Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 9 April 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications
Developments in Renewable Energy Technologies and Practices: SEAI
I apologise for the delay, but some issues took longer to address than we expected.
This is a meeting with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, regarding the developments in renewable energy technologies and practices and the €13.5 million better energy communities fund. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Dr. Brian Motherway, chief executive, and Mr. Declan Meally.
I draw witnesses’ attention to the fact that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee.
However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statement and any other documents witnesses have submitted to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I now call on Dr. Brian Motherway to make his opening remarks.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
I thank the Chairman and committee for their kind invitation. We prepared a short paper for the committee and rather than read it all, I will highlight a few of the main points.
SEAI is the national authority for sustainable energy. We concentrate our efforts on energy efficiency on the one hand and on renewable energy and de-carbonising our energy sources on the other. By sustainable, we mean the core imperative for Ireland to wean itself off an energy system which at the moment is heavily exposed to imported fossil fuels which we are using inefficiently and the price of which is outside our control. I would also make the point that the recent report by the inter-governmental panel on climate change reminds us very strongly that the ultimate goal of energy policy must be de-carbonisation and that our progress towards that goal must be accelerated.
I will make a few remarks about energy efficiency, renewable energy and then jobs. First, as members will be aware, energy efficiency in the home has become a thriving sector in Ireland in recent years. Thousands of people are employed in that sector and are going into homes and buildings and improving their insulation and heating systems. On behalf of the Government, we give out grants and support that work in various ways. We have supported more than 250,000 home energy upgrades in the past five years, including a strong focus on vulnerable homes. We have also given direct advice, training and support to thousands of businesses and public bodies to help them make significant savings in their spend on energy.
One area that the Chairman mentioned which I want to highlight today is our growing work with communities through a programme called Better Energy Communities, which my colleague, Mr. Declan Meally, runs on our behalf. In 2013, our funds in this area supported over 80 projects around the country which led to more than €30 million being spent directly in local communities on energy efficiency and sustainable energy measures. In our submission, we highlighted a couple of projects and provided a full list at the back. I visited a number of these projects around the country myself and the community spirit is striking, with community groups, businesses and local residents associations coming together and doing fantastic work on the ground in terms of making homes and public buildings more comfortable, reducing their energy costs and creating local employment. We believe there is a lot more potential in this area and it is one on which we continue to concentrate. The 2014 call for funding is now open and all of the details are on our website. As with all of our work, we would very much welcome a partnership with the Deputies and Senators in terms of helping us to identify suitable projects or putting people in touch with us. We remain open to conversations about anything we can do in local areas to assist in the delivery of projects.
In terms of energy efficiency as a whole, I remain convinced that there is massive additional potential for work in this area in Ireland. The particular point for Ireland, given that we import most of our energy, is that investment in energy efficiency takes money that we were previously sending abroad to buy energy from others and keeps it in local communities, spending it on local jobs, technologies and interventions. That continues to be an area we would like to exploit.
On renewable energy and starting from the policy perspective, European policy is clear that by 2050 at the latest, Europe's energy systems need to be substantially de-carbonised and renewable energy is at the centre of that. For Ireland, again because we import so much of our energy, this is a particular opportunity to stop sending money abroad to buy fuel and to exploit our own natural resources. We have particularly rich renewable energy resources and are in a position to keep money in the economy, give ourselves greater control over energy costs and reduce our carbon emissions.
As the committee is well aware, Ireland's use of renewable energy has grown steadily in the last few years. The strongest growth has been in wind energy. The simple reason for that is that Ireland is a windy country and has a rich resource. Therefore, wind energy is the cheapest form of renewable energy in Ireland at the moment. We know through our detailed analysis of the sector that our use of renewables in electricity has reduced our imports of fossil fuels by more than €1 billion in the last five years and has reduced our emissions of carbon dioxide by more than 12 million tonnes. It is important to note that wind does not add to consumer prices for electricity. In fact, in recent years our analysis of the sector shows that when gas prices are high, wind energy is actually lowering consumer prices for electricity in Ireland. That is because Ireland has one of the strongest wind energy resources in the world and wind energy is cheap and effective here.
While the evidence is clear that wind is positive for Ireland as a whole, that in no way means that we can be insensitive to local issues and concerns and there is a lot of controversy surrounding wind energy generation at the moment. It is our view that we must find ways to bring the benefits to Ireland that wind energy offers but in an appropriate and acceptable way at a local level. Good planning, local consultation and local benefit are all essential elements of that process.
Bio-energy is also a very important sector for Ireland, particularly in terms of meeting our heat needs. It has a particular benefit in bringing local supply chains for fuel into the economy, especially into rural economies, and therefore is a further example of how sustainable energy can keep money in local communities. The Government will publish a new bio-energy strategy shortly. We are looking at other areas of renewable energy, including solar electricity. We are concentrating a lot on marine energy at the moment because Ireland has a very rich energy resource off its coast. The technology is in the early stages of development so it will be a number of years before wave, tidal and offshore wind energy are making a significant contribution to Ireland's energy mix. We are working on it now and investing in Irish companies now so that when the technologies become mature, it can be a significant employment and wealth generating sector here. The focus of policy and our work in the renewable energy sphere is on meeting the 2020 targets set down under the European Union framework. This, in very broad terms, entails a doubling of our use of renewable energy of all forms - electricity, heat and transport - between now and the end of the decade.
In terms of jobs, obviously employment cuts across all aspects of sustainable energy. The first and most obvious point is that the businesses we have worked with to reduce their energy costs employ more than 300,000 people in Ireland and we have helped those companies to become at least a little more competitive by reducing the amount of energy they use. More than that, there are many exciting emerging opportunities for Irish companies in terms of providing solutions to sustainable energy issues which will find markets not just to help solve Ireland's problems, but also internationally, in the context of the technologies and services that are growing rapidly. This was very visible recently at our recent annual energy show at the RDS when we had thousands of businesses coming together to discuss the latest technologies and products that are emerging. We are working with the enterprise agencies at the moment to focus on the points in the supply chains and investment chains for sustainable energy which will offer particularly strong opportunities for Irish company involvement so that we can focus our efforts on helping companies in the most promising areas.
Undoubtedly we face very significant energy challenges in terms of our dependence on imports, our costs and the environmental impact. That means that all forms of actions on both efficiency and renewables are absolutely required, with urgency. However, we do have certain advantages in the global movement towards sustainability in energy, including our rich renewable resources and our strengths in information and communications technology and knowledge services. Progress on the ground in retrofits, better energy communities and our growth of renewable energy gives us grounds for optimism in terms of the opportunities that can emerge from the challenges that Ireland faces.
As I mentioned earlier, we have provided a full list of all of the community projects we funded last year. We will also provide members with a small brochure which highlights our work in that area.
I thank Dr. Motherway. Before I hand over to members, I wish to ask about the innovative partnerships that are referred to in the written submission, including with SuperValu, Centra, the GAA and so forth.
When I attended the delegates' presentation recently in Buswells Hotel, they explained how those partnerships works. I see housing associations mentioned in the document they have provided today, as well as a reference to my own constituency. Will the delegates outline how this process is advanced and the benefits for communities?
Dr. Motherway mentioned the controversy in regard to wind farms and the pylons issue. Some of us are very much involved in that controversy in our constituencies. He remarked that developments in this regard will have to be done in an appropriate and acceptable manner. What does he consider to be appropriate and acceptable? It is a very divisive issue, with many people being strongly opposed to these types of developments.
I have noticed a trend whereby there seems to be a much greater take-up of the better energy warmer homes schemes in urban areas compared with rural counties. Are there reasons for this discrepancy? Surely homes need to be heated and energy needs to be saved in rural areas as well as in urban areas.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
I will start with the Chairman's last question. In regard to home upgrades, those upgrades are delivered by two types of organisation, namely, private contractors that we procure through open tender or, particularly in the vulnerable sector, by a network of more than 20 community-based bodies which are usually not-for-profit community-owned organisations. Those organisations can be found in some counties and cities but not in others. We will use community-based organisations where they exist, with private contractors being used to fill in the rest.
The key issue for us - again, it is something we need the committee's help with it - is getting the word out there. This is particularly important in the case of our supports for vulnerable household, the main qualifying criterion for which is entitlement to the fuel allowance. We tend to find that where a locality has a community-based organisation, it often leads to higher uptake simply because there is higher awareness. In other instances we have to use other mechanisms to make people aware that they can come to us and ask for this service. The committee can be of assistance to us in this regard and we also co-operate with the Department of Social Protection in terms of sending out letters to targeted people. In addition, we use local media and advertising and any other means we can find to get the message out. Sometimes a trend is essentially about our success or otherwise in getting the word out to qualifying people.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
That, in my view, is often the explanation behind discrepancies in take-up between different areas. In other cases, it can be a question of patterns such as how old the homes are, what types of upgrade measures they need and so on. However, there undoubtedly are people out there who would benefit from this free service but they are not aware of it and we do not know who they are. It is an ongoing issue for us to find ways of communicating with those people.
We are well aware of the level of concern in communities across the country regarding proposals for wind farm projects. It is important to point out that there are parts of Ireland where wind energy has been developing successfully and people are living quite comfortably near wind farms. These projects are bringing local benefits in terms of rates paid to local authority, jobs created in the area and so on. However, there are plenty of other people who have concerns regarding what is proposed for their area, and those concerns are absolutely valid and must be taken on board.
Our view is that the planning process is central to all of this. Good planning is able to discern between good and bad projects. On an ongoing basis we see planning authorities approving some projects and rejecting others. We are working with those authorities on a local area renewable energy strategies model whereby we are encouraging all local authorities to have a strategy in place in advance of any given project coming to them. The model involves the devising of certain principles for good planning, which are developed through consultation in the context of the county development plan. Those principles will guide decisions as to the parts of the county or region where wind energy and bio-energy development is not acceptable for whatever reason, and where such development would be welcome.
Transparency and openness are central to this process. It is undoubtedly the case that there are places where wind farms should not be built. It is unquestionably the case that rules and regulations should be in place to make sure communities' interests are protected. I see plenty of examples around the country where these types of projects have been done well and without any controversy. People are comfortable with these developments and there are clear local benefits. If we can learn from those successes, we have much to gain from the development of wind energy in Ireland. It is a strong resource and if we can find a way to balance the benefits with the disadvantages, it remains an opportunity for us.
I ask my colleague, Mr. Meally, to respond to the Chairman's question on community initiatives.
Mr. Declan Meally:
The better energy communities initiative has grown out of our efforts to look at how communities operate and work around energy. One of the things we have learned in recent years is the importance of having a champion for such initiatives, a concept the Chairman will be very familiar with in the context of his GAA experience. The better energy communities initiative involved finding champions in local communities and community groups and seeing how we could skill them up. Last year, we found champions in many guides, including, for example, a residents' association, a co-operative society and a local authority.
A particularly innovative example of such engagement was the decision by the Musgrave Group to champion a project. The company upgraded a number of its stores and a percentage of the grant that was due to the company was donated to local GAA clubs to allow them to upgrade. The 45% contribution from the Musgrave Group was matched with a 45% grant from SEAI, with the clubs having to put up only 10%. The Musgrave Group was able to organise the project management of that across several counties with an energy supplier. Members will see from the county-by-county list that 23 shops and 22 GAA clubs benefited from this work. It was championed by the Musgrave Group and involved only one application to SEAI. A project management team co-ordinated and funded the initiative through the Musgrave Group, providing the necessary technical and project management expertise.
We have been in discussions with GAA headquarters at Croke Park to see how that model could be expanded. Some 2,000 clubs around the country could potentially benefit and we are looking at scaling up the project. Moreover, the GAA itself could even take on the role of champion itself. The initiative has been particularly successful and encompasses a broad definition in terms of what can define a community. It can be a group of similarly-minded businesses, organisations or residents, or even, as happened in Tipperary, a group of households. It is about putting together a team to champion the application to SEAI. It is proving a very successful model.
I thank the delegates for attending the meeting. We have discussed this issue with them on several occasions. In terms of energy efficiency initiatives, retrofitting and the better energy warmer homes scheme, there is a great deal of good work being done and many people are benefiting from these upgrades. Such schemes have been operating through the local partnership and Leader groups. Do the delegates envisage that continuing in the future?
Everybody has bought into renewables, but there is huge concern in regard to the lack of consultation taking place. I joined other committee members in visiting a number of wind farms and have been constantly interacting with people in regard to such projects. We have very well respected people challenging the whole wind energy initiative, as I indicated privately to the delegates when we met.
Both the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and society in general face a major challenge in the context of considering whether wind energy has a future or whether we should move to an offshore as opposed to an onshore option.
The warmer homes and retrofit schemes sponsored by the authority are excellent initiatives and they give rise to fantastic benefits. Since we last spoke to our guests, I have examined the position with regard to the community projects with which the authority is involved and obtained details relating to them in order that we might further advance some of our own projects, such as those relating to GAA clubs and so forth.
In the context of renewable energy, an overall target, to be achieved by 2020, has been set for the EU as a whole as opposed to there being individual targets for the various member states. Will this change the position regarding the level of urgency among member states in the context of achieving their targets?
Dr. Brian Motherway:
I thank the Deputy for his compliments in respect of our efficiency programmes. On the EU targets relating to renewable energy, we will wait to see the mechanism that will be proposed. The target for renewable energy is proposed to be stronger but, as the Deputy indicated, it is envisaged that it will apply at Union rather than individual member state level. We wait to see how this is going to work in practice. The underlying point for Ireland is that the proposal is for a 40% carbon reduction target. For Ireland to achieve that, there will need to be an intensification of the process of decarbonising our energy system, particularly in the context of the issues we face with regard to agriculture. Outside of EU targets and complying with them for their own sake, renewable energy is a more positive story in Ireland than is the case in many other countries. This is because the resource here is rich.
The Deputy referred to commentators questioning some aspects of renewable energy in this country, particularly, for whatever reason, that which relates to wind generation. The question I would put to them is: "What is the proposed alternative?" I presume no one is saying that we should continue to import gas, coal and oil in perpetuity and be obliged to deal with all the costs, disadvantages and emissions relating to doing so. I am in favour of exploiting our own resources and I firmly believe that wind energy is a rich and strong resource for us. However, we must ensure we exploit wind energy in an acceptable way. It is a pity that people foster myths about renewable energy sources and state, for example, that wind generation does not work or that it does not assist in saving money or reducing emissions. The evidence is clearly to the contrary. The question which then arises is how we might reap the benefits in an acceptable and appropriate way. The Deputy is absolutely correct. Challenges remain and there is a need to engage in a debate in respect of them. Even though the issue is more controversial than used to be the case, I would welcome a debate in which all of the relevant issues could be aired. We need to challenge some of the myths that exist. However, we must also accept that there are many valid local concerns which must be addressed. We always emphasise that developers, in particular, and bodies such as ours must ensure all the facts are laid bare in order that we might engage in a full and frank debate.
We are witnessing a shift in respect of our programmes. In the context of the retrofit programme, a couple of years ago we were mainly dealing with individuals who were either availing of the grants we have to offer or obtaining free services from us. It is increasingly the case that we are dealing with communities, particularly in the context of the work being done by Mr. Meally. As well as economies of scale, there are also the additional benefits in terms of the uplift to communities from an increase in employment. I certainly see this growing. All partnerships are interesting to us and we are working with Leader, residents groups, local businesses, etc., at present. We would very much welcome the committee's input on whoever else might be willing local partners for us as we try to expand our activities in this area.
I thank Dr. Motherway and Mr. Meally for their presentation. I acknowledge the work done and progress achieved by the SEAI. I was involved in one of the first community schemes in Waterford, which involved a national school coming together with a day centre for the elderly. They would never have come together were it not for the relevant SEAI scheme. They made a successful joint application and thereafter combined their resources to introduce a number of measures, including energy efficient insulation, boilers and lighting. I commend the SEAI on the scheme.
We have a long way to go in the context of informing the wider community of the further benefits of sustainable energy initiatives. A joint approach is required in this regard. At micro level, there are various grant schemes, energy awareness campaigns, etc., while at macro level there is the national energy policy. The latter is something we must address and I have no doubt we will face a number of serious challenges in so doing. At micro level, the SEAI grant aids energy efficient heating systems such as those which involve the use of geothermal and solar power, wood pellet boilers and so on. That is extremely positive, but I would be critical of two aspects. In the first instance, householders who have such systems in their homes require a degree of technical knowledge to operate them efficiently. For example, a geothermal system uses heat taken straight from underground. If such a system is not properly controlled, it can work in reverse and the householder can end up with massive electricity bills because he or she is not fully aware of what is involved in terms of controlling the system. In addition, such systems are quite expensive to install. There is a need for more work to be done in respect of this matter but I am not sure how the SEAI will proceed in that regard. I would be interesting in hearing our guests' views on the matter.
For the type of systems to which I refer to be installed, householders must have a certain amount of money to spend themselves. In view of the fact that we are in the midst of a recession, there are limits to the amounts of money people have available and there are those who may not be in a position to invest in installing energy efficient heating systems. A challenge also arises in respect of this matter. A wood pellet or a geothermal system could cost anything up to €10,000 to install. Many households have open fires, which are extremely inefficient. I understand the level of efficiency relating to them is 20%. Would the SEAI not consider introducing a scheme whereby people could replace their open fires with simple stoves? I accept they would still be burning fossil fuels but I understand the level of efficiency of such stoves is 80% in the context of heat output and the amount of fuel burned. Technical knowledge is not required to use a stove and no major financial outlay is required. If a scheme such as that were introduced, the level of energy efficiency throughout the country would increase dramatically. I accept that stoves are not totally sustainable but they are a great deal more sustainable than open fires. Would the SEAI be interested in introducing such a scheme? Large numbers of people live in rural areas and many of them, particularly the elderly, would not have an idea how to use a geothermal system or a wood pellet boiler. They would have no interest in such systems but they might be willing to install stoves if there were some incentive for doing so. I am of the view that this would give rise to our achieving much higher levels of energy efficiency.
On the macro level, there is much resistance to sources of renewable energy projects involving, for example, wind farms, and many people have lodged objections in respect of these. I am very much in favour of wind farms. There is a small wind farm in my locality which was installed approximately ten or 15 years ago. No one objected to its construction at the time. Schoolchildren in the area actually visit the facility. They draw pictures and are proud of it. Those in other communities have genuine concerns with regard to the impact of proposed wind farms, particularly those of a massive scale. We have much work to do in the context of considering how we might bring members of the public along with us and impressing upon them the fact we need to convert to renewable sources of energy and reduce our dependence on imports of fossil fuels. Will our guests indicate how we might proceed in this regard?
There is a great deal of misinformation in respect of this matter and political parties can be opportunistic, particularly at election time. We are not being responsible in the context of how we are dealing with the challenges we face. On the one hand, it is stated that we need to access more sources of renewable energy. There is a Private Members' Bill before the Dáil in which it is stated that: "Wind turbines that are of a height which is greater than 25 metres shall be located not less than a distance of ten times the height of the turbine away from any dwelling." Is it physically possible to facilitate such a set-back distance in this country? I very much doubt it. I do not wish to oblige our guests to enter the political arena but I would like to hear their views on this matter. As politicians, we need to be upfront and show leadership. We cannot, as some politicians are trying to do, be all things to everyone.
Will our guests outline their views on biomass? I recently attended a public meeting, which was covered by the media, at which a presentation was made by BW Energy on the benefits of converting Moneypoint, Ireland's largest power station, from oil to biomass.
They are telling us we would reach our 2020 targets at a single stroke if that happened. What are SEAI's views on biomass? Is it a sustainable technology on that scale? Is the body aware of the report and will it be making a response to it?
Hydro has been mentioned only briefly. I come from a place in Waterford where 300 kW of power was generated in the 19th century on the local river. There is not one kilowatt generated there now. Is there any promotion within SEAI to develop micro-hydro schemes nationally? Is it an area we should explore more? We have many rivers. I acknowledge that there are issues with habitats and fish but is there a possibility of exploiting hydro power to a greater extent if only on a community scheme level to increase renewable energy production?
Dr. Brian Motherway:
I thank the Deputy for his questions and commend him on his detailed knowledge. He asked about geothermal energy. Currently, we do not provide grant aid for geothermal, although we have in the past. Our focus now is on insulation and heating systems in the more conventional sense. However, I take the Deputy's point. Technologies including geothermal and wood pellet will become more important in the future. Our interest is in finding ways to develop markets so that on the supply side one has skilled installers, good technology and a competitive market. On the demand side, people would have a choice available in terms of costs, benefits and use. It is a challenge and a great deal of change is needed in the sector. I replaced my boiler a few years ago and got a very conservative fitter who did not want any truck with new technology. He wanted to sell me the old boiler he has always sold. We support stoves via our energy efficiency obligation scheme whereby energy retail companies must meet efficiency targets. Some of them are supporting stove installation to obtain credits in that regard. I take the Deputy's point that stoves are an interesting solution in many cases and an important step towards efficiency and cost reduction. People with stoves can use local wood supply, which is important.
The Deputy is right about the misinformation on wind. Our role is partly to publicise the facts and set out the national benefits. The scale question is important. I hear people say they are planning to build 25,000 MW and, as such, I must make it clear that the only certain plan in Ireland currently is to build another 2,500 MW of wind between now and the end of the decade to meet our 2020 target. That will double what we have now. There is clearly some uncertainty as to the nature of the intergovernmental agreement on export projects. I also hear people quoting numbers of applications to the regulator for grid connections. Most of that will never be built. Right now, we are talking about going from what we have now to a further 2,500 MW. What happens beyond 2020 depends on European policy, Irish policy, grid issues and export issues. I would like to see more wind built but it will never be on the scale some people talk about.
Biomass is a very important resource for us and will play an important part in meeting the 2020 targets. In my view, it is best to focus on heat, especially when one considers how many people are using oil to heat their homes. Biomass is a very interesting substitution for that. I have read the BW report to which the Deputy referred and I have some serious concerns about some of the statistics it contains. Some of the figures on the costs of the biomass resource are out by hundreds of millions of euro. They underestimate by using British figures on the cost of biomass. It is a very different story here. There is a wider question of where the resource would come from. The amount of resource they are talking about putting into Moneypoint is more than the entire national biomass resource we currently have. That suggests importing it from all over the world at a heavy shipping cost. Will the resource come from sustainable places? There are significant unanswered questions. There are no simple solutions like that where one thing will solve all of these complex problems.
Our biomass resource is best used for heat in my view. If one puts large amounts of biomass into a station like Moneypoint, one loses two thirds of it up the chimney as waste. If one uses it to heat a home, one captures more than 90% of the energy value. I mention a project I visited recently in Tralee where biomass was being used to heat hundreds of homes on a district basis at lower cost and very high levels of comfort. All of the resource there comes from within 20 km or 30 km of the town as opposed to coming from abroad and making other countries rich. Biomass has its place but I am not sure there is a magic, stroke-of-the-pen solution whereby we convert Moneypoint and all our problems disappear.
In the past few years, we have funded a small number of trials for micro-generation, including hydro. We found that in the right place, hydro works very well, which is what the Deputy suggested. In fact, there are not that many of those right places. The big stations like Ardnacrusha have served us very well and will continue to do so, but micro-hydro does not have huge potential in volume terms for Ireland. There are a certain number of local sites where it works excellently.
I will come back on biomass which is a very interesting point. I welcome the fact that Dr. Motherway has read the report to which I referred. My concern about these types of report is that they are widely reported in the media. SEAI and other organisations are trying to raise awareness about the facts of renewables and their potential benefits. When the likes of this misinformation gets into the public domain, does SEAI proactively engage in the debate? Is it within the organisation's remit to challenge some of the information which is presented as fact? It can do great damage to public understanding and support levels for what would be a viable, renewable solution that would help us decarbonise our energy sector. I am not asking Dr. Motherway to stray into the political arena. This information is not coming from the political arena, it is coming from community groups that commission the reports. It is important to ensure that information presented as fact in reports which are widely publicised in the public media is challenged. That is the challenge we have. If we do not challenge it, we are going nowhere.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
We take the point and endeavour to get facts out when we can. It is a struggle given the number of voices out there. There is a certain audience which is looking for a solution they feel can solve all our problems at one stroke. While there is an appetite for that, we do not have such a solution and I am not sure one exists. I take the Deputy's point that we have a role in correcting myths and disseminating facts.
SEAI is independent and has the expertise whereas politicians will be accused of spinning or having vested interests. An independent organisation like SEAI has a significant role to play in correcting the record in the interest of what we are trying to achieve as a country on renewable energy targets.
I thank the witnesses for their presentation. They are welcome to the committee.
Sustainable energy is something everybody should applaud and support. Wind energy is something everybody should applaud and support. Of course, we should reduce our use of fossil fuels. However, we are doing something wrong. We are not making the progress we should be making. Obstacles are not being overcome. We must analyse what the problems are. We must be up-front and straight about them. The role of the SEAI is to advise Government on renewable and sustainable energy options for the future. I do not know if it is a role of SEAI to work with Government to develop a vision and a strategy for Ireland in the future. Certainly, that is not there. There are books and documents which are called strategy documents but they do not set out strategies for renewable energy in Ireland. There is a list of targets, some with dates attached and some with benefits set out but no back up to support where those benefits will come from or how they are quantified.
The Minister has said that he will produce a Green Paper on energy, which should be the precursor to this strategy. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, members and the public need to be involved in that discussion. In the absence of a clear vision of the direction we want to take and community buy-in to the strategy, the impression is that energy companies are running rings around Government and that they are dictating the projects that will get the go ahead and where they will be located.
I do not want to politicise the issue in any way but even last night there was politicking with the discussion on legislation that we had put forward. It was misrepresented by one of the speakers that the Sinn Féin Party is opposed to the export of energy. We are not but we have asked Government to meet the needs of Irish people before exporting energy abroad. If we have surplus energy from non-renewable sources, we should try to get the best possible deal and export it. We are expected to believe, and I am not sure the SEAI has any impact on the issue - probably not - and the public is expected to believe that the midlands can effectively be an offshore wind farm for Britain, yet no one knows how much will be paid for it. The public is not stupid. Is it any wonder that a worthy project of promoting renewable energy is not enjoying public support when we expect the public to swallow that type of nonsense? Does it help the sale of sustainable energy in Ireland when one or more of those providing advice is a beneficiary of one of the major energy companies in the midlands? At what point does advice become lobbying in self-interest? This is what the public knows.
I take on board that there may be some information on costs in the public domain, but some economists are questioning the financial assumptions underlying wind energy development. If one removes EU and State subsidies for wind energy, exactly how much does it cost to generate energy from wind? I think the facts need to be laid out and the comparative figures, which should be independently verified, need to be presented to the public.
Will the witnesses outline their views on offshore oil and gas, the threat of hydraulic fracturing and the contribution renewable energy can make to reducing our need for energy generated by fossil fuels? I do not think we will eliminate their use but will reduce our dependence on them.
The issue of microgeneration was referred to briefly. I have met a number of people who have invested a good deal of their own money in what appear to be exciting microgeneration projects, but the show stopper has been the cost of the connection to the grid. One person wanted to convert chicken droppings to electricity to run chicken farms, which are high energy users, but he was quoted a figure in the order of €250,000 to connect to the grid, which meant he had to abandon the project. As a nation, we do not take microgeneration seriously at all.
The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland does a good job. Everybody should be behind developments in renewable energy technologies but we are doing something wrong. I am not saying the SEAI is doing something wrong but somebody is. We are not getting it right.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
I thank Deputy Colreavy for those major points. As he said, the Minister will publish a Green Paper on energy shortly. It is time for a renewal of the policy. I think it is very important that there be wide engagement as energy is a much more relevant topic than the last time a White Paper was published back in 2007. Much has changed. It is important we have a very detailed and wide debate around the issues.
The Deputy is correct about the public concern about projects where there is uncertainty, such as the midlands export projects. It seems there is a big question mark as to whether the projects will go ahead in the short term given the lack of an intergovernmental agreement. We will know soon enough whether it is likely to happen. If something does not move quickly, the projects will not be ready to deliver for 2020, which is the timeframe the directive envisages. It is difficult to see where they are going. People are right to question the benefits and financial gain from other projects. That was the debate in the intergovernmental agreement. I certainly heard the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, say he would not allow the projects to proceed without two conditions, first, that the financial benefit to Ireland is clear and significant and, second, that it is done right in terms of the engagement of the local community. I think some people, through no fault of their own, ended up hearing or believing these projects in the midlands were steaming ahead, were ready to be built tomorrow and these giant turbines were about to be erected all around them, whereas in fact that was not the case and is still not the case. Even if an intergovernmental agreement is rescued-----
With the permission of the Chair, may I comment on that point? People in the midlands have seen energy companies paying money to lease land. They suspect that deals are being done behind closed doors. These guys would not be going out and spending their money unless they knew they would get permission to erect turbines. If there is one single thing that unnerves people, it is that decisions have been made, the companies are ploughing ahead and it is a fait accompli.It will happen no matter what the Government and different agencies say.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
I have heard that too. I do not think it is a fait accompli. The Minister has stated clearly what conditions are required. If the companies have spent money on the ground, that decision is up to them, but whether they will get a return on it remains to be seen. I take on board the thrust of the Deputy's point that there is an issue of trust. Undoubtedly that has made wind energy more controversial. As I have said a number of times, renewable energy is good for Ireland and it is a pity it has become such a questioned item.
The Deputy mentioned financial beneficiaries. We, like all State bodies, have a board comprising people with different interests and expertise in this sector. Like all State bodies, we manage that through very high levels of corporate governance, which is independently certified, measured and audited. We manage any potential conflicts of interest. I stand over all the advice, analysis and evidence we put forward. It is robust and I am very happy to debate our numbers, conclusions and advice on its merits. I very much treasure our independent status because that is our role in the landscape. One hears economists saying they do not believe in wind energy but the point I make is that wind energy is good for Ireland. We have measured it in tremendous detail and have looked at real data for Ireland. When one hears people who argue otherwise, there are two common issues to be addressed. People quote studies from other countries, but that is not valid because Ireland has a richer wind resource than other countries which makes wind energy cheaper and more effective.
It is not relevant how much wind energy costs in Germany, in the United States or in any other country. One must look at the real data from Ireland.
Electricity markets are complex. Commentators quote subsidy levels and other such issues. Wind energy is given a floor-price support to give it a certain amount of certainty. When gas prices are high, as they are at present, that floor price is almost never hit which means the subsidy level to wind energy is very small. We have modelled that in full detail, looking at full annual Irish energy data showing that wind energy is not adding to consumer prices in Ireland. In fact, if anything, it is reducing them. When one does the detailed real analysis for Ireland, that is what one finds. Sometimes when one hears arguments being made, they are, maybe, using data from elsewhere or they are using simplified assumptions. There is also a role for us to continue to fight the myths and to put out the facts as we find them in our research.
We do not really have any role in offshore oil and gas, and fracking, except to say the following on Deputy Colreavy's point about the role of fossil fuels. I envisage an ultimate future where we get none of our energy from fossil fuels. That has to be the ultimate goal, if nothing else, for reason of decarbonisation. The question is: how long will it take to get there? If we are to get there, we will have to exploit a range of renewable sources, including wind, bioenergy, solar, geothermal and offshore energy. All of these will be important in the mix. Some of them are not yet ready. Some of them are starting to become ready and affordable. I would certainly see a 100% renewable system as a long-term goal. That has to be our ambition.
On Deputy Colreavy's final question about microgeneration, I have heard the same issues where some are having trouble getting connection. Unfortunately, that is not really within our power, except to say we are working with Government. We have done a lot of analysis on the costs and benefits of microgeneration. I suppose sometimes the dilemma is, for example, in the case of wind, that a large wind farm will produce wind energy cheaper than a microgeneration scale one. The question is: who bears that cost? How does one quantify the additional local benefits, for instance, in terms of the benefit to the farmer or the local community? That remains a challenge in all countries where there are economies of scale in this sector and sometimes bigger is cheaper, although not necessarily better. That remains a policy issue. I would like to see that debate taking place in the context of the new Green Paper because there are further opportunities for microgeneration in Ireland.
There are five members indicating and we will take them in two groups. If a question has been asked already, it need only be asked and answered once. The order is as follows: Deputies McEntee, O'Donovan, Harrington, Griffin and Ann Phelan.
I thank the witnesses for their presentation. I would agree with most of my colleagues that the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland does a good job and has progressed considerably in the past few years. I note Meath has benefited in four different areas from its projects last year. Possibly, a lot that is good is not seen due to the negative talk at present, in particular, on wind turbines.
Much ground has been covered by the other members. On getting the message out, Dr. Motherway stated SEAI held a show last year and targeted businesses and it has different projects going on. In the case of Joe and Mary living in their house on their own, he states some still do not know the kind of schemes SEAI has. How is SEAI disseminating the message of what the individual home owner can avail of? Is it through the local authorities? He stated SEAI does a lot of work with them anyway. How can SEAI build on that, as he stated? The figures for Meath look quite low even compared to those for the rest of the counties.
An issue that has been touched on here is the bills. Consumers relate to their bill and whether it will go up or down. We see that with the pylons where it is a significant issue, for example, in cost-benefit analysis. How is SEAI communicating to consumers? Earlier Dr. Motherway explained about the energy bills, that there are a lot of figures being thrown out about levies, these getting higher and the cost of renewable energy being subsidised by this. This is also a matter of communication. How is SEAI getting across to consumers that renewable energy is costing less? I have sat in committee meetings or briefings where it was said it is costing more to use wind energy than any other type of energy. It is a matter of communication.
On offshore and tidal energy, Dr. Motherway stated SEAI is working on it. Are we talking ten or 15 years, or how close exactly are we with that?
I will touch again on wind energy because it is a significant issue, especially in Meath. I note they are talking about an export project, but much of the work SEAI does with communities is being compromised by the lack of communication on the ground by some of these companies with which SEAI may not have any connection. How is SEAI dealing with that because that is the biggest obstacle in moving forward? I am in favour of renewable energy, I am in favour of wind energy but there are notices going round stating there will be 250 turbines in our area, and it scares residents and they run away from it. How is SEAI tackling that?
I welcome the representatives from SEAI. Returning to the two previous contributions, one aspect absent here is a bit of honesty about the opening of the interconnector between Ireland and Britain. A person plugging in his or her kettle in Manorhamilton in County Leitrim could be just as easily using energy that is produced from a nuclear reactor in Sellafield or will be using energy from a nuclear reactor to be built in Somerset. We need a bit of honesty in this. If we do not want a wind turbine but we want an interconnector and we will rely on British nuclear energy to maintain our energy needs in the future, we need to be honest as policymakers. If we are not going to have wind turbines or whatever, it is baloney to say that is fine, let us abandon all of our responsibilities, invest in a British nuclear reactor and import it from there now that we have the cable. People need to speak up and be honest that it is an Irish solution to an Irish problem to export the problem and say let the British public worry about the fallout, if any, from a nuclear reactor in the south west of England but let us import our energy and pretend that we do not have a problem. I do not accept that at all. I do not think the public accepts it either and the public has wised up to politicians who come out with that kind of baloney.
On sustainability of wind energy, one of the aspects I have often been interested in is the carbon footprint of the base of a wind turbine, that is, the amount of energy that goes into the production of cement that is used for the creation of a base. There is a significant number of wind turbines in my area and I have seen the size of these bases, which are enormous. I wonder has SEAI done an analysis on how long the wind turbine needs to turn at an optimum rate before it strips out the carbon footprint that created the foundation blocks in the first place. If one has been out to a wind farm, as I am sure the SEAI representatives have, the bases of these turbines are massive and a significant amount of energy has to go into the cement factory that produces the cement in the first place.
On what Deputy Coffey stated about stoves, there is a major anomaly in the implementation of SEAI's credit schemes. I raised this with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, previously. If Deputy Coffey and myself have two shops selling stoves side by side in Limerick but I also sell coal, briquettes, logs and turf legitimately, and Deputy McEntee comes in to me to buy a stove, I must ask her for her MPRN number. Deputy Coffey, who is not selling coal, need not. From whom does Dr. Motherway think the person will buy the stove? This is a major problem and constituents have said it to me. I relayed it to the Minister and I have probably related to SEAI as well. That is placing an impediment in the way of consumers. Dr. Motherway will state it relates to carbon credits but it does not matter where the stove is bought because once it is bought it will lead to an efficiency anyway. We know how many stoves are sold in the country because the manufacturers can tell us exactly where they are sold, but it is unfair to place that impediment in the way of one group of retailers merely because they sell briquettes outside the door whereas it is not there for the other retailers. It is something that should be looked at.
On the insulation schemes, a great deal of the older housing stock, especially in rural areas, is built of mass concrete and one cannot pump the walls. In some instances, one is limited because there are conservation officers and everybody else stating one cannot do this, that and the other. I wonder would SEAI look at novel ways of addressing houses built of mass concrete and, in some cases, stone, which, occasionally, weeps. Has it looked at that?
I raised previously with SEAI the accreditation of the installation of the external wall insulation and ensuring that it does what it says on the tin. It is not a small sum that the State is investing. In fact, it is a significant labour activation measure as well. I refer to those who are getting their walls insulated, be it with external wall or pumped insulation, or attic insulation.
Given the amount of validation and security checking required, some of the legitimate operators are worried about groups in our society who look at insulation as a way of making quick buck. The legitimate operators who have been upfront and meticulous in demonstrating to customers how their energy efficiency can be changed now find themselves competing with people who are only interested in drawing down the grant. A mechanism is needed to weed out the latchicos from the genuine people.
In regard to Deputy Colreavy's comments on chicken litter, I am pleased to inform him that my constituency has the third largest number of chickens, after counties Waterford and Monaghan, is also at the forefront in developing the technology to convert chicken litter into energy. I invite members and the SEAI to visit BHSL, which was born out of the closure of the old processing plant in Kantoher. Perhaps Deputy Colreavy might like to visit the operation to observe how it converts farm litter into a renewable source of energy. I welcome the witnesses contributions. I acknowledge that SEAI is doing very good work but I can see opportunities for improvement.
I welcome the representatives and thank them for their presentation. What role does the SEAI see itself playing in developing a microgeneration industry in this country? In light of the benefits it can offer in the areas of sustainability, carbon emissions and community development, why are we still only discussing it as a possible proposal in the Green Paper? I would expect the SEAI to take a lead role in developing a view on whether microgeneration has potential in Ireland. Are we letting policy slip in this regard? Perhaps the SEAI can play a proactive role in leading that debate. Whether in wind, biomass, hydro or hybrid systems, there is huge potential not so much for benefitting individual homes or businesses as for community gain. Communities are kicking back against the large-scale projects currently under consideration. They will not kick back against microgeneration solutions where they can see the direct benefits.
I apologise for missing the earlier part of the witnesses' contributions. What is SEAI's relationship with the Energy Regulator and how are its functions distinguished from the latter? What is its relationship with the large energy companies?
I congratulate SEAI on the warmer and better homes schemes and its champion based initiatives for communities and individual homes. By and large, they have been very successful in offering better outcomes for individuals and businesses, generating employment and developing better energy products. However, there have been problems with contractors. Each of us has encountered customers who were less than satisfied with the standard of work carried out. I regret to say that I have dealt with several cases which SEAI has been unable to resolve. Perhaps they will ultimately be dealt with through a court process. I am aware that SEAI has developed a resolution protocol but does it also provide a bonding or compensation mechanism? If a contractor decides to liquidate a company and begin again under a different operating name, the consumer will be left exposed if the SEAI continues to recommend that contractor. This is only happening in a tiny minority of cases but it needs to be dealt with.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
Communication was a common theme in members' qusetions. Deputy McEntee asked about our role in communicating on issues. It is part of our mission to present facts and engage with communities and individuals. That space is clearly crowded at present but we do our best to present facts and figures on how these measures can benefit Ireland. We also go to considerable effort to communicate the benefits of our programmes and the opportunities they offer homes and businesses to reduce their energy costs. Sometimes one meets with a business owner or manager who does not realise he or she can reduce the business's energy bills almost overnight. Communication and awareness raising is a fundamental aspect of our work. We are currently involved in advertising and local promotion of our schemes to encourage people to participate. We welcome the role played by Members in terms of their local channels of communications because they are a trusted channel in local areas. We are happy to provide them with leaflets or other material that can be distributed in newsletters because we value their support in this area.
Deputy McEntee asked when tidal and offshore energy generation will be ready for production. Tidal power generation is almost ready. A company in County Louth, OpenHydro, has received a considerable investment from France and employs more than 100 people at its manufacturing site in Greenore to produce heavy engineering equipment. However, there are relatively few sites in which tidal energy can be generated. By contrast, wave energy is a much larger resource. Deputy Feighan has been involved in work in this regard through the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. However, the technology is at least a decade away from being ready to make a contribution. There will be opportunities for Ireland when the technology is ready, which is why we are building up skills among Irish companies, consultants and engineers.
I take Deputy O'Donovan's point about our dependence on other countries' energy resources. When people argue against constructing wind turbines, I like to ask them what they would propose as an alternative. Are we going to spend our entire lives depending on fossil fuels? Every year we send €6.5 billion out of the economy to make other countries rich by buying their fossil fuels. I do not think that is sustainable.
On the carbon footprint of wind, I do not have the figures to hand other than to note that a considerable amount of concrete goes into gas, coal and nuclear generating plants, in addition to the carbon footprint of the gas and oil they consume. I am not able to make a definitive comparison but I do not think it is the case that wind has an unfavourable carbon footprint.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
The Deputy raised an interesting point. Some sales of stoves are harvesting the energy credits towards somebody's target while some are not. A person selling a stove who does not want the energy credit need not collect data, whereas a person selling a stove who wants the credit for themselves or a partner energy company must collect data. That is because if somebody buys a stove we need to know what he or she was doing before, for example, burning in an open fire or using a different system? We need to collect data to get a sense that the person is really having an efficiency impact. If it is a barrier and is sending people away, we need to examine it. I will follow up on that and try to find out what is happening.
While I accept that SEAI needs to capture data, if I do not sell a bale of briquettes it is not capturing that data. However it insists that somebody provides an meter point reference number, MPRN, by virtue of the fact that the retailer sells coal. It is a bit bonkers.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
I think the difference is that the person selling the fuel is also garnering the energy credits whereas the other person is not. The difference is whether a person has signed up to the energy credits scheme as opposed to just selling fuel. I will check that and confirm it. There are many new wall insulation products coming out. I take the Deputy's point that if one cannot pump the cavity, wall insulation becomes much more expensive and tricky in some ways. I have this in my home. We are examining different methods but some of it is down to luck regarding how one's home was built. There are new technologies and the prices are coming down driven by volume. Some four or five years ago external wall insulation was not happening in Ireland. Now, because we grant aiding it, more of it is happening, more suppliers are coming in and costs are decreasing quickly. That is part of the solution.
The Deputy raised accreditation and quality, which Deputy Harrington also raised. We are trying to raise the quality of the small building retrofit market, which does not have a great reputation for quality. Sometimes people are willing to do cash jobs and quick fixes. Raising the standards of the market takes effort. One must strike a balance where one sets quality and accreditation levels at a high enough level to raise the quality, but not so high that one is unfairly ruling people out. Because our standards are uniform across the board, if one avails of an SEAI grant the contractor must meet standards regarding quality, qualifications, tax clearance and insurance, which relates to Deputy Harrington's point.
We insist on appropriate insurance for anybody working for our schemes. There have been a small number of cases where a company has gone bust and, therefore, there is no redress for the homeowner. We must continue to address that. We have considered asking the market to develop a bond scheme similar to HomeBond. Although we have not achieved it yet, it could have a role. We try to resolve all disputes and have an appeal scheme. If Members know of cases in difficulty I ask them to bring them to our attention. We have a dedicated contact point for Members of the Oireachtas, email@example.com. We will always examine cases and try to treat them as humanely and fairly as possible, and keep the numbers as low as possible.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
Approximately 20% in the warmer homes scheme and approximately 10% or 12% in the better energy homes scheme. Every day of the week we have large numbers of inspectors inspecting homes and we deregister contractors who are persistent offenders. While this can be controversial because one might be putting somebody out of business for a couple of months as a penalty, we value quality. We are also active on the demand side. I hear anecdotally about cases where people employ a contractor they hear of through our scheme but then do a cash deal and forego the grant to avoid paying VAT. If they do that they lose all the quality assurance, legitimacy and come-back that goes with that. We try to encourage homeowners to put value on the quality and accreditation schemes. That is a long-term issue for the whole construction sector in terms of building markets in areas where there may not have been much activity in the past.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
Within our powers we do. Like every organisation, there are limits to our legal powers in terms of how companies are treated in law. We have tight inspection schemes and if we spot individuals persistently offending we try to remove them from the scheme if it is within our power. Such cases occur in all forms of company law. If we have had dealings with a company, and it becomes a different company, there are limits to our powers. We do our best to watch them.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
While I am acutely aware that we are putting our stamp, which we value very highly, on companies, we must operate within the limits of the law. We do our best and continue to focus on this area. While the Deputy acknowledged that the number of cases is very small, undoubtedly there are cases we need to deal with. We deal with them on a case-by-case basis. If members know other cases we have not dealt with well or people we have treated unfairly, we are always willing to hold our hands up and re-examine cases.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
We have no formal relationship with any energy companies. To address another question, our only formal role in energy companies is that we manage, on behalf of the Government, the energy efficiency credit schemes. We have a formal relationship with the companies which sell energy at the retail end whereby they must register with us that they are meeting their energy efficiency targets. We have no formal relationship with the wind energy generation companies directly. We participate in debates and promote wind energy, although we do not promote any particular company. Part of our mission on behalf of the Government is to promote renewable energy of all kinds. We want to see that sector thrive in an appropriate way.
In the absence of Deputy O'Donovan I accept his invitation to visit the chicken litter company. I am aware of a number of companies and that is an interesting sector for Ireland. On Deputy Harrington's question about our relationship with the regulator, we share the same parent Department with the regulator. The regulator regulates the market whereas our job is promotion, facilitation, encouraging new markets, action and investment. We work closely with the regulator because innovation often has a regulatory component. We collaborate with the regulator on modelling, analysis and research. We are part of the same family in that sense.
I take the point on microgeneration. SEAI is in favour of microgeneration and has done analysis and published reports on both the technical opportunity for microgeneration and the economic case. There comes a point where it is a question of policy decisions as to how best to support it. As I said earlier, microgeneration brings benefits that larger scale generation does not bring, but sometimes at a financial cost, and that is a policy question for policy makers.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
We have given a full and detailed analysis to the Department on what supports might be required and the levels at which they would have to be taken up. Although we have not made formal recommendations in the sense that the decisions are for the Department, we have outlined the cost-benefit analysis of different options in terms of the opportunities.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
I am not sure because the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is still considering its options. I will find out what is in the public domain and send it directly to the Deputy if I can. Yesterday I spoke at a very interesting conference in Dublin on community-owned renewable energy which involved co-operative movements from all around Europe. They made the valid point which the Deputy made that often, in terms of local ownership and acceptance, when the community is benefitting directly from such a local, bottom-up project, it can bring many benefits. We are in favour of having more of that here.
I thank the witnesses for coming. It has been a lengthy meeting and their answers have been very detailed and excellent.
That is much appreciated. I am a Kerry Deputy and many of my constituents benefit from the better energy home scheme, which is operated out of Cahirciveen and is very important to the area.
I live in a coastal area and Ireland is an island nation surrounded by waves which can be ferocious at times. Given that Scotland has companies such as Pelamis Wave Power, is there more potential for us in the future? I know the technology is ever evolving and developing, but do the witnesses feel we could be doing more than we are doing on that front?
I agree with what has been said about the stoves. I built a house five years ago with an open fireplace. I installed a stove 18 months ago and the difference is phenomenal. The savings for the amount of solid fuel used for a stove compared with an open fire are immense - I would say it is 80:20. Could SEAI make some kind of effort in that regard?
Many people have benefited from home-insulation grants for attics and walls. However, unless they qualify for the housing aid for older people schemes that the local authorities offer, they cannot get grants to upgrade their windows, as far as I am aware. I have been in homes with single-glazed windows that are years old; the house is insulated to the maximum but the windows are single-glazed windows and people simply cannot afford to upgrade. That might be the next step SEAI could consider. It certainly would be a major boost to the window manufacturing and installation industry here and would support jobs. It would definitely make sense from an insulation point of view. Next to the roof, the windows and doors are the areas of highest energy loss - although the walls may be similar. However, if they are insulated well, it is natural that the heat would escape through the windows. Perhaps that could be looked at.
A person involved in the renewable energy sector asked me about biomass heating systems. I ask the witnesses to elaborate on potential grant aid for that in the future.
I understand the witnesses are aware of technology developed by the Kerry-based company, Ultimate Cell. This is technology that reduces fuel consumption in mechanised vehicles. Originally for regular cars, I now understand the company has developed the technology to apply it to HGVs and buses. This is a very exciting development. I have one of those devices in my diesel-powered car and I have noticed savings of approximately 10%. If we could apply that to our national public transport fleet and make it readily available for people to apply to their own vehicles, we could make enormous savings in fuel importation which is a massive area of expenditure for the country. Do the witnesses see potential in this and would they be willing to pursue it further?
Most of the issues I wished to raise have been covered. What engagement does SEAI have with nursing homes? We know the heating and electricity costs for nursing homes are huge and SEAI could engage with Nursing Homes Ireland and the voluntary sector. I was happy to hear Deputy Coffey relate how he got the day centre over the line. I was involved with a nursing home and when we tried to get SEAI to do something, we ran into bureaucratic obstacles. There were questions about the structure of the nursing home and who owned it. Given that it was a voluntary nursing home, it did not qualify in some way. I ask the witnesses to consider how things could be made simpler.
On communications, I ask the witnesses to send something directly to us about the free service. SEAI is to be commended on all the work it is doing. From my experience, anybody who engages with SEAI has said it was positive.
Community resistance to renewable sources of energy is very unfortunate. I have been dealing with wind generation for a long time and I believe we have probably hit a new low with the communities dead-set against it. The positive message about what wind energy generation will do for our carbon credits and reducing our dependency on fossil fuels is lost on individual householders. While their minds are not set against it, the message about climate change seems to have gone out of the whole debate. It is all about aesthetics and everything else. However, in the long run every one of us has a responsibility to do something in this area. Each local authority has adopted a wind energy strategy, but there could be a different strategy across the border in the next county. However, climate change does not know any borders, which seems to be the difficulty we have. We certainly have a major challenge.
I would like to see SEAI's role developed in that national debate. As the independent authority, it is in a position to get the facts out there because huge mistrust has crept into all this debate. People think we are being developer-led again and they see no benefit for them, which is regrettable.
I return to the issue of the stoves. I have been contacted by a number of local authority tenants who had an oil-fired central heating system installed. Given that they are on very low incomes, they find it very hard to maintain the oil heating system. The local authority seems to have adopted the policy that if a tenant has a particular heating system, that is a fait accompli. We have had arguments with the local authority about installing wood-burning stoves, which is what the tenants want to do. However, the tenants are not able to come up with the money to buy the stove and pay for its installation. I am sure the local authorities would be able to carry out the installation, but that would come at a cost to them. Can SEAI engage more with the local authorities about that? It would be very beneficial to the tenants and lead to the kinds of energy savings we are trying to achieve.
Kilkenny County Council has advised the matter is being dealt with by the housing section of the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government. However, it should probably also go to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. The two Departments need to come up with a practical solution to the issue. It seems quite simple. SEAI could have a role to play in funding. It would help many local authority tenants.
Engagement with local authorities was mentioned. I wish to raise the issue of schools. I am aware of a school that has applied for the summer work scheme to replace windows and doors for insulation effectively. In the cold of winter it is costing the school €1,000 on oil each week. What engagement does SEAI have with schools? Schools claim if they could install double-glazing or whatever it is, they would have the money saved in a very short period.
What engagement or advice does the agency give to the Department of Education and Skills on the provision of grants to schools for projects related to energy saving?
Dr. Brian Motherway:
We work with many schools in a number of dimensions. We work directly with the Department of Education and Skills on issues such as standards and we support the summer works scheme in terms of technical content and so on. We also work directly with many schools, which we have grant aided in various ways.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
There is more to be done. Schools, local authorities and nursing homes are all areas which we are addressing in the context of the better energy communities model, which is open to much more innovative partnerships and so on. Mr. Meally will comment further on this issue and will respond to the questions around the potential for wave energy and what we are doing in respect of the transport companies.
Mr. Declan Meally:
On Deputy Griffin's questions regarding the ocean, the marine and the offshore and the opportunities in this regard, the Minister and Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resource issued the Offshore Renewable Development Plan in February. This sets out the approach and next actions in terms of moving forward. There is an acknowledgement that Scotland has done some work in this area. There is also an acknowledgement that this cannot happen without collaboration. For example, for Ireland and Scotland to be able to work together would require a structured approach to the development of wave energy. This would commence in test tanks, which we have in Cork, and then move to the next scale in Galway. Further testing would then be done in Scotland, ultimately coming back to Belmullet where we have the full force of the Atlantic. Nobody is ready for that full force of the Atlantic yet. Pelamis is currently considering stepping back to Galway, while others are considering going to Belmullet. There is an opportunity for collaboration but as stated by Mr. Motherway, getting full commercial or large scale ocean farms may take a number of years. The offshore renewable development plan brings the different Departments together on issues such as planning, grid, test sites, research, enterprise supports and infrastructure such off-coast ports and jetties. This infrastructure is key in terms of supporting the industry. In preparing for this over the next number of years, as per the approach set out in the plan, we are seen internationally as being in a very good space.
On Deputy Ann Phelan's point in regard to communities, a number of nursing homes in Kilkenny have come together and submitted joint applications. In terms of who is the champion, often it is a company that looks after heating upgrades and will bundle together the needs of the nursing homes in this regard. That have been some examples of this. We can engage with any of the nursing homes on how this can happen. They can also partner with the energy suppliers and offer the credits for the work to be upgraded to the energy supply companies willing to manage and co-ordinate the projects. There are different models available. Nursing homes can come together, with one taking the lead on behalf of the others, in making an application to us. It is not a case of one size fits all. There are different models available, which is the benefit of the communities initiative.
On Ultimate Cell in Kerry, this technology was on prominent display at our energy show this year. We have been working on this with officials from Portugal. We could look at this under the communities initiative and test and trial this technology with some of the transport companies. For example, local authority transport companies could consider taking this technology on board. Again, I encourage them to work with an energy supplier whereby these credits could be taken on board by an energy company. We spotted the opportunity in this regard and have given the company some ideas in regard to collaboration. This has opened the door to further discussions with it in relation to this technology.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
Deputy Griffin asked about biomass heating grants. We have provided a great deal of detailed economic analysis to our parent Department on the financial supports needed in that sector to meet the targets. As stated by the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, the Government is working on a bio-energy strategy, which will deal with the issue of the role of incentives, and is expected to be published shortly.
On Deputy Phelan's final point, it must be remembered that the core point of energy policy is climate change. We must look at everything through that lens. When people put forward the view that certain options are better than others or, they object to particular options, we need to focus on our long term trajectory towards playing our party in climate change. This means getting out of carbon based energy systems. As it happens, this suits Ireland because we have a rich renewable energy resource which is the energy of the future. I take on board the points made but our role in participating in that engagement and debate is realising that change is coming and that we need to find ways to make that change positive in as much as it can be.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
What is granted aided is ultimately a decision for the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, although the agency advises them on such issues. In regard to grants for windows, in the context of limited budgets and trying to find the best bang for the buck in energy terms, windows are expensive. We have not focused on that issue. We are looking at including grants for windows in the context of the efficiency credits, which means there will be a benefit indirectly. All options remain on the table in terms of what might be grant aided in the future. We advise the Government on such matters.
I thank Mr. Motherway and Mr. Meally for their presentations and answers to questions raised by members, which have been enlightening. We intend to engage in a body of work on the energy sector Green Paper and so on and may be in touch with them again in this regard.
As there is no other business we will adjourn until next Tuesday, when we will meet with the GAA on the Sky deal and other issues.