. That is why the Government and I are determined to ensure we unlock as much commercial investment as possible, first through the broadband task force, in the form of wireless deployment or any other type of telecommunications deployment. This is intended to ensure the particular practice referred to does not continue. People should at least have a basic broadband service in order that they can use email. They should not be in a situation where they have to travel into the local town to do that.

Second, with the way technology is changing, many of those businesses now are using the cloud to provide services, including accountancy or back-office services. One way to drive efficiency in many of those businesses is to have back-office services based in the cloud. They can only do that if they have access to decent high-speed broadband. It is hugely frustrating to see what is going on at present. That is why I am committed, along with the Government and, in fairness, every colleague in the House, to ensuring that we can deliver this infrastructure and deliver it as quickly as possible to every single premises, business, farm and home.