Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 7 Apr 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 7

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Recycling Policy

Neasa Hourigan


96. Deputy Neasa Hourigan asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications his views on how quickly the food sector will be enabled to remove single-use plastic; if the circular economy Bill can be strengthened further in relation to different types and uses of plastics; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18849/22]

I would like to ask the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, his views on how quickly the food sector will be enabled to remove single-use plastics and if the circular economy Bill can be strengthened further in relation to different types and uses of plastics.

I thank Deputy Hourigan for her question. The policy document, A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy, which was published in 2020 commits to substantially reducing waste from packaging and single-use plastic items over its five-year lifetime. Steps include a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles and aluminium cans; the introduction of a levy on disposable coffee cups and other measures to encourage the use of reusable cups before an eventual ban on disposable cups altogether; supports to increase the use of recycled materials in packaging; and measures to significantly reduce single-use plastic items such as non-medical wet wipes, hotel toiletries and packaged condiments. This builds on the measures already taken since the transposition of the EU's single-use plastics directive in July last year.

The Circular Economy, Waste Management (Amendment) and Minerals Development (Amendment) Bill 2022 includes powers to introduce new environmental levies on single-use items. These levies will work in a similar way to the plastic bag levy, with the proceeds ring fenced in a circular economy fund for projects relating to environmental objectives. The various levies will be introduced incrementally, with the initial focus on the introduction of levies on disposable hot drinks cups this year. The objective of the new levies is not to raise revenue. Indeed, the aim of introducing them is to encourage the use of reusable alternatives in order that the consumer never incurs the levy in the first place. To support this development and to further reduce any costs associated with the levy on consumers and businesses, I intend to specifically target a portion of the income from the new environmental levies towards projects and schemes that will increase the availability of reusable products and packaging.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Single-use plastics represent one of our biggest environmental challenges and their rapid increase in production has overwhelmed our world's ability to recognise the problem. The price we now pay for whatever small convenience single-use plastics provided to us by the food sector has led to a throwaway culture where we now see plastic everywhere, on our streets and in our rivers and seas. Single-use plastics account for nearly half of all the plastic we produce every year and many of these items originate in our coffee shops and convenience stores. They include water bottles, straws, cups and utensils which have a lifespan of just hours, or even minutes, but they continue to exist for hundreds of years afterwards. Much of this is unnecessary and there already are better alternatives available at a similar cost. This does not just affect urban areas like my own. Anyone who walks even the smallest rural boreen will see ditches full of plastic waste around the country.

I very much appreciate how A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy represents a step change in our approach to waste in Ireland and moving to minimise the amount of waste generated but the food sector in particular and plastic producers themselves must be held responsible for the products and packaging they create. Recycling alone will never solve this problem and the sector must undergo a fundamental shift in how it brings its products to people.

Last July, with the single-use plastics directive, ten of the most common single-use plastic items that wash up on beaches, including plastic knives, forks, plates and earbuds, were banned. That was done on an EU-wide basis. I went into a shop a week later to make sure they were not on the shelves and they were not, so these things actually work.

The deposit return scheme focuses on one particular type of plastic, namely, polyethylene terephthalate, known as PET, which is the clear plastic used for bottles but it can be expanded to other types. When we get this working for PET and aluminium, I will certainly be looking at other types of plastics including high density polyethylene, HDPE, for example, which is used to make milk cartons.

Better than recycling is avoiding the use of these materials altogether. In some major supermarkets it is now possible to refill bottles with orange juice, for example, and some smaller producers have no packaging whatsoever. There are some specialist shops that allow customers to bring their own packaging to be refilled and I would like to see that becoming the norm in supermarkets too. Yesterday I was invited to visit a café on Pearse Street called Bread, which has eliminated the use of disposable cups already, off its own bat. The café is making money out of it because it makes sense for businesses not to be paying for waste to be removed.

As an inner city representative, I would like to touch on a related but very important topic, which is the privatisation of waste collection services. It simply has not worked and I would like to see the re-municipalisation of waste collection services. In my constituency of Dublin Central, this would mean bringing waste collection back under the control of Dublin City Council, with the aim of providing a much-improved service. I am thinking in particular about terraced housing and streets that are quite constrained and the possible use of collective waste services. I am regularly contacted by constituents about this issue and particularly about problems they are having with private waste collection services. These problems include service providers not collecting waste when they should, collecting late at night or not at all, as well as the inadequate plastic bags that the companies provide, which are left outside people's homes for collection, being opened by wildlife, including gulls and foxes. The list of issues goes on and on and we need to fundamentally rethink the consequences of the privatisation model for this important service. We need to begin to move towards publicly-provided waste collection services that deal with households in all situations.

On Deputy Hourigan's point as to whether the Minister of State is willing to strengthen the Circular Economy, Waste Management (Amendment) and Minerals Development (Amendment) Bill 2022, I agree that we need a fundamental shift in a series of sectors, including the food sector, but there is no provision in the Bill for imposing any responsibility on Ministers other than the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, or the EPA, to develop these strategies. I raised this earlier with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and there seemed to be at least a willingness there to consider it and that is an important sector.

There is no alignment of the Circular Economy, Waste Management (Amendment) and Minerals Development (Amendment) Bill 2022 to the climate action plan. The Bill is not aligned or on the same reporting cycle. Would the Minister of State consider those changes which are fundamental to the way this will work?

I am planning to bring in a number of amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage and am absolutely open to discussing those in committee or beforehand. I am also happy to look at any suggestions from Deputy Bruton, particularly with regard to whether other Ministers or the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, should have certain requirements.

Regarding the privatisation of waste collection, that issue is being discussed actively in Dublin City Council. I am not entirely sure what is going on there but I know that councillors are coming to a view on it and I will be following that with interest. The CCTV measures that are included in the circular economy Bill will not just apply in rural beauty spots. They will also apply in inner city areas which have ongoing, severe problems with dumping, including the north inner city. There is a particular problem with waste management in apartment blocks. How doe we manage shared facilities and make sure people are sorting their waste properly? How do we manage waste collection for people who do not have driveways or who lived in terraced houses and must leave bags on the street, which are being ripped apart? We need to look at examples from other countries with similar topology and layout of architecture, learn from them and do it right.

Renewable Energy Generation

Steven Matthews


97. Deputy Steven Matthews asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the steps he will take to ensure citizen engagement with offshore wind energy projects in Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18847/22]

Deputy Ó Cathasaigh is to introduce the next question.

I am asking this question on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Matthews. The question relates to an issue affecting the constituencies of the Minister and the Ministers of State, Deputy Matthews's constituency in Wicklow, as well as Wexford, my own constituency of Waterford and around the coast into Cork. I am referring to the large-scale development of offshore wind. What steps will the Minister take to ensure citizen engagement with offshore wind energy projects and will he make a statement on the matter?

Citizen engagement is at the heart of Ireland's energy and climate transformation. Local coastal communities will be central to the decision-making processes of community engagement initiatives as part of Ireland's offshore renewable energy journey.

The Maritime Area Planning Act 2021 provides the legal underpinning to an entirely new marine planning system which will enable the realisation of our offshore renewable energy ambition by establishing a well-regulated and inclusive consenting process, with comprehensive environmental assessments and consultations, to enable meaningful community engagement.

Work on a revised offshore renewable energy development plan, which will provide an evidence base for the identification of areas most suitable for the sustainable development of offshore renewable energy, has been initiated by my Department. As part of that process, my Department established an advisory group to facilitate the development of the plan and participation in the spatial planning process by all relevant stakeholders from the economic, environmental and social pillars.

I had the privilege of participating in the first national climate stakeholder forum last month, attended by over 120 delegates who discussed various issues including engagement by them. My Department has also recently completed a public consultation on the draft terms and conditions for the first offshore wind auction under the renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, which will support offshore wind development in Ireland. Projects successful at auction will be required to make significant community benefit contributions from an early stage in the life cycle of an offshore wind project. There has been a significant response from local communities and my Department is now carefully considering all submissions before issuing a formal response later this year.

The south and east coasts will be the next step in terms of unlocking offshore renewables. Hopefully with the development of floating offshore technology the west coast will begin to open up. There is no two ways about it; these projects will have a visual impact. There are people in my community, just as there are people in the communities of the Minister and of Deputy Matthews, who are legitimately concerned about the visual impact and concerned about other environmental impacts. I realise there is an onus on the companies to engage with communities. We have to talk about citizen engagement but we also have to talk about community benefit and do so in a real way. We have to feel as though we are deriving benefit from this, as an island and as an economy, and not just that the profits are being levied by large companies. There is a role in Government communications to get the message across on the scale of the challenge and the scale of the opportunity.

I agree with Deputy Ó Cathasaigh. There are a number of areas where we have to accelerate the roll-out of the climate solutions to meet our climate targets. The debate last night showed this. This is with regard to switching to heat our homes, sustainable mobility and offshore renewable energy. The Government is establishing a number of task forces to look to see how we manage this, particularly in the next three years. With regard to offshore renewables it will be about making sure we complete the auctioning, consenting and planning permission and that contracts are started for the first phase of projects. They are relevant projects that we have been in planning for up to ten years. Not all may progress but I expect a significant number to do so. This group of projects will be central in terms of the arrival in the middle of this decade; in 2026 and 2027. The second phase will be the development of more projects as we move farther into southern and western waters and start floating offshore projects. They will also have to be consented through the auction process in time for us to meet our 2030 target of 5 GW.

I thank the Minister. He is speaking about overreaching national targets, and of course we must think about these, particularly in the context of the carbon budgets passed last night. There is a flip side of the coin which is not strictly related but is very closely related. Last night there was a public meeting in Clonea-Power, County Waterford. A large group of local residents came together to voice their concerns about a very large solar project in the region of 145 acres. I could not be at the meeting but I have heard there was significant community concern about a visual impact and an industrial impact. The residents did not necessarily see the community deriving benefit. I think back to the Covid communications we had. They were so good in ensuring we had community buy-in and everybody understood the scale of the challenge and was prepared to play their part. We need a communications strategy of this order so people understand the scale of the challenge and feel as though they are deriving community benefit from these projects.

I completely agree with Deputy Ó Cathasaigh, particularly his opening remarks. To me this is about empowering communities to feel ownership of such projects, particularly with regard to the benefit that communities can gain. In the context of Deputy Matthews's question, ensuring citizen engagement in these processes is paramount. I echo what Deputy Ó Cathasaigh said on the benefits and how we can instill it in communities during the planning process for these projects.

I agree with both Deputies. I was giving the framework of what we are looking to do. Within that, however, it is critical that in the planning application process there is real public consultation and that it is an open, transparent and engaged process. Not every project will get planning permission. It is critical that there are community benefits and that all of the revenue does not just accrue to private developers. It is critical the State has a central role in the transmission network planning. There are revenues to the State from this. There will be further community benefit in a variety of ways. The operation and maintenance of these facilities will see a complete turnaround in Irish ports throughout the country. These will be typically smaller ports where it will bring economic life and jobs to them. There will be larger deployment ports in Cork, Shannon and Rosslare. They have huge industrial development potential, not only in the deployment of these turbines but also using the power when it comes back in. This includes the area of Dublin. It will become a regional balanced-development economic opportunity, particularly for the south east, south west, west and north west, as I said in the Chamber yesterday.

In this consultation, we have to make sure that what we do is within our environmental constraints and that we manage this carefully, particularly in terms of bird life and other marine life. We can get this balance right. We happen to have one of the windiest areas in the world. Our sea area is seven times our land area and the scale there gives us opportunities to optimise for local communities, as well as economic security for the country.

Questions Nos. 98 and 99 replied to with Written Answers.

Climate Change Policy

Alan Farrell


100. Deputy Alan Farrell asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if an update will be provided on the work of the national climate stakeholder forum; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18871/22]

My question relates to the climate stakeholder forum which the Minister has already referenced. I ask him to go into further detail on the work of the forum.

I had the privilege of participating in the national climate stakeholder forum on 22 March this year. The forum was chaired by Professor Alan Barrett, director of the ESRI, and focused on realising the opportunities presented by the transition to carbon neutrality in a fair and equitable manner. The forum comprised a series of one-day deliberative workshops attended by more than 120 delegates, who discussed four priority areas where we aim to accelerate activity, as I said earlier. The areas were offshore renewables, retrofitting, sustainable mobility, including active transport and modal shift, as well as in the engagement, communications and climate literacy part that we need to get right in this regard. I received recommendations from each workshop. My Department will produce a short report on these recommendations that will inform the next climate action plan and sectoral policies. It is my intention that national climate stakeholder forum will meet three times each year. I will invite Government colleagues and Members of the Oireachtas to the next two events planned for later this year, where they will be offered the opportunity to hear from stakeholders to discuss the recommendations emerging from the March event and explore how we can deliver on them.

I thank the Minister. He will agree the forum is a critical component of establishing policy in this area. I certainly believe it will be very beneficial to the House, particularly to Members of the Oireachtas who have an interest in being invited. I am very pleased the Minister mentioned that at the next opportunity, this will occur. My desire is that the report the Minister mentioned, which will be created on foot of the meeting last month, would be made public. I am not sure if this is something the Minister intends to do but I am sure my colleagues and I would benefit from it being made available, particularly to the Oireachtas committee.

It absolutely makes sense for us to make it public. This is part of the answer to the question asked earlier about how we consult. This is an example of consultation and it is at the early stage. Before we have even established these task forces to accelerate delivery on some of the key areas, we are working in a partnership approach. We listen to the NGO community, trade unions and the business community and get them involved and engaged. What we have to do is beyond compare in terms of the scale and speed of change. One reason the four areas were picked for discussion is that they are the areas where some of the task forces to accelerate our activity will be focused and concentrated. I was there for most of the day. I had to slip out to come here for a vote. Other than that, I was able to go from one workshop to another. I can say with regard to the level of engagement that Irish people want to be good at this. If we approach it in this open way, whereby we listen and it is not presumptive, and whereby consultation is not a tick-box exercise after the fact but that stakeholders are involved from the beginning, this is what will work.

I thank the Minister. I completely agree. People want to have ownership of the processes into which we are entering in terms of a reduction on the reliance on fossil fuels and all of the associated energy sources we are now exploring.

One of the areas in which a great deal of engagement with the public is required was mentioned by Deputy Ó Cathasaigh in the context of a prior question. I refer to solar energy generation and the knock-on effects and impacts it has on farms in particular. Ideally, we should not put solar arrays on viable farmland, but, having said that, we will put them wherever is appropriate. There are concerns. These engagements and fora are very important, as is what flows from them. I welcome the Minister's comments on the publication of those documents, which will be very informative on an ongoing basis.

No one is forcing anyone to take on any of these measures. With regard to the likes of a solar farm, the landowner would obviously first have to decide to make an application. The success of such applications will be governed by grid connections and proximity to the transmission or distribution system as much as by anything else. The connection cost will probably be the key arbiter as to which projects are economic. With regard to something that Deputy Ó Cathasaigh said at a public meeting of concerned local people in his constituency last night, we will obviously have to look into matters such as visual impacts or other consequences for neighbours. We have to get this right but we can also see that we cannot just keep going at the current pace. It is not only that we have to act fast because we are in a climate crisis. There was an earlier question on energy security. Almost 70% of our energy is imported, which puts us at risk. That is a real fundamental strategic risk for us as a people. The more we can use our own resources, the more secure we will be.

Táimid thar am agus caithfimid bogadh ar aghaidh ach cuirim fáilte roimh na mic léinn thuas staighre. Tá sé tráthúil go bhfuilimid i mbun cainte faoi athrú aeráide agus cúrsaí fuinnimh.

Question No. 101 replied to with Written Answers.

Wind Energy Generation

Neasa Hourigan


102. Deputy Neasa Hourigan asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the steps he is taking to ensure Ireland delivers on the 5 GW target for offshore wind; if Ireland needs to be even more ambitious in order to support Europe weaning itself off fossil fuels; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18848/22]

The Minister touched on this issue in some of his replies to previous questions, but I will ask him about the steps he is taking to ensure Ireland delivers on its 5 GW target for offshore wind energy. Should we be even more ambitious to support Europe in weaning itself off of fossil fuels?

We are being ambitious. We have to achieve what was set out in the programme for Government, that is, at least 5 GW of offshore wind energy generation by 2030. The programme for Government commits to developing a longer-term plan to harness the estimated 30 GW of wind energy that could potentially be tapped into in our Atlantic waters.

The Maritime Area Planning Act 2021 provides the legal underpinning for this new planning and development system, which will balance the harnessing of our offshore potential with the protection of our environment. On 25 April, the application window for maritime area consent, MAC, applications under the new marine planning regime will open for a set of pre-qualified projects. The first MACs are expected to be granted in the second half of this year. In tandem, my Department is designing a pathway, based on consultation feedback, for a second batch of projects to progress through the new consenting system upon the establishment of the maritime area regulatory authority early next year. Work on a revised offshore renewable energy development plan is currently in progress. This plan will set out the pathway for the development of offshore renewable energy beyond 2030.

As I have said, we are establishing a cross-departmental offshore wind delivery task force to drive delivery. Its work will include identifying the supporting infrastructure we will need and supply chain opportunities for Ireland's offshore wind industry.

The case for ambition in this area is that we are not the only one in this business now. We are actually playing catch-up with some other countries. The UK has already deployed approximately 14 GW of offshore generating capacity and just announced yesterday that it is accelerating its ambition and raising its target from 40 GW by 2030 to 50 GW. Our German colleagues are out in the North Sea already. Because of Germany's need to switch away from Russian gas, it is planning to increase its target from 30 GW by 2030 to 70 GW. Belgium has also revised its plan and is now aiming for 8 GW rather than 2 GW by 2030. I am just making the point that we are in the north-west European regional electricity market. Cables, turbines and so on will all have to be shipped to these various different countries so we have to be quick and ambitious if we are to be part of that shift and change.

I thank the Minister for his reply. It is encouraging to hear of the volumes we are now generating in the context of what our European neighbours are doing. Ireland is well positioned in Europe to be a leading light in this regard. Of course, we should have been moving on this years ago and ramping up over the last decade. Our offshore wind resources are by far enough to comfortably satisfy our electricity needs. The Minister will be aware of several industry insiders who have argued that we should increase our ambition even further. Given the number of projects at various stages of planning at this point in time and the potential total capacity of 29 GW or 30 GW, which the Minister mentioned, it seems that the target of 5 GW by 2030 could perhaps be increased. The current target represents the minimum of what we would do if we were serious about tackling the climate crisis, securing Ireland's energy future and protecting ourselves against the geopolitical threats on the European Continent we are living with at the moment. The past few months have shown that we need to look at this matter through that prism.

We could be more ambitious, and we need to be. The real issue is delivery. One of the ways to deliver is through regional co-operation. I mentioned that many other European countries are now involved in a massive expansion of offshore wind plant. It is not just happening in Europe, but also in America, Asia and everywhere else because it is one of the cheapest and best sources of power we have. We happen to hold the presidency of the North Seas Energy Cooperation group this year. This is a group of nine countries that have signed a memorandum of understanding on working collectively to tap into this offshore resource. I hope that we will be able to get the UK included in that group. It was in the group originally, before Brexit. It is important that the UK is also part of our regional plans. Part of the planning in this respect should involve common organised procurement systems for shipping, cabling, turbines and electrolysers to generate hydrogen from this energy when it gets to shore. I am working with my German, French and other European colleagues in the North Seas Energy Cooperation group to see how that can be managed to aid in this acceleration.

I will touch on the issue of LNG. As a source of energy, it is not particularly cost-effective and it would be economically short-sighted to introduce it. We should also consider the impacts on communities of unconventional gas extraction methods such as fracking and the impacts on communities where LNG terminals are located, which is an issue we very rarely talk about in this country. The industry is very dangerous and polluting to the local area. Multiple studies, including studies by Gas Networks Ireland and EirGrid, have found the existing gas infrastructure to be capable of meeting future demand, even in the event of extreme supply disruption. LNG terminals would also be a significantly costly investment in a fuel we are planning to rapidly phase out. Does the new European agreement with the US create a difficulty for the Government's current position on this matter? Will the Minister make a statement on his current position on LNG infrastructure?

The Minister will be aware that there has been lively debate on this matter within the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action under its Chairman, Deputy Leddin. I would like to ask the Minister a couple of questions. When does he believe it will be appropriate to have a protected auction for floating wind energy generation capacity? When does he think it would be appropriate for Ireland to develop a hydrogen strategy? What is his view on the attitude of the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, which has indicated that LNG could be part of a strategy to develop a hydrogen sector and that we should not close our minds to it?

Following on from some of Deputy Hourigan's remarks, I have a query on the supply chain after 2030. Notwithstanding what certain industry experts have said, it is abundantly clear that a target of 5 GW is achievable, if difficult. However, given the competition we will face in the race to obtain the necessary components for the offshore wind energy sector post 2030, should we start looking at incentivising the creation of a domestic industry to supply this sector? How would we do that? Has the Minister considered the matter?

I will try to answer those various questions in the short time I have.

In response to Deputy Hourigan, I can say that the EU-US agreement does not impinge on us or force us in any direction. We have to make our own strategic decisions based on our own energy modelling and assessment. We always work in European co-operation, but in gas we are separated in effect from the European grid gas connection system because we are on the far side of the UK.

On Deputy Bruton's question on the auction for the protected quota for floating offshore wind, in some ways it comes to his second question. I expect that that will come in phase 2. As I mentioned earlier, the first phase is the relevant project. I expect that the auction process for the second phase will be up and running, if not completed, within the lifetime of this Government. That is the sort of scale we need to be able to deliver before the end of the decade, and it must be before the end of the decade. We can and should be much more ambitious. We will need to progress the hydrogen strategy this year. It is a very complex area that is evolving. The best analysis I have is that industrial applications will probably be received first. It is a question of whether we convert to hydrogen or ammonia. There are various other mechanisms. It could be an export opportunity for the country. The exact mechanism in that and the exact mechanism of the gas network, including how it is transmitted and stored, is the subject of the hydrogen review and the wider energy security review.

Lastly, in response to Deputy Farrell, I agree with him that the supply chain option for us, when we move to that floating offshore wind, is where it really scales up. I expect that the deep sea ports, including those in Cork, Shannon Foynes, Belfast and Derry, and other ports where there is large energy infrastructure and deep-water harbour facilities, are where we should be looking - the task force will be looking at it - at the manufacturing as well as deployment as a major industrial opportunity for our country.

Question No.103 replied to with Written Answers.

Renewable Energy Generation

Darren O'Rourke


104. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the additional resources that are being provided to the Commission for Regulation of Utilities and EirGrid to account for the increased workload as a result of offshore wind developments; the discussions he has held with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the need to provide extra resources to An Bord Pleanála for the same reason; the number of additional staff provided to each for this reason to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18801/22]

I ask the Minister what additional resources are being provided to the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, and EirGrid to account for the increased workload as a result of offshore wind developments and other developments; and the discussions he has held with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the need to provide extra resources to An Bord Pleanála for the same reason. It continues on the theme from my last question. We have heard from many agencies and stakeholders about the deficits in human resources.

The Deputy is absolutely right to question this, because the very centre point of us delivering everything else is ensuring that we have the resources within particular State agencies to deliver. On that basis, officials from my Department have been engaging with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage with respect to the level of staffing required by An Bord Pleanála to process applications for renewable energy, both onshore and offshore, with a view to ensuring that there is sufficient and appropriate expertise in place to meet the State's ambitions in respect of the roll-out of renewable energy projects. These discussions are ongoing and will continue over the course of the current quarter. The CRU has submitted its strategic plan for 2022 to 2024, which includes a workforce plan to increase the workforce by 74 over the next three years to ensure it can deliver on its objectives, including programme for Government commitments in relation to off-shore renewable energy. My consent and that of my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, is needed for the workforce plan and official-level engagement has been expedited to secure approval. Third, EirGrid has been appointed the operator and asset owner of Ireland's offshore electricity transmission system, with ownership resting with EirGrid at all stages of the phased transition, regardless of whether the grid has been developed by individual renewable energy projects or EirGrid. As a commercial State company, the resourcing required to deliver on EirGrid's mandate is a matter for the board and management of the company. I expect and see EirGrid expanding its operations to meet the requirements of this leap we need to make.

I will start where the Minister finished, on EirGrid. I must say that concerns have been raised both publically and privately. There have been media reports in recent weeks. There are real concerns about EirGrid's capacity to deliver on what it needs to deliver on. In terms of the grid connections, it is not even fit to tell us when it will deliver on what it is committing to deliver on. It will be the end of this year before it gives us a timeline on its 48 projects. It is saying very publically that there is nothing to see here and that EirGrid is in control. Everybody else in any way closely connected with the organisation, including the people leaving it on a daily basis, is saying that there are deep concerns and it is not across its brief. That is a major concern. I ask the Minister to address that point specifically in his response.

I do not agree. My experience of EirGrid, having engaged with the company for over 15 years, is that it is absolutely across its brief. It is highly capable, professional and has real expertise in terms of how we develop the transmission system and how we manage this incredibly complex project - this variable supply and demand balancing system. I look at the variety of projects which EirGrid has delivered over the years, including the east-west interconnector. There are projects progressing at the moment right across our transmission system. I refer to the Shaping Our Electricity Future plan. I think the consultation that was done on that is best in class in terms of bringing the public with us, as we discussed earlier. EirGrid has learnt the hard way over the years how to start getting that right. I see the management, executives and board of the company being well placed to do it. It does not have some of the restrictions that some of the State companies have. If I was really focusing on where this crunch issue about resources is, I think it is in getting additional staff to CRU and An Bord Pleanála. Those two organisations are dependent on the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform signing off on some of the approvals. If I am really focusing on where I will put my pressure on, it is to get those organisations additional staff, the same way that we staffed up our own Department and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI.

That is where I want to go next. We heard from the CRU that it plans to bring in 74 additional staff. We were out at Dublin Airport on Monday, so we are aware of the challenges involved in recruiting staff in the current climate. We are talking about a specific cohort of people. Do we even have the capacity within the State at this point to fill those 74 positions? First, will there be agreement from Government to deliver them and how quickly can they be delivered? On An Bord Pleanála, the Minister is aware that Wind Energy Ireland, amongst others, has said that the average decision time for a planning appeal is 60 weeks. The average decision time for strategic infrastructure developments is 69 weeks. That is evidence of a broken system. It does not work and it will not deliver to the type and scale required. What specific measures, including additional staff, is the Minister looking for and when will they be delivered?

I will be going to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform looking for delivery on the sort of numbers that CRU is looking for in its strategic plan. I think we will be able to recruit people, because there are a lot of people with energy expertise in our country. We need to see movement from the private sector into the regulatory sector. I think that has to be managed appropriately. There is a fairly wide and deep pool of people in this country with real expertise. With regard to An Bord Pleanála, that is obviously a matter for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I spoke to him recently on this issue and he has confirmed that there are plans to scale up the organisation. It is a difficult market. The organisation will be looking for planners and ecologists. There is a real tightness. This is a critical issue not just for our renewables industry but also for housing, because An Bord Pleanála is one of the real bottlenecks. Part of the problem there is probably that An Bord Pleanála is tied up in judicial reviews, with many decisions being reviewed. The planning reform being carried out by the Office of the Attorney General to help modernise, update and improve the planning legislation will help An Bord Pleanála manage the resources that it has, but it needs additional resources urgently.

North-South Interconnector

Matt Carthy


105. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications when he expects to receive the findings of a review into the north-south interconnector; and when such findings will be published. [17911/22]

My question relates to the review into the north-south interconnector. When will the review be completed and when will the report be provided and published? That is not to say that I have any confidence that the review is going to deliver the type of assessment that is required, because the terms of reference have been so narrow. However, I would like an update from the Minister in respect of the interconnector project more broadly.

The North-South interconnector is critical to improving the efficient operation of the all-island integrated single electricity market and increasing security of electricity supply in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It will also facilitate the achievement of the goal of generating up to 80% of our electricity from renewable sources by 2030. A resilient and well-connected energy infrastructure is vital for Ireland's economic well-being and the ability to respond to the future needs of energy consumers.

The option of undergrounding the North-South interconnector has been comprehensively assessed on several occasions. Most recently, the key finding from the international expert commission's report of October 2018 was that an overhead line remains the most appropriate option for this critical electricity infrastructure. Notwithstanding this, I decided to commission a further short review to assess if the overall finding from the 2018 report remains valid. Formal procurement of international experts in electricity grid infrastructure was completed last September. The international experts are continuing their work on the report, which has taken longer than expected, but I hope to receive it shortly.

I am interested to have a discussion. I said earlier that we always look at all options and discuss all energy matters. I would be very interested to hear what Sinn Féin sees, both North and South, as the timelines, the urgency and the preferred models. I have a real fear, across a whole variety of different areas, that we might lose what was seen as one of the significant developments of the last two decades, which was an all-island energy approach and a single electricity market. I fear that if we do not quickly build the scale of interconnection that we need, we will not see industrial development in the North and we will not see economic opportunities, particularly in those Border counties that are most in need and would most benefit from an integrated, synchronised transmission system which can deliver power locally to the people and to the industries that employ people in those areas. This is a critical economic issue, north and south of the Border.

For the avoidance of any doubt, I want to see the development of the North-South interconnector but I want it to happen in a way that has public acceptance. Here is the irony of the situation: had the Minister listened to the communities and to the expert advice the last time he was in government, I believe the North-South interconnector would be completed by now. Instead, we have had a decade of wasted opportunity because that principle of public acceptance that is so crucial was not heeded. In Belgium, for example, the ALEGrO project is happening underground precisely because of that principle of public acceptance being heeded.

The Minister mentioned in response to an earlier question that EirGrid has learned from previous mistakes. I believe it has learned from its experiences regarding the North-South interconnector but it has learned everywhere except on the route of the North-South interconnector. EirGrid has decided to bull-headedly pursue a strategy that is leading it directly into conflict with local communities. What I am asking the Minister is whether he is prioritising the completion of this project or prioritising adherence to the stated objectives of EirGird. If he prioritises the former, what he will actually do is commission a real analysis of how we deliver this project in a way in which communities, society, businesses and this House can be unanimous in seeing the project delivered.

It is almost 18 years since we started looking at this. I was a member of the relevant joint committee at the time, and we met with EirGrid and started looking at all of these options. If, as the Deputy says, his preferred option is underground DC cable connectivity, it seems to me that one of the aspects, one of the key truths around that, is that it would see no development in Armagh, Tyrone, Cavan, Monaghan and other Border areas. It would not actually be part of an electricity grid system which could then be used for industrial development and for getting a balanced, strong network. There is always the underlying question of what this connection is for. To my mind, it is a core spine of our key electricity system. I understand the issue of listening to the public, getting environmental planning consent and trying to bring everyone with us, but, in the end, politics sometimes comes down to hard decisions. Do we want to see economic development of the Border region or would it be fair to see it just as a transfer zone between Dublin and Belfast, where all the economic activity takes place?

I would suggest, in the first instance, that the Minister does not have the audacity to talk about economic development in the Border region considering his actions in regard to the N2 in an area where we have no public transport. This is not just about what Sinn Féin says. The independent review that the Minister has cited described undergrounding the North-South interconnector as a credible option. It made other determinations on other evaluations as to whether or not the process should be put overhead or underground. Here is the problem: we are now entering into a situation where EirGrid is going to be in direct confrontation with landowners and local communities and, in my view, that is going to lead to significant further delays. The Minister recalled that it is 18 years, almost two decades, since this project was first mooted. EirGrid has taken a particularly pig-headed approach, as I said, but Deputy Ryan is the Minister. He is the person who can actually carry out a full appraisal as to whether or not an underground option is feasible. In my view, it absolutely is. If the Minister had in a previous position undertaken that work, as I said, we would be in a much better position today and would perhaps even have seen delivery of this integral piece of infrastructure.

I want to come in on that point. We should never have ended up here, and that is my firm opinion. A central tenet of EirGrid’s current plan is community engagement and the Minister points towards learning the lessons of the past. We can see it in Grid West, on which there was huge confrontation and resistance, and that is going underground for the Connacht project. This is a matter of procedural justice and EirGrid is just being belligerently pigheaded in this regard. The most recent review is the latest example of it.

My contribution has nothing to do with the constituency politics or even the party politics of this. I can only talk about my own experience with the connection that came through Rush back in 2010. I can tell the House that political careers were created on it and then, on the back of the decision, political careers ended at the next local elections because people got it wrong. What troubles me about this discussion, and I remember reading up on it a number of years ago, is that the sector will determine what is the most appropriate means of getting the energy from A to B but we have constant bickering at a local level, with people telling others “This is the way it should be”. In Rush in north County Dublin, everybody wanted it overground and, as I said, careers were created on the back of it. It went underground and not a peep out of the community has occurred since, which is probably the most important message I have for this debate.

We need to get this right. We need to get it right in energy terms and we need to get it right in economic terms. I want to flag my real concern that, because we have not been able to get agreement, there is real potential for a fissure and it will be the North of Ireland which will suffer and the Border counties. That is not what we want to see. In response to Deputy Carthy, I have every interest in seeing balanced regional development and seeing counties Monaghan and Cavan and every county in the North survive. I was very proud and pleased in my previous existence as energy Minister to be able to help to set up the all-island electricity market. I believe we will not effectively meet our climate targets except if we work on an all-island basis. We are at real risk of losing that. We are at real risk of not seeing economic development in that region because-----

Because of the Minister's actions.

As I said, the Deputy may be in a position some day where those Government decisions have to be taken. I do not think that in those circumstances he would see the civil servants or the public officials as pig-headed. I think they are looking to deliver the best projects for the public good.

It has been held up for 20 years.

Deputy, please.

My fear is that that may not be possible because we cannot get political agreement on doing anything. That is the real issue that we have to be concerned with. It is the politics of this that we have to get right, as well as the energy analysis.

The Minister will not engage.

Offshore Renewable Energy Development Plan

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire


106. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he has engaged with organisations in County Cork on the potential for floating offshore wind there. [18854/22]

If I was to make a specific ask at this point, it would be for a dedicated discussion with the Minister. The potential for offshore wind in Cork is enormous in terms of reducing emissions but also in terms of creating jobs. However, we have to ensure that the skills are there on the ground in order that Cork can become a world leader in offshore wind and especially floating offshore wind. To do that, we need to do the work now to ensure the skills are in place and we are not bringing them in from elsewhere. We do not have time for a dedicated discussion now. However, would it be possible to have such a discussion with the Minister, at some stage, on how we can ensure that Cork and its harbour can become the world leader that they should be in offshore wind and floating offshore wind?

I appreciate the chance. We discussed it yesterday when we were talking about carbon budgets. I will explain why Cork Harbour will be essential to this economic opportunity. First, many of our energy assets are there. We have the Whitegate refinery and the power stations in Aghada and Whitegate. Most of our big pharmaceutical industries are there, which are large energy users. We have very strong grid connections. However, more than anything else, we have a world-class deep-sea water port of 11 m or 12 m at the quayside.

The scale of this offshore is beyond compare. One needs quaysides which can take up to 1,500 tonne pieces of metal to be brought out to sea, these are very large machines, such as the old Verolme dockyard, the marine nitrate site and Ringaskiddy, where investment is being made in the port facilities and investment is being made further inland. The new chair of the Port of Cork is someone with a real energy expertise background, which will help place the port at the centre of this.

I met with Cork Chamber of Commerce last year. A variety of different people are interested in the area. Companies are already investing in the likes of hydrogen facilities, which will be the energy of the future. However, this has to come from Cork, in terms of its sensitive planning and sensitive environmental considerations, very important special areas of conservation, SAC, and so on. By working with the Cork chamber, the Port of Cork and with the industrial interests there, we can make this a huge economic opportunity for the people of Cork. I will happily meet the Deputy separately to discuss it.

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