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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 24 Feb 2022

Vol. 1018 No. 6

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Departmental Schemes

Éamon Ó Cuív


84. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he plans to have a higher rate of grant and higher threshold of cost for householders, together with a lower threshold of turnover for contractors, based on islands under the national home energy upgrade scheme and the retrofit scheme to ensure the challenges of island life relating to cost, scale and income opportunities are taken into account; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10467/22]

The Minister might remember a previous time he was a Minister and there was a higher rate of grants for retrofitting on the islands through the warmer homes grant and so on. Is the Minister going to go through the same process now? Will there be higher ceilings for the maximum expenditure and lower thresholds for island contractors who would not have turnover of €1 million? Those changes are required so we get work done on the island. Much of that work would be done by islanders, which would have a double effect. As the Minister knows, the islanders are very keen to reduce their carbon footprint. They are very creative in doing so.

The Deputy is right and I remember the role he played in those grant schemes. We favoured the islands for a number of reasons. The islands are demonstrable. They are particular geographic areas so one can show and measure effects. The likes of Inis Mór and the Aran Islands have been progressive and have showed leadership in demonstrating how communities can come together. The islands were also favoured because of the issue of energy security. Shipping fossil fuels - gas, oil, coal or any other fossil fuel - to an island is inherently expensive and brings risks with it. We did provide those higher grants and they delivered. Some 300 home energy upgrades have been supported on the islands since 2014 under the community energy grant scheme. In the same time period, there have been 29 applications for the better energy homes scheme and 37 for the warmer homes scheme. It has worked.

I believe we have now moved to a different phase. The new grant levels of 50% and up to 80%, which we introduced two weeks ago, are the sort of grant levels that will make the case for themselves on the islands or onshore. That level of grant facility overcomes the cost impediments and the economic case is there.

The experience of the islands in the past built up abilities and skills. It also provided examples. That was what those initial higher grants were put in place to deliver and I believe they did so. I do not believe it appropriate to extend them. The new grant system we are introducing is sufficient and is the right measure.

I am very disappointed with that reply, which seems to fail to recognise that getting any goods or labour onto the islands is far more expensive than trying to do the equivalent on the mainland. For example, to bring cargo from the mainland, one has to pay a cargo fee and VAT on that cargo fee. Those are extra costs. Thereafter, one has to move the cargo from the harbour to wherever on the island it is going.

I ask the Minister to meet a delegation from Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann. It is anxious to outline to the Minister why his policy is not treating all the people of not only the island of Ireland but also the territorial islands in an equal way because of the difference in cost. As the Minister said, the islanders have been innovative in what they have been doing. There has been considerable success. Why not build on that success and make the islands micro models of carbon neutral societies? We could bring Irish people and others from across the world to the islands to show them how a carbon neutral society actually works.

I would be happy to meet the representatives of the organisation the Deputy mentioned to discuss this issue. If we do that, I would also like to broaden the discussion because I think there is a lot we can learn from the islands. As the Deputy mentioned, there are island-specific skills. Islanders have the ability to be innovative and flexible. They do a variety of tasks that often involve the community coming together. We want to protect and enhance that. We want to deploy some of those things on the mainland as well as maintaining their existence on the islands.

I do not want to give false hope when going into such a meeting. We are talking about grant levels of 50% and 80%. In fact, for the warmer homes scheme and other projects, the grant level is 100%, which means the full cost is covered. That will still apply to a lot of the housing on the islands. Anyone on an island who is in receipt of the fuel allowance, disability allowance, living alone allowance or any other allowance will be able to get that 100% grant.

I do not think it is necessary, to make the leap we need to make, to have a separate grants system for the islands. I agree with the Deputy, however, that islanders face particular circumstances, and I am keen to support them in whatever other ways I can.

Many people living on our islands are not in receipt of fuel allowance because they have incomes. This is something we have been working hard to address over the years. There are huge extra costs involved in living on an island.

There were three parts to my question. One concerns the need for a higher rate of grants and the second relates to the maximum cost allowed. It is more expensive to do things on islands than to do them on the mainland. Therefore, the ceilings in place of €50,000, €2,000 and so on should be higher on the islands. The third issue is the turnover of contractors. There is no way one will find an island-based contractor, whose main focus is energy work on that island, who has a turnover of €1 million per year. Will the Minister address the second and third parts of my question?

I welcome his agreement to meet with the organisation to which I referred. The people involved have sent a letter to him and I hope the meeting will happen in the next few weeks. As he knows, islanders probably are the greatest enthusiasts in the country for making their part of the world carbon neutral.

I will look at the threshold for turnover. I do not want to have such a complex bureaucratic system that we create a separate issue. However, if the turnover is a difficulty, we will look at it.

There are a variety of issues when it comes to higher costs. Obviously, cargo ferry costs are one of the most significant. My Department, in a variety of ways, is keen to support, and is supporting, the islands, particularly in terms of management of those ferries and the contract arrangements around it.

That is not a matter for the Minister's Department.

The Government supports it. Regarding grant levels, a key grant would be for something like a heat pump. In that instance, the grant will stay fixed but the overall building costs may change. It is appropriate for us to have a mechanism whereby there is a set level in order that people have certainty. We do not want to create a completely different and separate system for the islands, which might end up adding expense. I will come back to the Deputy and the islanders' organisation to see what can be done outside a separate grants system.

Cybersecurity Policy

David Stanton


85. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the preparations being taken to protect against further cyberattacks such as that experienced on the health service in May 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9295/22]

This morning, we have seen attacks by land, sea and air on the people of Ukraine. It is unbelievably awful. However, there is another arena of attack, which is cyberspace. Given that we experienced such an attack on our health service in May 2021, what has been done to date to strengthen our defences in this area? That attack cost tens of millions and showed we are vulnerable to this very new area of attack.

The National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC, which is located in my Department, has a broad remit across the cybersecurity of Government, ICT infrastructure and critical national infrastructure. In the immediate aftermath of the ransomware attack on the HSE, the NCSC led the national response process and took measures to protect other critical infrastructure operators. This included rapidly disseminating indicators of compromise and relevant guidance to ensure the cybercriminals behind the cyberattack could not threaten other vital services. The NCSC has worked with the HSE to learn lessons from that incident and these have been incorporated into the centre's ongoing engagement with operators of essential services in the health and other sectors. The NCSC continues to support the HSE as the latter enhances the security and resilience of its network and services.

The NCSC has a particular focus on supporting Government networks and public bodies. In collaboration with a cross-departmental group drawn from across the public service, it recently published the baseline cybersecurity standard to be applied by all Departments and Government agencies. In addition, the computer security incident response team, CSIRT, based within the NCSC, has developed and deployed technology on the infrastructure of Departments to detect and warn of certain types of threats.

The Government has committed to the further development of the NCSC, including through the provision of a new permanent facility at my Department's redeveloped headquarters in Beggar's Bush, funding to support a five-year technology strategy, and the drafting of primary legislation to provide a clear mandate and authority for the NCSC. This is in addition to the expansion in staffing at the centre, which will see staff numbers increase by 20 before the end of this year and to more than 70 in the next five years. There have been three dedicated recruitment competitions launched in recent months by the NCSC, with another opening later this week. The Government will provide all necessary support to the centre to ensure it can fulfil its important role in the years to come.

I thank the Minister for his response, the work being done in this area and his acknowledgement of how critical it is. He talked about State and Government bodies being protected. What are his views on the security of mobile telephone platforms? How sure is he, for instance, that his own mobile telephone has not been hacked when he has visited other jurisdictions, or even here in Ireland? I was recently told that a number of people in this jurisdiction have had their telephones hacked in a way that meant they were not, and could not, be aware of it. Such hacking methods mean people's mobility, location and whom they are with can be tracked. Hackers can even listen into people's conversations. An expert approached me recently who is extremely worried about this, stating our mobile telephone platforms are very vulnerable. In the context of the whole cybersecurity issue, will the Minister give us some assurances or information on what is being done regarding those platforms?

The Deputy is right to raise concerns about security on mobile telephone devices. Everyone, even within the industry, recognises it is a real issue. There is much public debate on issues such as Ministers having a Garda driver and so on. In discussions with officials recently, we all agreed we need Garda security on our mobile communications system as much as we need a Garda driver. That sort of protection and advice is being developed and put in place. No individual should assume his or her device is fully secure, regardless of whatever security measures might be taken. My understanding is it is better to err on the side of caution and, as I say to anyone to whom I give advice on this issue, to presume that anything one does online, which is what our mobile telephones are increasingly used for, could be made public and should be treated as such.

The Minister has acknowledged that this issue is extremely serious. Has any communication been entered into with the mobile telephone operators in this regard? They control these platforms and are mainly based outside the jurisdiction. Has any contact been made with the very large IT companies that operate here? Their expertise might be availed of on this issue. It is an extremely serious matter. The mobile telephone can be a window and avenue into gathering other information, including very sensitive information, especially on people working in business and industry at a high level as well as Ministers and others who are part of the State apparatus. I urge the Minister to treat this matter very seriously and come back to us at a future date with what is being done on mobile telephone security.

Will the Minister give an update on the information the NCSC gave to critical infrastructure companies in the past while? Given the difficulties that exist at this-----

It is a stretch to call the Deputy's question supplementary to the question that was put. I will give him a couple more seconds but it is a stretch for sure.

I am not sure it is. I ask the Minister for an update in that regard, given this morning's events involving the Russian invasion. Beyond that, a task force on telephone scams and hacking is meeting at this time. Does he have any update on how it is operating?

As I said, I have been in touch with the director of the NCSC in recent days to get an update on the particular situation we are in at the moment.

I agree with Deputy Stanton that we have to do more and we are looking and working in co-operation with network operators to improve our security and to make sure they maximise security on their networks.

The NCSC publishes a lot of its material. It is well-regarded internationally because it is seen to be trustworthy and prompt in sharing information. A lot of its online communications are accessible, well-regarded and well-used. It has to be careful that it does not publish everything and it has to have levels of what information it can give out and it has protocols for same. We have to follow those protocols as well in what we can say.

National Broadband Plan

Thomas Gould


86. Deputy Thomas Gould asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if an update will be provided on the roll-out of the national broadband plan, NBP, in Cork city and county. [9607/22]

I ask the Minister to provide an update on the roll-out of the NBP in Cork city and county.

There are over 276,000 premises in County Cork of which over 80,600 are within the NBP intervention area and they will receive access to high speed broadband under the NBP. Government investment in County Cork in the NBP will be in the order of €314 million. National Broadband Ireland, NBI, has made steady progress on delivery of the new high-speed fibre broadband network under the NBP. In County Cork, surveying is under way in the deployment area of Clonakilty and surveying is complete in the deployment areas of Templemartin, Tallow, Kanturk and Fermoy. Main works are under way in the deployment areas of Midleton and Youghal and network build is complete in the deployment area of Carrigaline.

As of 11 February, over 35,000 premises in County Cork have been surveyed, with over 10,500 premises under construction and there are more than 4,500 premises than can today order a fibre broadband service. I welcome the provision of detailed status reports on the roll-out of high-speed broadband by NBI. My Department has worked closely with NBI to include a page on the NBI website which will provide county statistics updated on a monthly basis, starting in March. Broadband connection points, BCPs, are a key element of the NBP, providing high-speed broadband in every county in advance of the roll-out of the fibre to the home network. As of 11 February 2022, some 22 BCP sites have been installed in County Cork by NBI. In County Cork 15 schools have been installed by NBI to date for educational access and my Department continues to work with the Department of Education to prioritise schools with no high-speed broadband within the intervention area.

Steady progress is being made as the Minister says but there are huge parts of my constituency that are still without broadband and that are waiting for it. We rely on the Internet for so much, including security, education, entertainment and working from home. People who are without broadband are at a distinct disadvantage. I am hearing from my constituents in areas like Blarney, Tower, Kerry Pike, Donoughmore, Glenville and areas of Glanmire that not having broadband has serious implications for them, especially for working from home because they are not able to do so. I have a situation where a man has contacted me and he has no broadband but his neighbours on either side of him on the same street do. In this day and age a lack of broadband has huge consequences and the mismanagement of the scheme so far has had a serious impact on people's daily lives.

I will make a broad point. The NBP is of critical importance and it is hugely important that we have the whole country covered but it is not the only investment that is taking place. There is huge investment taking place in a competitive market with operators like Eir, Virgin Media, SIRO and others. They are chasing after customers and investing all around the country and we are starting to see some of the benefits. The digital economy and society index is one of the key measures in Europe for the digital performance of different countries and it tracks the evolution of how member states are doing. In 2019 Ireland was placed eleventh on that index of European countries and we are now up to fifth as of last year. Some 99% of the country has 4G coverage and our fixed high-capacity network coverage has gone from 35% to 83%. We rank first in the integration of digital technology dimension and we have a leading position in how small businesses are using it. We need to get perspective on this. We need to deliver this faster and we cannot have a situation where on one side of the road someone has coverage but on the other side someone else does not. That is why we have the NBP but we are radically improving and enhancing our digital communications network.

I also want to raise an issue experienced by those waiting for high-speed fibre to the home. Thanks to ComReg’s decision D10/18, Eir will not tell people when they will have high-speed Internet. It will not give people a timeline beyond saying, for example, that it will be in 2026. I fully understand the need for fair competition but some compromise has to be reached on this because there are apartment blocks in the centre of Cork city with over 160 apartments that have no high-speed Internet connection. For those people, who have worked through Covid-19 from home and who could not work through Covid-19 from home, this is a disgrace and it is in the heart of the second city in the State. When these people look to sell their homes they have to tell potential buyers that at some stage in the next four years they will have connectivity, which is not good enough. Covid-19 has completely changed the way we live and if one does not have high-speed broadband, there are serious implications.

What kind of an understanding exists between the Department, NBI and the commercial operators to guarantee that the commercial operators will service the areas they say they will service? Is there a timescale available from the commercial operators for when they will do this? The Minister mentioned a number of areas in my constituency like Cobh and he said he might come back to me on that. A lot of that is marked blue but we have no idea when the work will be carried out there.

The point I was making to Deputy Gould is that we are seeing fierce competition between the other providers to get to customers because Eir is investing and significantly expanding and as I recall it had an additional 300,000 rural houses that it went to get to. Having done those it is moving to the next block and it is also moving into urban areas because it sees that it is at risk of losing business to the likes of SIRO, which has announced a major expansion in the number of houses it is targeting, as has Virgin Media. Those are just three of the operators so competition is starting to evolve to get to those households. It is in their interests to get to houses as soon as they can for fear of losing that market, particularly in urban areas, to other competitors.

But there is no timeline.

It comes down to each individual house and that is how companies plan to roll out the network. In the timeframe that was mentioned we will go to a situation where the vast majority of houses, be they in rural or urban Ireland, will have access to fast fibre-optic cable broadband. That will position us well in the provision of public services, helping small businesses and as the Deputy rightly says, in responding to this Covid time when people can work from home.

Energy Production

Darren O'Rourke


87. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the plans he has to develop the capability of the State to produce and store green hydrogen; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10260/22]

I want to ask the Minister the plans he has to develop the capability of the State to produce, store and use green hydrogen; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

The role of hydrogen and the actions needed for its development were considered as part of the development of the climate action plan 2021. The plan, published in November, identifies green hydrogen as having the potential to support decarbonisation across several sectors and, in particular, as a source for high-temperature heat in industry and flexible generation in electricity. A key target set out in the climate action plan is to carry out a work programme to identify a route to deliver one to three TWh of zero emissions gas, including green hydrogen, by 2030. The plan includes a suite of actions relating to green hydrogen across the electricity, enterprise and transport chapters.

These actions include testing the technical feasibility of safely injecting green hydrogen blends in the gas grid; assessing the potential for system integration between the electricity and gas networks, which will include the production, storage and use of green hydrogen; and progressing research and pilot studies regarding the use of hydrogen in the transport sector.

In addition, the SEAI is developing a number of initiatives on the role of green hydrogen in decarbonisation. The 2021 SEAI national energy research development and demonstration programme call included a number of projects relating to green hydrogen and the development of floating offshore wind foundations coupled with hydrogen storage.

The SEAl's national heat study, published this week, examines options to decarbonise the heating and cooling sectors in Ireland to 2050, including options for green hydrogen. In accordance with the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021, the climate action plan will be updated on an annual basis to reflect ongoing developments and targets achieved. I expect a strategy focusing on the development of green hydrogen to be included in the 2022 climate action plan.

Everybody agrees that there is, potentially, a considerable opportunity with green hydrogen. I see it across the political spectrum and that is welcome. The concern of my party and me, which is shared by people in the wider community who have an interest in green hydrogen, is that the focus, ambition and urgency is not there from the Government. I acknowledge everything the Deputy has said in his response and I know the Department of Transport has issued a call which is welcome.

One of the things the sector says to me is that a strategy is very important. It needs to outline a commitment to green hydrogen. It should indicate an auction in the near future for industry to decarbonise and should point towards and deliver, in the first instance, hydrogen refuelling infrastructure throughout the State for transport. Can we expect to see that in the near future?

It is critical that we develop clean electricity because it can only be green hydrogen. As a State, we will not go down the route of hydrogen coming from natural gas which would only worsen our energy security issue. Some 90% of our energy is imported into this country at the present time. We have to change this for climate and other reasons.

The green hydrogen strategy goes hand in glove with the renewable strategy. Renewable electricity will give us the power supply, through electrolysis, for green hydrogen. We are looking at a variety of different areas to accelerate that, to answer the Deputy's first question today on how we start to accelerate carbon reduction. I am working within the public service to establish new fast delivery teams that would bring together agencies and different Departments which have a key role in that acceleration.

One of the acceleration task force teams will be on the offshore renewables side. That is to make sure we get our auctions for offshore renewables up and out and get the ports in place to be able to deliver it. Green hydrogen will be connected to that because, as the Deputy said, the two go together. That will give the certainty industry is looking for.

I will focus on my supplementary questions on the haulage sector. One of the potential significant opportunities with hydrogen is to decarbonise the heavy goods sector. With regard to the current schemes the Minister has in place, I met with the haulage industry in the past couple of days and it points towards a deep frustration within the sector in terms of the engagement with the Minister and the Department to manage the transition. It points to the heavy duty vehicle grant scheme, which was oversubscribed. In the region of 60 lorries were purchased with it which are laid up. Hauliers cannot afford to run them because the price of gas has gone through the roof, as we all know, and compressed natural gas is not covered in the rebate scheme. Where is the sense and logic in terms of that scheme or system? Will the Minister engage with the sector to make it make sense for it?

Deputy Stanton wants to come in on this.

I agree with the Minister on the importance of this green hydrogen initiative. In my area, a number of companies are very interested in this and linking with offshore, as the Minister has said, EI-H2 being one of them. I encourage the Minister to develop and publish a green hydrogen strategy because that is what the sector is calling for, as Deputy O'Rourke has said. Will the Minister comment on the safety aspects of green hydrogen? We know it is a very volatile gas. Have studies been done on its safety? Can the pipeline withstand the pressures? I understand there are increased pressures on the gas pipeline from green hydrogen. I know some of it is blended, but if it is not, increased pressures are needed.

The Deputy asked a variety of questions. Obviously, safety has to come first. One of the issues with the networks is that green hydrogen has different characteristics such as much smaller molecules. Therefore, when it comes to the distribution gas network, even though ours is very modern, leakage becomes a more significant issue. Ports will be central to our hydrogen strategy because that will be the point where the offshore wind comes ashore. Most of our heavy industry and power generation plants, which will be the first application, can be found in ports such as the Port of Cork, where there are industries like biopharmaceuticals, refinery and power generation, and in Shannon Foynes Port, where there are companies like Aughinish Alumina and Irish Cement and the Moneypoint and Tarbert power stations. All the infrastructure is in the ports and they are likely to be the centre of this development.

We see transport as another key application. I will be honest. It will take a longer time. It will not be as easy to transition the haulage fleet. Electric vehicles, compressed air, gas or hydrogen will take longer. I am sitting down to work with the haulage industry to see what ways we can help it, which we immediately need to do in this difficult transition period. We have not found that mechanism yet, but I am confident we will do so in the coming weeks. We need to help the industry in this transition. It will take longer in haulage. We will still be-----

Will the Minister look at the current scheme?

Yes. We are looking at a variety of schemes.

Cybersecurity Policy

David Stanton


88. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the number of staff currently working at the National Cyber Security Centre; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9283/22]

This question focuses on the number of staff currently working in the National Cyber Security Centre and their qualifications, experiences and roles.

The role of the National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC, is to support Departments and other public bodies to improve the resilience and security of their IT systems to better protect services upon which people rely and their data. The NCSC has a number of vital functions, including co-ordinating the response to large-scale cybersecurity incidents; supporting public sector bodies and critical national infrastructure to safeguard their systems and mitigate cyber risks; and sharing advice and guidance on cyber threats with its constituents and the wider community.

The NCSC avails of external export support, as required, including a number of third-party incident response services. It also engages, on an ongoing basis, with relevant partner agencies in the EU, as well as in the US and the UK. In July 2021, on foot of a memorandum for the Government, the Government agreed to implement a number of capacity-building measures in the NCSC. The overall full-time staffing complement of the NCSC will also be increased to at least 70 over the coming five years, with 20 additional staff to be recruited by the end of this year, bringing the serving complement to 45.

In addition to the creation of 20 new permanent posts in the NCSC, a cybersecurity graduate training programme was initiated last year, with four computer science graduates to be recruited each year on contracts for a three-year duration. Currently, there are 29 staff members in the NCSC, the highest level of staffing since its establishment.

It seems that number is quite small, given the threat that is out there and its scale and complexity. I brought up the issue of mobile phone platform security in a question earlier on. Will the Minister tell me whether the NCSC has a responsibility for security of the mobile phone network with respect to hacking and, if not, who does?

The first responsibility there is on the network providers. I have seen in the past how they work on a collective basis, including with the NCSC and other agencies, to make sure their networks are as secure as possible. They have the primary responsibility for the networks. However, the NCSC has overall responsibility. It is the centre of excellence and expertise in the State, to which the Garda, the Defence Forces, other corporations and, in particular, Departments and public agencies can have recourse to seek best advice. Its job is not to manage and monitor each and every network.

It is to oversee and make sure that the best information is shared and the best practices put in place. As I said, the team is expanding. I said in response to an earlier question that we had a further round this week. It is a difficult environment because it is a very well-paid area. Cybersecurity is a very large industry in this country. My experience is that we were able to get very capable people who were inspired by national interest in their work.

I am getting back to it again. I am sorry for focusing on this but it is very important. Is there somebody in the Minister's Department at assistant secretary or principal officer level who has responsibility for and a focus on the security of our national telephone platforms, many of which are based outside the State? Is there somebody whose focus is solely on this or who has a responsibility in this area; a go-to person who is co-ordinating it? The Minister agreed with me earlier that this is a very important and sensitive area in which we are exposed. Is there somebody in his Department who has expertise and who is focusing on this?

The first person I go to is the Secretary General in the Department. There is, however, a specific assistant secretary who I go to in terms of anything related to our network system. It is our responsibility in our Department to oversee the development, deployment and security of the networks. Both that assistant secretary and the director of the NCSC are directly responsible to me and to the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth. They are our first port of call in terms of seeking advice or making sure our networks are safe and secure.

Question No. 89 replied to with Written Answers.

Environmental Schemes

Niamh Smyth


90. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications when the one-stop shops for home energy upgrades will be available; if the locations of same have been decided; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10450/22]

The retrofitting scheme was both welcome and ambitious but the public are anxious to know when the one-stop shops for the home energy upgrades will be available and if their locations have been decided. I am hopeful there will be an even spread across the country. It is so important that information is available in our area of Carlow-Kilkenny.

The recently launched national home energy upgrade scheme introduces a new, highly customer-centric way to undertake home upgrades. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, registered one-stop shops will provide an end-to-end service for homeowners. This includes surveying, designing the upgrades, managing the grant process, helping with access to finance, engaging contractors and quality assurance. The scheme offers unprecedented grant levels, increased from approximately 30% to 50% of the cost of a typical B2 home energy upgrade with a heat pump.

It is expected that the one-stop shops will be distributed across Ireland with a considerable number offering services nationwide through their network of contractors throughout the country. Other one-stop shops will likely work within geographic regions. This will ensure that every home can benefit from the one-stop shop service on offer.

Following Government approval, the SEAI registration portal for companies to apply to be a one-stop shop has opened. A number of one-stop shops have already applied and it is expected that following the necessary process, the first will be registered in the coming weeks. Homeowners will then be able to make applications for upgrades under the new scheme.

To summarise, a number of one-stop shops have already been approved. We will not announce them until the registration process is properly concluded but they will be in place in the next few weeks.

That is very welcome. A network of one-stop shops that will handle all the work involved in carrying out a significant energy upgrade is really good for homes. I know that people have to apply for this. Will there be a recruitment campaign for apprenticeships? How long will that take? That is the biggest issue. We know there is a lack of apprenticeships here.

The turnaround time will obviously depend on the response time of these organisations as they scale up to deliver the task ahead. Are they ready to hit the ground running or are homeowners going be waiting years to get someone to look at the job? Again, communication is key here to give people in every area an idea of what is happening, the timescale, the details of the grant and how much it costs.

To give details on the skills issue, in last year's budget, the Government provided €22 million for the green skills action programme with a particular focus on near-zero energy building and retrofitting, with a significant increase in course places. The Minister, Deputy Harris, actually came up to me after we launched the national retrofit scheme to say that not only did we have a massive response from householders who were interested but that the telephone was ringing off the hook in those centres. Some 5,000 apprenticeship places are there now.

The very attractive thing about it is that it does not have to be a prolonged process. Much of the skills training in this can be done in a relatively short period. People with existing skills can upgrade or new people going into the industry can benefit. We are seeing a real uptick in interest. The change in the CAO process that the Minister, Deputy Harris, also announced in November, which puts those apprenticeship options before young people, will also be transformative. I am confident that in the next three years we will get the 17,000 places the Minister set as a target and we will have the workers to deliver the retrofits we need.

That is very welcome. My other concern is that as we know, people get very confused by the different types of grants on offer. I am concerned about the communication. The scheme, for example, is offering a payment of 80% of the cost of doing simple works such as attic or cavity wall insulation. These latter grants mean these jobs will only cost approximately €300 each but together could knock approximately 20% off the annual heating bill. Again, people have been ringing me about that. Many people will probably still opt to go directly to a contractor for smaller jobs even though the one-stop shop will offer the expertise and skills needed for deeper retrofits.

Can the Minister tell me more about the options for smaller jobs that perhaps homeowners would like to take on themselves without a contractor? Can they do that? Can we ensure there will be no price hikes? We have seen with contractors how things have gone with premiums and prices. We cannot afford to have prices go higher. That again is a huge issue about which people have contacted me. I welcome this. It really is so important with energy costs and fuel bills. At this stage, however, we need to make sure the information is correct.

To be clear, that 80% grant was done very specifically in response to the immediate price crisis in terms of high fossil fuel prices due to those international factors. It was, therefore, done very deliberately and involved targeted measures that could be done quickly and relatively cheaply such as attic and wall insulation.

I do not think householders will be or should be doing those jobs on their own. There are issues around going into the attic to put in insulation and making sure there is still ventilation so as not to cause other issues. Injecting insulation is how it would work in a cavity wall. No householder would have the equipment. That would be a better job for a skilled contractor.

I recommend the SEAI website as a way of going through the complexity of this issue. The one-stop shops will help tremendously because the whole idea is that a person can go to someone who will give advice on the overall picture as to what can and should be done.

Horticulture Sector

Martin Kenny


91. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the engagements he had with stakeholders that informed the contribution of his Department to the working paper to address challenges related to peat supply in the horticulture sector. [10362/22]

I want to ask the Minister about the peat extraction situation, particularly for the horticultural industry. The horticulture industry in Ireland is worth almost €500 million and employs more than 12,000 people and yet they have an issue where the growing medium, which they require to have and sustain this industry, is under serious threat. There was a report from the working group but the Government's action plan does not seem to match it practically. The key issues in it are not in the action plan that is coming forward. This critical situation needs to be resolved as quickly as possible.

My Department engaged with all stakeholders through the deliberations of the working group on the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. In addition, on foot of a request for direct discussions with my Department, my officials met with representatives of the professional horticulture sector, including the mushroom sector, to discuss the legal position regarding peat extraction and the impacts on the horticulture sector of the diminishing supply of peat.

As part of that discussion, the question of a guidance document regarding the regulatory requirements for peat extraction was raised. Guidance along such lines was subsequently commissioned by my Department and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, as referenced in the working paper, which is available on gov.ie. My officials have also been engaging regularly with their counterparts in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I should say that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has taken a real lead recently, which is appropriate because the horticulture industry is obviously central to its functions.

I believe the Department is now working effectively with local groups around the country to identify sites that could be developed for use in the industry. It has to be within European environmental regulations and rules. We can no longer continue with a system whereby peat is extracted but is not recorded, the environmental conditions are being breached or we are in breach of what we committed to under the functions of the treaties of the European Union. I believe that can be done. We will have to devise a mechanism to wean ourselves off the use of peat in the medium term. In the short term, I am confident that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, working with the horticulture and peat industry, will be able to find material that we can use in a sustainable, legal and environmentally correct way.

I am aware of the work that has been done. I know the recommendation here is that it should involve pieces of bog that are less than 30 ha. The difficulty when applications are going in is that when there are non-adjacent plots, they are putting them all in as one and saying that they are connected underground. There are serious issues here.

At the moment, the application process that is in place will take up to six years between having to go through the EPA process, the planning process and possible judicial reviews, etc. It simply will not work. There is recognition by everyone in the industry, from the people who provide the peat and from the industry in the horticultural sector that requires the peat. This is also particularly the case for the mushroom industry, which is one of the key industries that is suffering most because of this.

There needs to be legislation to change those requirements. That is one of the key recommendations that came from the working group, but the Government has failed to recognise it or to put it in place. That was supposed to happen before the end of last year. Will the Minister commit to work with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to ensure such legislation will be put in place as quickly as possible?

I rarely disagree with Deputy Kenny. I find that he speaks a great deal of sense in this House. However, in this instance, I have to disagree with him. In this instance, we have seen the benefits of a judicial review process, which pointed out that what we were doing was completely illegal. I do not believe any attempt to change legislation that would unwind our commitments under the European directives would be appropriate. We would find ourselves straight back in the European Court of Justice, and rightly so. People would say that Ireland cannot try to work around environmental protection by setting up legislation which is not in compliance with European law. I believe we are far better than that. I do not believe it will take six years, but it is appropriate. Everyone recognises now that we will have to go through the dual consenting process and that we will have to do it properly. I believe we will be able to find peat for our horticultural industry. We will not be able to find it for the massive exporting of peat, which has been going on in an unregulated and, effectively, illegal manner. That has to stop.

I am not suggesting it should be a free-for-all. Everyone knows that the practice in the past did not work, should not work and cannot continue. That is beyond what we are talking about here. Really, what we are talking about here is an emergency situation. The people who want to provide the peat, as well as the people who need the peat, are being prohibited from doing so by the strict adherence to this particular legislation. The Minister needs to come up with a solution and to be solution-driven. It is inappropriate to suggest that somehow or other it will simply not be allowed to happen. There are too many jobs at risk here. We cannot allow that to happen. I think Deputy Carthy wants to come in.

I welcome the fact that the Minister is here to answer this question, because for far too long this has been fobbed off to a Minister of State. There has not been the serious intervention that is required at Cabinet level. This whole process has been marked by delays, as has been mentioned. The Government set up an expert working group to examine these issues. The length of time the working group took, as well as the length of time the Government then took to deliberate on its findings, was excessive in my view. As Deputy Kenny has said, the Minister has ignored some of the central findings of that working group. Essentially, we need to ensure we end the practice of exporting peat from Ireland. That was a scandal. It should never have been allowed to happen. However, it should be noted that the chief culprit in that was a State-owned company which exported with the approval of the Government. We also have to stop the scandal of the importation of peat coming from places where we have no say whatsoever about the environmental regulations overseeing that process. We can do that by allowing the limited extraction of peat, in order to service our domestic horticulture and mushroom sector in particular.

Will the Minister step up to the plate?

Just for clarity, what I hear Sinn Féin say is that we should not adhere to environmental law----

That is not what we are saying and the Minister knows it.

Please let the Minister respond.

That is what I hear. I do not believe that would serve the interests of the horticulture industry or this country. For too long we have turned a blind eye to environmental regulations. For too long we have said, “Ah, sure, no one will notice” or, “We will sort that out some other time”.

The Minister is purposely deflecting. Nobody is suggesting that we should be in breach of environmental law.

I believe-----

Please will the Deputy let the Minister respond?

That is what I heard. We can and we will. We need a horticultural industry. It is very important that we protect those jobs. It is very important that we find alternative solutions. I am confident that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which has key responsibility in this area, will be able to find the peat stocks which we can use in the interim period with adherence to environmental law to be able to see that industry through a transition period. It has to be just transition, but we will not succeed if we turn a blind eye and think we are immune to European environmental regulations. That would not serve anyone’s interests.

The Minister is deluded.

Energy Policy

Marc Ó Cathasaigh


92. Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the steps he is taking to ensure the retrofit industry will be incentivised to grow to deliver the capacity for 500,000 homes by 2030; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9872/22]

Deputy Matthews will introduce Question No. 92.

The energy retrofit scheme, which was announced last week, has been broadly welcomed by almost everybody across the country. It is a huge Government investment and a long-term plan over the next decade for how we will retrofit our housing stock. Could the Minister outline to the House how he will attempt to encourage or incentivise those who are involved in the energy retrofitting scheme to participate in it, so that we can meet our capacity demand?

The first step was the launch of the scheme the week before last. I think it caught the public imagination. We know from our own constituencies and from elsewhere that the public is interested in this for a variety of reasons. It wants to play its part in helping to tackle climate change. It wants better, healthier and warmer homes. It has also seen the shocking scale of fuel bills, with the high prices of gas and oil. This is the mechanism.

Deputy O’Rourke asked earlier how we will meet our climate targets. Bill Gates famously said that most people overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in a decade. I think that will be the case in this area. We have set an ambitious target of 500,000 homes. I am confident that we will meet it. I am confident that we will get the workers to be able to do the work. We have committed €8 billion in funding. That is why I said to Deputy O'Rourke that we have the funding. Some €5 billion of that €8 billion is from the carbon tax. That will give industry the certainty. It will give the householder the support to make it happen. The key elements are in place. The SEAI got an additional 50 workers last year. It will get another 50 more this year. It is orchestrating it. That again gives me confidence that we will be able to do it. We have been 22 years at it. One could say we have been slow to warm up, but we are about to hit our stride.

More than anything else, the reason I am confident is because of the Irish householder and the average Irish home. People are now thinking that they have been putting this off. They were thinking "maybe, maybe not". Now, with 50% grants, they are saying, "maybe yes". That first initiative is the most important prerequisite. It is in people’s heads across the country at the moment. We will engage in a communication strategy to help them to go to the SEAI so that they can find out what the best solutions are for their homes. I think it will happen.

I agree with the Minister. My phone has been ringing off the hook since it was announced. That is really positive. I know of people in the trades who want to get involved in it. It sends a really clear signal for the next decade that this is a line of work that they can go into. My colleague Deputy Ó Cathasaigh visited the site of excellence in Waterford. He was impressed with it. The message to existing tradespeople is that a couple of days of training are needed in order to perfect their skill, so that we can advance retrofitting and energy upgrades. To people who are considering apprenticeships, I would highly recommend this to them. An area that we should consider is mature apprentices. I trained apprentices for many years. There is a real, clear path for mature apprentices who may be transitioning from high-carbon output jobs into other lines of work. There is a real, sustainable future, as well as good, long-term employment in well-paid and green jobs into the future for the next ten, 20 and 30 years.

I encourage anybody to think about getting into that line of work.

As I said in response to an earlier question, not only were the phones ringing off the hook from the customer side but I have been informed by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science that the new centres of excellence have had a similar experience. One of the attractive aspects of this, as the Deputy pointed out, is that it does not necessarily require a protracted training scheme. Many people might be able to come into the industry for a relatively short number of weeks, go into the likes of the work I mentioned earlier, such as attic and cavity wall installation, start there and learn by doing. Those companies will be busy on other projects, so having mastered that, people can then extend their capabilities. This will be a lifelong process of learning and skills development. It will take us 30 years. This is a three-decade project, with 1.5 million homes having to be retrofitted. It makes sense for many people, who could get a well-paid, secure job and will be able to go to different places and apply the same skills. The Deputy is correct. This is a matter of lifelong learning, and small steps will bring many people into the industry.

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