Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 11 February 2015
Committee on Transport and Communications: Select Sub-Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources
Estimates for Public Services 2015
Vote 29 - Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Revised)
We are in public session. The first item is consideration of the Revised Estimates 2015 - Vote 29 - for the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.
I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White, and his officials. This is the first occasion the Minister has come before this committee. I wish him well in his work.
The purpose of today's meeting is to consider the Revised Estimates and the supplementary performance information regarding the outputs and impacts of programme expenditure. A draft timetable for the meeting has been circulated to members. Is the timetable agreed? Agreed.
Briefing material providing details of the Revised Estimates was circulated to members. Each programme will be considered under the following headings: the context and impact indicators; key outputs; financial and human resource inputs; 2015 allocation; and targets preliminary exchange. Administration will be considered under these headings when each of the programme areas has been disposed of. I propose that questions on the programme will be taken together to which the Minister will respond in conclusion.
Does the Minister wish to make an opening statement?
I welcome the Minister and his officials. This is the Minister's first time taking the Estimates and I wish him the best of luck. The Department is almost all-encompassing at this stage. Broadband coverage is the main communications issue. People right across the country are very exasperated with broadband services and the almost never-never promise or commitment on the provision of broadband. Approximately 40% of the State has no adequate broadband service. I understand that the Department is moving closer to the view that the only reasonable or credible way of providing broadband right across the country is through a fibre system. Has the Department costed the possibility of bringing fibre to every community? What kind of investment is needed?
I refer to an application to the European Union Commission's state aid programme. Has that application been submitted to the EU Commission? What is the likely timeframe? Even though it is nearly 12 months since the next stage of the broadband plan was issued, it has not been submitted to the European Commission. People who have bought telephone and broadband bundling packages from some of the companies providing telecommunications services, such as Eircom, are very frustrated. They are not receiving an adequate service because the broadband system is not up to speed. What recourse can be provided by the Department? The communications regulator has issued very unsatisfactory communications in this regard. The main issue on the communications side is the broadband spend. What kind of money is being allocated by the Department for 2015? What is the Department's best estimate of the funding required for the provision of fibre to every community? How will it deal with complaints against telecommunications companies who are not honouring their side of the bargain?
I thank Deputy Moynihan for his insights and his questions. To reference the Estimates I remind colleagues that the 2014 allocation had allowed for an end of contract provision of €9.058 million for the NBS service-provider and an allocation of €6.2 million for schools broadband, as well as additional moneys for the separate issue of postcodes.
To deal with the national broadband plan provisions for 2015, the provision has increased from €1.3 million in 2014 to €4.1 million for 2015. To address Deputy Moynihan's question, the main reason for this increase of €2.8 million is to meet the payments required under the four new consultancies entered into in late 2014 and early 2015.
They were to cover the legal questions in respect of the national broadband plan, which is a very big project, the economic and financial questions that arose, on which the Deputy touched, and procurement and technical questions, as well as the engagement of additional external expertise. We are proceeding with that work.
Colleagues will be aware that last November I published the outcome of a mapping exercise in order that citizens, businesses and colleagues would be able to see the position on what the private sector had undertaken to deliver by the end of 2016 and, by extension, what State intervention would be required in circumstances where the private sector was not willing or in a position to provide services. The mapping exercise was critical; in fact, it was required in the context of the state aid application, to which the Deputy referred. We will have to make a state aid application under the general principle, of which colleagues will be aware. State aid rules – EU-wide rules – prohibit the State from intervening in the provision of services where the private or commercial sector is delivering or intends to deliver a service. We have not yet made our state aid application, but I expect it to be made sometime mid-year. We are not yet ready to make the application. We are doing an enormous amount of work on a daily basis in the Department and with our external advisers in looking at financial, governance, legal and contract issues. Will there be one or several contracts in terms of the State's intervention? Who will own the network, which will be the equivalent of 100,000 km of road, if one were to think of it as a roads system? An enormous amount of work needs to be done this year on the state aid application to take us to the stage to which we need to get by the end of the year to go to tender to find a contractor or contractors to build the network. That is the way we need to do it to do it properly.
Under state aid rules, we must maintain neutrality. The European Union does not allow us to nominate a technology. Having said that, anybody who reads the literature and has an understanding of broadband knows that the technology of choice in delivering high quality broadband is fibre. I am certainly very conscious of this and the thinking generally on what is best technically to deliver high speed quality broadband across the country. Fibre has been and is the technology of choice. However, I cannot make a definitive call on the technology to be used because state aid rules and the European Union do not allow me to do so.
I refer to the timeframe involved. The application seeking state aid approval will be sent to the European Commission mid-year. I stress that this issue is beyond urgent in communities everybody present and I represent. The application will be made mid-year, but has the Minister received an indication from the European Commission as to when a decision will be made on the matter?
That is a very fair question. I agree with the Deputy in placing the emphasis on the timelines involved. We have imposed on ourselves very exacting month-by-month timelines. I will ensure the Deputy and colleagues will receive a monthly report on where we are in the various stages we need to go through. The answer to the Deputy's question on state aid is that once the application is made, we will, to some extent, be at the mercy of the European Commission. We will have to wait for it to give its response to the application. I spoke briefly to Commissioner Oettinger in the past three weeks when I was in Brussels and again flagged the importance of this project, in which the European Commission is very interested. It is watching very closely because it can see we have got our act together in terms of how precisely we want to deliver on our plan. I expect and will urge it to expedite our application when it receives it. The Deputy's frustration will translate into action on the part of the Department. We will deliver.
I do not want to put a timeframe on it, but we should be exerting whatever pressure we can on the European Commission to make a decision as quickly as possible. I expect the decision to be that it will allow state aid to be given. What timeframe does the Department envisage after we receive approval from the European Commission?
We can do some work in parallel. When we make the submission for state aid approval, the clock does not have to stop. I expect and will want to go to tender at the end of the year. I do not believe we will have to stop or pause the timetable in order to wait for the response to the state aid application. I hope to make the application mid-year, perhaps in the summer, and in the meantime drive on towards the tender process which I hope we will be able to commence in December. That is my aspiration. One does not have to stop the other.
This infrastructural project is as crucial as the electricity project in the 1950s and the telephones project in the late 1970s and 1980s. If we have a cobbled-together scheme, we will be selling 40% of the population short. We need to move forward with a proper and foolproof broadband system.
I endorse fully what the Deputy has said because in order to do this right, we need to do it in the way I have described. We need to go through each of the stages I have outlined and go to tender, with a roll-out in 2016. Doing it right is the most important aspect. Adopting an approach simply to fill in gaps in a haphazard way will not solve the problem. It must be undertaken as one big project. I undertake to keep Deputies closely informed on each stage along the way. I will do this on a monthly basis, not just when I have an opportunity to appear before the committee. I will make a monthly report available to Deputies.
I would prefer not to put a cost figure on it because I do not want to start the bidding process today. However, I hope we can look to a number of sources of financing and that we are not just talking about the Exchequer writing a big cheque. We have spoken to the European Commission; the Juncker moneys have come on stream; we have the European Investment Bank and even considered the World Bank. Domestically, we have the Strategic Investment Bank, while I have spoken to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform about how we can pull together the different sources of funding for the project. However, if the Deputy will indulge me, I do not think I will put a figure on it today.
On the roll-out of rural broadband services, I understand what the Minister has said that a case must be made to the European Commission and that not much can be predicted pending the outcome of that submission. Does that mean no financial provision will be made in terms of Government expenditure until such time as the European Commission gives the green light? I am thinking, in particular, about the roll-out of rural broadband services.
I think what the Deputy is driving at is the need for a large quantum of money in the budget this year for the national broadband plan.
It would not, in fact, be spent this year because, as I have indicated to Deputies, we have a programme of work this year that will put us in a position where we will be able to start rolling out the plan next year and in the short period beyond. Even if I had a big pile of money in the budget this year for the national broadband plan, it would not be possible to spend it because we will not have a contractor in place until next year. I have had a number of meetings with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. We are discussing the multi-annual capital plan with a view to expenditure in 2016 and 2017, to which the Government is fully committed. It is included in the statement of Government priorities from last summer. It is absolutely a priority across government.
I thank the Minister for his presentation. I have read a few lovely flashy documents about the roll-out of broadband. I see that two service suppliers are talking about services in certain areas. Certain towns have been earmarked, but the problem is that when one rings the people concerned to ask them for a date, one is told that every town will have a service by May or June 2016. I cannot understand how it is not possible to say, as in any walk of life, whether, according to the work programme, it will be October this year that such a town will have a service or February next year when another will a service. The boat will stop in May or June 2016. It would be nice for people in various parts of the country to know whether the service will upgraded in such a town in the west-----
It is a problem. There is an urgent need for a roll-out of broadband to all rural areas. It is one of the critical pieces of infrastructure that will ensure the revival of rural areas. I made the Minister aware a few days ago of companies that were in constant contact with other countries. The simple fact is that we will lose jobs. When does the Minister envisage broadband services being rolled out throughout the country from beginning to end?
If we get the contractors in place in 2016, it will take somewhere between three and five years for the rest of the country to be covered – the figure of 100,000 km I mentioned. Whoever the unfortunate person will be, the last person in the country to benefit will receive broadband by 2020. I expect, once the successful contractor or contractors are in place, the roll-out of the plan to start in 2016. That is the timetable.
To respond to the Deputy’s points about existing problems with the timetables of commercial operators, unfortunately, I cannot direct them. That is not the position we are in, but the mapping exercise shows what the commercial sector will do between now and the end of 2016. I know that is not a full answer to the Deputy’s questions, but he can say to a constituent or anyone else in the country who is wondering how he or she will fare and how he or she is fixed in terms of broadband that if he or she is to be supplied by the private sector, it will happen before the end of 2016, at a minimum 30 Mbps. That is important also because many people have access to broadband but not at adequate speeds. In fact, practically everybody has access to some broadband service, but it is not adequate. The private sector is to deliver a minimum figure of 30 Mbps by the end of 2016. The map is prospective to the end of 2016. If one is in the blue area, the private sector will deliver a service; it is up to the State to deliver the rest.
To return to Deputy Michael Moynihan’s point, it is about the State doing it properly once and for all. The Deputy gave me examples of school, educational, social and cultural use, to say nothing about the business opportunities in rural areas to create and maintain businesses. Tourism is an obvious sector. There are many other people in new innovative areas of business who depend on broadband, not just to download from the system but also to upload. We understand what the need is, but we want to do it properly. The private sector has given an undertaking to deliver between now and the end of 2016. Individual operational problems are a matter for the private operators to deal with, subject to the regulator in certain instances where undertakings have been given or contractual arrangements are not being followed. It is up to the private sector to do what it is supposed to do for its customers.
I am sorry that I missed the start of the meeting. I echo the concerns being expressed in predominantly rural constituencies. The difficulties faced by businesses and householders alike are enormous because of the lack of proper broadband provision. I use the line that we are only as strong as the slowest connection and, unfortunately, there are a lot of slow connections around the country.
One of the Minister’s first engagements was in Cahersiveen to officially launch the fibre broadband service in the town. It is of enormous help in that part of County Kerry, but like in so many other parts of the country when one travels a couple of miles outside the town, there is literally no reception. In the Black Valley near Killarney, the last part of the country to receive an electricity supply, people are still writing to me to say their telephone connections are not up to standard. We have lagged very far behind. It dates back to the 28th Dáil and the privatisation of the telecommunications infrastructure. It is a legacy issue. I am not taking a political shot, but it was a huge mistake, from which we must learn, no matter which policy area we are examining. It is urgent that we move forward. I know that we want to get it right, but we have learned that if one tries to rush things, they will not work out. It is vital that we get it right and have it done as soon as possible. I get a sense of helplessness from people whose service from their providers is not of a good enough standard in terms of their contact with the regulator. They do not believe the regulator is responding adequately to their concerns and complaints. This is something I have heard on many fronts. There is a substandard service and when people go to the regulator, they do not make much progress or get any joy from it. This matter must be addressed. It is one thing not to have a good enough service, but when one cannot progress a complaint, one is really in trouble.
I can only agree with what the Deputy has said and the examples given. People do need to bring the extent to which current services are not up to scratch to the attention of the commercial operators. Occasionally, colleagues in this room and others bring the matter to my attention. As I indicated, I have no direct responsibility for the operation of commercial companies. However, from time to time we meet them and communicate concerns in a general sense. The regulator has a critically important role to play in that regard. If there is anything I can usefully do as Minister in the interim, leaving aside the big picture about which we have been talking, I will try to do it, but my main concentration is on fixing the problem once and for all in order that whoever will be sitting in my position or that of any of the Deputies across from me in three years' time or at the end of the next Oireachtas in five years' time will not be saying we did a half-baked job, that we did not do it properly or that we did not take steps to ensure coverage was provided for everyone in rural areas, in particular.
The launch of Eircode is due to take place in quarter two of 2015. I still struggle to understand the reason we are spending so much on the system and why it is being described as the best system in the world. One thing has become clear: if it is to be used as a system beyond a postal and delivery aid, it will depend on a major clean-up of databases in all Departments.
We are probably talking about years, if not decades, before it is the system some people think it has the potential to become. Have other Departments made any financial provision to prepare for using Eircode as a tool in managing their operations, as was envisaged by the architects of the system?
There was a reduction this year in the provision for Eircode and the money required to deal with exactly the point the Deputy identified, namely, to ensure that public sector database are fit for purpose for this project, because that has already been done. Provision was made for that work in previous years, including last year in particular, and the work has been substantially completed across the public sector. The Deputy is correct that it needs to be done in order for the Eircode system to work.
The contract for the development and roll-out of the national postcode system was signed in December 2013 after a full public procurement process. The actual design was approved by the Government in April 2014. A short piece of legislation will be prepared in the coming weeks to deal with data protection issues. We can realistically hold to the goal in the timetable of delivering this by the summer.
If members are happy with programme A, we will move on to programme B, broadcasting. I note that the grant to RTE for broadcast licence fees is increasing from €181 million to €185 million. I presume that is because more television licence fees were collected. In that context, the Minister commented recently on the new broadcasting charges. He might update us further on that topic.
The increase in the 2015 Estimate over 2014 takes account of the proposed legislative changes that will allow An Post to access the subscription databases held by service providers such as Sky and UPC. Over the course of the year, we will be introducing legislation to permit access to those databases because An Post, as the licence fee collecting agent, needs to be able to recover licence fees from everybody who is required to pay it. My predecessor, Deputy Rabbitte, made the point that it would be extremely useful to An Post if it could access the databases of persons who own television sets.
The programme for Government made a commitment to replace the television licence fee with a household-based broadcasting charge. We have looked very closely at developments in other countries and, if I am not mistaken, this committee's equivalent in the House of Commons investigated this issue recently. Other countries are also considering the idea of moving away from a device-specific charge to one that is household-based. I do not think we are in a position yet to introduce a household broadcast charge. We would have to build public understanding and acceptance for such a charge. I have previously pointed out this will not be a new or additional charge, but sometimes in the broad cacophony of debate in the echo chamber, that message does not get across. We need to build public acceptance for a broadcasting charge. Public service broadcasting is critical to our democracy and it should be funded in a robust and stable fashion. There is merit to a broadcasting charge but I do not see it being introduced in 2016. We should look to develop and model it in the medium term, based on the experience in other countries.
In regard to the distribution of revenue from the television licence fee, independent broadcasters argue they provide services that are as good as the national broadcaster and do so on a shoestring budget. It is difficult to defend the current arrangement when one considers the local radio stations. Any discussion of the new broadcasting charge needs to include the fundamental question of how it is going to be distributed. Earlier today we discussed a range of issues with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. We have to decide how this fund will be spent in the future.
The Independent Broadcasters of Ireland has made that case in respect of the television licence fee. I am aware of the huge contribution made by the independent broadcasting sector. Deputy Moynihan referred to independent local radio, which is of critical importance. In 1988 or 1989, the Deputy's colleagues introduced a new legislative basis for independent broadcasting which gave rise to a degree of controversy at the time but which has since bedded down quite well. We now have a lively public sector alongside an equally lively private sector in broadcasting. We need to maintain both sectors.
RTE has had a dual funding model since the early 1960s. The decision to establish a sound and vision fund was one change in that regard. A percentage of proceeds from the licence fee is made available under the fund for programming that is not directly produced by RTE. I support the sound and vision fund and we have recently announced a new phase of it. The question of redistributing revenue from the licence fee away from the public sector to include the private sector is more difficult to justify. If we are to have a robust public broadcasting sector, it needs stable funding. However, I am open to discussing the issue with the IBI.
I am uncomfortable with the idea of the zero sum, that we have to take from one to give to the other. I would rather see the private broadcasters having the comfort of knowing they can have access to advertising revenue and can function in the marketplace alongside RTE and that similarly RTE has the stability of the revenue from the licence fee. However, because we are in a relatively small country of 4.5 million people, it will never be realistic for RTE to be like the BBC, solely funded from the licence fee. I cannot see that being realistic, certainly not in the short term.
The Chair asked a question about licence fees that I was going to ask. I agree with Deputy Moynihan. What we are looking at here is re-examining the definition of public service broadcasting. It may not always be national broadcasting, because there is a local public service that is going on and is capable of going on as well. Are there any discussions with RTE or other stations about specially commissioned programmes in the run-up to 2016?
Editorial decisions and programming are a matter for the broadcasters themselves. There is an interest in RTE in this important event in 2016. I am old enough to remember what was done in 1966. The television programmes about commemoration were extremely important. Television, radio and all media have a huge role in this. The Government has been looking closely at the commemoration events and has a programme in place in that regard. I encourage RTE and all the broadcasters to participate in that. From my own informal discussions with the chair of RTE, I know the broadcaster would be amenable to what the Deputy is saying and will look at it itself. There is a new board in place now with some very interesting people on it in the context of the issue the Deputy raises.
The amount of sports coverage TG4 does is a credit to it. Should the likes of TG4 be promoted even more in support of the Irish language and given the good value viewing it provides, especially to people who are interested in sport?
I strongly agree with Deputy Fitzmaurice. TG4 does enormous work, principally for the language, which was the basis for its establishment. It does this right across sport in particular and in some other areas the other broadcasters miss out on or, for scheduling or other reasons, do not accord as high a priority. TG4 has been very innovative and I agree with the Deputy that this is especially the case in the area of sport. I travelled to Baile na hAbhann just before Christmas and met the board. I had a good discussion with its members about their priorities and about the station. It is a gem in the broadcasting landscape and I am very supportive of it.
Our committee is going to look at prices and so forth. Is the Department the parent funder of the Commission for Energy Regulation? Does that come from the Minister's Department's budget? How much money is being spent on research and development for energy or alternative sources of energy, particularly biomass? I have looked at Drax in the UK. It constitutes 10% of the UK energy market. Is there any serious examination of biomass in this country and smaller units throughout Europe that are using timber and other sources to generate energy?
I have a major issue with the Commission for Energy Regulation. It is doing the job it has, but does it require more powers? Is the Department the parent funder? What money is being spent on research and development on biomass? How much is being spent on the Department's subsidy for wind energy? Is there concern within the Department at the moment about that subsidy, that it would end when wind farms are coming onto the system in future? Is an alternative being considered or is the grid already saturated or likely to be saturated in the next while in relation to wind energy?
The breakdown in respect of the estimate under subhead C5 deals with the energy research programmes. The Deputy will see that in respect of renewable energy research, development and deployment, there is a figure of €1.2 million. There is provision of €4.75 million for ocean energy development, a very important and exciting area. The energy policy and statistical support unit, which is also important, has €400,000. IMERC, the facility in Cork with which the Deputy would be familiar, is allocated €1.16 million. I was there a few weeks ago and it is doing incredible work. For the International Energy Research Centre the figure is €1 million. INTERREG is allocated €400,000. The Economic and Social Research Institute, which assists us, is allocated €150,000. I will return to those issues if the Deputy would like. The Commission for Energy Regulation is funded through an industry levy, not by the Department.
We put a great deal of money into it in recent years, and rightly so. There are huge opportunities there and potential for the future. As a relatively small island country, the best contribution we can make to that sector at the moment is through research. We have excellent people in IMERC in Cork and we are trying to fund that as best we can. We want to bring on bioenergy. Everybody is committed to increasing renewables in our system and we must do that. Wind has been important and very cost-effective, but it is only one contribution. Bioenergy is very important. We published a draft bioenergy plan in 2014, which gives the broader context for the bioenergy sector. We reckon it will contribute half our renewable energy target. That is the objective.
If I am not mistaken, by the end of the target period to 2020. We expect half the renewable target to be attributable to bioenergy. That is important. The Deputy is pressing that agenda and he is right. Wind has been cost-effective. It has not been without controversy. Bioenergy must feature.
Leaving the controversy and the concerns of local communities about wind energy to one side, is there not a cost being expended by the State to provide a network at this point if more wind is going to come on the system. Is there not more money to be spent by the State, either by the Minister's Department, or by EirGrid or others? It will require investment by the State to take this wind energy.
Has the ESB the system in place or is massive funding need to upgrade the system to continue with this?
When we look at the cost-benefit figures for all of the different energy sources - wind, biomass, solar, etc. - we include in our analysis everything the Deputy has mentioned, including the cost of infrastructure. We do not just look at the cost to the State of the support mechanisms, the REFIT system and the incentives. Even when we factor in the grid and all of the infrastructure - the whole kit we need to get the energy from one place to another - it is clear that wind has proven to be the most cost-effective of the sources we have. It is not the only source, but it has proven itself in recent years as being the most cost-effective.
We are not always comparing like with like. The Deputy may look at another country that has moved beyond the position here and has decided it has gone far enough. We must look at what stage other countries have reached. Wind cannot be their sole energy source. I expect we will reach a stage where we decide we have reached the maximum we can get from wind and must look at other sources. We are doing that and the reason we brought forward the bioenergy plan was to ensure that we do not just discuss developing wind but also discuss other sources and elements. This is the reason the Department's forthcoming White Paper is so important. I may sound like a broken record when dealing with parliamentary questions when I constantly invite colleagues to participate in our White Paper debate in order that we can consider how best to balance all the different sources.
I have come to this issue without any prejudice or background. I look at the issue completely dispassionately in the interest of what is best for the country. I hear what is said to me about wind, but I also want to bring forward biomass. I also met solar energy advocates yesterday. If colleagues wish to participate in the energy debate, and I am sure many will despite being very busy, we must consider the best source of energy supply for Ireland in the long term and how best to fund it. The REFIT system works through a public service obligation and is funded through a levy that goes onto our bills. That is the system we have currently. Should we continue with this system or are there other ways of dealing with the issue? This is not funding from the Department. We do not use Exchequer moneys from the Estimates to subsidise this.
That is right. We have targets in terms of renewable energy to achieve by 2020 and we have made commitments as a country. We must decarbonise our economy. We have come through a traumatic economic crisis which has had an impact on what we have been able to do, but we are back on our feet. I believe the country should contribute to the broader global agenda on combating climate change. I attended the conference in Lima in November and a speaker there made a stark point, that every economy in the world will have to adjust, whether rich, poor or in between. Every economy must adjust its economic model to decarbonise its economy. It is no exaggeration to say that otherwise, within a generation, we will face a catastrophe. We must do this, but we must do it in a planned and fair way. The targets we in this country are asked to shoulder should be fair vis-à-visother countries. The Taoiseach and others have been in discussion with our European partners to ensure they are fair, but we must move forward on them.
I wish to make a number of points. The oil market is very volatile currently, but the renewable energy market is also very volatile. It can be very difficult to predict what will happen next year, let alone in ten or 20 years' time. Is the Minister satisfied his Department and the CER have enough energy economists looking into the crystal ball and predicting what will happen down the line? I know how difficult that is.
Page 29 of the documentation refers to the increased levels of CO2 avoided due to the use of renewable energy. However, the financial value of that avoidance reduced from €47 million in 2011 to €16 million in 2013. I do not understand how that can be the case. It does not make sense.
The number of low-income homes implementing energy-efficient measures has reduced from 12,000 in 2014 to 7,475 in 2015. This is disappointing. Is there any double counting in those figures? Was the 12,000 figure for 2014 the actual output or the then planned output? What is the actual output?
My final question concerns an issue I have raised previously, micro energy generating projects and the cost of linking to the grid. I believe the cost of linking is an impediment to these projects. I spoke last night to a chap who was talking about setting up what would be a nice industry in Sligo which he wants to be totally self-sufficient in terms of renewable energy generation and use. I am aware from previous discussions with a person in Monaghan that he not only had a self-sufficient solution to renewable energy but also to waste management but could not proceed with his project because of the cost of linking to the grid. Are there any serious discussions taking place, as distinct from aspirations, in terms of encouraging and facilitating micro energy generation projects?
We want to encourage micro generation. We also want to encourage the involvement of individuals and communities in improving the way we manage our energy and develop energy projects. The Deputy will agree with me that one of the advantages of micro generation and community energy projects is that people in local areas see energy, energy production, energy use and efficiency as something that is important for them rather than just something the State is imposing on them as a requirement.
This lack of understanding is the problem with our current debate and we are all - State agencies and Government - somewhat responsible for this. We have ended up in a situation where too many people feel victims of energy policy rather than participants in it with an opportunity to have an input into the policy and, perhaps, to produce energy-efficient themselves, whether on farms or in local communities. We will get far more engagement from local communities in the big challenge of energy if we provide for such projects as the Deputy has mentioned. I have discussed this in the Department and have pressed officials on the issue. A significant component of our thinking in the White Paper due this summer, following the Green Paper we had last year, concerns how we can engage local communities, not just in debate but in projects that have meaning for the community and with which they can work.
I met representatives from Energy Co-operatives Ireland last week and they are promoting and pressing this agenda. They made submissions to the Green Paper and want to engage with us. We must do that. We want to talk as much about the energy citizen and community as opposed to just having a Department policy that is imposed on people as if they are victims.
That is what we want to do. I will try to answer some of the other questions. The Deputy asked a good question in respect of expertise. He asked whether the Department and the CER have a sufficient number of technical experts. I do not believe we have had enough, but in this year's provision we have clearance to employ new experts in the area of energy and energy economics and all of the professional and technical areas so as to be able to build a proper policy for the country. We have already employed some new people this year and will employ more. The CER also has clearance to employ more staff. It needs more staff to do this job for the community.
The Deputy queried the component costs of energy prices. The carbon price has reduced across the board.
There has been a fall this year in the provision for works under the better energy programmes. Last year, under the Government stimulus programme, we got additional funding of the order of €30 million for 2014, which we put to very good use. That one-off stimulus of €30 million is gone, and even though we got an additional €10 million, if I am not mistaken, the provision shows a net drop of €20 million on last year's figures. If the Deputy is asking me whether I think the better energy programmes and all the SEAI project work is important, I can tell him, yes, it is critically important that people's homes, businesses and public building are energy efficient. As public representatives we need to ensure that we render public and private buildings energy efficient so that the cost of energy will decrease in the future. We should not, as the adage goes, be putting the coal up the chimney. We need to ensure we reduce dependence not only on imported fossil fuels but on all energy sources. We should think about reducing energy consumption. The energy companies might not necessarily like to hear us say that. We want a growing economy, but we want to try to ensure we decrease our use of energy where we can.
I presume the Minister works in liaison with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. When will the new planning guidelines for wind turbines come into force? Families have been very distressed by the granting of planning permission for these turbines. It is causing major problems.
There are people who propose to generate energy - who have made their application to join the national grid and are in line to do so - who are not progressing their projects, yet they are holding their positions in the queue. Is there a case for setting conditions for applications to join the national grid such that the applicant must show that he or she has the money to complete the project within an agreed timeframe? The present arrangement is akin to bed blocking in hospitals, as it blocks new entrants.
I have talked to people in Bord na Móna about growing willow and other crops for biomass. The reality is that our timber industry cannot produce enough trees to supply the sawmills, not to mind using them for something else.
The price of electricity is very important. Other countries can produce electricity more cheaply than Ireland, but they have moved away from wind energy, while we are subsidising it. Has the Minister a roadmap for bringing down the price of electricity to ensure our economy is more competitive, which will help businesses to create more jobs? Let me be clear: I do not buy into paying levies to subsidise energy production that is costing us jobs.
My first point will not endear me to the Deputy, but to achieve the targets that we regard as important, in order to decarbonise our economy, irrespective of which energy sources we use to replace it, there will be a cost. It will not be possible to do it for nothing. The approach we have taken is to do it through refit incentives and support schemes. The Deputy is correct if he is saying that we should be vigilant and careful to ensure that the policy mix is right and that if we get to a stage at which the supports for one particular energy source are no longer justified, we should switch from that. Of course that is right. Let me sound a note of caution: in order to achieve our objectives, there will be a cost. The question is who will bear it. Will it be the Exchequer, the consumer or the business? It may not be a long-term cost and it may taper off at a certain stage when we have reduced our dependence on fossil fuels permanently, but there will continue to be a cost.
To address the Deputy's question on comparators for Ireland, let me draw his attention to a report published by the Council of European Energy Regulators in January 2015, which noted that for 2012 Ireland had an average electricity support, per unit of gross electricity produced, of €2.03 per megawatt, versus an average across the 22 countries assessed of €13.68 per megawatt. Only two countries, Finland and Norway, had lower supports than Ireland. It is important to put the issues in context. People say that other countries are turning away from generating wind energy, but no two countries in Europe are exactly the same. Some have done more and others have done a lot less in terms of wind energy. What is required is a mix. If we move away from one source, we must think of what we are replacing it with. Each and every source of energy has an issue. The Deputy mentioned biomass, and if I am interpreting him correctly, he said the sheer quantity of timber required was enormous. That is an obstacle to the bigger picture for biomass. Some of the other inputs are easier to advance through Government policy. We have to be conscious that the Drax power station type model requires enormous inputs of wood, and that is an issue with biomass. We have already touched on the issues that arise from wind energy. I would like to see solar energy advancing, but there are obstacles and issues with each and every replacement source of energy.
Deputy Fitzmaurice asked two questions about the national grid. First, it is a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to issue guidelines, but obviously my officials and I have been in contact with the Minister, Deputy Kelly, and his officials, as well as the SEAI, and we are looking at the review of wind energy guidelines in respect of noise, proximity and shadow flicker. It is proposed to update the relevant sections of the existing guidelines on each of these specific issues. A number of technical appendices will be developed to assist planning authorities on noise assessment, monitoring and the setting of planning conditions. Draft guidelines, as the Deputies will be aware, were published in December 2013 for public consultation. After deep consideration of the various submissions and the modelling that arises from that, the revisions to the guidelines that the Deputy asked me about will be finalised and will be issued to planning authorities under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act. I believe that will be done in the early part of 2015, although I cannot give the Deputy a precise date. Ultimately, it is a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government.
I think it would be worthwhile to set aside money to address the greatest waste of solid fuel, the open fireplace in domestic dwellings.
Something simple could be done, for example, grant-aiding the replacement of open fireplaces with solid fuel stoves, although not necessarily wood-burning stoves. If we are to use fossil fuels, which is the case for some, we could reduce the amount by as much as 70% or 80% by using solid fuel stoves. As far as I am aware, no grant assistance is available for this. At least, that was the case the last time I asked. The idea could be explored and many would opt for it. It does not involve a major system conversion; it is just a case of installing a stove where there is a fireplace. It could be a major help.
It covers a raft of issues. We have had meetings to discuss the issue of hydraulic fracking. What money is the Department spending on research into fracking?
In discussing natural resources the other old chestnut is oil and gas. We have been hoping for generations to find fields off the coast. Last year it seemed that some of the fields to the south west had great potential, but that hope evaporated. How much money is being spent by the Department on encouraging explorers in this regard? Commercial interests will only go where they believe they will find something. Perhaps the Minister might comment on the question of hydraulic fracturing also.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gcoiste as ucht an cuireadh chuig an gcruinniú seo.
The EPA-sponsored survey involves many stakeholders in Northern Ireland, as well as the Department. It is in the process of being carried out and due for publication, possibly in mid-2016. On the question of how much it will cost, we have in mind a figure in the order of €1 million. Importantly, the consultation process did not just consider the potential environmental health impact but also the human health impact. Many of the submissions received, including from Deputy Michael Colreavy's part of the world in counties Sligo, Leitrim and Cavan, asked for there to be someone on the group with a health competency. I am delighted that there is someone on it with that expertise, as the survey's two major pillars will be to consider the environmental and health impacts.
Stemming from a number of public meetings that we held in Sligo last summer, I also asked for some feedback during the process, instead of having to wait two years for the results. I am delighted that there is a dedicated information-sharing website. We will be able to furnish the Deputy with the details. I am also hoping for a mid-term review to be carried out in whatever form in a couple of weeks time.
Regarding petroleum, a number of initiatives are ongoing. The Department's expenditure is on promotion because we need to get companies interested. Thankfully, there is momentum within the industry, given the new Atlantic licensing round that will close in 2015. We will not be in a position to say how real the momentum is until the close of the round on the Atlantic margins, but the feedback from companies has been steady. After decades, there have only been four finds, but we must consider the geography of what is available to us. In a European perspective, Ireland is the fourth largest country if the undersea landmass off the south and south-west coasts is included. Ireland is larger than Germany, although not as large as Portugal, France and Spain. The Department is focusing a great deal of its energy on this front, particularly via the Geological Survey of Ireland and the INFOMAR project. The large amount of research involved is being undertaken at considerable expense. There is a partnership between the Government and industry, with the main tenets being transparency, openness and accountability, but the undersea landmass available to us has resource potential.
Reverting to the contribution of unconventional systems of extraction and exploration on land and without undermining the independence of the EPA-sponsored analysis, we have a great deal of territory under the sea that can be explored. Obviously, it will depend on companies' exploratory finds. The Minister has specific responsibility for the Corrib field. I hope the first gas supply will start towards the end of the second quarter of this year. In terms of our reliance on fossil fuels, we import 100% of our oil and 95% of our gas. With the new Corrib gas supply coming on stream in mid-2015, we could meet as much as 42% of our own gas needs.
Yes. How close are the communications between us and the Northern Ireland authorities? The pace of developments in Antrim does not seem to take into account the fact that the EPA is conducting a study in the South and that a report will issue in mid-2016. Many people are concerned that decisions will be made in advance of the issuance of that report, which would call into question the value of the joint approach. What communications does the Minister of State's Department have with its sister Department at Stormont?
As the Deputy will be aware, the steering committee is broad and extends North and South; therefore, Northern Ireland is represented. The committee is the mechanism by which the information is being gathered. The Northern Irish representatives will have the same access to information as their Southern counterparts during the process. North-South political mechanisms allow Ministers from both jurisdictions opportunities to examine genuine and single-tier North-South issues affecting Border areas.
There is an opportunity for the North-South Ministerial Council to be kept informed throughout this process. It will also be an opportunity for politicians, both North and South, to actively engage during the process. Closer to home, as a former chairman, I think there are possibilities available through the Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I have spoken to my colleague, Deputy Frank Feighan, about this. We have representation North and South, albeit reduced to one or two political parties. We do not have global political representation from the North. However, there is a conduit and a mechanism for North-South input. With an issue as important as fracking, we should use all the political mechanisms we have available to us. If Deputy Colreavy was to formally put it to his party colleagues to get in touch with Deputy Feighan, I have no doubt Deputy Feighan would be eager to help and assist in the matter.
I do not know if this comes within the remit of the Minister, but I have seen businesses operating where there is no gas on the pipeline and the opposite where they are connected to it. Is there any strategy in place in respect of smaller towns, not very small towns but smaller towns, where there may be fairly large businesses employing a good few people, to bring the gas network to these areas? Does the Minister envisage anything on this?
We have done a lot of work arising from Corrib. If there are particular towns, villages or cities which the Deputy would like to raise with us in terms of the flow to them, I am happy to speak with him. It might be easier if we did it off-line, but I will make myself available to speak to the Deputy about this.
Invasive species are a problem that has arisen in different parts of Ireland - for example, Lanesborough, and the "hot water" area beside the ESB. Remedial works were to be carried out there to solve the problems. However, there seems to be a huge delay. Is there a strategy in place for when these problems occur? Why are there delays in carrying out these works? This issue is very important for people involved in fishing in the tourism sector. Why is it held up? Is there a body which should be controlling it and moving it along rapidly?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. At the outset, I wish to acknowledge the role of the officials within my Department. They have been extremely proactive and this has been in response to the genuine proactivity at a local level. Local councillors, Deputies and the local community's swift response on the clams issue in Lanesborough has been positive and has helped the process. Do my section and Department have statutory functions with regard to moving forward the whole issue of the invasive species? No, they do not. However, with that in mind, I wish to acknowledge the efforts of my officials because they have responded to my request to show leadership and to take responsibility in terms of leading on this, which has happened.
There was an agreement prior to Christmas. There have been EPA issues and there has been a lot of contact with Inland Waterways and the local authorities. There has been a whole mix of collaboration to try to get a pilot dredge and there was pressure on to do this before Christmas. We got agreement in principle before Christmas to do the dredge. The only thing holding this up at the moment is water levels. The advice is that to do it right the job should be done at lower water levels and we are following this advice. The pilot dredge has been agreed, but we are waiting on the water levels to move to a more satisfactory position in the interests of doing the job right rather than making a half-job of it.
To reiterate, my officials in Inland Fisheries have been very proactive on this. It is an example of community engagement. There is a sense of frustration at a local level. There are fears at a local level also, which were taken into account. Can these invasive clams be eradicated fully? The advice I have been given is that they cannot, but we need to focus on containment and ensure that we dispose of them in a proper way. We need to ensure that we do not have fishermen using boats and gear that might transfer the clams to other areas. These are good-practice issues. We are working with Inland Waterways on these and the use of smaller boats and containment.
My other question relates to the eel fishing ban. I understand a report is coming out in 2015. If a report is due in May or June, certain information should be available at this stage. What is it looking like? Will a certain amount of eel fishing be allowed? What is the Minister of State's view on this?
I have a number of views on eel fishing. As a person born in the north-west of Donegal and on the coast, I would not have had much familiarity with it before being appointed to this post. However, I have had quite a good briefing on the issue and I have learned a lot. We have had a number of delegations from people who fished eels in the past. There is a problem with stock levels. However, there is also a role for the ESB, which I have contacted formally. We need to sit down and examine how we can-----
Exactly, and look at possibilities where we can have quick win solutions. There is a problem with the stocks and the life cycle. It is a long-term life cycle. We are also hearing reports of different examples, such as what is happening in Lough Neagh. We are examining other practices surrounding the fishing of eels. The eel fisherpeople would have been the custodians of the stock. I would like to see the custodians more involved in the consultation. There is an upcoming consultation, and I would not like it to be seen as a token gesture. A number of delegations have come forward with a number of good ideas. I would like to follow through on those.
Inland fisheries is the great untapped resource in the country. The Wild Atlantic Way has done a massive amount for the coast. There are a couple of things I wish to mention. Some of the Leader companies did a power of work on the life project in conjunction with the Department and the European Union. They did a pile of cleaning up of rivers and enhancing inland fisheries. The Department should take a more proactive role. Inland fisheries appears to be the last thing to be looked at. There is a huge amount of goodwill and massive potential for tourism in places which would not normally be known for their tourism industry.
I have met many of the anglers and the people who have benefited from the LIFE project on their stretches of rivers.
They say that a huge tranche of money that was not used was sent back to the European Union. It was never distributed through the Leader companies or even through the Department. Perhaps the Minister would comment on that. In the new tranche of funding that is due to come through from this year to 2020 or 2021 is there scope to move the LIFE project on in many of the inland fisheries and rivers that were untapped heretofore? Why was the money sent back in the first instance?
I agree with the Deputy about the massive potential. Obviously, there are stocking challenges with brown trout and wild salmon and there are discussions and consultations taking place about management. We could have a very wide debate about the constraints and the challenges, be it pollution, cormorants or seals, but we have a difficulty in terms of stocks. At the same time there are very positive partnerships at community level. I will cite one, which the Deputy alluded to, on the River Lacken. There has been a great partnership project there between the local development company and the people. In fact, workers in the Tús programme came to work on the rehabilitation of spawning beds, looking at walkways and so forth. This work must come from the community. When I meet with members of the board of Inland Fisheries Ireland they talk about the pressures they are under in terms of fewer personnel, enforcement and being vigilant in monitoring, so the community, local angling clubs and the local groups in charge of the various rivers have a massive role in this regard.
On the question of money going back to Europe, many of these funding applications are demand led at community level. We have a role to play through the new process under SICAP to encourage groups to get involved. Certainly, there is a role for the Department in facilitating that as much as possible.
One of the major issues was a lack of awareness among community groups, be they local development companies or local angling associations, that this funding was available. The Minister spoke about river beds, spawning and so forth and it is clear that a huge amount of work must be done. Rivers have been overgrown inland, among other things. It is a crying shame that money was sent back. The Department, Inland Fisheries Ireland and everybody else involved should grasp this issue by the scruff of the neck and ensure that every cent that might come from Europe to enhance our inland fisheries is used.
I agree. Nobody wishes to send money back. There was enthusiasm at the Inland Fisheries Ireland board meeting. Many of the members would have been practitioners down the years. There is potential and there are certain aims and objectives on which our Department can follow through. I will take on board the Deputy's suggestion regarding information sharing for creating awareness. Getting away from inland fisheries for a moment, even within the GSI section, where work is ongoing on the Tellus project, which is a mapping exercise looking at water tables and other information that will be shared with different local authorities, the EPA and so forth and on which an extra €3 million will be spent this year, there is a job to be done in terms of creating awareness. Although it is in the very early stages, in case the Secretary General and the Assistant Secretary General fall off their seats, we have just had a discussion on the possibility of bringing the work of the Department, be it on inland fisheries, GSI or in the petroleum division, to secondary schools to bring it to the attention of students.
It is accounted for in two different areas. One relates to Corrib, where there is a drop of €51,000, and the other relates to the petroleum affairs division, PAD, data sales, essentially the surveys, which is down by €451,000.
I have a final question on the overall Revised Estimates, although it might have been covered before I came to the meeting. Administration costs are up by 14% in 2015 in the salaries, wages and allowances. We spoke earlier about the need for expert staff in the Department and for the regulator. Are there additional plans to recruit?
There are. The Deputy is correct to raise it. I am very keen on ensuring it happens, and we have clearance to do it. For example, there is a need for petroleum exploration specialists and for senior telecommunications analysts and engineers in respect of the broadband roll-out we discussed. We need a head of cyber security to lead in the protection of critical national infrastructure, and energy market analysts, a subject we also discussed earlier, to focus on both market and technology developments nationally and internationally. To answer the Deputy's question, the first element relates to the recruitment of specialist staff. The second element is that the increased allocation also includes moneys that must be made available owing to the fact that there are 27 fortnightly pay days in 2015, as opposed to the usual 26. It is a quirk of the Roman calendar that we have 27 pay days in 2015. Nobody gets any extra pay, unfortunately, but they get paid on an extra occasion this year.