Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 1 April 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht
Electricity Generation: Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources
I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, whom we have invited to discuss a cross-departmental issue which comes within the remit of more than one Oireachtas committee for scrutiny. Before we begin, I remind members that we should approach this discussion from the remit of this committee. Therefore, I ask them to concentrate on issues with which we are concerned, the first of which is the location of any proposed windmill in Ireland and the consultation process to be engaged in to allow the views of local communities to be heard and their concerns met in so far as is possible. The second concerns how the installation and operation of windmills will contribute to Ireland's obligations to meets its carbon reduction targets and to what extent they will reduce our dependence on imported fossil fuels. The Minister is joined by Mr. Kenneth Spratt, whom I also welcome. I invite the Minister to give us an overview of the current position.
I thank the Vice Chairman and the joint committee for organising a series of hearings on this issue and inviting me to address them on the generation and use of electricity in Ireland and the potential export of surplus electricity to the United Kingdom.
First, I need to distinguish between different types of development connected with power generation and supply. These are often rolled up together and presented as one, but there are at least three types of development we need to consider: wind farms to generate power; transmission lines to carry power from where it is generated to where it is consumed; and the infrastructure needed to export to another country any renewable electricity surplus to our requirements. What is driving all of this is the pressing need to transform the energy system in order to reach the goal of decarbonisation. The committee will not need to have explained to it the shocking implications of this week's latest instalment of the UN report on climate change. Therefore, renewables will continue to form a hugely significant part of Ireland's and Europe's energy portfolio.
I will begin by dealing with the issue of electricity generation. Ireland's immediate goal is to achieve its EU 2020 target of 16% of energy coming from renewable sources. This imposes challenges for us in terms of rate of build. These challenges will endure for the remainder of the decade. Specifically, we must move from an average historical build of approximately 170 MW per year to 250 MW. We have made significant progress to date. The contribution of renewable energy to overall energy demand rise from 2.3 MW to 7.1 MW between 1990 and 2012, with renewable electricity contributing 4.1 MW to the overall energy demand in 2012.
It is not enough to build renewable generation facilities. The power produced must be transported, often from remote locations, to where it is needed. EirGrid's Grid25 project is its strategy for Ireland's future electricity transmission network and it is a long-term strategy for the development of a network that will provide a safe, secure and affordable electricity supply throughout the island. This strategy is crucial in planning for the new infrastructure needed to cater for growth in demand on the island, for economic recovery and fresh growth, for balanced regional development and for the integration of additional generation facilities, both conventional and renewable.
Renewable generation requires new infrastructure and the transmission system requires new infrastructure. This reality raises planning and other environmental questions. In July 2012, at my request, the Government approved a policy statement on the strategic importance of transmission and other energy infrastructure. That policy restates in clear terms the need for development and renewal of all of our energy networks in order to meet our economic and social policy goals. It is the planning process that provides the framework for ensuring all necessary standards are met and that comprehensive consultation is built into the process. In our policy statement we formally mandated the State companies not simply to plan their developments safely, efficiently and economically, but also to address and mitigate any human, environmental and landscape impact in delivering the best possible engineering solutions.
The review by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, in conjunction with my Department and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, of the existing wind energy planning guidelines is key to ensuring wind farms do not impact negatively on the environment. Responses to the public consultation are being considered, with a view to the final guidelines being published in mid-2014. In regard to transmission, last January I established an independent panel of experts, chaired by Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness, to decide terms of reference for comprehensive, route specific studies of overhead and underground options for both Grid Link and Grid West. The outputs from these studies which will be required to be complete, objective and comparable will be published before proceeding to the next stage of public consultation on these two projects.
The two studies will take account of environmental, including visual, amenity impacts, technical efficacy and cost factors. The panel has now commenced its deliberations, including considering what work, if any, it might usefully undertake on the North-South transmission line.
There is potential for Ireland's excellent renewable energy resources to be developed for export. Last year I signed a memorandum of understanding with my opposite number in London as a first step towards an intergovernmental agreement to facilitate trade. From an Irish perspective the potential benefits examined include jobs, community gain, interconnection benefits, corporation tax receipts, a dividend on value, and local authority rates. Significant employment can be created, for example, employment arising from a 3GW project would be expected to be in the order of 3,000 to 6,000 job years in the construction phase, with the actual number dependent on the construction schedule to 2020. The New Economic and Recovery Authority, NewERA, advised that there would be approximately €1 billion worth of construction spending on civil engineering over two to three years. Additional jobs will also be created in the ongoing maintenance of turbines over a 20 year operating life. Further employment opportunities would arise if turbines or components were manufactured in Ireland.
On the Irish side, we have done immense preparation towards concluding an intergovernmental agreement, IGA. The prize is a big one, including holding out the prospect of a new mission for Bord na Móna, a State company that controls tens of thousands of acres of unencumbered cut-away bog in the midlands. Over recent weeks, however, it has become apparent that the economic policy and regulatory complexities involved and the key decisions yet to be taken by the UK would make 2020 delivery very difficult to achieve given project lead times. At the Anglo-Irish summit in London in March, the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister agreed that the exploration of a possible new architecture was required if an intergovernmental agreement on the export of renewable electricity was to work to the benefit of both jurisdictions. My Department and the Department of Energy and Climate Change in the UK have been examining the outcome of the London meeting. It is clear, however, that key policies and regulatory design decisions remain to be taken by the UK Government, which means that we are still a considerable distance from settling on the specifics of what the Irish Government and the renewable generators believe must be the basic components of any intergovernmental agreement. Even if the timeline for the commercial opportunity to deliver renewable energy to the UK by 2020 cannot be met, the long-term opportunities to export renewable energy will endure as Europe moves to an increasingly interconnected electricity market, supporting increasing amounts of renewables to achieve sustainability and to enhance security of supply.
In realising our renewable energy potential for domestic and export purposes, and its inherent economic benefits, we must ensure the concerns of communities and citizens are properly addressed. The concerns of communities must be at the heart of the move to renewable energy. The environmental and economic benefits of renewable energy are real. Early ongoing and transparent communication is critical, if we are to deliver vital energy infrastructure and to ensure this benefit is realised for all citizens.
I thank the Minister and his officials for coming to the meeting today. It is useful for them to be here. I live in Laois and the export project is a major issue there and across the constituency in Laoighis-Offaly, Westmeath and South Kildare. It would appear that there is disagreement between the two parties in the British Government on the direction of the export-led projects. The nuclear lobby, the fracking lobby and North Sea gas seem to prevail. The export project seems to be on hold, which we welcome.
We have several concerns. The county in which I live and the surrounding counties are being turned into giant wind farms to produce electricity for the British market. I have no problem with exporting anything. The more we can export, the better. However, we have been asked to accept something that the British public would not put up with in rural areas. There is serious concern about this because in order to capture wind energy in the midlands the turbines must be of a height the Minister and I have never before seen. They are absolutely enormous. The proposal is to locate them in areas not zoned under county development plans. The Minister is aware of some of the problems in respect of buying up land rights. We want all of this put on hold, regardless of what the British are doing. That they are holding it up is good news. The Irish Government should be holding it up and taking a second look at it.
There is not even a cost-benefit analysis for this project. Financiers now say that it is cheaper for the British and other governments to buy electricity produced by nuclear power and other sources. I want to see it produced from renewable sources. Will the Minister address the economics of this project? With respect, we have done it the wrong way around. The Government has been in power for only three years but we need a cost-benefit analysis before doing this. We should address our own energy needs because people in the midlands wonder why they should have a giant turbine almost in their back garden while they suffer from fuel poverty. The electricity bypasses them. They will not benefit from it and will not have the cheap energy from the wind farms. That is of great concern. The priority must be to serve the economic needs of this State and the needs of households and industry. I would like to see cheap energy for industry in the midlands, throughout the State and the island of Ireland.
I am puzzled about the planning of wind farms. Most of us here are former members of local authorities. There are significant regulations around housebuilding, rightly so, and there have been some improvements in that regard. Why build something that is many times bigger than any house, in the middle of the countryside, without regulations? There are no regulations governing its development in terms of the height, set back and shadow flicker. Guidelines are like an elastic band, they can be pulled in any direction, depending on who interprets them. The Government is bringing forward necessary major reform of local government and says it will empower communities and local public representatives. Laois County Council voted yesterday to ban turbines. That is a political statement. It has little effect in law. It is important because it shows the level of local anger and frustration that all parties in the council chamber yesterday banned wind farms. The areas that the councillors zoned are not even being taken into consideration; the wind farm companies are going off-site. Will the Minister address that point?
We are constantly told that wind offers the best financial return. There are question marks over that. We do not have a cost-benefit analysis for what is proposed in the midlands. We did not have wind energy when we needed it during the cold spells in the past two winters.
When electricity demand was at its highest, we did not have wind energy. Sinn Féin has huge concerns in regard to the fact we do not have an overall energy strategy. The position we are taking seems to be a bit like a re-run of the house building insanity and we seem to be putting all our eggs into one basket. I believe I understand that is not the Minister's wish, but I am concerned that is what is happening and that all of a sudden we are going to get 2,200 turbines in a relatively small area. We seem to be rushing headlong into this. What has happened with regard to hydro, wave and geothermal energy generation? What has happened in regard to biomass? No matter who I talk to in the industry, they tell me these are now pushed aside and are now on the back burner. This is my concern in regard to an overall energy policy. Have the Department and the Government given adequate consideration to whether we are putting all our eggs into one basket, perhaps to the detriment of a more rounded, sustainable energy policy, particularly in view of the fact that wind is intermittent?
I want to be clear. I support alternative energy. We must support it for the reasons the Minister has outlined. The UN report published yesterday has crystallised this issue for everyone. We must do this and we are on the one page on it. I ask the Minister to address the four issues I have raised.
Deputy Stanley is correct. There is significant concern in his local county about this. I believe a great deal of this concern is due to a misunderstanding, some to misinformation and some due to disinformation. One cannot say that one is concerned about the trend towards nuclear energy in Britain and that one is in favour of renewable energy, but not in his or her county. We cannot do that.
In regard to the issues Deputy Stanley raises about trade, all we are seeking to do is to comply with European law in terms of the requirement to agree an intergovernmental agreement to facilitate trade. We are not exporting anything, but just preparing the ground legislatively speaking, as required by the European directive. The Deputy will know about a number of developers who will want to bring forward proposals in this regard. We have carried out an extensive cost-benefit analysis in circumstances where we have drawn inputs from the ESRI, NewERA, outside consultants and internal economists. That detailed cost-benefit analysis persuades me, beyond doubt, that there is considerable economic value for both countries, but for Ireland in particular.
In regard to the Deputy's county or neighbouring counties being covered in wind turbines, this is not the case. This will not happen and was never intended to happen. The Deputy can check with his colleague who shadows my Department and see that time and again I have put on the record the huge depth of work my Department has engaged in, including the development of a national planning framework that will prescribe where wind farms may or may not be built. Developers will have to comply with this framework in any projects they bring forward and An Bord Pleanála must have regard to that. Therefore, there is no question of the cart being put before the horse. We have a very coherent policy.
In regard to the Deputy's remark on policy, our policy will be further updated and within the next two or three weeks we will publish a Green Paper on energy. We are deliberately publishing a Green Paper and it will facilitate committees like this and the Deputy, as an elected Member for the midlands, to make whatever input they feel is appropriate. There is a coherent, thought-out policy surrounding this area. The Deputy or some others may not agree with that policy and that is fine, but the policy is there. I take a pragmatic approach to this. Industries in this country that employed large numbers of people in the past have disappeared, but the nature of modern business is that through innovation and other means, we create new employment for new products that were unheard of 20 years ago or less. What we see here is that because of our uniquely propitious wind resources, we have the capacity to sell green energy to the neighbouring island. If we can do that and create a revenue stream for the Exchequer and the local authorities involved, create employment in the construction stage and attract anchor tenants in terms of the manufacture of turbines or parts, this is a good news story for Ireland. We would only do this within the constraints of a national planning framework, which will be very demanding.
This comes back to whether one has confidence in the institutions that are there. I believe they are rigorous. We never hear about the wind farm applications that have been turned down by An Bord Pleanála. We must continue to look for new opportunities for creating employment and generating wealth in this economy. Can we do that without in any way despoiling the environment or unreasonably intruding on the rights of communities? This is the challenge. I do not know whether the intergovernmental agreement will be concluded, but it is purely a legislative preparation to enable developers to bring forward proposals. I am not bringing forward any proposal. I do not propose to sell wind energy to the neighbouring island or anywhere else. However, we have wind and if it can be harvested and exploited for wealth generation and job creation, it is a matter for the developers in that area to bring forward proposals and we can examine those proposals.
I thank the Minister and Mr. Spratt for attending this committee today. I welcome the levels of engagement of various sectors of society in regard to energy security, climate change challenges and energy sustainability. I am only sorry this did not happen to this level five or six years ago, because we are now well down the road in regard to developing policy and are now implementing policy that will help us decarbonise our electricity system. I firmly believe we cannot be all things to everyone. We cannot say on one hand that we support the decarbonisation of the electricity sector and on the other hand oppose every technology or proposal made. I do not direct this comment at the Minister, but, perhaps, at other politicians here.
The Minister stated the Green Paper on energy will be published within three weeks. I welcome that as it will give us a further opportunity to engage with all sectors and stakeholders and enable us decide what we want for Ireland in terms of energy security and reducing carbon emissions. The Minister may be aware of a debate taking place on alternatives and last week biomass was being pushed as a real alternative to the wind energy policy being pursued currently. I would like to hear the Minister's views on that. I believe biomass is not the answer to everything, because we have a limited supply chain for biomass type generation.
There are consequences. If we were, as suggested, to convert the Moneypoint power plant to a full biomass station, from where would the supply of material to burn come? What is the Department's view? It has been very high profile in the past couple of weeks. It will take a combination of technologies to decarbonise the electricity sector
The Minister spoke in detail about wind energy. I have mentioned biomass. We have neglected hydroelectricity to a degree. Although not on a large scale like wind energy, oil or gas, there is still potential for hydroelectricity schemes to be developed around the country. Our first large-scale hydroelectricity scheme was at Ardnacrusha, followed by the scheme at Turlough Hill which has received many engineering awards over generations. We could consider further such schemes to complement and diversify our electricity generation. The debate on fracking is happening and geothermal and solar power are other possibilities. I would be interested to hear whether there are plans for further hydroelectricity schemes. While it would not be the answer, it would contribute to decarbonising the electricity sector.
Much criticism is directed at the Government that not enough is being done to convert existing power stations. In my region, the south east, SSE is converting Great Island generating station from oil to gas, a far cleaner technology, and doubling its capacity from 220 MW to approximately 480 MW. Are there plans for further conversions at plants such as Moneypoint or in the midlands to more energy efficient or less carbon intensive energy generation?
A few weeks ago the environment committee met people involved in the wind energy sector who told us that if they were building wind farms, they would build specific networks to connect to the transmission network. There is much confusion and controversy about the pylons issue. Is it true that the volatility of energy generated by wind farms requires the transmission networks to be upgraded, as proposed in EirGrid's Grid25 project? Is it true, partly true or not true? There is much confusion and some people are creating it for their own political purposes. Some say the only reason we need to upgrade the transmission network is wind farms are being generated and we are exporting electricity to the United Kingdom. Is that true or not? We need clarity on the issue.
The Minister did not mention the possibility of having an interconnector to mainland Europe, which would contribute to sustainability in electricity generation for Irish businesses and households. It would provide further options for the export of electricity and the possible importation of nuclear energy supplies. I presume we already import nuclear energy supplies through the UK interconnector and the more options we have available to us, the more competitive we can become as an island nation.
One of the points made in the Green Paper is that we are inviting responses on the biomass issue. The Deputy is right about the conversion at Great Island. In a country that has very few significant building projects left it is a very big building project. I went to look at it and it is immensely impressive. The conversion from using oil to gas is to be welcomed. It is a very big new limb in terms of our energy security. I am aware of the report published in recent days on the possible conversion of the Moneypoint power plant. The ESB and EirGrid, separately and in a different context, are assessing that issue and it is not as simple as it seems. There are technical and financial questions, but, more importantly, the Deputy identified the question regarding the supply of raw material.
I have representatives of private sector combined heat and power projects coming to me demonstrating a willingness to create a significant number of jobs in some rural parts of Ireland and the question is whether I can guarantee them a supply of raw material. They say they cannot source it because they argue Coillte has a demand for whatever biomass becomes available. If one had to import biomass to feed such a station, one would have to consider the economics. It is not as simple as some consultants claim.
I forgot to answer Deputy Brian Stanley's question on wave and tidal energy. Wave and tidal energy technology is at research stage. Given our status as an island nation, it could be very important in the future. Despite the straitened times we have come through, we managed to continue an investment in the research projects ongoing at a number of locations from Cork to Belmullet, but we will not have an answer today or tomorrow. The same applies to hydroelectricity. One cannot say one is on the side of the angels, in favour of all renewables, and then when we discuss a particular one such as wind energy, ask, "What about hydro?" When there are difficulties with hydro schemes, people propose wave and tidal energy projects. I have had discussions in the Seanad in which there was extraordinarily strong support for renewables, except the particular renewable under discussion.
I am aware of a private sector hydroelectricity proposal. It is a proposal for a remarkable pumped storage scheme which is still being examined and very interesting. To some degree, we are avoiding the issue, which is not whether we have the capacity to generate enough energy to meet our needs however it is broken down between oil, gas, wind, hydroelectricity or biomass. As energy Minister, I would be reasonably comfortable about this and the public does not reflect too much on it. However, when one sees events in Ukraine, for example, there is cause to be nervous at night. Everybody takes it for granted that when one plugs in the kettle or flicks a switch, there is power. Having entered that caveat, I am fairly comfortable about our ability to meet our domestic needs. The hard question Deputy Brian Stanley asked me was related to whether it was wise to create a new traded sector in selling green energy for economic value to the country in terms of employment and revenue. Deputy Paudie Coffey's committee and the elected representatives in Dáil Éireann will be able to make their own input and contribution via the Green Paper.
The expert advice available to me on the transmission system is that given that we have mandatory obligations, we have to upgrade the transmission system. Deputy Paudie Coffey asked to what extent that was due to wind energy generation. We have to upgrade the transmission system if we are to guarantee the people a safe, secure, affordable energy supply and if we are to address questions of dispersal and regionalisation.
We really do not have a choice in the matter. We do, however, have a choice about how we do it and this is where the debate should be centred. People have strong views, which is fine. Let them have strong views, but they should not take up a position of opposition to modernisation of the grid and having a grid which is fit for purpose. I do not suggest anyone on the committee has done so. Whether we put it underground or overground is a reasonable issue for debate but opposition to the notion of modernisation of the grid is Luddite.
There is a doubt about the memorandum of understanding signed last year with the Minister's counterpart in the United Kingdom and I am interested to hear what is happening in that regard. It would be relevant to any wind farm development proposed, or, at the very least, the big ones. Is there a cost issue at stake? We hear from some people that the cost has been calculated at the point of generation as opposed to the end point of delivery and that there is a sizeable difference between the two which makes it uneconomic when one adds in the transmission network which would have to be developed.
Siemens has announced a pylon scheme development in Hull which is likely to rule out any prospect of it being replicated here. Is this a factor in the number of jobs that might transpire here? People will be involved in various elements.
A key issue for me concerns our approach to the Aarhus Convention and I have made a submission in this regard. Companies such as Greenwire signed up landowners without taking any real note of the concerns of neighbours. I do not see communities being put at the heart of this. It is a box-ticking exercise with regard to the Aarhus Convention. People will no longer be told this is good for them and that it is required for job creation; they will make up their own minds on whether they think it is a good proposal.
I accept there is misinformation and that very often the presumption is, if something is proposed, it will happen, even though it must go through a planning process which it may well not survive. However, the planning process seems to be deficient such as with regard to the 2006 planning guidelines. What arrangements will the Minister have with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government for upgrading these guidelines? This is a matter which will come before the committee.
If this development is seen as being of strategic importance, it will be done through An Bord Pleanála; it will not go through local authorities. The input of citizens will, therefore, be limited and I do not believe people will accept this. They will want to have their say and be included. They want the Aarhus Convention to mean something and it should be central to anything we do. Unless we have a proper structure and do not just have a box-ticking exercise with regard to the convention there will be a strong negative reaction.
The Scottish approach is interesting, whereby there is a state-funded initiative and case studies have been undertaken. This involves 294 projects at community level involving a small number of wind turbines. They are not large industrial level projects. They include projects involving schools and football clubs and community ownership models. We do not seem to be going down this route and there is no comparable organisation to facilitate this type of development, which would be far more likely to gain support. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to state on this.
The NESC report commissioned by the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, identified a large export opportunity, but it had to do with wave and offshore wind energy production. We all accept that our unique dispersed population pattern does not lend itself to providing us with an enormous number of usable onshore wind energy sites. We are not putting ourselves at the forefront of wave and offshore wind energy technology when one considers what happened to Wavebob, an issue I have raised many times through questions. People who had gained expertise were dispersed to other jurisdictions, including Scotland. This means that we are following, rather than leading, in its development. If we are not at the forefront of frontier development in this regard, will we miss a big opportunity?
I attended a useful presentation on biomass. I accept that it was one party putting forward its side, but interesting comparisons were made with a successful development in the United Kingdom. The Minister mentioned Bord na Móna lands earmarked for turbines. They could equally be used as a resource to generate biomass. It is not good quality land that could be used for food production.
The memorandum of understanding was signed in Dublin by me and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change as a first step towards an intergovernmental agreement.
What I have set out in my opening remarks is the timeframe imposed on us by the European conditions. There is a huge lead time in any major energy project and, from that point of view, as I have said - I announced it publicly a few weeks ago - there is a doubt about the capacity to conclude that at this particular time. The summit meeting in London between the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister asked the two Ministers to look at whether there would be an alternative architecture that might facilitate it. As I said earlier, we are looking at the outcome of the London summit. I can tell the committee that site costs versus delivery point, as the Deputy put it, is not the issue and is not an issue in these discussions. Deputy Brian Stanley has welcomed the British position, but if one is enthusiastically in support of an agreement between two countries, one must admit it takes two to tango. One does not enter into a bad agreement purely because the other side is demanding X, Y and Z.
As regards the Siemens development in Hull, I am not sure that is relevant. The advice we have from the prospective developers and prospective manufacturing projects brought to us by the IDA is that it would make great sense in a project such as this to have the manufacturing close by because it is immensely expensive. Whether that is all or part of it, and so on, is open to negotiation, but that would be a very important aspect of it. It is not irrelevant in the context of the way the UK Government might be looking at it, because if one had a significant manufacturing project on the east coast of Ireland, it could service more than the Irish need. I tend to think that the Deputy is not the first one to think about that.
With regard to the Aarhus Convention, I have tried to hammer this for months - but apparently with little success - by explaining that the renewable energy policy planning framework will be subject to a full strategic environmental assessment, SEA. I have said that many times. People read what they want to read and believe what they want to believe, but that is the situation. This committee knows more about SEAs and the planning area than most. People either accept that or do not.
Deputy Catherine Murphy wanted to know the prospects for offshore wind energy, wave and tidal energy and so on. A month ago I published the offshore renewable energy development plan, OREDP, which sets out, in 40 pages or so, our approach. We have had a very interesting exchange of views so far, but nobody has mentioned wind, except Deputy Brian Stanley, who is opposed to it - opposed to its being sold to the Brits, that is.
Was it not? I apologise.
I am asked what about Wavebob, what about offshore, what about biomass, peat briquettes or whatever. As I have said to Deputy Paudie Coffey, the advice I have is that we do not have the biomass but we do have wind.
Several of us mentioned wind. The mention of turbines in Hull is about wind. The Aarhus Convention is about how we plan energy projects; it is not about biomass. Can we please have a little bit of respect?
That is in the eye of the beholder. The fact of the matter is that wave and tidal energy is still a twinkle in the research eye of the scientists. That is the first point. The second point is that, yes, we are investing in the research, but if a private company such as Wavebob goes down, it goes down. It is not the job of the State to support private companies. The fact of the matter is that this would be regarded as normal in any other country or in the US, where a company supports a research policy and innovation with a view towards breaking new ground and bringing it to commerciality. In the particular case mentioned by the Deputy, it was not successful. We examined it and we did not think the State should come to the rescue, even if there was a line of funding for that kind of thing. There are others that have been successful in County Louth. I have forgotten the name of the French company that came in and purchased it. Some are successful and some are not successful.
In terms of the point the Deputy made about community involvement, there are very successful examples in this country, such as Tipperary Energy. Some months ago I opened a wind farm in Templederry. Would I be wrong in describing it as a co-op?
Yes, a community project, where the 32 farmers involved are stakeholders with Tipperary Energy, and there was not a meig of complaint. It is enthusiastically supported and we do support initiatives like that.
We will have a look at offshore wind energy in the future. As I said, we have published the offshore renewable energy development plan. I hope that if developers come forward with offshore projects they will get a fair wind - no pun intended - but we will see.
I welcome the Minister. For the most part, when we discuss this issue, we do so from the point of view of energy security or carbon emission reductions. If we drill down and think about what is relevant to most people, other than, as the Minister said, what happened in Ukraine recently, people ask what happens if the gas is switched off. It probably promotes more depth of thought about how it affects the individual or his or her business. The major challenge for us in terms of how we plan and what we plan for is how to reduce energy costs for the individual in order to bring people out of fuel poverty, which is increasing, and how to reduce energy costs for business so as to make Ireland a more competitive place in which to locate one's business and to invest. The blueprint that we have to follow, with all the other considerations and targets, must set this out clearly. That is where the discourse begins with the public rather than consultation on individual projects. I am aware that Grid25 is not an individual project, but that is what happens. We start consulting when we are on the ground, and that is not a comment on the merits or demerits of the actual consultation that takes place. In many cases, people will say they were doing their best in regard to consultation. There are broader brush strokes that have to be established and accepted and the public has to be brought along from the point of view of the democratic process; otherwise, we are in an uphill struggle to get buy-in. The issue of greatest concern to people is energy costs.
I am wondering what-----
I draw to the attention of members - I am sure the Minister is aware of this - that energy costs are outside the remit of the committee. That belongs to the joint committee which deals with energy issues.
With due respect, Chairman, it all ties in; either we are having a proper debate or we are not. I welcome the setting up of the review commission chaired by Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness. There is absolutely nothing to hide here; it is about transparency. As it is a complex situation, that is where confusion can arise. It is about putting everything on the table. To go some way along the road with Deputy Paudie Coffey, there are two aims for Grid25: to reinforce and upgrade the grid and to put renewable energy generating projects on the grid. It is not all being developed for the same reasons, and people know this. In some cases, if renewables are being taken out that does not mean there is a need for pylons. When will the terms of reference be made available for the review commission? When they are made available there will have to be cognisance of the fact that the Grid West project, by EirGrid's own admission, is being treated as shallow development. Therefore, it is not being developed or rolled out to upgrade the grid for energy security or standard operational reasons but to bring out the renewable energy. A full debate is needed because there has been a vacuum and that is where the speculation comes in.
The practicalities include community gain and community contribution. There are very fine noble aspirations in many documents about this, whether it is renewable energy strategies or the programme for Government and the gains that might be had. It is sadly lacking when it comes to individual projects, as community gain is very much meted out to communities on an ad hocbasis. It depends on the developer and the local authority. If a local authority wants to make a stipulation setting out what the community gain should be, it does not have the statutory authority to do that. That issue needs to be addressed. There is also the issue that not all of the community is affected. That some are near neighbours means they are immediately affected. I have heard individual wind farm developers or promoters speak about this but I do not think there is a comprehensive document that can be employed by the planning decision makers to ensure uniformity in this regard, rather than pot luck depending on whether one has a good or a bad developer. For example, in my area, some large wind farm projects have been proposed, two of which will be subject to oral hearings, the first of which - about an ESB-Bord na Móna project, the proposed Oweninny wind farm - is next week. The majority of objectors are not objecting to the wind farm but to lack of proper engagement in respect of community gain and how it is up to them to try to get the best deal they can. Even though it is not a project for decision by the local authority, its hands were tied. It has a draft document on community gain but it has no statutory basis. That issue needs to be addressed.
There is also the issue of local employment. People want to see jobs on the ground. If wind farms are coming to an area, surely the local people must have a stab at getting those jobs. That is not a given, especially if contracts are given outside the area. In respect of State companies there are mechanisms that they can at least attempt to employ, such as seeking a derogation from procurement rules, to try to accommodate employment in the construction of such projects where there is disadvantage and high rates of unemployment due to the collapse of the construction sector. How can that issue be addressed given the ad hocnature of community gain?
What is the position in regard to the intergovernmental agreement and the memorandum of understanding since the Anglo-Irish summit? I understood that the issue was to be re-examined after a number of months and, perhaps, a new approach adopted. What interaction has taken place between the two Governments on the matter?
It was quite recent. As Zhou Enlai said about the French Revolution, it is too early to say, but one formal meeting has taken place. I agree with a great deal of the thrust of what Deputy Mulherin has said. If the Chairman will permit, I will make a brief comment on the costs issue. The problem is that it is a commercial marketplace - the Deputy understands that - so many of the cost elements are outside of the control of the suppliers. One is dependent on issues such as international gas prices, but there are things we can do, such as to have the most efficient transmission system, to put a greater emphasis on energy efficiency - as we did last week when we launched the €70 million energy efficiency fund - to go outside the residential sector, and to focus on public and commercial buildings. That can make a big contribution.
The Deputy referred in passing to energy poverty. She will notice from figures announced yesterday by the regulator that there was a large reduction in disconnections this winter and that is largely due to the emphasis we have put on the installation of pay-as-you-go meters. The Deputy is right that people relate the energy debate to how it affects their domestic budget. There is no disputing that.
As regards the expert panel, I have had no contact with it other than thanking it for agreeing to conduct the task. I am advised that following its next meeting it experts to be in a position shortly to announce the terms of reference. That expert panel is chaired by Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness.
Community gain is a hugely important aspect. The more we try to introduce it into the debate the more somebody will say that we are trying to bribe communities in order to deliver transmission. I do not see it that way. It is right that communities should benefit and it is certainly included very prominently in the proposals we have been preparing for the intergovernmental agreement. In fairness, it has become the practice among developers to actually offer it. The intellectual argument is one that is also being considered by my colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, and my Department has an input into that. Those who attended the briefing by EirGrid will recall that it too has accepted that there is an obligation on it in this particular regard. The developers with whom I have been speaking acknowledge that they have to make a contribution in that regard.
I hope that following its next meeting in the first week of May the expert panel will have the terms of reference.
I apologise for having to leave before the Minister arrived. I acknowledge that he has agreed that the value of MOUs is not as he once thought under other guises when speaking about MOUs entered into between, for example, the previous Government and the troika.
It appears the Minister has found now that this MOU he entered into with the British Government does not hold much water.
Secondly, the Minister has been vague in answer to Deputies Mulherin and Murphy. On foot of the relaxation of the EU 2030 renewable energy targets, he correctly stated plans by Mainstream Renewable Power, Bord Na Móna, Element Power to harvest 10 GW of Irish wind energy for sale to the United Kingdom and the Continent are in doubt. That has been known for a number of weeks. On the meeting that was held between the Taoiseach and the UK Prime Minister on Wednesday, 12 March, can the Minister confirm that officials were given three months to investigate if the plan for the multi-million euro wind energy project in the midlands can be saved? Can he confirm that there was three months agreed between both parties by which time investigations and negotiation would take place, and a review would be completed in three months and published thereafter? What would that bring us to - March, April, May? We might even be in time for the 23rd, which would be of benefit to everybody concerned.
I will move on to the specific guidelines that were being put in place in relation to projects for export. Are they how on hold? In the event of this exercise being carried out by the Minister's officials and British officials confirming that this 10 GW of Irish energy for sale is no longer something in the short to medium-term future, will such guidelines be revised?
I refer to those for export. The Minister had specific guidelines for projects for export as against guidelines for projects for our own use on the national grid. Where stand those guidelines in the event of that group confirming, as the Minister has done in recent months, but categorically, that there will be no such development to meet the targets of sale to the United Kingdom and the Continent. Could the Minister clarify merely to confirm that the summit between the Taoiseach and the UK Prime Minister agreed a process, agreed that such process would be three months in duration, and agreed that the findings further to that process would be definitive and that the public would know where it stands on in the short to medium-term development of any such projects for sale?
I know Deputy Cowen was not able to be here. I dealt with that in my formal remarks and I will give him a copy of them. To repeat, I had made a formal statement in the Seanad a couple of weeks ago - I cannot remember exactly how long ago - before the summit asserting my judgment that given the timeframe imposed on us by the availability, for example, of the supports system - for example, the developers here, if they did manage to get a project up and running, were dependent on the British supports system, not the Irish ones - the 2020 deadline would apply. I expressed my view that I found it difficult to see, given the lead-in time, how that could be delivered as envisaged. A week later, ten days later or whatever it was, the two Prime Ministers met in London on a number of agenda items and at that meeting, they agreed to ask the two Ministers whether they could look at an alternative architecture to facilitate conclusion of the IGA, and that is what we have been examining.
If Deputy Cowen is asking me if I have changed my mind, I would have to say that my best assessment of the information in my possession is that I have not changed my mind. It is difficult to envisage how we can comply with that deadline. I can certainly promise the Deputy - 23 May, for some reason, is on his radar - that I will personally have an answer delivered to him before that date. I hope that is satisfactory.
-----that on some matters we have a mutual interest, but there you are.
Post-2020, it is hard to say. I do not see any definitive decisions until there is a new Commission in place. Look at yesterday's report from the United Nations on climate change. It is inevitable that renewables will continue to be an important aspect of the energy mix, but as regards clarity and definitive policy in the remaining few months of the lifetime of this Commission - there is one more meeting of Energy Council Ministers - I do not think it will happen in the lifetime of this Commission.
On the export projects, the only project contemplated is the midlands one. That may well have involved a number of partners and as I stated on several occasions, I could not see how it could be delivered also within the timeline without the main landowner in the area being involved where there are unencumbered tens of thousands of cutaway bog, a commercial State company looking for a new mission, etc. That was the project envisaged.
My intention is that I would continue the work that we have done - the first phase of consultation was out - and that I would continue to try to develop the national planning framework because, whatever happens on the three months' deadline or on the IGA, the wind will not go away, trade between this country and the neighbouring country will not go away, and we should continue the work in that area.
As regards what lesson Deputy Cowen thinks that I might have learned from an MOU, the MOU is a statement of aspiration leading to an agreement. The MOU with the troika was a binding bailout agreement for all of the reasons of which he will be aware. Deputy Cowen is the one who raised it and if he wants to bat it back and forward, I will bat it back and forward with him, but it is not analogous to the attempt to come to an agreement between two countries about trading green energy. We will see what the outcome will be, but I can assure Deputy Cowen that the process, whatever the outcome, will be completed in advance of the three months.
I thank the Minister and Mr. Spratt for coming in this afternoon.
I welcome the fact the Minister mentioned that there has been a cost-benefit analysis completed and I wonder where can we obtain that. Is it easily accessible on the Department's website or is it on some other website, such as that of Sustainable Energy Ireland?
There are communities in Offaly where it looks like the bulk of this project would be located who are concerned about the spectre or 600 ft. turbines in every second field across the midlands because that is the impression that they are under. They feel strongly that they have not been adequately informed about what is happening. In that context, I wondered whether the Department is compliant with the terms of the Aarhus Convention to which they all refer.
If the agreement on the energy for export proposal is ironed out, what would be the timeframe in respect of the development and subsequent execution of the proposal?
The Minister should indicate whether a new interconnector will be going ahead, because I seem to recall one energy company advising that a new interconnector would be required between Ireland and Wales. In addition, is there another proposal for an interconnector between Ireland and France, for example, to avoid being completely reliant on exporting to Great Britain and to enable exports to other countries? Is such a proposal in the pipeline?
I refer to Ireland's capacity for energy independence, while acknowledging this meeting is focused on the export of energy to the United Kingdom. To what extent does Ireland have energy independence, in terms of the capacity to keep the lights on at any given time? Does Ireland have a problem in respect of being independent? First, what is the capacity and second, will the Government be considering flexible plants to support such independence or is this a matter the company exporting the energy must also consider? As someone has noted, if the wind is not blowing here, it will be blowing someplace else. However, in the event of the wind not blowing here, people have concerns that fossil fuels still will be required to back it up. This point is being raised quite a lot.
I would be very interested to hear about community gain, as I frequently hear complaints about how it might be construed as bribery. However, has the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources considered measures such as, for example, an investment bond? Under such a scheme, citizens or communities could buy into particular proposals, be they for the energy export proposal or for the national grid. This proposal has been raised with me to an extent, certainly as it applies to citizens, because some people believe community gain may only be of benefit to one if one is interested in a particular community project that may gain therefrom. It does not necessarily mean that an individual who is obliged to sit beside a 600 ft. high structure will get anything out of it. Perhaps one even might examine the potential for people to have free electricity. Is that a possibility the Department might consider?
In addition, I have received many complaints from people about how option agreements are being acquired in areas that are not designated at all for wind and are outside county development plans. Is there a role for the Minister in dealing with such activity or is such speculation simply allowable because we are capitalists here? The Minister also should confirm when the Green Paper on energy will be produced.
Deputy Corcoran Kennedy will understand the reason I would not publish the cost-benefit analysis while we are involved in negotiations for reasons of commercial sensitivity. Obviously the Government would not wish to show its hand, except as it chose, with its prospective partner. However, when all this is over, I will be willing to examine this again. Two different sets of circumstances offer, the first being a scenario in which I have an agreement. In such a case, I probably would need to be selective on what I would reveal, given that I then would have a commercial partner. If there is no agreement, I would be in a different position. However, I assure the Deputy that I took this very seriously and got the best advice I could on what were the economic prospects. Certainly, when the talks have concluded, successfully or otherwise, I will be glad to put information in this regard into the public domain or at least to supply it to Members of these Houses and this committee.
I refer to the general thrust of the quality of engagement the Deputy raised with regard to local communities and all that kind of thing. While I was not avoiding the question but forgot it, someone earlier raised the issue of these developers who have bought land or options on land or who have purchased lease options or whatever. Deputy Corcoran Kennedy asked whether this is the correct order. The problem is that I do not have a role in preventing any would-be businessman from seeking to purchase interest in land in any part of the country. I did not send them down to the midlands with a whip and tell them to buy up land options there. Business people try to gain-----
Indeed. Business people try to get first-mover advantage and make these decisions and so on. Unfortunately, I believe the Deputy is right. It has led to unnecessary concerns in some communities because the proposition that Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy's county will have wind turbines in every second field is not going to happen in her lifetime or mine. I agree that communities have concerns, some of which are not justified because they will not be included and so on.
As for an interconnector with France, as the Deputy now is aware there is an interconnector between Wales and north Dublin. The Government was never willing to have a situation in which merchant developers would throw their own cables across the Irish Sea to plug into the British grid. That would not be acceptable as it must be regulated properly and it is a matter for the two Governments to agree how that would be done. On whether there will be an interconnector with France in the future, all I can say about that is the entire thrust of European policy is to have a single integrated market in energy, greater integration, greater interconnection and so on. The agency charged with future planning for the State of course is engaged in research on something like that but it will not appear on the horizon before Deputy Cowen's date of 23 May or anything like that. It is a matter for the future.
I believe I know what the Deputy is getting at when she referred to flexible plants and so on. She is correct in that technology keeps changing and developing all the time. It is true that fossil fuels are needed at present in respect of backup and flexible plants will come into their own. For reasons of which Deputy Corcoran Kennedy is aware, it is an extremely complex issue that is primarily but not solely an issue with the regulator. The regulator, EirGrid and so on are looking at the interests she has on behalf of her constituents in this regard. I am not sure where it will go in the future but she is correct as the kind of flexibility that would be provided is the kind of thing that is needed.
Finally, I have heard the proposals she mentioned about the community somehow buying into the adventure and so on. It is a particularly interesting proposal. While I do not know of this happening on any kind of broad mass scale, in small projects such as that to which we referred earlier in Templederry, in the Vice Chairman's native county, on a local basis the local farmers were signed up and essentially are shareholders. Is that a fair description of that project? Theoretically, there is no reason similar models cannot be developed in the future. However, it is difficult. For example, members should note the announcement by Bord na Móna about its own green energy hub.
There are a number of members here who would have some experience of it but my understanding is that when Bord na Móna started to hold town hall meetings and explain what it was about, it got a very high measure of approval, support and understanding. Perhaps that shows us the way. I know Bord na Móna has a uniquely acceptable brand to the local community in the midlands for all the reasons we know. I accept the reality that in respect of some people, for whatever reason, there is nothing I can say that would ever bring them on board. As somebody wrote in a letter to The Irish Times, if we had not built the railways, we certainly would not be able to build them now. Building big infrastructure is a problem and there is no point in pretending otherwise.
I thank the Minister for attending and I apologise for not being here for his presentation. As most people in the midlands know, we have all attended a large number of public meetings on this topical issue and they have been highly emotional with the halls and venues packed to capacity. I agree that public concerns must be taken on board. We have not got the factual information sought regarding the health and safety issues that have been raised at those meetings. I refer to the health risks associated with living near high voltage power lines, the health effects of shadow flicker and other problems such as sleep disturbance that were raised at those meetings. We have not been given concrete information on what is factual and what is incorrect in that regard.
Another issue is the fact that we are still working on the basis of the 2004 planning guidelines when the turbines proposed at that time were of the scale of the industrial turbines being proposed now. My colleague and the Minister's good friend, Deputy Penrose, has a Private Members' Bill in waiting for quite a long time, the gist of which proposes that no turbines greater than 25 m should be allowed within 2 km or a public building or a dwelling house. What is the Minister's stance on that or does he envisage that Bill will come before the Dáil and, if it does, would he support it, or what is his view on it? On a related issue, can the Minister confirm whether EirGrid has postponed the North-South interconnector planning application pending the outcome of the independent review?
A further issue that is constantly raised at meetings on wind farm developments throughout the country is that the chairman of EirGrid stated in December 2013 that he would not like to live beside a pylon. What is the Minister's view on that? That issue was never adequately addressed and it is still a problem. When the chairman of that body was not happy with that type of proposal, where do we stand on it?
Like Deputy Corcoran Kennedy and others who spoke, I am concerned also about the failure of companies to adequately inform communities about their long-term plans. That is a serious problem. As a politician one is fighting a losing battle when one attends one of these meetings because the people who turn up are totally opposed to any form of alternative energy projects.
Another issue that is raised at those meetings is the massive landslide in Derrybrien in Galway in 2003 which caused a great deal of pollution, as a consequence of which 100,000 trout were destroyed in the nearby river. Neither the company that was developing that project nor the ESB took responsibility. They talked about when something would happen such as when the foundations would be put in for the wind turbines. If we move on to a new form of energy, nobody will take responsibility for the removal of the huge amount of mass concrete that is laid to support those wind turbines and they will be ugly monstrosities across the landscape. Nothing is permanent except change and perhaps the form of energy that is in use today will be an old form of energy tomorrow. The Minister might elaborate on some of those points.
As the Deputy said, we have traced this territory from the beginning of the meeting. He is right in that there have been very emotional public meetings - there is no disputing that. Without going back over what I have said several times, on the Deputy's specific question about health, the Deputy will be aware that as part of the decision I took in respect of the expert panel, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is required by the Government decision to engage expert advice to review the EMF question as between 2006 or 2008, or whatever year it was, to date. He is to bring his report to the Government as soon as it is complete to bring us up to 2014 in respect of that particular concern.
As regards EirGrid postponing the North-South interconnector until the panel completes it work, that decision has not been made. As Deputy Mulherin established earlier, the expert panel, under the chairmanship of the former Supreme Court judge, Ms Justice Catherine McGuinness, has not yet published its terms of reference. The Deputy can imagine the task they have been engaged in terms of bringing themselves up to speed with the reports that have been done and the complexity of the issues that are at stake. What I said to Deputy Mulherin was that I expect, without knowing, that after its next meeting it is likely to publish its terms of reference but no decision has been made by EirGrid to postpone the planning application.
As regards John O'Connor, the new chairman of EirGrid, and his statement that he would not like to live in close proximity to a pylon, I must say that his answer greatly encouraged me that I had appointed the right man to chairman of EirGrid. If his honest belief is that he would not want to live in close proximity to a pylon, surely it was correct that he said that and answered it honestly and let people make what they will of it. That is the man's view and he is a man of very strong views. In my own view, as somebody who lives beside plenty of pylons in Clondalkin, if the Deputy has ever driven through it, I must say he is the right man for the job.
On the Deputy's question about wind turbines, the clean-up afterwards, the residue and all of that, I do not think in 2014 that is a problem. It is a bit like the problems we used to have with mining in this country - the problems we had Tina Mines, for example. That could not be replicated today. The remediation process has to be looked after by the mining authorities and the mine owners, as in the case of the Vice Chairman's constituency where we are dealing with some of the issues at present. It would be a requirement that whatever is the residual situation, it would be remediated and put back in proper condition.
I am not going to intrude into the area of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. In respect of the planning consultation that they are assessing, I presume they will announce their conclusions.
I presume the conclusions of the planning consultation will be announced. I do not know how early they will be announced but it will be reasonably early. The public consultation phase has concluded and it is a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Ministers of State at the Department to make their decision.
In regard to the question on Deputy Penrose's Bill, I published a Bill several weeks ago and I hope it will be taken into consideration or, to use the Minister's term, subsumed into the consultation process. I will forward a copy of the Bill to officials in his Department and in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.
I realise that he is given to making smart aleck remarks at times, which can be amusing -----
The Minister is not too bad at it. I do not welcome the British position on energy. However, while I think it is a terrible position, I welcome that it has pressed the pause button on what was happening here. By the Minister's own admission we are putting in place a new planning regime. The new regime will probably not be what I want but it will certainly represent an improvement on the current regime. That is to be welcomed. The Minister has also admitted that we do not have a policy. This is why he will be issuing a Green Paper on energy. Deputy Coffey tends to deal with issues in a narrow way and dismisses anything put forward by the Opposition but I am trying to be constructive. I welcome that the Minister is preparing a Green Paper but it indicates that we do not have our act together on the issue of energy and alternative energy. I accept these areas were not addressed during the boom years. We tend to wait until we have a crisis or are forced to act by the EU. We should have been working to develop sources of alternative energy instead of building houses during the boom years. Does the Minister agree that it was probably as well that events played out as they did because the public are now engaged in the process? Extreme views have been expressed on all sides but we will have a better planning regime. We will not know if it is good enough until we see it and my party would like it to be more regulation based. I look forward to engaging with the Minister on the development of energy policy.
The Minister was somewhat dismissive of wind power but I argue that it will be part of our alternative energy solution. In terms of sustainability - I speak as somebody with a background in environmental issues - even though wind is an intermittent source of power, six months ago there appeared to be a stampede to utilise wind and when we tried to generate a debate an other sources of energy we got the sort of response we received today from Deputy Coffey. We are not blessed with sunshine but we can produce a certain amount of solar energy. Other sources of energy, such as geothermal energy, are being developed continuously. I am not an engineer but I know that hydropower will play a small part in our overall energy policy because I take the time to inform myself on these matters. The Minister is correct that there is insufficient land on this island to grow a large volume of biomass but there is potential to develop willow crops. We need a more rounded approach and I hope the Green Paper will give us an opportunity to engage on the process of developing a sustainable alternative energy regime.
The Minister did not address my earlier question on fuel poverty. Reference was made to the Ballinderry co-operatives and greater acceptance. As a former employee of Bord na Móna, I recognise there is greater acceptance, for various reasons. Another way of persuading communities to accept new forms of energy is to create community gain in regard to fuel poverty. I accept that energy prices have decreased somewhat but people who one would think were comfortably off were freezing in their houses in recent winters. Does the Minister see a need to address the issue of chronic fuel poverty in tandem with developing alternative energy policy?
As I wrongly assumed I would be finished by 4 p.m., a deputation is waiting to meet me. I hope the Green Paper will address the issues Deputy Stanley raised and I assure him that its recommendations will not be confined to wind. I am not bringing forward the Green Paper because there is confusion about policy. It is being prepared for two reasons. First, the White Paper on energy was published 2007. We do this work every five or six years. Second, the world has changed. When the White Paper was being prepared in 2006, nobody could have forecast what has happened since. For example, nobody forecast what has happened in the United States in terms of hydraulic fracturing. Those are the reasons I am bringing forward the Green Paper, which will subsequently be refined and published as a White Paper for the coming six years. I draw Deputy Stanley's attention to the offshore plan and the fact that we will be publishing a bioenergy proposal in the next few weeks. We have already devised a national renewable energy action plan which deals with many of the issues he raised. Whatever scarcity might exist, it is not a scarcity of policy. The Deputy can be assured that the Green Paper will take a comprehensive view of energy and I hope this committee, as well as my own committee, will have an input into it because there is an obvious interest in dealing with the thorny issue of planning.
In deference to the Minister I will be brief because we had a good debate in the Seanad on this subject. We have to work with what we have - we have wind - but we must use it in the best way possible. New methods are coming on stream every day. It is now possible to put a wind facility 1,000 ft. above the earth. This is being deployed in Alaska. It tethered by a string rather than a pole and the wind turbine is contained inside a helium balloon.
That is there but it will not be for Ireland because it is for more remote districts. We must be realistic in saying what we can do.
Everybody is talking about biomass. The Drax plant in Yorkshire converted from burning coal to sustainable biomass. The EU said wood is carbon neutral but there is a debate now as to whether it is. Only one station at the Drax plant has been converted and it is shipping shiploads of wood pellets from North Carolina, which is depleting forests there as this is not thinnings or anything else. The station burns a shipload of wood pellets, shipped in the largest cargo ship on earth, in 16 hours. It takes 100 years to grow a tree which sequesters more CO2 from the environment than anything else. Biomass is not all it is said to be. When looking at biomass, we must ensure we know what we are talking about. When we take into account the transportation of biomass fuel 3,800 miles from North Carolina to Yorkshire, carbon neutrality goes out the window. All of this must be taken into account.
We have had a very good debate. There are many policy papers available but I look forward to the Green Paper on which this committee will have a good debate.
If the agreement is thrashed out and so on, what kind of timeframe is the Minister looking at? We talked about the benefits to the UK, communities, developers and so on, but what benefit does the Minister envisage for the Exchequer?
She knows more about aspects of this than I do. I have a hunch she is right in the particular point she raises but in any event, if one was to proceed as was suggested, in terms of converting Moneypoint to biomass, one would have a real problem. It is not as simple as is being put forward, so Senator Keane is quite right.
I did not answer Deputy Corcoran Kennedy's question. I expect to bring the Green Paper to Government within three weeks and if I do, it will be published immediately after that. On her question on the export project and the duration of time, if it looks like we will conclude an agreement, I will be very happy with the three months that came out of the London summit. If it looks like we will not conclude an agreement, I do not see any point waiting for three months. What happens in the negotiations now will determine that.
What was the Deputy's third question?
The benefits to the Exchequer are significant, subject to agreement with the other partner. In fairness to Minister Ed Davey, he made the point when we signed the memorandum of understanding, that he was an enthusiastic supporter and I believe he is one, as am I. However, he said it was subject to the figures adding up, meaning that he will look after his country's interests and I will like over my country's interests and so on. The cost benefit analysis shows significant economic value rebounding to Ireland.
I refer to some of the issues we have discussed today and to the Minister's presentation in which he referred to remote locations and bringing the power from remote locations to where it is needed. The second theme was the transmission network to carry the power. I have often been asked if there is some reason there is no project, or proposed project, in the greater Dublin area where most of the power is used. There is much wind in Dublin; it is not just down the country. There is no onshore or offshore project in the Dublin region. Is Dublin a specific area, like a special area of conservation? I have been asked this on many times at public meetings.
We have Poolbeg. It would be a bit problematic. I do not think one could afford a wind farm in Dublin. I do not think one could afford the purchase of the land, or find it. I know as much about the country-----
Yes. The Vice Chairman should keep his fingers crossed on that one. I understand the point he made and I understand rural Ireland as well. By definition, a wind farm is more likely to appear in provincial Ireland than it is in the heart of Cork city, Dublin city or Galway city.
I was not speaking about the city but about the surrounding area. The other issue was community gain. It is not equal across the country. There are many proposals that the community should benefit substantially from this. The Minister mentioned Templederry, which is a good example, but it is in the same county as Sws Wind Farms in Lisheen. There is also the wind farm proffered by Bord na Móna, the Bruckana wind farm. The community in Lisheen is very happy with the response it got but is not as happy with the response it got from Bord na Móna in regard to the Bruckana wind farm. There needs to be a level playing pitch.
We have different personnel working on different aspects of this. The people working on planning are not the people dealing with the economics of it or dealing with the regulatory side of it. We have given the people dealing with the planning an injunction to address that issue. Do they come up with a one-size-fits-all? I have not made up my mind on that yet. There might be an argument for different models, even if one has that disparity, about which the Vice Chairman talks. For example, the Templederry example is very attractive. There is a world of difference when one meets people who say, "Look at what we have created, it is a nice little local enterprise and we are earning a few bob from it".
It is in the ownership of the community and it is contributing power to the grid. It seems to be quite an attractive proposition because one can see, even from the exchanges we have had today, that it is becoming more difficult than it was to build big infrastructure. I recognise that as much as any Deputy. I have been dealing with this so intensively, and people say to me they are very strong on renewables but that they are not in favour of-----
I take that point. Believe me, the planning committee, or sub-committee, of the preparatory discussions, in which we have been engaged for some months with a view to the IGA, is seized of that issue. I am just saying that I have not made up my mind whether it should be a one-size-fits-all approach. Different issues arise in different parts of the country.
The other issue relates to biomass. Surely there must be a degree of security for the person who wants to grow these crops. The disaster was the effort put into miscanthus. People who grew it were literally put out of business because there was no market for it. There must be some degree of security for the person in rural Ireland who-----
I agree. Miscanthus was a lesson. I know what happened there and that is why we have to be very careful. The bioenergy document will address this. I envisage this committee might want to talk to my Department about it.