Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

National Broadband Plan Implementation

Timmy Dooley

Ceist:

46. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the timeline for completion of the tendering process for the national broadband plan. [53418/18]

This is my first time to answer parliamentary questions in my new brief. I look forward to working with Deputies Dooley, Stanley and others from different parties.

The national broadband plan is ambitious. Its objective is to ensure access to a future-proofed, high-speed broadband service, with a minimum download speed of 30 Mbps available to every premises in Ireland. The plan involves a mix of commercial investment and a State-led intervention. It has acted as a catalyst in encouraging a significant level of investment in high-speed broadband infrastructure by commercial operators, with the result that the number of premises with access to a high-speed broadband service has increased from 700,000 in 2012 to 1.7 million today.

The procurement process for the State-led intervention has been framed in such a way as to ensure a once-off intervention in an area that covers 96% of the landmass of Ireland. While the intervention area is predominantly focused on premises in rural areas, it also incudes a significant number of premises in urban areas where commercial operators have no plans to invest. The procurement process to award a contract for the State intervention network is at the final stage. The final assessment of the bid received on 18 September must conclude with regard to whether the solution proposed by the bidder meets the requirements of the plan in terms of the robustness of the technology, value for money, the allocation of risk and appropriate governance mechanisms to ensure this significant intervention by the State will satisfy the Government's policy to ensure high-speed broadband is available to every premises in the country. My priority is to bring the procurement process to a fair and impartial conclusion as quickly as possible.  My Department is concluding its assessment of the final tender submission received from the bidder on 18 September. I will bring a recommendation to the Government in the coming weeks.

While it is the Minister’s first opportunity to answer parliamentary questions in his new role, we have had plenty of engagement on this matter in other fora and in the House since his appointment. As he well knows, the national broadband plan has been talked about and promised since 2012. Previous Ministers have failed to give a strict timeline for it reaching certain milestones. The last commitment we received from the Government was when negotiations on the programme for Government were brought to a conclusion. When Independent Members and Fine Gael signed up to it, they spoke about an indicative date for the signing of the contract in June 2017. We know that did not happen. I am anxious that to some extent the Minister set in stone deadlines for the reaching of key milestones. At least then there would be some date on which others could be held to account. I know that previous Ministers were slow to do this because of the potential political fallout, but there has been significant political fallout from the project. It would be helpful to all sides, most particularly the Minister and the Government, if clear timelines and deadlines were set for the reaching of milestones in meeting the project plan. That would ensure all actors in the field would have something to work towards.

I see at what the Deputy is driving. We are at an advanced stage of the evaluation which will be presented to me by all of the expert groups which have been engaged. I do not intend to delay in any unreasonable way in reaching a decision on what should be recommended to the Government. As I said, it will happen in the coming weeks. The real issue of meeting milestones will come after a decision is taken and we are in a position to do so. Any agreement entered into will include milestones and be designed to protect the State in ensuring they are met to a reasonable extent. It would be premature to start specifying milestones when we have not even decided whether the tender is acceptable to the Government.

Is it still the Minister's intention to reach a point where the remaining bidder would at some point be made the preferred bidder, and from there we could proceed towards the signing of a contract between the State and that bidder? Before we even get to the starting point, does the Minister have some indicative timeline? Could we assume that within January a preferred bidder will be appointed, and that at some stage between January and April a contract could be signed? At what point do we think it fair to expect that a contract would be hoped to be agreed with the preferred bidder?

The work is ongoing in designing a contract and I hope there would not be a very unreasonable delay if a decision is taken to move to a contract. In recent times the State has worked through the details of this application and we want to ensure that if the bid is successful, the governance standards will be highly exacting. The reason for the delay since 18 September, if one likes, is that we are ensuring the level of oversight that the Deputy is reasonably expecting to be there. I cannot give timelines until we have a decision and it would be unreasonable for me to do that. I assure the Deputy that the ongoing work is to ensure that insofar as we can, we anticipate and have the sort of oversight that anyone in the House would expect in light of what would be a very significant investment by the State.

Post Office Closures

Timmy Dooley

Ceist:

48. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the process to review decisions to close rural post offices undertaken by An Post; the number of reviews and successful reviews, respectively, which have been completed to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53419/18]

This is to ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the process to review decisions to close rural post offices undertaken by An Post; the number of reviews and successful reviews, respectively, which have been completed to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Was there not a question to be answered before this one?

There was but the Deputy is not here to ask it.

That threw me as well.

An Post is a commercial State body with its own board. Decisions relating to the post office network are an operational matter for An Post. In the face of serious declines in the volume of mail and post office business, An Post faced growing losses and has had to undertake a major restructuring of its business to continue to be able to provide valuable services.

With post offices, An Post has agreed an exit arrangement where postmasters choose to retire. It has established a protocol which sets out how the company would facilitate the continued provision of post office services where this occurs. Its aim is to make as many post offices as possible viable. It takes account minimum service levels as well as a range of other issues. I understand that An Post has also set up an appeals mechanism. In the case of 45 of 51 appeals the independent reviewer upheld the decision of An Post. In five cases An Post reconsidered the decision and re-advertised the contract, while in one case the postmaster withdrew the resignation.

A key element of An Post's strategy is to develop new business lines. This includes parcel delivery, financial services that include personal loans, and more recently it has considered options relating to mortgages. It has also committed to extending its opening times. The Government is supporting An Post in the delivery of its €150 million transformation programme, and the Government provided a €30 million loan to An Post to support the renewal of the post office network and the continued fulfilment of the five day per week delivery service. Government funding has also been allocated to a new so-called Digital Assist scheme being piloted in ten post offices, where post offices are kitted out to help citizens engage with Government services online. We are also looking at options to deliver Government services to those citizens who do not want to use or are unable to use services online. The findings of this work may be of use to An Post in the longer term.

An Post continues to experience very significant declines in mail volumes and its traditional retail business, yet it has managed to strengthen its financial performance significantly and maintain a network of 960 post offices and 1,600 post points.

I am familiar with quite a number of community groups around the country, including in my constituency, where people came together in the aftermath of the proposal to close a significant number of post offices. Of course there were some for whom the business and the level of transactions had gone so low that some communities accepted it was not possible to retain them. In many cases there was strong community representation and support to retain the services. The concern I have is there does not seem to have been an independent appraisal of the documentation or the proposals made. Very clearly some communities have demonstrated that their numbers and the criteria set out by An Post in the first instance were clearly met. The contracts should have been re-advertised and the demand and desire was there. Unfortunately, this so-called independent committee did not find in favour of the communities. There is a question over how a review group can be independent when it was effectively appointed by An Post in the first place. It would have been appropriate for the Department to have put in place an independent mechanism rather than rely on An Post.

An Post is independent in its operation so it is appropriate that the independent operator would appoint an appeals group. It set out the criteria used and, as I indicated in the initial reply, from 51 cases there were six cases with a reversal in the decision. There have been examples where a case has been made and a decision was reconsidered. In a significant number of cases, some of the services have been allocated to other retailers in the area. There are 22 places where a post point was introduced or upgraded to ensure some post office services were maintained in an area. An Post has been trying to respond as flexibly as it can.

The backdrop to this remains the difficulty from the decline in volumes this year of both retail and mail businesses, which are very significant at close to 8%. The company is facing a difficult environment in maintaining a service, and that is why diversification is so important for the continued success of its network.

I thank the Minister and I know there are many other matters in his brief on which he has had to concentrate in his short time in office. When he gets the opportunity to review some of the discussion and debate, particularly the proposals made by Fianna Fáil, he may recognise that there are people and communities who see the post office service as being essential, and the distance they are now expected to travel to these other offices is way too far for the vulnerable people whom the post offices serve. I accept and recognise that An Post must consider viability, it is incumbent on the State to provide a level of support through a public service obligation, if necessary, to support the provision of post office services in certain communities. It is in that vein I would have thought the Government should have taken a more proactive role in trying to decipher those offices that were absolutely necessary from those that were nice to have. When the Minister reads into the brief in a more complete way, he will come to the realisation that vast tracts of dispersed rural population require a service, although not commercially viable, that should be given the support of the State. There are plenty of other services in the State that are not financially viable but which are important facets of the community. They therefore deserve the protection and support of the taxpayer.

No Government, whether involving Fianna Fáil or any other party, has chosen to operate the post office network as a State-subsidised scheme. It has always been part of An Post's commercial business. There is no doubt that if one moves down that road, there would be a question of identifying the service and putting it to public tender. To be realistic, we must ensure that a network we sustain services a need. That there has been such a sharp decline in the activity made it inevitable that the size of the network would decline.

An Post has specified minimum distances and so on in different areas to try to ensure there is cover. The Deputy's question concerns communication networks of the future, and it is very much about where we put our scarce euro. Do we ensure there are networks to future-proof rural areas from some of these challenges? We are trying to strike a balance and maintain an effective An Post network while also looking to future communications demands in rural areas. The questions relate to two sides of a coin. Insofar as it is reasonable, we can look at maintaining the existing network while planning for the future.

Climate Change Policy

Seán Sherlock

Ceist:

49. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the engagement he had at the COP24 summit; and if funding programmes for decarbonisation here were identified. [53417/18]

Timmy Dooley

Ceist:

50. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if he will report on the United Nations climate summit in Katowice. [53443/18]

The Minister attended the meeting in Katowice. It would be very useful for the House to understand his level of engagement with our multilateral partners and through the prism of the European Union.

Arising from the new rule book that has been agreed with regard to putting the 2015 Paris Agreement into real action, will the Minister give me a sense of his vision in terms of the type of funding instruments the Government will use to move us to a rapid decarbonisation phase?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 49 and 50 together.

I think Deputy Sherlock has extended the question he originally asked considerably, but that is fair and proper. This year's United Nations climate conference, COP24, took place in Katowice in Poland over the past two weeks. I participated in the opening of the conference and also attended the high-level segment last week where I delivered Ireland's national statement and had a series of engagements, including with the authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, special report, EU ministerial colleagues, ministers from other nations, the Green Climate Fund and Adaptation Fund, which we support, and non-governmental organisations working for climate action, so it was a very informative session.

The message from the UN climate conference was stark. The window of opportunity to contain the level of climate disruption is closing very rapidly. The consequences of failure are catastrophic. We saw this at first hand with regard to some Pacific islands, which face an existential threat as to whether their communities can survive. The other positive thing is that the technologies are largely available to meet the challenge. The challenge involves how we can collectively motivate our communities and organise the resources to make the changes. The other positive thing is that, by and large, there are positive economic and social outcomes in terms of health, the economy and the environment associated with meeting these targets. The challenge to governments was very stark.

The agreement was significant. Europe was pushing for more ambition but the rule book is nonetheless significant because, for the first time, countries like China and Germany will be measured against the same standard. All countries will make their contribution commitment from which they can never withdraw. A country can only improve its commitment. There will be an effort to improve it next year.

The conference was a qualified success. The funding mechanisms that were discussed were not for Ireland. They were funding mechanisms whereby better-off countries like Ireland contribute to change. At the conference, I announced an additional €4.5 million for the Adaptation Fund, the Green Climate Fund and the nationally determined contributions, NDC, scheme. We increased our funding. It is part of better-off states helping in terms of the adjustments relating to countries like the Pacific islands and Senegal, which face very serious challenges.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

This conference was a significant milestone in international climate policy. Since the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015, the focus of international negotiations has been on the design of the structures and implementing rules which will enable the Paris Agreement to come into operation. Parties to the Paris Agreement committed in 2015 to concluding work on these implementing rules by the end of this year. This work has reached a successful conclusion. The agreed rules put in place the structures for tracking global emissions, providing capacity building and financial support and facilitating action to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

COP24 also saw the conclusion of a year-long process of reflection on the imperative of scaling up global efforts to address climate change, facilitated by the current and previous COP presidencies, Poland and Fiji. Informed by the IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C, the outcome of this Talanoa Dialogue will facilitate a re-examination by parties of their existing commitments and consideration of whether to submit more ambitious commitments by 2020.

In my national statement to the conference, I underlined the importance of global multilateral engagement in driving momentum towards more ambitious climate polices. I informed the conference of my intention to develop an all-of-Government plan to help make Ireland a leader in responding to climate change.

At the conference, I announced additional climate funding for 2018 totalling €4.5 million for a range of organisations supporting developing counties to implement their climate policies, including the Green Climate Fund, the Adaptation Fund, and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. I was also able to announce additional funding for the IPCC to support its very important work in informing the international community with the best available scientific advice on climate change.

Alongside the formal negotiations, COP meetings also provide a valuable opportunity for countries, regions and the private sector to showcase climate related initiatives. My officials and I participated in a number of meetings and side events relating to emission reduction initiatives that will help inform the further development of Ireland's domestic climate policies, including side events on the design of urban infrastructure, on energy transition and on e-vehicle infrastructure.

The Minister addressed the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action on 5 December and made very specific references to the €500 million climate action fund. He has already said that there are seven major climate change projects that will share €77 million in Government funding. He also made reference to the sovereign green bond. If we are talking about how the decisions we will make by 2020 will determine whether global heating can be kept at 1.5° centigrade above pre-industrial levels, that expenditure will be vital in terms of programmes that will be put to good use on our own little island. I would like to hear the Minister tell us what sense of urgency exists across the Government with regard to deploying that funding in very specific areas like decarbonisation of buildings, transport networks and smart grids. I would like to get a sense from him that there is an urgency across Government with regard to its own response. If we are signing up to this rule book as per the 2015 Paris Agreement and if we are serious about hitting the pre-industrial targets in terms of mitigating against a 1.5° centigrade increase in temperature by 2020, what measures is the Government taking?

I am concerned that Ireland did not join the 27 countries that formed the High Ambition Coalition. During the summit, this group committed to scaling up commitments in line with the Paris Agreement targets. The Minister might provide some detail as to why we did not do this or why it was not possible for us to do this. However, Ireland did join the eight other countries to work together to establish a carbon floor price. This is welcome and necessary. The year 2020 is crunch time. It is well established that we will not meet our 2020 targets. I do not propose that we go back over the arguments, which have already been well argued over a number of months. Does the Minister believe there are further opportunities to develop this grouping and encourage mutual improvements?

I believe this is the biggest challenge we face as a community. It will take a sense of urgency not just here in the House but in every home, business, school and public service in respect of thinking about the challenges and how they can contribute. While the climate action fund is very important, it is much more about priming the pump. The Deputies will see that we chose demonstration projects like the electric vehicle network, the gas initiative and LED lighting. These are demonstration projects. The public service and the State cannot do all the heavy lifting in terms of funding the change we need to make. That is something we need to admit. With €30 billion on climate action and sustainable transport, the national development plan will reduce the target by 22 million tonnes. It is about a third of the journey we must make.

Clearly, it is very hard to sign up to more ambitious targets, when we are 95% off the target we set for 2020. What we need to do is face up honestly to the policy instruments we need to put in place to get to where we committed instead of making the hollow gesture of saying it will be even more when we have not got our house in order. I am not opposed to setting more ambitious targets and I hope we will be able to set more ambitious targets for the future, but I need to get delivery of initiatives. I had a meeting yesterday with all the assistant secretaries from all of the Departments involved to start to tease out what we can do. There are obstacles. This is going to be a challenge politically and in terms of coming up with policy ideas.

I welcome the Minister's commitment, about which there is no question. In asking the question, I was trying to find out what the sense in Government is. I understand that the Minister has met the various line Departments but it is about a whole-of-Government approach led directly by the Taoiseach that recognises the urgency of the challenge and ensures that the net behavioural change that needs to happen so that we can hit these targets is implemented. I would not like to see this become too process-driven. I would like for it to be recognised across all line Departments that the silos within Government should be broken down and that this is probably one of the biggest challenges we will face as a country for the foreseeable future. I would like to see a massive response in terms of the initiatives that citizens can avail of in terms of better transport networks and decarbonising buildings such as public buildings and schools. I would like to get timelines from the Minister as to when he can start rolling out that funding for bespoke projects.

The draft EU long-term strategy on greenhouse gas emissions, which was published on 28 November, also proposes a climate neutral vision by 2050. A number of key decisions are scheduled for early next year, such as the future of the carbon tax, the report of the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action, and the Government's cross-departmental plan, which the Minister spoke about and indicated he is moving on through, for example, meeting the assistant secretaries. Does the Minister believe that Ireland will be well placed to meet our 2030 targets earlier rather than later in the decade? As he is aware, the longer our emissions are allowed to grow in the first half of the decade, the greater the measures we will have to take in the second half. If we all agree that measures need to be taken, it is easier to progress them sooner rather than later.

There is no doubt that the sooner we start making changes, the quicker the impact will be and the less adjustment we will have to make. However, doing something like getting our renewables from the current 30% on the power system up to, say, 60% requires a number of sequential measures to be put in place. We need to strengthen the grid and start to hold the auctions. We need to see the technologies such as offshore wind being developed to a point where they are economic.

We cannot just press the button and have them all fall into place. By necessity, some of these measures are sequenced. I indicated to the committee that we are looking across a number of policy areas, such as market failure and the lack of a carbon price, as well as regulation. We are looking at every conceivable area and policy initiative across the sector, from buildings, industry, agriculture, transport and houses to the public service itself. Some public service bodies are exemplary in the way they have improved energy efficiency, while others have done virtually nothing. That is not acceptable. We need to set new standards at every level and the Deputy is correct that we need to hold people to account on strict timelines. We will not do everything in one year. This will be a rolling programme.

Alternative Energy Projects

Brian Stanley

Ceist:

47. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the new technologies that can be ready for incorporation into the electricity system to address directly the use of fossil fuels in view of the report from the Climate Change Performance Index which placed Ireland last in terms of action on climate change in the European Union. [53131/18]

My question is in the same vein as the previous one as it relates to the new technologies that are ready to be incorporated into the electricity system. The Climate Change Performance Index ranks Ireland as the worst country in Europe and one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to climate change. That is an indictment of this Government and previous Governments. We are completely reliant on one source of renewable energy for renewable power, namely, onshore wind. Will the Minister of State specify what new technologies can be ready for incorporation into Ireland's electricity supply system?

The national mitigation plan published in July 2017 was an important first step. It signposted the direction in which Ireland must travel, while openly recognising that it was not a roadmap for delivery. The national development plan has provided a significant part of the roadmap. Specifically in relation to the decarbonisation of electricity, the plan envisages investments to support up to 4,500 MW of renewable energy; enhanced interconnection of the grid to facilitate more renewables; the conversion of Moneypoint by 2025; and the roll-out of smart energy technology.

As the Deputy will be aware, renewable energies now provide, on average, 30% of supply and the system can accommodate up to 65% penetration by renewables at any one time. Further work is under way to enable the power system to manage 75% of renewables in real time by 2020. This is material to the efficacy of managing variable renewable sources. It is our aim over the coming years to increase renewable electricity to 55% of average supply. To achieve this figure, EirGrid is exploring future interconnection, pioneering engineering and economic approaches as well as the introduction of new technologies such as batteries, solar and demand side management to managing more than 90% of renewables in real time by 2030.

It is our intention to develop opportunities for a range of technologies to compete at auction under the renewable energy support scheme with the first auction in 2019. We also intend to develop the scope for microgeneration to supply the grid.

In the coming years, onshore wind, solar, offshore wind and biomass, as well as large-scale grid connected battery energy storage and interconnection, are expected to displace fossil fuels in our power system and drive Ireland’s transition to a low carbon electricity system. In addition, the EU emissions trading system, whose rules have now been reformed for the 2021-30 period, will send a strengthened price signal to the electricity generation sector that will promote investment in decarbonising technology and fuel switching to lower carbon alternatives.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Global warming has been catastrophic in 2018 and it is registering with people that we are not in a good place. For the past seven or eight years, I have been highlighting this issue with the Minister and his predecessors, including Mr. Phil Hogan and Mr. Pat Rabbitte. We do not have many practical measures in place at this stage. The Minister of State referred to measures the Government will put in place. We welcome those and their introduction needs to be accelerated. He also outlined some of the new technologies. The programme for Government made specific commitments in this area which need to be fast-tracked. The cost to the State of not taking this action will be between €100 million and €600 million in the next two or three years.

The Minister of State mentioned converting Moneypoint power station. To what exactly will the Moneypoint plant be converted? Given that our supply of natural gas is running out, does the Government intend converting it to biomass and, if so, from where will the biomass come?

Investment is being made, including €30 billion provided in the national development plan. We have significant potential in this area, including offshore wind. However, this technology is costly to develop, especially on the west coast where there are deep seas and wind factors. Although prices are dropping in Europe, it is likely that subsidies will be required if there is to be significant development of offshore wind.

EirGrid predicts that onshore wind generation will continue to grow across all scenarios in Ireland as the cost of the wind industry decreases over time, with potential for an increase in onshore wind capacity of 5,000 MW by 2030. In addition, solar photovoltaic, PV, generation has become a more economically viable form of electricity generation. It is likely that we will see large-scale solar PV connecting to the system at an increasing rate during the mid-2020s without the need for a subsidy due to the decreasing capital costs.

Large-scale grid connected battery usage energy storage will likely connect across the renewables such as solar and wind to help reduce curtailment levels. Household battery energy storage will likely connect to the domestic solar PV to provide additional self-consumption for consumers. All of these initiatives are taking place and will continue. They are the first steps.

The Minister of State did not answer my question on what Moneypoint power station will be converted to and where, if it is biomass, the material will come from? Natural gas supplies will last for a further ten years at best, based on current information.

The Minister of State mentioned developing solar generation in the mid-2020s. That needs to be fast-tracked because the mid-2020s is not soon enough. We should have done this yesterday and, failing that, we need to start doing it tomorrow. Solar is a potential energy source that we are not tapping into, while biogas is another. It is recognised across Europe that Ireland has considerable potential for biogas because of its large agricultural sector.

We need to be cautious with biomass because if we import the bulk of the material from outside the State, the carbon miles involved in transporting it will mean we will not reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. We need to develop these new industries. Hydropower, for example, is not being considered and we are not making any progress in developing it. We need more concrete action.

This year has been catastrophic in terms of climate change. In the past eight years, I have raised with every Minister a gaping hole in their policies, namely, the failure to use one of the arms of the State, local authorities, to address climate change. The role of local authorities has been repeatedly scaled down, as anybody who has served on a council will recognise. We need to give the 31 local authorities a serious role in tackling climate change and a responsibility for climate action. I appeal to the new Minister and the Minister of State to listen to what I am saying. We should give local authorities a greater role in this area.

The ESB is looking at potential energy sources for Moneypoint and working on this issue.

The Deputy is right about the local authorities. Each one has a climate action officer and regional climate action offices are in place. A number of weeks ago, we launched a climate adaptation plan for local authorities to integrate climate action into their local area plans and planning processes. At the meeting held in Athlone at the launch of the document, one suggestion was that the installation of electric charging points be made a condition of planning in the case of service stations. We are looking at how to design the country to be able to act on climate change in future. Local authorities have a vested interest but they also have the potential to become great drivers in localities.