Wind Energy Generation

Question No. 9 replied to with Written Answers.

Ceisteanna (8, 34)

Michael Colreavy

Ceist:

8. Deputy Michael Colreavy asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the studies that have been carried out into the uncontrollable changes in frequency by connecting large amounts of variable wind power to the national grid; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11493/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael Colreavy

Ceist:

34. Deputy Michael Colreavy asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he will indicate the degree of sensitivity to which the national grid is to massive increases or decreases to supply and or demand challenges; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11494/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (12 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Communications)

Does the Minister have a comment to make regarding wind energy? I know his Department has been studying wind energy extensively. One of the great problems anywhere wind energy is produced is the fact that we cannot control when the wind blows or the rate at which it blows. Has the Minister looked into the specific problems regarding those changes in frequency through the connection of a large amount of variable wind power to the national grid? What are the technical and other challenges that variations in frequency and the difficulty in predicting frequency pose in terms of connecting to the national grid?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 and 34 together.

Electricity demand must be met by generating the exact amount of energy required at any point in time. The responsibility for maintaining this balance between demand and supply is managed in real time by EirGrid, the independent electricity transmission system operator. To deliver on this remit, EirGrid's operation of the electricity system includes the day-to-day planning of availability of generation plant, both conventional and renewable, to ensure power flows on the electricity grid are managed reliably and securely. On an ongoing basis, EirGrid also plans and develops our electricity transmission infrastructure to enable the integration of sufficient renewable energy generation to allow 40% of electricity demand to be met by renewable energy by 2020, a key element required to meet Ireland's EU target of 16% of our total energy demand being met from renewable sources by 2020.

The balance between supply and demand and the stability of the electricity grid are managed by EirGrid at its national control centre in Dublin. System frequency is an indicator of success in managing the supply-demand balance. On numerous occasions in recent years, the amount of variable wind power on the system has been over 50% and system frequency has been successfully managed.

A number of major studies have been carried out by EirGrid Group in recent years to investigate the levels of renewable generation that can be securely accommodated on the power system of Ireland and Northern Ireland. These studies have considered the implications for both transmission infrastructure and grid operation of managing a power system with large amounts of variable renewable generation sources. On foot of this work, EirGrid has developed a range of secure operational tools and system management policies to manage the power system with increasing amounts of variable renewable generation. These operational tools and polices are subject to ongoing review and development to ensure security of supply is always maintained.

EirGrid's work in this area, in which it co-operates closely with SONI, the system operator for Northern Ireland, began with the carrying out of the all island grid study in 2008. This was followed by the facilitation of renewables study in 2010. These studies provided the basis for EirGrid's programme, "Delivering a Secure Sustainable Electricity System", also known as DS3. A number of work streams are underway in the DS3 programme, including on frequency control. With regard to the specific issues raised by Deputy Colreavy around frequency control, he may wish to consult the report produced as part of the DS3 project Summary of Studies on Rate of Change of Frequency events on the All-Island System published in 2012 which is available on the EirGrid website.

There is a good deal of information out there. Again, it is not light bedtime reading.

Was one of the drivers of the export energy project the fact that, given the uncontrollable changes in frequency in the Irish network, an excess could be exported to Britain? I am puzzled. If the wind blows in Ireland, it is also blowing in Scotland, Wales and the west coast of England. If we have uncontrollable changes in frequency leading to large amounts of energy in our national grid, surely the same would apply in Britain. If both jurisdictions have the same level of supply, or if there is none because the wind is not blowing, I cannot figure out how this project would work.

The answer to the substantive question is "No". The contemplated export project has nothing to do with excess capacity in the system. As that project has been planned, the requirement on the Government is to put in place the intergovernmental agreement that facilitates trade in green energy under the relevant EU directive. It is a private sector project and is entirely separate from the refurbishment of the transmission system. It is also a different technology, a DC subsea cable.

I am not competent to enter into a technical discussion with Deputy Colreavy on whether it is true that, when the wind blows in Ireland, it also blows in Scotland and England, but I am not entirely sure-----

I thank the Minister.

Do not cut me off in mid-flow. This could be a major scientific breakthrough. Deputy Colreavy knows that the wind can blow strongly in the west, yet it need not be blowing strongly here on the east coast. Similarly, there could be high winds in Scotland without there necessarily being wind in Ireland.

I will revert to the Minister and will not cut him off.

We may well be able to set up a task force to get to the bottom of this matter.

Along with the other reports. The point about AC-DC lines being bandied about is in respect of changes, interconnectors, etc. When I sought advice on this matter from technical people, many claimed that going from one to the other was not as major an issue as had been suggested. I am unsure as to whether the experts have advised the Department on the technicalities.

Is Deputy Colreavy satisfied?

Deputy Moynihan is correct. It is technically feasible, but the cost that comes with it is the issue. For example, one could run an AC cable and, upon reaching a particularly scenic area, nothing would prevent one from putting the cable underground, but it could not be for a long distance. Doing that would require a DC cable. Take something as simple as the Tyrone-Meath line. The international expert commission concluded that putting it underground would have approximately 3.1 times the cost of traditional AC overhead transmission. Deputy Colreavy referred to some of the other reports that have been done. They suggest that the cost would be even more. It is around that figure.

This is a major factor, but it is not the only one. After a year of study in Denmark, for example, and despite having no difficulty with affording such an approach and so on, it decided not to go underground with 440 kV cables for a combination of reasons, not just cost, but also technical considerations in term of how easy it was to find a fault, etc.

It is complex terrain.

Question No. 9 replied to with Written Answers.

Broadcasting Legislation

Ceisteanna (10)

Catherine Murphy

Ceist:

10. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he will provide an update on his recent commitment to amend existing defamation legislation; if he will indicate that, in addition to the changes he proposed recently, he is willing to explore new proposals to tackle potential conflicts of interest arising for members of the board of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland; if not, if he considers existing legislation sufficient in this area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11640/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Communications)

My question is on the governance of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and arises on foot of the issue which arose with the payout by RTE to a member of the authority who took legal action. I want to find out about the changes proposed by the Minister to the Broadcasting Act 2009, which he has indicated he intends to bring forward.

At the outset, I clarify that my responsibility is for broadcasting legislation. Defamation legislation is a matter for my colleague the Minister for Justice and Equality.

The commitment I gave during the debate in the Seanad on 18 February 2014 was to amend section 39 of the Broadcasting Act 2009. That section requires every broadcaster to ensure that nothing is broadcast which might reasonably be regarded as causing offence. This seems an unfeasibly rigorous approach. Some people may be easily offended even where offence was not intended and is not objectively ascertainable. The amendment I am considering would require broadcasters to avoid causing undue offence, which represents a more objective test in tune with the realities of modern public debate.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland was established by the Broadcasting Act 2009 to regulate content across all Irish broadcasting services. Section 24 of the Act provides that the BAI shall be independent in the performance of its functions. Section 23 obliges the authority to draw up and adopt a code of conduct in respect of controls on interests and ethical behaviour to apply to each member of the authority, statutory committees, advisory committees and members of staff. In common with all public service bodies and in accordance with paragraph 31.1(iv) of the Code of Practice for the Governance of State Bodies, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland affirms on an annual basis that its code of business conduct is in place and has been adhered to. A copy of the authority's code of business conduct is available on that body's website. Furthermore, authority and committee members, as well as staff, are subject to sections 21 and 22 of the Broadcasting Act 2009, which provides for the disclosure of any conflicts of interest. Section 20 of the 2009 Act places duties of accountability to Oireachtas committees on the chief executive and chairperson of the authority and on the chairpersons of the statutory compliance and contract awards committees. These obligations and controls are sufficient and, as such, I see no need to for further legislative proposals in this area.

If someone was a member of the complaints committee overseeing broadcasting and launched a legal action, lessons would fall to be learned in the context of the code of conduct. I am trying to find out if there is oversight in the Department where there is a conflict of interest. Where is the conflict disclosed? A major conflict of interest arose recently when €85,000 was paid out by RTE. When the case was launched, the person taking the action was a member of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland's complaints committee. Are there lessons to be learned in respect of the code of conduct and how is that conflict overseen? At what point is there a sanction? What sanction can be applied? It seems like a glaring conflict of interest.

Whatever changes I eventually settle on, I will put them into committee where we can tease through the type of issue Deputy Murphy raises. I do not know of any legal prohibition to provide for the circumstances the Deputy describes. One could easily see the case for the defence in this matter, namely, that the person being referred to took offence and sought an apology. As I understand it, as soon as litigation was contemplated, the individual in question resigned his position. In fairness, it is important to say this.

Whether there should be a legal obligation to provide for circumstances of this nature is a matter on which I have an open mind. To the best of my knowledge, there is no such legal obligation and the normal code of conduct as it relates to conflict of interest would apply.

I acknowledge that since I tabled the question, the Minister responded to me directly on some of the issues I raised. His letter of reply acknowledged that the case was launched while the individual in question was a member of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. It was at this point that a conflict of interest arose. Conflicts of interest arise all the time. The reason for having a code of conduct is to set out how such conflicts of interest should be addressed. Lessons should be learned from this case because it involved a glaring conflict of interest. Is the Minister certain that the timeline he provided is correct as it is in conflict with the timeline he provided to me in his written response? I understand the case was launched while the individual question was still a member of the complaints committee of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

I have not been furnished with the precise date of the initiation of the contemplated legal action. While that is a matter between the person concerned and his solicitors, my understanding is that there was the narrowest possible window between the legal action being launched and the resignation of the individual in question. In fairness to him, he wrote his letter of resignation as soon as he decided to take the legal route. As I stated, during the refurbishment of the Act I am open to Deputy Murphy and any other Deputy expressing a view on this particular point.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has not been in place for long. It has met one or two squalls in its short period in existence and has, by and large, handled them well. It has certainly made some very thoughtful interventions in the area of public service broadcasting. There is no reason we should not discuss this issue. People always take offence, sometimes on behalf of others. What would it do to television if taking offence was to be the only test?

Post Office Network

Ceisteanna (11, 17, 31, 35)

Thomas Pringle

Ceist:

11. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the actions he plans to take after the passing of the amended motion on post office services in Dáil Éireann on 26 February; the time frame he envisages for an action plan to come forward; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11507/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Thomas Pringle

Ceist:

17. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he will liaise with the Department of Finance in ensuring the roll-out of the standard bank account to post offices nationwide; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11508/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

31. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the extent to which he expects to be in a position to encourage An Post to use every opportunity to generate extra business for the postal services including additional services compatible with those already available to An Post with particular reference to the use of the existing counter and delivery services throughout the country in view of the obvious opportunities in the course of the continuation of existing services alongside new and complimentary enterprises which will have the effect of ensuring the viability and success of the postal system and incorporating the use of modern technology in the provision of enhanced services in both urban and rural areas and in view of the fact that the pattern of post office closures which had become a feature in previous years has been successfully addressed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10960/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

35. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the steps that are being taken to support the maintenance of the Post Office network; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10853/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (25 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Communications)

I have a considerable weight on my shoulders as I must carry the can for my two colleagues, Deputies Pringle and Durkan, who tabled the other questions in this group.

As the Minister indicated in reply to a previous question, An Post's greatest asset is its local post office network. The difficulty is that the company views its local network as a cost rather than an asset. The Government is not giving serious consideration to how this asset could be sweated to bring services to communities as opposed to centralising them. I ask the Minister to comment.

As I have already heard the Minister's previous comments, there is probably no point in him reading them into the record again.

I am not sure I agree with Deputy Naughten that-----

There are four questions being taken together.

Did I not read the formal reply?

I am inviting the Minister to do so now.

As Deputy Naughten does not wish me to read it, I will not do so.

I am not sure I would agree with Deputy Naughten that An Post sees it as a cost rather than an asset. The collapse of mail volumes by 25% in the past five years owing to e-substitution and so on rather than the collapse of An Post's core business is what is driving the pressure on the postal network. The fear on the part of the postmasters is not so much that An Post might lose the social welfare contract, which I take with a grain of salt, but electronic funds transfers because the margin per item transacted would be of considerably less value to it than the traditional over-the-counter cash transaction. That is what concerns them.

I agree with Deputy Naughten that the postal network is an asset. As I said earlier, I am not aware of any business that has 1,149 retail outlets throughout the country. The Cabinet sub-committee is currently looking at whether there are other ways the network can be utilised as a contact point by the public in the context of different Government services. That is the issue. Unfortunately, it must be addressed within procurement and competition law. It may be the case that if we were in France we would not be so scrupulous about observing EU rules in this regard. However, we are not and those rules apply.

Deputy Moynihan raised a question with me earlier in regard to EU infringement. I do not know whether it is always the case that the EU pursues big business in the same manner as it pursues small business but that is the law and the impediment in the way.

I thank the Minister for his response. Would he agree that An Post's approach is blinkered, for example, its approach to parcel post, an area that is currently growing because of Internet shopping? An Post has wound down its parcel service and a private operator is currently developing the parcel motel system across the country. Surely, it would have made far more sense for An Post to use its own local network to provide that service, thereby facilitating people shopping via the Internet in the UK and US. However, that did not happen.

During a discussion with the Minister on this issue on 4 December last, I outlined to him a number of areas where I felt there was potential to develop the sector, including the use by the HSE of local offices in the context of applications for medical cards and by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the context of single farm payments. The Minister committed on that occasion to considering the feasibility of progressing those possibilities. Perhaps he would update the House of any progress in that regard.

I did. It is part of the submission being made by my Department to the Cabinet sub-committee on social policy. I have gone outside the two examples provided at that time by Deputy Naughten. I am also looking at the possibility of returning the driving licence service to An Post. I also wonder whether if in small villages where Garda stations have been closed post offices might serve as a clinic for a garda for four hours a day, two days a week or something like that.

I have asked my Cabinet colleagues to examine whether there are services relevant to their remits which, consistent with the law, can be provided. That is the purpose of the Cabinet sub-committee taking a whole-of-Government approach to the issue. I hope we will receive the co-operation of An Post and the IPU in respect of that matter.

I welcome the Minister's reply. My next question relates specifically to driving licences. Does the Minister not agree that a huge mistake was made in the context of the approach that was taken in respect of driving licences? Whereas people could previously apply to renew their licences via their local post offices, there are now only a handful of specific locations throughout the country at which it is possible to renew licences. As a result, it is taking ten to 16 weeks to process applications. Postmasters possess a unique skill set. Not only could this skill set be used to revitalise the post office network, it could also be used for the more import task of streamlining government. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is involved in a process of considering the centralisation of services and delivering them by electronic means. Does the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, agree there is a cohort of people who do not have access to decent broadband services or who do not possess the technological skills necessary to use such services? The post office network can facilitate this cohort by providing that vital link to its members.

While there may not be a specific saving to be made in respect of the small cohort whose members continue to use the paper-based system via their local post offices, there is a significant reduction in the supports required in respect of any national scheme - such as that, for example, which relates to the local property tax - if the system to which I refer is utilised. If the status quo continued to obtain in this regard, it would still be possible for the automated backroom service to continue to be provided on a national basis. Savings could still be delivered nationally while the service would continue to be delivered locally.

There are very good social reasons why we cannot consider this matter only through the prism of cost. I accept the argument in that regard. Like all clichés, however, that which Deputy Moynihan condemned earlier has a grain of truth. As Deputy Moynihan stated, An Post is a commercial State company with a remit to carry out its business profitably, etc. As such, it is not in receipt of an Exchequer subvention. Obviously, the company and its directors must have regard to that.

My memory of the driving licence issue is that the tender was won on the basis of 40 outlets being provided, whereas An Post had offered some 200 plus outlets. The experience anecdotally is that the new system is proving inconvenient for people in many parts of the country, including Dublin. It is a bit of an undertaking for people to travel to a single location to renew their driving licences and then return to work or wherever. This is a good example and I am in discussions in respect of it with my colleagues. I received enormous support a couple of weeks ago on Private Members' business. In fact, I have never had such a gale of support behind me right across the House. I hope that will last.

Is it not the kernel of the issue that An Post has a major asset in terms of the number of retail outlets it owns? Any company operating in an urban or a rural setting whose business is in decline as a result of the impact of electronic transactions and so forth will seek replacement business. There is a huge volume of such business available. The board and management of An Post does not seem to be empowered to go after the type of business that would make the company's retail network sustainable.

Until there is an obligation on the board under a memorandum of understanding or a policy direction from everyone to the effect that An Post should go after these businesses, nothing will improve. Every Deputy in the House has ideas on what business An Post should be going after. The board of An Post does not seem to be making any effort to ensure the feasibility of these post offices now or in future.

Reference was made to Private Members' business and most of the Minister's response merits our support because he restated the Government's intention in the programme for Government to sustain the post office network. The Minister also stated the Government has no intention of closing post offices. However, it was what the Minister said further on in his response that concerns me. There seems to be a fatal acceptance by the Government that all the trade will move from the town and village high street to shopping centres in major county and provincial centres of population. That could be a self-fulfilling prophecy unless the Government steps in, and if we do not have a strategy that is what will happen. If that is what happens, then whether the Government wishes it, not only will post offices close but every business, including all the shops, will close in the high streets of towns and villages. I call on the Minister to look again at the response he gave to that point. There is more to the country than major shopping centres in major centres of population and we should nurture what is precious in the smaller towns and villages as well as looking after the cities.

My apologies for not being present from the beginning of the Minister's reply, although I heard it from a distance.

We missed Deputy Durkan.

One thing that is emerging and which I fully support is the fact the Minister is committed to the ongoing provision of services through the post office counter and delivery services that are available throughout the country. Will the Minister set out the extent to which he has continued to encourage likely suitable or applicable services to be attached to An Post that could broaden and spread its services throughout the country, increase the feasibility and longevity of the network and contribute largely to an interaction with urban and rural communities, which is needed as we progress?

In recent years greater efforts have been made by the Minister to ensure the retention of the services of An Post. One possible service which could be added on - it is a necessary service - is the collation of the voting register, which is in need of urgent review in most constituencies and counties. It is eminently suitable as a bolt-on service to An Post.

There is time for two more brief questions from Deputies Naughten and Troy.

As the Minister is aware, the banks do not want customers, especially those dealing in cash or cheques, coming into branches, and this causes major problems for older people in particular. Will the Minister ensure that when the NTMA contract is being renewed, this issue is addressed? In many cases older people use the Government savings schemes and they like the system that is in place through the community network provided by An Post.

Will the Minister outline the position on the payment of social welfare in the post office network? As I highlighted last week during the Private Members' debate, the Department of Social Protection is actively encouraging people to move their payments from the post office to bank accounts. Last week, we learned that the payment for rent allowance will now be taken directly at source from social welfare payments, thereby removing another service rather than encouraging and pushing services to the post office system. Last week we learned that a Department is taking a further service away from the post office, that is, the payment of the rent allowance, which will be taken directly at source.

It is not the case that An Post has sat on its hands, so to speak, in this area. An Post has extended new business lines in recent years in a range of areas, including Garda fines, gun licences, insurance services, foreign exchange services, Postfone, extended banking services, TaxPay, the DHL retail partnership, real-time waste top-up, Dublin same-day delivery, Saorview and the secure meter pilot scheme. Many new bill payment customers have been added and there has been a significant growth in the gift voucher business and so on. It is not true to say, therefore, that An Post has not come up with new business.

What concerns me a little is the proposition that it is the responsibility only of An Post, the Minister or the Government. At issue is a network of commercial enterprises that are privately owned. Of the 1,147 retail outlets, only 57 are owned by An Post. The remainder are privately owned and these too have a responsibility. I will be very positive about any new ideas they come up with provided that does not involve nailing a sign stating "Post office to close" on the door, which is what some of them are doing and which is not exactly the most business-oriented way forward.

Some 3,000 jobs are at stake.

Of course it is not true because the Government has no plans to close post offices. As I have stated, a total of 197 post offices were closed between 2006 and 2010 but I did not hear a squeak from some of the people who are now concerned about the fact that a total of 17 have closed since 2010.

It is reflection of a lazy Opposition at the time.

We should see this in perspective and acknowledge that there is a responsibility on the part of the people who manage the commercial offices.

I agree with Deputy Durkan. At a time when the banks are resiling from interaction with average customers at the bank counter, there are possibilities for the post office given its network of retail outlets. An Post is and has been examining these possibilities, and some of the arrangements An Post has come up with, including with the likes of Allied Irish Banks, have been rather positive. I assure the concerned postmasters of Ireland that the post office is in safe hands.

I do not think so.

There has not been a peep out of Deputy Durkan.