Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Joint Committee on Climate Action díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 27 Apr 2021

Increasing Wind Power on the National Grid: Discussion

We have received apologies form Deputy Cronin, for whom Deputy Carthy will be substituting.

I welcome Mr. Noel Cunniffe, acting CEO, Mr. Paul Blount, chairperson of the 70by30 committee and Mr. Justin Moran, head of communications and public affairs, from Wind Energy Ireland. On behalf of the committee, I thank them for coming before us to share their expertise.

I will first read a note on privilege. I remind witnesses of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue your remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction. For witnesses attending remotely outside the Leinster House campus there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege, and as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness physically present does. I remind members that they are only allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located on the Leinster House complex. In this regard, I ask all members, prior to making their contributions, to confirm that they are on the grounds of the Leinster House campus.

I call on Mr. Cunniffe to make his opening statement.

Mr. Noel Cunniffe

On behalf of Wind Energy Ireland, I thank the committee for the invitation to appear before it. I acknowledge and commend its recent work in helping to produce and strengthen a climate Bill which puts Ireland on a path to net-zero emissions and mandates a 51% reduction in emissions over the next decade.

I am accompanied by my colleagues, Justin Moran, who is our head of public affairs, and Paul Blount, who is the portfolio director at Coillte and who is here in his capacity as chairperson of our 70by30 policy committee.

Wind Energy Ireland is Ireland’s largest representative body for renewable energy, with more than 150 members. Wind energy has transformed Ireland’s electricity system over the past ten years, cutting millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions every year – 4 million tonnes in 2019 alone – and steadily reducing our dependency on imported fossil fuels. We are proud of the contribution our members have made but it was only possible by the work of EirGrid, ESB Networks and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, in developing the grid and integrating renewable energy.

It is to the credit of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Rya’s, that the policies he put in place when last in government enabled us to develop the onshore wind sector, which last year produced 38% of our electricity. This makes us number one in the world for the share of electricity demand met by onshore wind and it ensured we exceeded our 2020 renewable electricity target. We are also a major contributor to Ireland’s economy. The recent Economic Impact of Onshore Wind in Ireland report from KPMG showed that onshore wind energy is supporting more than 5,000 jobs and is worth more than €400 million annually to our economy. Both of these figures will rise.

As we develop onshore wind, it will be alongside an entirely new industry. Offshore wind energy has the potential to transform our energy system and our economy. It is a multibillion euro opportunity for coastal communities and will deliver unprecedented savings in carbon emissions. This achievement puts us in a strong position to meet our 2030 ambitions. The 2019 climate action plan and the programme for Government set out ambitious goals of developing 5 GW of offshore wind and doubling our onshore wind capacity to 8.2 GW by 2030. I wish to take the opportunity this morning to commend Deputy Bruton on his work in developing and delivering the 2019 climate action plan.

We know we have the pipeline of projects to achieve these targets but the most significant challenge we face is whether the grid will be strong enough to integrate this renewable energy. Last year, Wind Energy Ireland published a series of four reports known as the 70by30 implementation plan, which set out what needs to happen across planning, grid and market policy to decarbonise our electricity supply. Implementing those four reports gives us our best chance of reaching our 2030 targets. I want to focus today on the Saving Power report, which sets out how to integrate more renewable energy onto the grid.

Last year, more than 10% of renewable generation was lost because the grid could not accommodate it. In the first six months of last year alone, enough renewable energy was lost to power all of Galway city for a year. We need a complete redesign and reinforcement of the transmission system, with a focus on parts of the country where large volumes of renewable energy will be developed. Our fossil fuel back-up generation must be replaced with zero-carbon solutions such as demand response and energy storage.

An electricity grid and market designed for fossil fuel generators are not suitable for a future where most of our electricity comes from wind and solar. We must reform the market to ensure the new system we are building is efficient and cost-effective.

Implementing these reports and developing the electricity grid will not be easy. We must work with and listen to communities who will be hosting new wind farms or new grid infrastructure. We must ensure they are empowered to be part of our energy transition and we must find ways to adapt, where we can, to meet their concerns. The reality, however, is that we will not decarbonise our electricity system without new overhead lines, underground cables, substations, battery projects, wind farms and solar farms. The public and political support must be there to enable EirGrid and ESB Networks to deliver the infrastructure we need to decarbonise Ireland. Without it, we will fail.

We look forward to playing our part in EirGrid’s Shaping Our Electricity Future consultation and the Government’s consultation on the 2021 climate action plan. To inform our contributions, we engaged energy consultants, Baringa Partners, to analyse how the electricity sector could deliver even more CO2 savings. Initial results show it is possible to reduce power sector emissions to at least below two million tonnes of CO2 by 2030, which is less than half that envisaged by the climate action plan. This will require EirGrid and ESB Networks to deliver essential grid reinforcements and to continue their world-leading success in integrating renewables onto the power system, thus enabling us to go beyond 70% renewable electricity by 2030.

We look forward to engaging with EirGrid, the committee and the Department when the analysis is complete. Finally, I note that we recently published our Our Climate Neutral Future: Zero by 50 report, developed for us by UCC MaREI. This is a call to action for every level of Irish society. The report sets out our pathway to becoming energy independent and delivering warmer homes, cleaner air and tens of thousands of new jobs. We can decarbonise our energy system while building a foundation for the Irish economy and our society based on zero carbon energy. Delivering this future will require unprecedented leadership and it will not happen unless we can bring people with us by showing them the benefits of a truly just transition. Our members can and will rise to the challenge.

I thank Mr. Cunniffe. As this meeting is confined to a maximum of two hours and representatives from EirGrid will be presenting in the second hour, I propose each member be given two minutes to address his or her questions to the witnesses. This is to ensure that all members get an opportunity to pose their queries. Is that agreed? Agreed. I will call members in the order in which they raise their hands. I call Deputy O'Rourke.

I have a few questions for whoever might like to take them. On future development for communities around the country, how many additional onshore wind farms might we expect to see across the Twenty-six Counties before 2030? I would just like some sense of that situation. Turning to public acceptance, I would like to hear the perspective of the witnesses regarding that aspect. We had the planning regulator in with us some weeks ago and he talked about the possibility of designated areas for renewable energy. He also referred to there almost being an effective ban in policy in some counties.

From my experience, I know the great public resistance there can be concerning what is seen as opportunistic development that is not well thought through and not well connected with communities. I ask the witnesses to comment on that point about public acceptance. The wind energy guidelines are still outstanding as well and I ask if the witnesses have opinions on that aspect from their experience.

Representatives from EirGrid will be appearing before the committee in the next hour. There is some sense that EirGrid's ambition is not what it should be. I note the wide range of proposals that Wind Energy Ireland has in respect of policy development which would have to change to meet our 2030 targets. Will the witnesses comment on the ongoing EirGrid public consultation and the type of submission Wind Energy Ireland will be making to that consultation?

Mr. Noel Cunniffe

I will take a few of those questions and then I will pass the question on public acceptance to my colleague, Justin Moran, who leads much of our public engagement work. Starting with the number of onshore wind farms that can be expected across the country, it is safe to say that onshore wind farms are getting more efficient. Turbine technology is always progressing well. This means that to deliver the equivalent amount of onshore wind energy to that we already have in the system will require far fewer wind farms and turbines. That is because they are more effective and efficient and can deliver more energy for the same number of turbines. I do not have an exact figure for how many wind farms can be expected. They range, quite dramatically, in size from perhaps 5 MW up to more than 100 MW, and the exact number will depend on how successful various wind farms are at auctions. It is safe to say, however, that meeting the capacity needed will require fewer wind farms and turbines than we have today.

Turning to the planning aspect which was mentioned by the Deputy regarding the Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR, I think that is definitely an issue. Much planning of renewable developments today is done on a county-by-county level and often one county might designate a certain portion of its area as suitable for wind energy development, whereas a neighbouring county might have ruled out the area right on the other side of the border for renewable development. What we are looking for, therefore, is a more regional approach to planning, which is led by the three regional assemblies where there is an overarching renewable policy framework for developing renewable energy across the country, rather than on a county-by-county level.

Moving to the wind energy guidelines, those are still outstanding. We are very keen to see them, and I imagine we want to see them more than anyone else. For us, there are several issues in the draft wind energy guidelines, especially related to the noise element. We want the final guidelines to be based on scientifically robust and implementable solutions. Whatever is published in the wind energy guidelines from a noise perspective, therefore, needs to be deliverable and implementable.

I refer also to several other areas of the wind energy guidelines, such as set-back distance being increased to four times the tip height of turbines. That is a change from the current set-back distance of about 500 m. It is likely to go out to 750 m or 800 m, which will reduce the land area available for onshore wind energy generation by about 40% compared to today. However, we recognise this is necessary and it is something we are absolutely willing to work with. There is also a point in the wind energy guidelines on reducing shadow flicker, which is an issue. We again absolutely accept that is something that needs to happen. For us, therefore, we want to see those guidelines published quickly and they must be based on scientific evidence, especially concerning the aspect of noise, and they also need to be implementable.

The last point I will mention concerns EirGrid's consultation, and then I will pass over to Mr. Moran to comment on the public acceptance issue. This is the biggest consultation I have ever seen EirGrid do. Its level of engagement has been exceptional and it is reaching out to all parts of society. The consultation proposals regarding the future of the electricity grid, the markets and how the system is operated are well considered. There are four options for grid and network development. We will be asking for a blend of those four options. We do not believe that any one option will be the solution and I think EirGrid acknowledges this point as well. Our focus is on trying to deliver the capacity targets set out in the Climate Action Plan and the programme for Government, and we would like to see an electricity grid developed which can help to meet those capacity targets. I will pass over to Mr. Moran now to respond to the aspect of public acceptance.

Mr. Justin Moran

I will pick up on one point Mr. Cunniffe mentioned about the number of turbines and give a practical example. We have a wind farm at Barnesmore in County Donegal that one of our members is repowering. This example will give the committee members an idea of how the change in technology is occurring. That wind farm has 25 turbines and a generating capacity of 15 MW. We are going to take down those 25 turbines and 13 will be put up instead, halving the total number. However, the generating capacity will go from 15 MW to approximately 60 MW to 70 MW. That gives an idea of how rapidly the technology is changing, to the point where we now need fewer turbines to get the same amount of power.

Turning to the issue of public acceptance, opinion polling consistently shows substantial levels of support, 70% to 80%, for wind energy in Ireland. Even when people are asked a question about a wind farm near them, we still see majority support even in rural Ireland. On our end, we need to engage with those people who have questions and concerns about projects. Frankly, we must be improving that aspect continually and always doing a better job. One of the ways we do that is by listening and then changing projects as they are ongoing. It would be very rare today for an onshore wind farm project to finish as it started. The project will change as the concerns of people are listened to and adjustments are made accordingly.

For example, one project in the midlands started out with either 27 or 29 turbines and it is now going to be built with 23 turbines. The substation has also been moved to a different location. Those changes have all been based on the feedback that came from people in the community. I think the Deputy is right, therefore, and this issue touches on the point made by Mr. Cunniffe at the end of his contribution. The only way we are going to develop wind farms and grid infrastructure is through enhanced public engagement as early as possible. We must not just listen to people, which is obviously valuable, but also take their views into account and adjust accordingly wherever that is possible.

Mr. Noel Cunniffe

Mr. Paul Blount might have something to add on these points.

Mr. Paul Blount

I reiterate and emphasise the point that Mr. Cunniffe was making about the importance of a blend to enable the installed capacity targets to be met.

In many respects, the grid is a key enabler of competition. If we are to deliver this transition at the least cost to consumers, the grid is what will enable competition. By going for a blend of the options that EirGrid has put forward, we enable the competition that will allow transition to be delivered at least cost and with the ability to flex to the higher levels of ambition that I expect will inevitably come. I really want to emphasise that point. EirGrid has done the work and analysis on this and it is a case now of making the right decisions.

There can be a tendency to focus on the cost of providing the grid infrastructure. We need to start thinking of it as an investment that will enable cheaper forms of renewable energy to come onto the system. We must approach it with the kind of mindset that if there is underinvestment, the transition may become more expensive. We need to invest the right amount in order to create capacity and enable competition. The analogy I like to use is that failing to do this would be like investing huge sums of money in trains but investing nothing in the railway lines. That is where we are at on this issue. I thank the Deputy for his questions.

I thank the witnesses for attending. There is some concern at this time regarding the development of wind energy, which is happening apace. That development is needed because we have our targets to meet. However, there are concerns as to whether the environmental considerations are being taken fully into account when we are planning where the farms will go. The provisions relating to the marine planning framework are going through the Dáil this week. My understanding is that there will be a very limited consultation on those proposals, with only a 50-minute debate scheduled in the Dáil. Even that discussion had to be campaigned for quite strongly. Mr. Moran spoke about bringing communities on board, having full discussions and consultation and making sure everyone knows what is happening. That is really important and I am very glad to hear it is a priority for Wind Energy Ireland. Does Mr. Moran have any concerns that rushing through the proposals for the marine planning framework without having a full debate in the Dáil could undermine that community engagement and set a scene whereby communities will already feel disadvantaged coming into the process?

My other question follows on from the point raised by Deputy O'Rourke. In my constituency of Wicklow, there are three major wind farms planned for the coastline. I cannot find a map showing those three farms and indicating the capacity or target relating to each. That is the kind of information communities need. Will providing that information be something Wind Energy Ireland can either facilitate or seek to get done, perhaps through the Department? It is important that people understand and can see exactly what the impact of these farms will be. What is the witnesses' opinion on that issue?

Mr. Justin Moran

Any of the projects we are developing will need to go through an environmental impact assessment process to identify whether they will have impacts on the local environment and, if so, the efforts that can be made to minimise or mitigate those impacts. We are really conscious of the responsibility we have to do that effectively and in such a way that we can be held to account by the planning authorities.

One of the areas in which it would be great to see some additional support or investment is in terms of ensuring that other actors in the environmental space are able to participate in the process. The National Parks and Wildlife Service, for example, is drastically underfunded. It really needs to have the resources available to look not just at onshore wind farm development but also at offshore development in the years to come. The same can be said of An Bord Pleanála. We are going to see the development of offshore wind farms, including those the Deputy mentioned, and we will need to ensure they are adequately resourced. We must ensure not only that the planning process is carried out in a responsible, transparent and accountable way but that it is seen by the communities involved to be carried out in that way and that they are able to participate in the process.

Regarding the national marine planning framework, I am not sure what the Dáil schedule is for discussing it this week. I see it as a document that is critical to the development of renewable energy and putting in place an effective planning framework. There has been quite a long consultation on the national planning framework. I understand the Government extended the consultation period to give people an opportunity to have an input into the proposals. We need to ensure the document is properly scrutinised. Whether that is done by allocating time for debate in the Oireachtas is a decision for members of the committee and the people who are responsible for scheduling. It is really important to ensure that what we put in place is robust, will last five, ten or 15 years, and will provide a system that enables us to develop the offshore renewable energy production which, as the Deputy mentioned, is absolutely critical. It must do so in a way that enables communities to participate in that process, both through the framework system and through submissions, which many communities have made, and also in respect of decisions on individual projects.

Mapping offshore wind farms can be quite a challenge. At this point, many of those involved in the projects are simply carrying out surveys of specific locations on the seabed. They might be carrying out a survey on a much wider space than they plan to use for the development of the wind farm infrastructure. We need to find ways of getting that information collated better and making it more available and transparent. If there is something we can do to work with the relevant authorities to achieve that, we would be very happy to take it on board.

I thank Mr. Moran.

I thank Mr. Cunniffe for his presentation. We all recognise the importance of renewable energy as a significant part of meeting our electricity generation needs and the increased demand in that regard over the coming years. Where it gets a little more difficult is in the perception, or perhaps the reality in many cases, of the saturation point having been reached for onshore wind in many of the most attractive areas from a wind capture point of view, and the significant impact that is having on communities. I would like to hear the witnesses' views on how they intend to engage more effectively in this regard and to the broader benefit of communities.

Heretofore, wind energy developers tended to do deals with community enterprises, namely, the local GAA club, a community council or similar, and provide some funding in that way. This model, in my view, does not work and does not address the impact on some of the communities involved. A decision can be made to go for the setback distance and put the farm out to 1 km, but there still will be people who feel impacted by the intrusion of a wind farm. Let us be honest about this. Some people are concerned about noise and some are concerned about flicker. If one drills down into their real concerns, some people will talk about health issues, which are certainly not proven and probably not real. They are also concerned about the visually intrusive nature of wind farms. Are the witnesses considering a greater level of involvement for communities in discussions on matters of this nature? I am not referring to situations where people are participating with their own equity. Is Wind Energy Ireland going to share the profit or gain with a wider cohort of the community than just the community groups, local GAA clubs or landholders? That is critical in getting some of the areas to a point where they can be developed. There are certain areas in which I expect the witnesses will never get the support of people for development. That will have to be taken into account.

I am concerned that there has been a lack of engagement through the Covid period. Mr. Blount might be able to tell us more about the wind farm that Coillte is developing on the shores of Lough Derg near Killaloe. I have been a public representative for that area for 18 years-----

Senator Dooley has had almost three minutes.

-----and I have had no contact from anybody in Coillte on this issue and nor have most people in the area. I am not so sure that particular engagement is working. Can Mr. Blount talk a little more about the offshore potential? The ESB announced a development recently, which is very positive, off the west Clare and west Kerry coast. Will Mr. Blount tell us more about that?

I remind members that if they can keep their contributions to two minutes, that will allow everybody to put their questions and give time for good answers from the witnesses.

Mr. Noel Cunniffe

I thank Senator Dooley for his questions.

On the offshore question, I will make a couple of comments on the renewable saturation that the Senator referenced. Then I will pass over to Mr. Moran to talk about the community benefit and some of our work there. Then I will pass over to Mr. Blount to talk about the engagement during Covid.

On the saturation issue mentioned, there was a very interesting presentation last week by the planning consultants MKO at the Wind Energy Ireland conference. That showed that delivering the 4 GW of additional onshore wind energy we need between now and 2030 would require 0.3% of the land area in Ireland. The amount of land area that is required to develop 4 GW is getting smaller all the time because the turbines are getting more efficient and fewer are needed, effectively. When that 0.3% is dispersed across multiple counties, it should not lead to an oversaturation in particular parts of the country.

In terms of how we see development with communities over time, Wind Energy Ireland carries out a pipeline survey of its members every nine months to understand how the onshore and offshore wind pipeline is progressing in the country. If you look back over the pipeline surveys over the past two years, it has been very interesting to see projects at very early stages of development go from one survey to another and, very often, get smaller over time. That is because they have engaged with communities in the early stages of development. They have optimised the placement of turbines and removed them in certain instances, like Mr. Moran mentioned earlier. We really are trying to bring communities with us and have those discussions at the earliest possible opportunities we can. I might let Mr. Moran and Mr. Blount talk a little bit more about that separately.

The potential for offshore wind energy in Ireland is enormous. We have a challenge of getting to 5 GW by 2030. That challenge is not set by a lack of projects being developed or the developers that are there to deliver it. The challenge is ensuring we get a planning system up and running as quickly as possible, we have a grid system up and running so that projects can be connected to the grid, and we have a route to market so that we have auctions available to deliver 5 GW.

It was a fantastic announcement by the ESB a couple of weeks ago and it is real evidence of the just transition happening from coal to the future of offshore wind energy. The vast majority of offshore projects developed this decade will likely be fixed bottom offshore facilities, predominantly located off the east coast, but certainly some will be required off the south and west coast, most likely, to hit the 5 GW target. We can see floating offshore wind projects playing a role towards the latter half of this decade and certainly into the future.

The programme for Government set a target of 30 GW of floating offshore wind potential. What we saw in our recent UCC report, which looked at getting to a zero carbon economy by 2050, was that we need about 25 GW of renewable energy between now and 2050 purely for our own domestic demand. That is not even taking into account the export potential that was referenced in the programme for Government. I have no doubt we need to continue developing onshore and progressing our offshore development, especially floating technology, as we go out into the 2030s and 2040s, and we need to develop solar energy because we need diversity across the renewables portfolio.

I will pass over to Mr. Moran on the community benefit and he will be followed by Mr. Blount.

Mr. Justin Moran

There is a real opportunity for Senator Dooley and other members to get involved in shaping how those community benefit programmes will run. As members may be familiar, under the renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, that was launched last year, every wind farm participating in that scheme will need to put in a payment to the community benefit fund of €2 a megawatt hour. That works out at roughly between €4,000 and €5,000 for a megawatt of installed capacity. For a 20 MW farm, it will cost somewhere between €80,000 and €100,000 a year for 15 years going into a local community. The really impressive part about the renewable electricity support scheme is that it has put community control and influence over where the money goes at the heart of how it is being developed.

The reason I said there is an opportunity here for members is because the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, is running a consultation asking people to provide input on how community committees should be structured, set up, the powers they should have, and the supports and resources that should be available. We are very keen to see communities empowered and enabled as much as possible to ensure the SEAI provides them with the resources that enable them to take best advantage of this. A wind farm, for example, could be a transformative opportunity for a small rural community or a coastal community when offshore wind farms come together. Let us think about how we can use this money over ten or 15 years to leave a real lasting legacy in that community. It is not just investment in small pockets. It is actually investing in capital in that community and making a difference over the long run. I will share with the members of the committee details of the consultation because the issue is quite live. Certainly, the principle of ensuring maximum community control over the community benefit fund is one we absolutely support and it is one that is embedded in the renewable electricity support scheme.

Mr. Paul Blount

From a community perspective, the first priority for us when we design wind farms is that we apply best practice and design them in a way that we do not create genuine noise or shadow flicker issues for communities. It is about getting the design right. As you develop your design, you need to engage with communities to give them the confidence that the design is being done correctly.

A big challenge for us, and I would say we are similar to many other sectors, is the advent of social media and the ease with which misinformation can be spread on social media, and that is something that creates huge challenges for us. In our engagement processes we have to seek to tackle some of that misinformation. That is very challenging but we work incredibly hard to do that.

Covid is an unprecedented public health crisis and it created difficulties in implementing the type of engagement model we would ordinarily have sought to do. We have a team who work incredibly hard to reinvent our approach to engagement in that type of an environment. We are similar to many other developers in this respect. In terms of building virtual tours, we made our project team available to respond to queries. We did a lot in the circumstances to try to adapt to a very difficult situation when the Covid crisis landed.

Mr. Blount, the reality is you did not. I am giving you a case in point where you did not contact the local representatives. We have one county councillor in that area and one councillor only.

Senator Dooley, I am going to stop you there.

Mr. Blount is going to have to address that, so he can come back to me afterwards offline, if he wants.

Mr. Paul Blount

I will be happy to. I am not familiar with that specific project. It is not one of the projects that is in my portfolio, but I would be happy to pick that up with the project team. I know that, typically, we would be in contact with local public representatives. I am happy to revert offline with Senator Dooley on that specific project.

I would appreciate it if Mr. Blount could liaise with the Senator to complete the answer to his question. I am mindful that six members have indicated a wish to ask questions but fewer than 25 minutes remain. I ask members to keep their questions brief and ask witnesses to be as brief as they can in their answers.

I thank the witnesses for their presentation and kind words. The committee has been very strong in wanting to double the ambition we set out in the climate action plan, which is welcome. I see the witnesses are talking about moving to in excess of 85% capacity for wind on the grid. There is a dilemma for both politicians and the witnesses. We all want more but, as we have seen with housing, it is often politicians themselves who, having declared a housing emergency, want to block each individual case and want every piece of a case heard. We need to find a better way of doing this, and that is not to criticise politicians who feel frustrated, because I know that happens. If we find that every case is going to be pursued by a group of politicians or judicial reviews, we will never get this done and we are wasting our time declaring an ambition of 51%. Are there international examples of how this is being done better that we could draw upon? Who has done this work very quickly, as we now need to do?

Did the witnesses comment on the backup they need for wind energy generation? I know the wind does not always blow. What is their view of the backup in the short and medium term? Are they considering battery technology as an integral part of some of their investment?

What is the scale of capital, do the witnesses reckon, that needs to be mobilised to get the grid infrastructure and wind capacity built?

How much capital do we need to mobilise? Can we find a better way to mobilise that quickly for the grid? Are there obstacles in the way of wind energy in Ireland? I have heard some criticism that there is a bit of gold-plating on the type of infrastructure being put in which is making it more expensive to deliver wind energy projects quickly.

Mr. Noel Cunniffe

I agree with the Deputy that we need to do things better and quicker. We need public and political support to deliver what we are trying to do here. It is not just wind energy, but also grid infrastructure. If we really want to deliver a net zero-carbon economy, we need renewable energy because the electricity grid will be the backbone of not just our electricity supply but of our heating and transport sectors and all our services. We need to start looking at things through the lens of an investment rather than as a cost.

Regarding international best practice, many European countries are trying to double their wind energy resource. This is a challenge faced throughout Europe and across the world based on some of the announcements in other jurisdictions. We work with partners in Wind Europe, our trade association body at European level, to try to identify best practices of engaging with communities. The Deputy is right that we need to do more by going into communities and explaining the benefits not just of wind energy but of infrastructure in general, be that transmission grid, distribution grid, broadband, transport networks, etc. It is a challenge for all of us.

The Deputy asked about the backup capacity. Security of supply is paramount, and we need to ensure that the supply of electricity can remain secure and reliable as we transition to a zero-carbon portfolio. The diversity of renewable energy will certainly help with that. Onshore wind, offshore wind and solar generation have diverse availability patterns. At times when solar might not be available, wind might be available and vice versa.

We need to look further at interconnection and how it works. We need to see the Greenlink interconnector delivered in 2023. We need to see the Celtic interconnector delivered by 2026. This will diversify our security of supply to other jurisdictions and will allow the efficient trade in power so that when we have excess power we can export it and when we do not have power, we can bring it in from other jurisdictions.

In the short to medium term we need to look at long-duration storage. Several technologies today provide multi-hour battery storage, for example. Very often our issues when it comes to security of supply are of a multi-hour timeframe, for four to five hours over the evening peak, as we saw during the wintertime just gone. Multi-hour storage devices charged with renewable energy ideally during other times can be used to provide cover at those evening peaks. They represent one zero-carbon solution that does not depend on fossil fuels.

In the longer term we need market incentives in order to drive a transition towards a carbon-free molecule to combust, be it hydrogen or something else. We really need to think about how we evolve the thermal portfolio of our system away from one that is focused on coal and gas more towards clean carbon source.

The Deputy asked if there were any obstacles to delivering this. The biggest obstacle for both onshore and offshore wind energy is grid infrastructure. We need the grid to be capable of exporting the available power to where it is needed. There are several examples of wind farm projects on the onshore side which have planning permission but are not progressing because the grid infrastructure to deliver the power to where it needs to be is not there.

Similarly, the EirGrid consultation has shown that significant investment is required on the east coast in order to deliver our ambitions there for the 5 GW capacity. We will also need to look at the south coast and west coast in that regard.

Mr. Moran may wish to make comments about the investment in the recent KPMG report that we used.

Mr. Justin Moran

An investment of approximately €2.6 billion or €2.7 billion will be required for developing the electricity system and developing onshore wind farms and solar farms over the next few years. Obviously, there will also be need for investment in offshore wind farms. Much of that money will stay in Ireland and we can build a stronger Irish supply chain. There is real opportunity for Irish coastal communities and Irish ports to play a role in the development of offshore wind energy. The sooner we can move forward and support those projects the better.

I thank the witnesses. I believe Mr. Blount spoke about how projects can change dramatically from when they start planning to the end. That is part of the problem. I know it is good to have that community engagement. When the community does not accept a bad proposal and it does not go ahead, it sets back the other good projects in an area. I can think of a poor project in Galway now and contrast it with the Galway Wind Park which got great support. Do we need to look at best practice from the outset and not to make a proposal that is likely not to get support because it does not always change over time and then negativity has set in at a very early point?

I do not believe the witnesses talked about opportunities for Ireland on the manufacturing and maintenance side. We are talking about energy generation and exporting excess energy, but perhaps there is an opportunity for Ireland to get involved even though we are coming to it later than other countries, such as Germany. What opportunities might exist in that regard?

Why do we need to make more investment in the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS? How does that impact on planning for the wind energy industry?

Quite apart from the grid what other infrastructure is required in order to get the west and north west from bottom of the heap to being more advanced? Again, communities are likely to come on board when they see investment in their area, including other types of infrastructural investment that go hand in hand with the investment in energy.

I am very mindful of the time left. Witnesses may answer briefly now, but we would be very happy to receive written answers if they would like to follow up later. I will forgo my own question because of the limited time we have left. I am quite interested in hearing the response to Senator O'Reilly's question on the potential for manufacturing in Ireland. She said that we probably missed the boat 20 or 30 years ago in respect of manufacturing wind energy technology in Ireland. Given the major resource we have here, there may be manufacturing potential here. I would appreciate hearing the witnesses' comments on that.

Mr. Noel Cunniffe

I might take the first cut at it and Mr. Moran may speak after that. Last year we published a report, entitled Harnessing Our Potential, which looked at the investment opportunities for offshore renewable energy. It found that there is a commercial opportunity for port infrastructure off the west coast and east coast which can help become a supply base and create an indigenous supply chain to support the offshore wind energy industry in Ireland. It is certainly something that is worth looking into. We believe we could have a commercial opportunity for a staging port which would be worth about €70 million. There would be a commercial opportunity for an operations and maintenance port worth about €350 million.

This report was based on the climate action plan target of 3.5 GW rather than the increased target of 5 GW. Between now and 2030 we will need an investment in offshore wind energy of approximately €18 billion. Looking forward to post-2030 potential, we believe an additional €42 billion is on the table. It is all about how much of that opportunity Irish companies can tap into and harness. We are very much minded of that and we have a very active supply chain working group looking at those opportunities.

One of the final comments was on the west and north west. To return to the grid infrastructure, one of EirGrid's current options, as part of its consultation, concerns the savings that can be made in grid infrastructural requirements if some large energy users can be moved from the Dublin region to other parts of the country, and it is examining the west and north west as options in that regard. Delivering that will require public policy support to achieve the transition and infrastructural development in things such as fibre broadband that are very important to the large information-driven industries developing around the Dublin region at the moment because of their broadband infrastructures. That will be vital for bringing not just investment in renewable energy but also the demand out of Dublin and towards the other regions.

Mr. Moran or Mr. Blount might wish to comment on the NPWS or the other issues.

Mr. Justin Moran

To take the operations and maintenance opportunity, for example, it is worth mentioning that a number of people are already working in operations and maintenance in Ireland. One company, off the top of my head, is Enercon, a turbine manufacture from Germany whose Irish national headquarters is located in Tralee. It employs about 150 people across the country, most of whom are turbine technicians who travel throughout the country. These are jobs in rural Ireland for engineers and technicians who, in many cases, have come back from other countries. When we move to offshore, a typical 500 MW or 600 MW offshore wind farm would have between 80 and 100 operations and maintenance jobs once it is up and running in whatever port or harbour is identified as its support.

On the point about public engagement, we need to get out there as early as possible and constantly try to find ways to improve. It is fair to say that as an industry, the approach and the investment of time, money and resources we put into community and public engagement today is very different from what it would have been, say, ten years ago, and we are getting better and stronger in that regard. I accept the point that it can be confusing if a project changes or is amended. There is a communications task in being able to explain to people that a project has changed because they asked us to change it. It is about giving them a sense of empowerment and control over the decisions being made in their area. We need to explain that we have moved a particular substation because we were asked to, or that we are constructing it differently because we were asked to. That is work we need to do.

On the NPWS, when we are developing onshore wind farms and, in the future, offshore wind farms, we need to do so in such a way that allows us to protect Ireland's biodiversity and to ensure that what we are developing will mitigate environmental impacts where possible. The earlier we can engage with the NPWS about projects, the better and stronger not just we will be but also the projects themselves. There are steps we can take as an industry. I take this opportunity to plug that we have just launched our all-Ireland pollinator plan with the National Biodiversity Data Centre. Wind farms increasingly take up a specific geographic location or space. We need to examine what we can do to build, operate, maintain and manage them in a way that enhances Ireland's biodiversity. There are many such interesting and exciting projects at individual wind farms throughout the country.

There will not be much time to respond to the remaining members' questions but if our guests could follow up with written answers, we would appreciate that.

I thank the contributors for their time and comments. They mentioned that onshore wind accounted for about 38% of our electricity last year. What percentage do our guests estimate offshore to account for, given the number of projects in the pipeline over the coming years? In my constituency, there is the Kish Bank basin proposal, which is a rehash of a previous plan that did not get very far, thankfully. I note what our guests said about wind turbines and all the technological advancements. There are now fewer turbines and the plan has changed somewhat. Nevertheless, after the public consultation, things have gone quiet and people are unsure as to what the next stage is. Mr. Moran spoke about communication. It is important that the public are aware of the next phase when the consultation is complete.

Mr. Cunniffe stated "more than 10% of renewable generation was lost because the grid could not accommodate it." What measures could prevent that loss of energy? Does the technology exist? One issue I have come across relates to the energy cloud. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage recently launched a scheme with Clúid Housing. To me, it seems to be a really good and efficient use of potentially lost energy in the grid.

Mr. Cunniffe stated that we will not decarbonise our electricity system without new overhead lines or underground cables. Is the preference of Wind Energy Ireland's members for overhead or underground? It is a controversial issue and I am interested in hearing our guests' views.

To follow up on some other members' points, I have a concern about biodiversity and in particular about offshore wind. I share Mr. Cunniffe's excitement about the potential for offshore wind in the context of meeting our 2030 targets, but my concern is that if we fast-track marine planning but do not have the designated zones in place, it will only lead to more judicial reviews and planning objections. While Deputy Bruton stated that politicians and communities are objecting, in general judicial reviews arise because we do not screen out the bad applications in the first instance. The way in which we could do that is by having the marine protected areas zoned before dealing with the marine planning, or by having the two go hand in hand. I would like to hear our guests' perspective on that. Surely the industry, too, wants that type of certainty in regard to the marine protection zones.

There is an acknowledgment that there has been an improvement and engagement, but in reinventing engagement it is important to be clear that it is not accompanied by reinventing the planning process. It seems there have been better outcomes from better engagement by the industry, and that should allow it to navigate the planning process rather than being in any sense seen as a substitute for the planning process. Will our guests comment specifically on the use of environmental impact assessments, that is, not appropriate assessments for Natura 2000 sites but environmental impact assessments and social impact assessments? Is there an acknowledgment that many community concerns early on have improved the industry? We saw that in terms of noise. A significant aspect of offshore relates to seismic activity and its impact. That is another really important area where there is a precautionary principle.

I heard a reference to "science based". To be clear, the European principles are a precautionary principle that does not mean that nothing is done but rather that an attempt is made to be even ahead of where the research is headed. Specifically on the issue of the marine protected areas, do our guests anticipate that the industry will contest the zoning of marine protected areas, based on any planning applications that may have been granted or are pending? That is a concern. We want to make the marine protection area zoning be heavily driven by the protection of our marine environment.

Will our guests follow up with written comments on the just transition and learning from the good and the bad of what has happened in Scotland, and on Wind Energy Ireland's role in that? Do they agree that gas is not a transition fuel? Should there be a greater emphasis on investment in storage technology versus carbon capture?

One minute remains if Mr. Cunniffe or Mr. Moran would like to have a go and give us their initial thoughts. Either way, we would appreciate written responses to the questions.

Mr. Noel Cunniffe

We can follow up with written statements; that is not a problem. One issue I will take now, because I know it is the topic of the meeting, relates to the grid. Deputy Devlin asked about the measures we need in order to reduce the number of dispatch-down instructions, given that that is a grid challenge with EirGrid coming in. There are two elements to dispatch-down, namely, constraints, which are a local area problem, and curtailment, which is a system-wide problem that deals with the inability of the system to manage securely the level of wind energy on the grid. To take the system-wide issue first, the main step we need to take over the next ten years is to substitute fossil fuel generators with clean, zero-carbon sources of providing services to the grid.

These services relate not only to energy but to stability as well. Examples include things like demand side response, battery storage and some of the newer technologies involved. The ESB announcement some weeks ago is relevant too. These factors will be really important. We see this as the primary way to make space on the grid for renewable energy.

We carried out some work with Baringa last year. It showed that if we can transition to these zero-carbon services, then we can remove 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the power sector. That is approximately one fifth of our emissions today. That does not require any new large-scale grid infrastructure. It can be done.

Another point is that we absolutely need investment in our grid infrastructure. We need to use the existing grid better. There are ways to do this and new technologies that can better utilise existing lines. One area in particular is hybrid connections. This was referenced in the 2019 climate action plan but it is not in the 2021 climate action plan goals for this year. We would like to see this improved. The idea is to better utilise hybrid connections and have existing grid connections with technologies like onshore, offshore and solar energy as well as battery storage all from the same part of the grid.

Thank you, Mr. Cunniffe. We are out of time. We would appreciate if you could forward more complete answers to those questions from Deputy Devlin, Senator Higgins and Senator Boylan. Thank you for attending today and for your contribution and engagement. We will suspend the meeting for two minutes to allow witnesses from EirGrid to join the meeting.

Sitting suspended at 10.30 a.m. and resumed at 10.35 a.m.

I welcome to the meeting from EirGrid, Mr. Mark Foley, chief executive officer, Mr. Liam Ryan, chief innovation and planning officer, and Ms Suzanne Collins, head of public relations. On behalf of the committee, I welcome all of you to today's meeting and thank you for appearing before the committee to share your expertise.

I wish to remind you of the long-standing parliamentary practice that you should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if your statements are potentially defamatory in respect of an identifiable person or entity, you will be directed to discontinue your remarks. It is imperative that you comply with any such direction. For witnesses attending remotely outside the Leinster House campus there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege, and as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness physically present does. I call on Mr. Foley to make his opening statement.

Mr. Mark Foley

It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to talk to the committee about EirGrid and the critical role we play in driving the transformation of the power system as the Government looks to the electricity system to play a central role in the forthcoming climate action plan. I am joined by Ms Suzanne Collins, our head of public relations, and Mr. Liam Ryan, our chief innovation and planning officer.

The climate action plan, underpinned by the recently published Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill, will set out a pathway to reduce carbon emissions across society and the economy by 50% between now and 2030.

EirGrid operates the power system on a 24-7 basis across two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland, thus ensuring people have electricity at all times. EirGrid is also responsible for planning the power system of the future. Our planning horizon runs for decades.

Ireland is a world leader in renewable energy integration, namely, onshore wind. Last week, we reported the fact that Ireland achieved 43% of all electricity from renewable sources in 2020. This was an extraordinary achievement and ahead of the 40% target set back in 2008.

As recently as March of this year we signed off on our capability to operate the power system at 70% renewables on the system on an instantaneous basis. We are the only island country in the world operating at this level. We expect to be able to operate at 75% by the end of the year.

Ireland has exceptional untapped wind resources, particularly offshore. They equate to approximately ten times what is currently installed on the island of Ireland, namely, 5,000 MW. As we look to 2030 targets and ultimately to net zero emissions in 2050, offshore wind has a key role to play.

The forthcoming climate action plan seeks to transition the electricity system from the aforementioned 43% from renewable sources last year to at least 70% by 2030. We are among an elite group in the world with such ambition.

I will set out some context. The task of meeting the target of 70% of electricity from renewable sources in 2030 represents a whole-of-system challenge, one that has to be dealt with across three dimensions. I will elaborate on these three dimensions. First, the total system demand for electricity is going to increase by as much as 50% in the coming ten years due primarily to data centres, electric vehicles for transportation and heat pumps for homes. Second, the generation portfolio is changing dramatically as fossil fuel plant exit the system and the fleet of renewable generators increases by between 100% and 200% through continuing investment in onshore wind - something Ireland is excellent at - new solar generation and a major new industry centred around offshore wind generation. Third, EirGrid occupies the space in the middle, completing the jigsaw and delivering the balancing act across the three dimensions, including operations, the market and the network, more commonly referred to as the grid.

While operations and markets are fundamental to achieving the renewable energy target of 70% by 2030 I will focus on the role of the grid in this discussion because it tends to attract the most attention and is the most controversial. Let us consider demand and generation of electricity.

To understand the grid, one must understand generation and demand. Today, we have a mixture of fossil fuel generation, including coal, peat and oil, as well as onshore wind spread across the country. In fact, we have onshore wind in 80% of counties in the Republic of Ireland. As we transition to 2030, more onshore wind will be required in most counties, solar generation will be developed in the southern half of the country and offshore wind will be developed in the Irish sea on the east coast. The following questions have to be answered: where is demand going to be located? What is the optimum balance of renewables technologies? Where should generation of renewables be located when looked at through the lens of the necessary supporting grid infrastructure? The grid is what holds the system together. Our Shaping our Electricity Future programme, which we are discussing, is designed to answer these questions and thus provide a clear picture of our power system in 2030, including setting out the optimum pathway to delivering this future of a power system with 70% of electricity coming from renewable sources.

To find the optimum grid solution we have distilled a major body of work, which we have been engaged in over the past year and a half, into four fundamental approaches, which I will discuss in more detail shortly. Before I speak to the four approaches, I stress a number of points. First, the approaches are not mutually exclusive; it is not about picking one option at the expense of all others. The issue is more complex than that. Second, all approaches require significant grid infrastructure – there are no easy options. Third, almost every county in Ireland will see some level of impact. Fourth, the objective of the process we have designed is to find the best solution in consultation with a vast array of stakeholders. What I mean by the best solution is that it delivers the objective of 70% by 2030, and it does so at an acceptable cost.

I will briefly go through the four options. The first option is called "generation-led" and the concept is that Government policy would inform where electricity generation will be located, particularly with reference to where demand for electricity is high and where the grid network is strong. The second option is called "developer-led", which is the current approach. I must emphasise that the current approach has served us well in getting us to in excess of 40% renewables on the power system last year. The third option is called "technology-led". It is somewhat more radical, using technology that is deployed on offshore wind farms to move large volumes of electricity across the country to high demand regions. The fourth option is called "demand-led" and involves Government policy informing where large demand users might be located, particularly with reference to strong grid infrastructure and adjoining renewables generation, thus moving away from a Dublin-centric emphasis, which is the way things have developed in the past.

I refer to engagement. We cannot achieve this ambition on our own. We need support across a vast range of stakeholders, but particularly in the community and political domains. We launched Shaping our Electricity Future on 8 March last and so far the response has been positive and very measured. It has been genuinely inquiring as people seek to understand what the future will look like and what voice they can have in that future. This all-island engagement programme will do four things. It is reaching deep and wide, both at national and regional levels, involving more than 20 set piece events. It is highly transparent. The high-level document in plain English runs to 20 pages and the detailed technical document runs to approximately 200 pages. It is backed up by a major communications programme, national, regional, local, radio, newspapers and social media. It is be underpinned by a real commitment on the part of EirGrid to listen to all views.

I will summarise my message. Enhanced electricity generation using renewables is at the centre of EirGrid's approach. This transformation will have a significant impact across the country and will impact every county. Our engagement process will reach into all levels of society and business across the country, North and South. We have options, but all options include unpopular choices. Shaping our Electricity Future will provide the roadmap to deliver the policy objective of 70% renewables by 2030.

I and my colleagues will be delighted to take questions from the members.

Thank you, Mr. Foley. While we are figuring out the order of the members raising their hands, I will ask about the North-South interconnector, which is a critical piece in EirGrid's plans. It will link the Northern Ireland grid with the grid in the Republic. My understanding is that unless we push through with this we cannot achieve the level of renewables penetration we would like on the grid either in the North or South. Perhaps you will discuss that, the method of delivery and how you see the project progressing.

Second, I refer to the consultation EirGrid is running until the middle of June, which Mr. Foley mentioned in his statement. I must praise it for its clarity. It deserves a wide audience. I have read the high-level document and I am looking into the technical document now. I commend him and EirGrid on their efforts to bring this difficult and challenging subject to the wider public. What type of engagement has taken place so far and how does Mr. Foley envisage engagement continuing through to the end of the consultation in June, as well as beyond? He mentioned it in his statement, but he might elaborate on it.

Mr. Mark Foley

I thank the Chairman for his acknowledgement of Shaping our Electricity Future because it is probably the most ambitious consultation programme ever undertaken by a State company. I will ask Ms Collins to speak to that shortly but, first, I will deal comprehensively with the North-South interconnector project. It has attracted a great deal of controversy and I have been involved in engagements on it as recently as last week.

First, all four approaches in Shaping our Electricity Future assume that the North-South interconnector will be built. I will frame my answer about this project in three questions. First, why is this project needed? Ours is an all-island integrated system, not two systems. Long before me, people worked very hard to create the exemplar of North-South co-operation, the integrated single electricity market. We look at the system as an integrated, all-island system. Second, the current link between Northern Ireland and Ireland is very basic and might best be described in lay language as a modest, single-lane carriageway, to use the analogy of a road network. It is a line that runs up through County Louth and into County Down. This very constrained link threatens security of supply, makes the overall system much more expensive and inhibits greater integration of renewables across the island. Frankly, we are currently moving inexorably towards a two-tier electricity system on the island if we do not address the constraints that are currently in play. To use the roads analogy, in essence, we need a motorway to link Ireland and Northern Ireland. This motorway would function like the spine of a body, transmitting very large volumes of electricity traffic between the North and the South and, essentially, enable the island to be truly one and fully integrated as a power system.

The second question is: why is it proposed to be overground? Alternating current, AC, using overhead lines has been around since electricity was invented 100 years ago. It is safe and reliable. It is the universal network approach in every developed country across the world. Unfortunately, AC lines are very restricted in terms of the extent to which they can be deployed safely and reliably underground. That limit is currently at approximately 50 km and only when there is real strength in the system at both ends. This is an undisputed technical fact. It is a function of physics. The 50 km is at the absolute upper boundary of what can be achieved. The North-South interconnector cannot be delivered using an underground AC cable today. It is close to 140 km long and the enabling infrastructure at both ends is very weak. It is unlikely that such a length of underground AC cable will be possible for decades to come, if ever.

That brings me to the third question: what about using high voltage direct current, HVDC, underground? This question is continuously asked of me and my colleagues in respect of a possible alternative to the North-South interconnector. HVDC involves converting the AC form of electricity into high voltage direct current, transferring it as direct current and converting it back again at the other end.

This technology is available in many parts of the world. In fact, it is used by EirGrid on our east-west interconnector with the UK, it is used extensively on offshore wind farms, and it will be used in EirGrid's proposed Celtic interconnector with France, which is to be commissioned around 2026. This is established technology. The big "but" is that it is not used anywhere in the world in what I would call the central nervous system of a synchronous power system. It is always used on the periphery, where the consequences of failure can be managed. It does fail because of its complexity. It will fail and, therefore, it cannot be relied on in the mission critical environment of our all-island power system. To be clear - when I speak about failure and the consequences of same, such a failure is inevitable. We would see a system collapse in both jurisdictions worse than what happened in Texas recently.

Speaking as someone with no history with this project - I only took up my office with EirGrid in June 2018 - but who has personally investigated the options, the project is only viable as an overhead AC cable. There is no viable alternative. The consequence of not delivering it is that we will effectively end up with two systems across the island with a limited link on the current line. That will drive cost increases in both jurisdictions, send us backwards in terms of the vision that those who came before us had of an all-island integrated system, and make the job of achieving 70% renewables more difficult because we will almost be doing it as two separate projects in two separate jurisdictions. These are the honest facts about the North-South interconnector. There is a great deal of noise about the project and many people are suggesting that A, B and C are possible, but these are the facts.

I thank the Chairman for indulging me. It was a long answer, but it had to be that full. I will pass over to Ms Collins to address the second part of the question on how Shaping our Electricity Future is going, what have we done and what is to come.

Ms Suzanne Collins

As Mr. Foley outlined, we are midway through a consultation that is unprecedented for EirGrid and probably the public sector in terms of its scale and scope. We are aware that we are putting a great deal of complex information in front of people, but the outcome will affect communities across the country. As such, it is critical that we have meaningful engagement. It is an ambitious all-island engagement programme and we want to make it as inclusive as possible. It is amplified by media - traditional print and broadcast with a focus on regional media, and social and digital media to increase our reach.

We have been holding a series of workshops and meetings across the country. They have been online due to Covid restrictions. We have leveraged our stakeholder partners in the delivery of this consultation. It has had a positive and powerful impact. For example, Irish Rural Link is hosting workshops for us with communities across the country. Chambers Ireland is doing the same with its business membership. We present at these workshops and answer questions. The National Youth Council of Ireland, NYCI, held a series of workshops, culminating in a youth assembly last Wednesday evening that Mr. Foley and Mr. Robbie Aherne from the project team attended. It was fantastic and well moderated by the NYCI. The challenge and questions coming back from the group of young people who were assembled were interesting and gave us much to think about. We had an industry forum the same week. It was for generation companies, developers and large energy users. There were approximately 250 attendees. Over the coming weeks, we will hold a civic society forum that brings together NGOs, academia and agricultural, community and environmental bodies. We will also hold a public forum that is modelled on the Citizens' Assembly to consider issues of recruitment, demographics, geographical balance and so on. There has been a great deal of political engagement in the form of meeting local authorities, sometimes before whole councils, sometimes before smaller groups depending on what they request.

We have had more than 80 dedicated stakeholder events at the midpoint of the campaign, covering business, civil society, statutory bodies, farming organisations and various other groups, and there have been more than 100 consultation submissions so far. We have tried to meet people where they are and give them the kind of information and level of engagement that they want and need. As Mr. Foley outlined, a great deal of work was done to make the information as accessible as possible. We worked with our partners in the National Adult Literacy Agency on the language to ensure that it was accessible. We also have a dedicated consultation portal, consult.eirgrid.ie. People can go to it and answer a series of questions. It tries to break down the technical information and make it as accessible as possible.

We are halfway through the campaign and open to whatever suggestions committee members might have about different forms of engagement or other groups that we need to meet. At the moment, however, we are happy with the level of engagement and response we are getting from groups. They are really engaged and have given us a great deal of interesting feedback.

I thank Ms Collins for that comprehensive answer. I also thank Mr. Foley for his answer to my first question. Since quite a few members have indicated their desire to contribute, I will take two at a time, starting with Senator Higgins and Deputy Carthy.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations and supplementary materials.

I have a few practical questions. We have heard that projects of common interest in the EU would have preferential access to the grid. Is that the witnesses' understanding? What measures will ensure that renewable energy will have preferential access?

I am concerned about the context of the four options. I read the detail of the consultation. The witnesses have told us that the options are not set against one another, but they seem to be in the way the consultation is framed. We are told that one option will lead a certain way but that it will not be available if another option is chosen. There might be a sense of playing different elements against one another. Will the witnesses give us a reassurance in this regard? I am particularly concerned that policy is one of the four options. While this relates to demand and policy driving where projects are situated, it would be good to provide a stronger understanding of the fact that policy is the context within which whatever we do will operate, for example, our environmental protections and so forth. Marine protected areas are due to be designated. Do the witnesses anticipate that the part of their map that maps out where they expect energy will be produced in 2030 will change as a consequence of that designation? Will their planning respond positively to that or could the two be at odds? It is positive that there is consultation, but the policy elements that will exist regardless of what drives the locations are important, as are our planning infrastructure and the importance of access to justice.

Will the witnesses comment on the issue of storage? Are we hitting the right balance currently between investing in storage versus focusing on potential carbon capture technologies? How can we scale that up? Do the witnesses anticipate Ireland having a national renewable energy reserve at some future point, perhaps by 2030, to replace our national oil reserve? Could that happen?

I wish to comment on the question of large energy users.

Specifically, we are talking about data centres and that is clear from the graphics. Is there a concern that, if we have heavy demand from data centres, that could affect us reaching the target of 70% by 2030? What are EirGrid's plans if the requirement moves up? We have seen the scaling up. The exit from peat and coal is happening more quickly. How will EirGrid scale up past 70% if that is required?

There are quite a lot of questions there and we will afford our witnesses an opportunity to answer briefly but if Mr. Foley and Ms Collins would like to follow up with written answers, we would appreciate that. I will have to keep them to short answers because quite a number of members are indicating to come in. I will go to Deputy Carthy before we revert to Mr. Foley and Ms Collins.

I turn back to the North-South interconnector. As Mr. Foley and the Chair have indicated, it is a piece of infrastructure of critical importance. I have followed this since 2006, read every publication by EirGrid and engaged in numerous meetings with them. The assertion in Mr. Foley's opening statement that the engagement approach is underpinned by a real commitment to listening to all views is not the experience of people living alongside the North-South interconnector. I would go so far as to say that EirGrid's approach to the communities in that region has been driven by arrogance and a refusal to acknowledge that there are any valid concerns or alternatives to their own, despite the fact that the rationale outlined by Mr. Foley as to why this project cannot be undergrounded has changed on a number of occasions since the mid-2000s.

EirGrid has learned some of the lessons on the consultation and engagement process, and we see that in the outcome of the Kildare-Meath line and the consultation process there. The problem is that it has not learned it in the region of the North-South interconnector. Why is there a different approach to consultation and engagement for the North-South interconnector line than for other lines?

Second, is Mr. Foley aware of the 2007 independent expert group appointed by the then Minister? Is he aware that report described the undergrounding using DC technology as "a credible option"? Does Mr. Foley accept that statement or does he think the expert group was wrong? Its strongest argument against using underground technology was that it had not been used before to this extent. If we were to apply that logic, we would never implement or try new technologies.

The third question I have is in respect of the review announced by the Taoiseach into the North-South interconnector. Am I correct in reading from what Mr. Foley has said that his expectation is that the review will mean essentially nothing, he will carry on regardless and it is a box-ticking exercise? Does he think there is any potential that the review will lead to a change in tack by EirGrid?


That is three questions.

I will be brief on this. If we accept that this is a critical piece of infrastructure, accept on the other hand that there is unprecedented opposition from landowners, communities and farmers across the length of the route and consider that EirGrid has not yet got planning permission to enter these lands, what will EirGrid do and how far is it willing to go to enter these communities against the wishes of the local populations? Does Mr. Foley envisage and is he willing to engage in protracted legal battles and enforcing the imprisonment of some of those landowners and communities I have mentioned?

There are about 12 questions there between Senator Higgins and Deputy Carthy. Mr. Foley might address the most important ones and revert in writing on the other ones.

Mr. Mark Foley

My colleague, Dr. Ryan, will speak to the questions raised by Senator Higgins and I will speak to the questions raised by Deputy Carthy.

Dr. Liam Ryan

I will work my way through Senator Higgins's questions. I reassure the Senator that the final roadmap for shaping our electricity future will be a blend of the four options. The options were laid out to allow the debate and discussion to happen so that we are looking at the potential extremities that will get us to the 70% renewables target by 2030. We are out and engaging, taking the feedback necessary and listening to ensure the final roadmap we are looking at producing in the autumn will be considered in relation to a blend of the four approaches, which would give us the most economic solution in the timeframe we are looking at.

Storage is part of the solutions we are bringing in, in particular in the operation of the power system. We have been bringing on storage and looking to connect storage on to the system to give us flexibility in how we operate the system with 70% of our electricity coming from renewable sources. We are trialling 75% of our instantaneous electricity coming from renewable sources. That kicked off over the past week or so.

Data centres are part of the ecosystem we have. In one of the options, Senator Higgins called out that we are looking to move large energy users outside of the Dublin region to help in connecting renewable sources and meeting the targets we have. We see that, into the future, large energy users can be a solution as well as a challenge to us. It is looking at how they bring solutions to the table that help meet the targets we need to meet. Government policy needs to look at how that can evolve over the next period in time.

The actual ecosystem was a key part of my question in terms of marine protected areas. Not just the most economic solution, but the most environmentally sound solutions.

Dr. Liam Ryan

That is at the heart of what we do. Environmental solutions are part of what we do. It is one of the key criteria when we are progressing any projects and, in this case, progressing the programme as well. We are keen to make sure we work closely with the different planning authorities and communities to get the best solutions we can for the projects we have, noting that there are certain areas where development cannot progress as we move forward.

Mr. Mark Foley

Four points were made by Deputy Carthy. One was an assertion we are using a different approach. We are not. As evidenced recently, we have made a decision in Kildare-Meath to put in an underground cable and we have made a decision in the Mayo-Roscommon region to put in an underground cable. Why are we doing that? We are doing it because we can. We can manage to deliver an underground solution in those regions because we are within the constraints of physics in terms of what is possible. We are not treating Cavan-Monaghan differently. We are up against the boundaries of physics and we cannot put an AC cable underground for the North-South interconnector.

The Deputy mentioned a report which stated an underground cable was technically feasible. That is one thing but is it judicious to put a HVDC cable in the central nervous system of an island's power system? Absolutely not. It will fail and, when it does, it will bring the system down in the two jurisdictions.

The report did not say "technically feasible"; it described it as "a credible option".

Mr. Mark Foley

I do not believe that is the case---

That is all I wanted to know. Mr. Foley disagrees with the findings of the expert group.

Mr. Mark Foley

No transmission system operator in the world would put a HVDC cable in the central nervous system of the power system. I want to be clear that neither EirGrid nor any other authority would do that.

The Deputy mentioned the Government review. We are aware of it and will participate in it and offer our views as a key stakeholder in this process.

That is as much as I can say about the review. It is a matter for the Government. EirGrid respects the Government's decision to carry out such a review and we will engage fully.

The last point referred to the matter which is the subject of court proceedings. As it is in Northern Ireland we await the outcome of that hearing, which will take place very early in June. While being prudent, we are planning the project on the basis of a successful outcome to the court proceedings. We already have a full consent in the Republic of Ireland. I think I have answered the questions.

I want to come back to the issue of the North-South interconnector with Mr. Foley. I have questions on pylon procurement and access to lands. I do not believe Mr. Foley answered the questions on access to lands as raised by Deputy Carthy. How does EirGrid propose to get access to lands given the community resistance? Has pylon procurement begun? What stage is that at?

On the overall approach to the North-South interconnector in the context of shaping our electricity future EirGrid said:

We cannot achieve this ambition on our own. We need support across a vast range of stakeholders, but particularly in the community and political domains.

The North-South interconnector is a blueprint of exactly what not to do. It is deeply insulting for the communities who are watching this to hear from Mr. Foley in his position that EirGrid has the facts and they have a lot of noise. It actually goes to the root of the problem here. Will Mr. Foley acknowledge that the facts are disputed? The facts have changed over the years. This is the problem and it is fundamental to what is at stake. The local communities are deeply offended by the approach taken by EirGrid and by the Government. There is a solution. It involves real and meaningful engagement, which has not happened to date.

What role will EirGrid have in the review? Has contact been made by the Government, by the Department or by the Minister on the review? In 2006 and 2007, when was it estimated that the North-South interconnector would be operational? In 2021, when is it estimated that the North-South interconnector will be operational? To what degree is community opposition taken into account?

I will pick up on Senator Higgins's point about the data centres and tease that back. Mr. Foley said much of the increase in demand comes from electric vehicles, heat pumps and data centres. It is true to say that the bulk of it is coming from data centres. In managing our grid infrastructure, would EirGrid favour a change in the planing regulations? Dr. Ryan said that he works with An Bord Pleanála. Should our planning regulations not now be taking account of the cumulative impact of data centres on our emissions targets and on our infrastructural capacity? Would EirGrid favour such a mechanism? Reference was made to favouring the move of data centres away from Dublin and that EirGrid would certainly support that.

A report by the Irish Academy of Engineering in 2019 said an estimated €6 billion investment in the infrastructure would be required to support the influx of data centres. How can we ensure it is not the public purse that picks up the cost of that infrastructural investment and that the data centres that require such critical infrastructure carry the burden of this cost? What are the options to prevent more gas-powered generators coming on line, in line with the data centres?

I have a final question for Mr. Foley on the importance of the single electricity market and that a fully independent market in the North would likely increase the cost of electricity for customers in the North. Does Mr. Foley have a view on where EirGrid stands on the options put forward in the Northern Ireland Utilities Regulator call for evidence report? I believe there were four options. Does EirGrid have a preferred option in that call for evidence?

Mr. Mark Foley

I think I will be picking up most of these questions. First, I will go back to the North-South interconnector questions from Deputy O'Rourke. On access to lands, there is ongoing engagement with local landowners. That will continue in respect of access to lands in terms of ourselves working with the ESB.

We have procured the designers of the towers. This has happened and contracts have been awarded to carry out design work. Procurement notices for the full construction contracts will issue shortly, certainly within the next week or so, in anticipation of a positive outcome from the court hearings.

We acknowledge there is a difference of opinion. I have been with Cavan County Council and Monaghan County Council in the last two weeks, and I have offered to meet with the North East Pylon Pressure Campaign protest group. That invitation is out as we speak. I am very hopeful there can be a discussion between my team and the protest group and that we can try to have a sensible discussion about what the facts are around underground versus overground. I am looking forward to that engagement because the dialogue will help.

Deputy O'Rourke asked about EirGrid's role in the review. EirGrid is another stakeholder. We were not part of the terms of reference. We have been advised that the process has been kicked off. We expect a question and answer session to take place, or a submission to be made to the Department, on the basis of some documentation that will be forwarded to us. We will participate in an open and transparent manner, along with other stakeholders, in that review.

Reference was made to the timeline for the North-South interconnector and that the dates have slipped due to the court hearing. We are fortunate in the sense that the growth in electricity demand in Northern Ireland has been very flat over the past years post-recession and continues to be so. To some extent, this has helped us by not making the situation so acute that the lights would go out in Northern Ireland. We are happy that the current programme, which sees completion around 2024, will be adequate in supporting the security of supply needs in Northern Ireland. I believe I have answered the questions there.

Senator Boylan asked a very important question about data centres and I would appreciate if she would indulge me in trying to get my arms around all of the dimensions she raised. Should I have said the Member of the European Parliament?

The data centres are a big part of the Irish economy today. That is a fact. The most recent report from IDA Ireland, as I understand it, on the economic benefits of data centres suggest the overall economic benefit is approximately €7 billion to the Irish economy. This is not inconsiderable and is something we should be conscious of.

Let us acknowledge the fact that we are living and experiencing the most spectacular social experiment in human history where millions of us are working from home. Thanks to the information and communications technology sector, I currently have 600 staff working seamlessly from home today. I have been working from home for nearly 15 months. Data is the currency of the 21st century so it is absolutely critical to business. The reality is that data permeates every aspect of our lives, including the social and the non-working element of our lives. It is ubiquitous and part of everything that happens from the time we get up in the morning to the time we go to bed.

In Ireland we must ask ourselves a number of key questions. I will pose those questions and maybe give the committee some of the thinking that EirGrid is sponsoring at the moment. What road do we see for data centres in the Irish economy over the next decade and beyond? It appears that they will continue to play a central role because they are so important to the economy and to society. What level of growth can be reasonably accommodated? We have to ask this question. Where can this growth be accommodated?

One will see from the four options we have presented that EirGrid brought up the possibility of high-demand centres being located not in the Dublin area but in the regions, to be less impacting. How should it be accommodated and what should the rule-set be? Should there be a pecking order for firm capacity, for example? Should we reward those who deliver on their promises? Should those who have a track record get preference? What price or risk should be borne by the developers? Is it time to start asking developers of data centres to bring some part of the solution such as on-site low-carbon generation? We pose those questions with the Commission for Regulation of Utilities and with the Department with a view to a new framework that would inform the growth and development of data centres into the future.

I hope that has answered the question from MEP, Ms Lynn Boylan.

It is Senator Boylan these days.

Mr. Mark Foley

I beg your pardon.

I thank Mr. Foley. Deputy Bruton has dropped off the call, so I will go to Deputy Whitmore followed by Deputy Devlin.

I will follow on from the comments on data centres. I read the four options outlined in the presentation. There is an acceptance that this transition will be costly financially, and will also be costly to communities and the environment. It is not a no risk or no impact solution. I thought our first port of call would have been to minimise those costs. I am surprised that there is no mention of demand management in the document. The document referred to four questions. Surely the first question should be how we can manage the demand for electricity, including renewable electricity, because of the costs of generation and transitioning.

Data centres will be a huge cost to us. I accept the point that they are part of how we live at the moment and have a function within our economy. However, if we expect data centres to move to provide their own generation capacity on site, are we not better off putting a cap on the growth we will allow in the sector? Such a cap could force changes. The expectation that we will be able to transition to a low carbon economy while at the same time allowing an incredible increase in demand from a particular industry is a contradiction.

I hope that the first port of call is to ask what level of demand we will accept because there will be a cost to all this, financially and environmentally. Surely we should impose a cap on large users. What is Mr. Foley's opinion on that? Where does demand management come into play in the proposal? Should there be a cap on the amount of energy we allow to be used by data centres?

I will be brief. I know we are limited in time. I thank Mr. Foley and his colleagues in EirGrid for the presentation.

I understand an estimated €50 to €75 million worth of electricity goes to waste each year when wind turbines are powered down or energy is dumped because more has been produced than can be used. I raised this issue with the Wind Energy Ireland representatives earlier. The Minister, Darragh O'Brien, launched a new initiative with Clúid Housing, in partnership with EnergyCloud, which allows for excess energy to be used to heat hot water and homes and alleviate the risk of fuel poverty - about 460,000 households are at risk of fuel poverty across the country. About 50 houses in the Clúid scheme are using EnergyCloud. What are the thought of EirGrid on utilising that excess energy across the grid? Does it view it as a realistic option that could be rolled out with local authorities?

I refer to point one of the summary. In terms of electricity security for the island, how does Mr. Foley envisage the threat to that? Are there any blackspots across the grid currently? He said the grid generally talked about "most". Where are the most prevalent blackspots, i.e. threats to electricity security across the island?

As we have just six minutes left, I will call on Senator Dooley and Deputy Crowe and then revert to EirGrid.

I thank Mr. Foley for his comprehensive presentation. I have a couple of questions. On the grid generally, one hears different stories about the difficult situation it is in at certain points. Some large electricity users are concerned that there is the potential for outages based on current demands. There is also a recognition that some gas generating compressors are working off grid in order to provide it with the appropriate level of electricity. If that is the case, in addition to what EirGrid has to do to bring on additional technologies and meet the demand from renewables, is the existing grid network, in particular on the east coast, at capacity? Could the witnesses tell us about its status?

In the constituency Deputy Crowe and I represent, an organisation received planning permission to erect a wind turbine about ten years ago. It was only erected in the past number of weeks and has subsequently been adjudged by the council to be in breach of its planning conditions. A directive has been issued by the county council for the wind turbine to be removed.

Senator Dooley, I do not think this question is particularly relevant for our witnesses.

I will tell the Chairman where I am going with this. It is really relevant. While recognising that it is not in compliance with planning, are there any the circumstances in which the turbine could connect to the grid or could EirGrid purchase electricity from a wind turbine that does not have the benefit of planning permission?

I confirm I am in Leinster House. I want to begin by saying that the wind energy sector has to reward best practice. New plans for offshore wind energy off Moneypoint have been announced. The sector also has to clamp down on worst practice. I want to continue where the previous speaker left off. A wind turbine in Parteen, County Clare, does not have the benefit of planning and is, in fact, in breach of planning yet it continues-----

I really do not think this is particularly relevant. There is very limited time.

It is incumbent on EirGrid and the electricity network nationwide to scrutinise the situation to make sure that illegally generated electricity is not allowed onto the grid.

In light of the Moneypoint announcement, there are plans for a sub-estuary power cable onto the national grid between Moneypoint and Foynes. In light of the announcement earlier this month, does that have enough capacity? Is there a need to upgrade the facility? The 400 kV lines were state-of-the-art infrastructure in the 1990s. Will they be sufficient for the energy needs coming onshore from Moneypoint in the coming years?

Mr. Mark Foley

I will hand over to Dr. Ryan who will deal with all of the issues.

Dr. Liam Ryan

I am conscious of time. On the first question from Deputy Whitmore with respect to demand, we examine it in terms of how we operate the power systems from the future operation and future market dimension. That is in the more detailed consultation document. We examine how to unlock the demand potential into the future. I take her point. It is something for which we need to provide a more accessible summary in the future.

I asked about demand management and how demand can be reduced, as opposed to meeting ever higher levels of demand.

Dr. Liam Ryan

In our tomorrow's energy scenario, we examined how demand can potentially be offset and also efficiencies in demand. We know there can be future developments. One key element for me is that the cleanest and greenest megawatt is the one that is not used. Therefore, we need to think about how that can be brought out more. We are trying to plan for the system knowing the demand we are forecasting, which, as Mr. Foley said earlier, is up to 50%. If it is less than that, it will make the target more achievable within a shorter timeframe.

We would like to work with the Government and the Department on the cap Deputy Whitmore mentioned and on how caps may be brought onto the system. The solution we have proposed is potentially to move some of the demand outside of the greater Dublin region to facilitate the connection as much as we possibly can, knowing, as Mr. Foley said earlier, that it is a key part of the ecosystem and the other benefits back to society, and noting the concerns Deputy Whitmore mentioned earlier.

Moving on to Deputy Devlin's questions, EirGrid is working very closely with Clúid Housing and EnergyCloud on that endeavour. We see that as a potential opportunity to utilise the energy that is curtailed and constrained off the system. The curtailment is coming because we are world-leading and at times we cannot operate the system. We have too much generation on the system, more than we can run on it and, therefore, we are now moving that up, moving to 75% instantaneous and going above it. We see unlocking that demand potential as a real solution to that.

I am trying to answer the questions very quickly. Deputy Dooley's related to outages on the grid. As we are operating the grid and minimising building new infrastructure, we have to take part of the existing grid out to operate it, make it stronger and modernise it more in order that the future generators and demand customers can connect onto it. That is part of evolving the transmission system of how we do it. Also, we see that some energy users are growing more quickly than the infrastructure can be built. It takes a number of years to build infrastructure and, therefore, during that period some of the large energy users are putting solutions in place which allow them to grow it at the rates they want to grow it while we are developing the system.

The final point that was raised related to wind farms in various jurisdictions. Unfortunately, I do not have the knowledge on that specific project to hand so I cannot comment on it.

I think I have covered most of the-----

There was a question about the 400 kV lines, a very interesting question given the scale of the ESB-Equinor project at Moneypoint. I am mindful we are out of the two hours. If the witnesses want to have a quick go at the answer, they may do so, but we would like to have them back to discuss this at a future date, and we will invite Deputy Cathal Crowe again when we do so. If the witnesses want to take just a minute to respond, they may do so, and then I will have to adjourn the meeting because our two hours are up.

Dr. Liam Ryan

Regarding projects that are coming on stream - and this is all part of the shaping - we have taken a very clear view of the projects that are in the pipeline and those that are committed to. We have now seen that new information coming out. We will look at that and see what needs to be done about it. In essence, we are currently developing the system and it is based on projects that are committed to. At this point in time those projects are not committed to, but we will look at how this could be incorporated in order that anything we do future-proofs the system in order that we are positioning ourselves to achieve the targets for 2030 and beyond.

I thank Dr. Ryan for that and thank Ms Collins and Mr. Foley for their contributions. We very much appreciate them and they will certainly help us as we continue our work in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action. Our two hours are up and we have to vacate this room. I thank the witnesses again and the members.

Could we just note that there were some questions that did not get answered? Maybe we could get written supplementary-----

Indeed. There were probably a number of questions the witnesses would like to have answered more thoroughly but could not, given the time constraints. We certainly would appreciate it if they could revert with written answers to those in a timely manner.

Mr. Mark Foley

We would be delighted to do so.

The meeting now stands adjourned until our private session at 12 noon today.

The joint committee suspended at 11.35 a.m. until 11 a.m. on Tuesday, 4 May 2021.