Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 1 July 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications
Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland: Chair-Designate
The purpose of this morning's meeting is to engage with the chairperson-designate of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. We will discuss the approach she proposes to take if she is appointed to this role. We will hear her views on the challenges currently facing the authority. By now, we are all very aware of the Government decision of May 2011, which put new arrangements in place for the appointment of people to State boards and bodies. Reference to this arrangement is also made in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's guidelines on appointments to State boards, which were published in November 2014. The joint committee welcomes the opportunity to meet the chairperson-designate in public session to hear her views. We trust that this process provides for greater transparency in the process of appointment to State boards and bodies.
On behalf of the committee, I welcome Ms Julie O'Neill to today's meeting. I draw her attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses 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 they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a 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 they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I wish to advise Ms O'Neill that any submissions or opening statements she has submitted to the committee will be published on the committee's website after this 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 House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I invite Ms O'Neill to make her opening remarks.
Ms Julie O'Neill:
I thank the committee for the invitation to attend today's meeting. I welcome this opportunity. I will begin by summarising my own career and explaining why I applied for membership of the board of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. I will then set out my vision and my priorities for the authority. I have circulated a slightly longer version of this statement. I will summarise it slightly to stay within a five-minute timeframe. I spent the first 37 years of my career as a civil servant. I joined the Civil Service straight from school in 1972. I was very privileged to have a wide and varied public service career. This gave me the opportunity to work with various Ministers and political parties and to contribute to strategic policy development and its implementation across eight Departments during a period of great change in Ireland's economy and society. I hold a bachelor's degree in commerce from UCD and a master's degree in policy analysis from Trinity College. I am a member of the Institute of Directors. I have recently been designated as a certified bank director by the Institute of Banking, following my completion of its corporate governance programme.
In October 2001, I was appointed Secretary General of the then Department of Marine and Natural Resources. In June 2002, following a change of Government, I was reassigned to the newly formed Department of Transport. I left the Civil Service on completion of my term of office as Secretary General in 2009. Since then, I have undertaken some strategic management consultancy work. In more recent years, I have concentrated primarily on a limited number of non-executive board appointments where I believe I can make a contribution. During my time as Secretary General, I developed and have since maintained a keen interest in the potential of sustainable energy to contribute to meeting the economic, social and environmental challenges and opportunities faced by Ireland. I was privileged to attend Cabinet committee meetings on infrastructure and climate change. This exposed me to the breadth of policy perspectives and the challenge of finding synergies between renewable energy targets and other policy goals. While I worked in the Department of Transport, I oversaw the preparation of Smarter Travel, which is a challenging long-term strategy for implementing sustainable transport policy. At that time, it was the first such policy for Ireland.
In 2011, I answered an advertisement placed by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and asked to be considered for just one board under its auspices - the board of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. I served on the board for three years until September 2014. This allowed me to learn more about optimising energy efficiency and renewable energy and to contribute to the development of policy, strategy and governance at the authority. I currently serve on two other boards. I was appointed as a non-executive director of Ryanair in December 2012 and of Permanent TSB in January 2014. I developed extensive corporate governance experience in the public and private sectors through my role as Secretary General, in which I had responsibility for the oversight of 37 State agencies, and more recently through my non-executive director roles. Earlier this year, I applied to stateboards.ieto be considered for re-appointment to the board of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. I indicated my willingness to serve as chairperson of the authority. If my appointment as chair is confirmed, I will adopt a pragmatic approach to the role. I will be mindful of the wider challenges and trends that are facing Ireland's economy and society, of which sustainable energy is just one. I am ready to draw on the specialist expertise within the authority and around the board table and to act as a critical friend to the organisation, checking and challenging it as it moves forward.
The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland is the national authority for sustainable energy. Its legislative mission is to promote and assist the development and deployment of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Sustainable energy offers a great opportunity for Ireland, which is highly dependent on imported fossil fuels that are expensive and polluting. The more we reduce energy waste and the more we exploit our own rich and clean indigenous energy resources, the greater the social and employment benefits to the people of Ireland. A global transition is under way to eliminate the unsustainable aspects of our energy systems, most notably the huge environmental risk posed by climate change. This creates an important enterprise opportunity. As we move to address our own energy challenges, solutions developed by Irish companies can be exported to other states that are facing the same imperatives. I have set out in my written statement some of the detail of the significant progress Ireland has made in recent years. The authority has played an important role in this progress.
In the past six years, the authority has delivered 300,000 upgraded homes via Government grant support. Some 550,000 homes now have building energy ratings. Over 3,000 businesses have been supported in reducing their energy costs. Energy expenditure by the public sector has been reduced by €70 million per annum through efficiency improvements. More than 16,000 people are now employed in the sustainable energy sector in Ireland. This country's annual energy bill is €700 million lower than it would be without recent progress on energy efficiency. Our imports of fossil fuels are over €400 million lower every year due to our local clean energy resources. This is just the beginning of a long journey. The Minister has signalled Ireland's policy intent to see the energy system largely decarbonised by 2050. This will require decisive action across a range of sectors and will result in substantial benefits to the economy and society.
The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland will play a significant leadership role and will be a catalyst for change in ensuring progress is made with the sustainable energy agenda. The Minister intends to publish a new White Paper on energy policy later this year. The authority will follow this with a new strategic plan, demonstrating how it will act to support the delivery of national policy goals in sustainable energy. I would like to say a few words about governance. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland is fully compliant with the Government's code of practice for the governance of State bodies. In 2011, it became the first organisation in Europe to achieve certification under Swift 3000, which is an independent assessment of corporate governance frameworks in organisations. The authority has maintained its certification status in subsequent reviews. Members may be aware that the maintenance of this standard, which was recommended by the Comptroller and Auditor General in his 2009 annual report, provides assurance that the authority operates to the highest international standards.
My personal objectives for the immediate future are to work with the new board to ensure we operate in the most efficient way possible, provide strong guidance to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and monitor the activities and effectiveness of the organisation. We will immediately move to complete our new strategic plan to support the Government’s energy policy goals. I want to ensure the board acts on a fully informed basis, makes its decisions in good faith and is recognised as a well run, efficient and strategic State body.
I will conclude on a personal note. The former President, Mary Robinson, spoke about her fears about the kind of world her grandchildren would inherit in 2050 if we failed to tackle climate change. In the past two years, I have been blessed with a grandson born in China and a granddaughter in Australia. I think often about how we are the generation that will take the decisions that will impact on their world, for better or worse, and how our collective decisions will have global reach. I have seen at first hand the impact of climate change on China, for instance, and how that vast country is trying to grapple with its implications. The arrival of my own grandchildren has re-energised my focus on playing my own modest part in eliminating the unsustainabilities in the world's energy systems. I make this point because I believe it is possible to be a pragmatist, while at the same time being passionate about addressing the challenges of sustainable development. There are many things in the world that divide us but in this area, while there will inevitably be differences on the detail of policies to be pursued, we all share a desire to leave the world in a better state for the next generations.
I thank the Chair for the invitation and I will be pleased to answer any questions members may have.
I welcome Ms O'Neill. The purpose of this engagement is to learn about her plans for the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI. Ms O'Neill outlined her personal views and vast experience. She also indicated that she is a member of two boards. Is there a conflict between her role as a non-executive director of an airline and her role as chairperson of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland?
I will ask a question I put to every other chairperson-designate who comes before the joint committee. Is Ms O'Neill or has she ever been a member of a political party?
I note Ms O'Neill's comments on what has been achieved since 1990 and the changes that have taken place in the way we view sustainable energy and the world as a whole. She was previously a member of the board of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. Some 300,000 grants have been provided under the warmer homes scheme. How does Ms O'Neill envisage the scheme evolving? The scheme should be used for local authority housing stock because of the amount of money being spent to try to heat these homes, most of which were built at a time when less attention was paid to energy efficiency. Having seen the difference the scheme makes in heating homes, I ask that it be expanded to ensure local authority homes are upgraded to the highest possible level. Some of the residents in question have the lowest incomes and highest energy bills in the State.
While much has been achieved in improving insulation for 300,000 homes, a major effort is needed to improve energy efficiency for businesses. Significant amounts of energy are wasted trying to heat office buildings constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the newer buildings are highly energy efficient which creates greater business efficiency.
What are Ms O'Neill's opinions on wind power, solar power and biomass? Is the number of wind farms being built and entering the grid sustainable?
The first application granted by a local authority for a solar farm was recently approved in Macroom, County Cork. I understand a solar farm has been built in County Down and another one has gone through the planning process. How does Ms O'Neill envisage solar power developing in Ireland? Does she envisage a future for biomass in the renewable sector?
Ms Julie O'Neill:
I will first dispense with the issue of political parties. I am not and never have been a member of any political party. I have been privileged to have worked with politicians of all parties.
On the Ryanair issue, I do not believe a conflict arises. Aviation is part of the way in which we move people around the planet. The challenge is to do this as efficiently and sustainably as possible. Interestingly, an independent report produced recently in the United States shows that Ryanair is the most energy efficient of the 20 largest airlines in the world and produces the lowest footprint per passenger. Issues such as the use of the most up-to-date fleet and achieving fuel efficiency and higher passenger load make a big difference. There is a very wide range of performance in the aviation sector and I am pleased that energy efficiency is a priority for Ryanair, the best of the top 20 airlines in the world and the best and greenest airline in Europe.
On the future agenda, energy efficiency and sources of renewable energy should be separated. As the Deputy stated, energy efficiency is an important part of what we are trying to achieve. Achieving the target of a 20% improvement in energy efficiency by 2020 is challenging. We are nearly halfway there and meeting it will involve private homes, businesses and a wide range of other ways to reduce demand for energy.
I fully concur with the Deputy that the warmer homes scheme is a very important initiative. I cannot remember the figure but I understand approximately 150,000 of the 300,000 grants were provided for fuel-poor homes. While the scheme is targeted at people who own their homes, I take the Deputy's point about local authority housing. In recent years, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland has been placing more focus on new better energy communities approaches. These provide an opportunity to work in partnership with a number of players, both public and private, and have certainly widened the range of impacts we can have on fuel-poor homes. This is certainly an issue we will take on board as we formulate our new strategy in the context and against the backdrop of the Government's forthcoming White Paper.
I agree with the Deputy that there are significant differences in housing stock and a combination of insulation, more efficient boilers and consumer behaviour can make significant impacts, as can impacts for business. The Deputy will be aware that most of the businesses locating and developing in Ireland want to have a lower carbon footprint because it is good for the environment, is a good part of their sales pitch, if one likes, to the customer base they are trying to develop and also reduces their overall costs.
On the role the different energy technologies play, the Deputy will be aware that we are trying to meet a range of different targets to reach the overall target of having renewable sources contribute 16% of energy generation. These include a renewables target of 40% for electricity, 12% for heat and 10% for transport. We are roughly halfway towards meeting this target and it is clear that it will be highly challenging to move from the current position to the position we need to reach if we are to achieve our 2020 targets. There is no doubt that wind, which accounts for approximately 18% of electricity generation, is by far the largest contributor to energy from the renewable sector, which contributes more than 20% overall. Wind is currently the most efficient way in which renewable technologies can contribute to energy generation. Solar power and other renewable energies such as wave power contribute only small amounts. Other technologies are still emerging.
At the moment it is difficult to see how we could achieve renewable electricity targets without significant expansion in wind. I believe bioenergy has a role and could achieve, perhaps, up to 5% by 2020. One of the problems with bioenergy is that we also need it to meet our heating target. The best return can be achieved if we use locally grown sources of biomass and use them in heating. The committee will probably be aware that a policy document is out for discussion as to how support for that could be increased. There are real opportunities in creating sustainable energy communities. I know there are proposals around Moneypoint and there are suggestions that it could possibly be converted to biomass. All those proposals should be looked at and, ultimately, the responsibility lies with the project promoter.
I would utter a few words of caution. In order to meet the demand of a plant such as Moneypoint for biomass, one would be talking about the coverage of two countries, perhaps, my own County Wexford and Carlow covered with fuel crops to meet that demand. Realistically, we would be very heavily dependent on imported biofuels to meet the demand of that plant. That is a difficulty, first, because it would divert the scarce resources in biomass grown locally from heating and, second, because it increases reliance on expensive imports. It would also have very significant capital costs. I am not hung up on any one form of energy; I am open to all of them. At the moment, biomass and wind contribute almost equally to meeting our renewable energy targets but they contribute in different ways; biomass primarily in heat, wind primarily in energy. From my point of view, as we develop a strategy beyond 2020 and into 2030 and beyond, one is always looking for the changes in technology that will create other options. As we stand, and based on the state of the science, and the relatively slow changes in technology that will produce dramatically different alternatives, it seems we will require significant wind energy to meet our electricity targets and significant biomass energy to meet our heat targets.
Ms Julie O'Neill:
Other countries have other options, some less palatable than others, including nuclear which clearly is not on our agenda at the moment. We are one of the most energy dependent economies in Europe if not the most dependent in terms of imported resources for energy. That is a very difficult position for us. We are on an island on the edge of Europe, from an energy security point of view as well as from the point of view of the burning fossil fuels issue, and we need to do something about increasing the resources available to us and reducing our dependence on imports. As a windy island nation, wind is certainly the best opportunity we have. I have looked at other countries. I have spent quite some time in China in recent years. The pace of growth in wind farms there is extraordinary and yet it will probably struggle to get it up to 10% of its grid because it is heavily dependent on fossil fuels.
Ms Julie O'Neill:
That raises a wide range of other issues. I do not want to comment on the policies of other countries with which I am not familiar. If one is importing from very long distances, the carbon footprint of what one is importing is growing because of the transportation costs. One needs to begin to think what one is doing to the environments in those countries from which one is importing. One of the points I made about the pragmatic approach and about balancing different policy objectives is that clearly the mandate of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland is around, specifically, sustainable energy. To the greatest extent possible, our sustainable energy goals should complement our employment goals, our energy security goals, our opportunities for innovation and a host of other policy objectives. I would like to see those synergies. As an island nation, the more we can reduce our dependence on imported fuels and, in particular, imported fossil fuels, the greater our energy security and the greater the potential for job creation. The benefit in terms of job creation from biomass is far more significant if it is home grown rather than if it is imported.
I have two final questions on the warmer homes and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland grants. Recent reports suggest that some of those on the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland list proved to be cowboy operators. What is Ms O'Neill's opinion on that? There is a move to try to get the names of those who have transgressed or have not done the work in accordance with best practice. Do I take it from her comments that she does not agree with Mr. Colm McCarthy that given the way we are moving in terms of wind farms, we will have a NAMA for wind farms in ten years' time?
Ms Julie O'Neill:
It would not be the first time that I did not agree with Mr. Colm McCarthy. When I was Secretary General of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, I had Mr. McCarthy expressing his views on various forms of public transport. I have huge regard for him as an individual. I have seen his arguments. It is clear that if one reads his article at face value he does not suggest an alternative to renewable energy - he essentially says forget about all of it. Essentially, he implies that we should not continue as we are going, but this would mean failing to meet our targets, which are set for us at European level and which are legally binding and carry significant fines, and would mean perpetuating a dependence on imported fuels. In this case, I do not agree with Mr. Colm McCarthy. I do not think he has given us a plan B that is viable.
In regard to the policing of our grants scheme, Deputy Moynihan was referring to a small number of frauds that were uncovered a few years ago and were referred to by the Comptroller and Auditor General in reporting on our accounts. There is no doubt that when running grant schemes not just for poor homes, but wider homes, one will always be vulnerable to cowboy operators. In the past few years, the authority has carried out a review of the arrangements in place for monitoring and systematically testing the grants scheme in place and subjecting individuals grants to review. We do that on a risk-based analysis. That enables us to pick up on operators who are not compliant; in other words, if any type of fraud is taking place which is designed to pretend the work has been done, it also picks up on standards. It ensures that the work is done to the highest possible standards. I am satisfied that we have a robust control framework in place. Clearly, it is something one will always have to watch. There is also a potential to be vulnerable when one is spending State money but I am satisfied that the control framework is in place.
I thank Ms O'Neill for her contribution. She may have answered some of the questions I was about to pose in regard to renewable energy. I make no apology for saying that I believe we are putting a lot of our eggs into one basket when it comes to wind energy. She mentioned the targets for last year and our capacity of 2,760 MW. As almost 2,200 MW came from wind and only one megawatt came from solar, I see it as almost completely negligible. Is Ms O'Neill saying it is not advanced enough or that we are at the stage where we can include solar or biomass to the extent that it would make a difference?
Does Ms O'Neill see it extending past 2020 for further targets or how will it expand in the future? We are not looking at that area, but cannot rely on wind indefinitely.
Ms Julie O'Neill:
The interesting thing regarding solar energy is that the contribution it makes currently is very modest. We must watch how the technology evolves as I believe there will be greater opportunities for solar energy. Often there is a tipping point in regard to the cost of various technologies and when we reach that tipping point it becomes more possible to consider their contribution. I do not want to get into setting the targets beyond 2020, towards 2050, because that is something to be considered in the context of the White Paper. The targets will also be the subject of international negotiations. However, I believe the overarching goal should be to move towards a largely carbon neutral energy system by 2050 and that we must aim for that.
Wind energy is an important part of what we do currently and, with respect to electricity, wind will remain important for the foreseeable future. I do not see it as a case of putting all our eggs into one basket. There is no magic bullet in this regard and we must maintain an open mind. As chair of SEAI, I will maintain an open mind on any ideas put forward. However, we must consider what gives us the most efficient return on investment at this time in terms of renewable energy and whether that is the most efficient way towards meeting our targets. In the case of electricity, this certainly appears to be wind, while on the heat side it appears to be biomass. We must look at how we can grow more biomass crops and at how they can be used and the best way of doing that. We also need to be open towards other technologies.
As we take the time horizon out beyond 2020, we would hope the kind of experimental and innovative work we are doing around wave energy and the like will begin to bear fruit because we have a wonderful ocean resource. However, I doubt we can rely on that happening quickly, overnight or within a short timeframe. We need to plan well ahead for that. We must be always alive to what I would call the "game changers" in technology that might offer us possibilities in the future.
Ms Julie O'Neill:
Offshore wind does have an appeal and interesting potential. There are cost effectiveness issues versus onshore wind, but I believe it has potential in the export space. Deputy Moynihan raised the UK situation and some time ago there seemed to be potential for export into the UK grid from offshore wind in the Irish Sea. That matter has gone to the back burner for now, but I suspect it will come back into play, particularly after 2020. I do not believe the issue will go away. I see offshore wind as having significant potential in an interconnected Europe.
We talk a lot about electricity prices and the need to keep them down. In the Irish context, there are a number of drivers of our electricity prices, not least of which is the fact that we are an island nation with a very dispersed population for such a small island and are very dependent on expensive imports. We then have to put infrastructure in place around that. As we move forward, we will look at other opportunities to inject into the energy mix from a variety of sources. Offshore wind may well be one of those.
I welcome Ms O'Neill and wish her well in this crucial organisation. I have difficulty understanding the extent of the role of SEAI and will go through that shortly. I note that Ms O'Neill is a certified bank director. That seems to be a side-road from the route she was on previously. Why did she feel it was necessary to be certified as a bank director?
Ms Julie O'Neill:
I hope the members see that anything I do shows enthusiasm and passion for issues I believe in. I had a strong view that the banking system in Ireland got badly broken over recent years and that people should roll up their sleeves and help put it back together. Therefore, somewhat reluctantly, I was convinced that by joining the board of a bank I might be able to make a contribution as a non-banker. As members are aware, there is a strongly improved regulatory environment around banking now and one of the requirements to be a bank director is to step up to the mark and get the appropriate qualifications and expertise to do the job. The reason I mentioned the qualification in this context is because a significant part of that intensive programme deals with corporate governance in a general sense. I hope I will bring what I learned about effective corporate governance with me to my role as Chair of SEAI.
I will now talk about SEAI, but my questions may be unfair questions for Ms O'Neill as chairperson designate. The Government sets out a vision for energy and SEAI has a vision for energy, but should SEAI have an input into a decision as to whether there should be defined targets and dates for a climate change strategy? There has been significant discussion on this issue. Should SEAI have a role in areas of policy, such as the possible introduction of hydraulic fracturing, initially in the north west of the country? SEAI is spending significant money in terms of energy upgrades in homes, yet this cannot cover matters such as doors or windows. People could be spending significant money to produce heat more efficiently, yet it could be escaping through the doors and windows. In regard to the overlap between policy, vision and practicality, what input should SEAI have?
Ms Julie O'Neill:
I come at this in number of ways. If I am asked to take on any job, the first thing I look at is what the legislation says the role of the body is, as I am being asked to do a job within that legislation. The Sustainable Energy Act 2002 sets out clearly the functions of the authority, namely, to promote and assist an environmentally and economically sustainable production supply and use of energy, energy efficiency, the reduction of greenhouse gas and to promote research in that area.
To start with, our focus is on sustainable energy. Fracking is not a sustainable form of energy, so it does not come within our remit. Therefore, it is not something we would be directly involved with. In terms of measures that improve energy efficiency, it is open to us to express a view to Government and to put forward proposals to it in terms of what type of grant supports we feel we could most valuably use and get a return from in the context of sources of energy and efficiency and how they might be dealt with.
In regard to targets, I think the Deputy is referring to whether there should be targets in the climate Bill. This is something I believe is ultimately a matter for Government policy. We make an input in terms of our research. On targets generally, we make an input on the objective analysis of where we are in regard to targets and what it would take to achieve them. The decision on what goes into legislation must be a matter for the Government of the day and for the Department bringing proposals to Government.
While I understand that discussion and debate, I can also understand that putting binding legal targets in legislation when, at the same time, trying to negotiate internationally with colleagues in Europe and beyond might be an issue for Government. It is something from which I would stay back and on which I would not offer a view. I would say it is something that is not within the gift of the authority to do.
I would ask what is our job. Our job is to offer advice on climate change and sustainable energy generally and to bring forward and, if funded, to deliver efficiently and effectively, programmes and supports that will enhance sustainable energy and help us meet those targets. Ultimately, it is the Government of the day which makes the energy policy and we contribute to it.
Ms Julie O'Neill:
Not right now. As we go through our strategic planning process, should something like that emerge, we would be open to bringing it forward. The way I would look at it is there is a process under way at the moment to develop a White Paper on energy. It is probably the most consultative process I have seen in developing a White Paper. That will produce an overarching policy framework for energy. Governments change and policies vary from time to time but, as I said in my opening statement, I suspect the underlying thrust of the policy debate is not on what we hope to achieve but how we are to achieve it. I think we all share a view at this stage, across Government, the wider public and private sector and, I believe, all political parties, on the importance of achieving sustainability. Our role, against that backdrop, is to see what we can do to contribute to the debate.
That being said, if appointed to this role, I will have around the board table, not to mention within the authority, people of considerable expertise and depth of understanding in various aspects of sustainable energy. I will listen to those views and look at the most effective way of bringing them forward.
It seems to me that we have moved from a position a number of years ago where the job was to convince people that sustainable energy was a sensible objective to a point where most people now buy into that. What they are interested in, as evidenced in today's questions, is the best way possible to achieve it. We will have a considerable educational and public information role. Our job is not to be the flag-carriers for any particular approach to sustainable energy but to produce the most objective analysis available which can be a good resource and input in Government policy.
Ms Julie O'Neill:
I approached leaving the job as Secretary General in a particular way. I did not set down on paper specific positions or posts that I wanted to take on. However, I did take a blank page and write down on it four or five areas in which I wanted to be active and I had an open mind on how I would be active in them. One area was sustainable energy. Another was aviation and transport and there were also wider areas, such as tourism and the food sector. Banking was not one of them but sometimes things happen which one does not expect.
My interest came strongly from that time. There was also the opportunity to see how challenging the debate is when trying to juggle very important but conflicting policy objectives with our energy targets and climate change and carbon reduction targets. An example is Ireland's positioning of itself in a leading role in the agricultural sector. The Origin Green approach adopted by Bord Bia is promoting Ireland as a green and sustainable country delivering a wonderful food supply to other parts of the world. Policy making is a messy business. It is never easy. I have great sympathy for any Government, of any time, as it tries to juggle all the priorities. I felt this is a particular area on which I could become involved and make a difference, which is a difference not just for this generation but for future generations as well.
Ms O'Neill has worked with different Ministers, Governments and complexions of political parties. To what extent would she be prepared to stand up to a Department or a Minister if she felt a wrong choice was being made in the area of sustainable energy?
Ms Julie O'Neill:
I probably have a track record of being prepared to stand up to Ministers when necessary but I would always do it in a respectful way in the same way I treat this committee with the deepest of respect. We are a democracy. We appoint Governments and Governments appoint Ministers to lead us and take decisions. I would see my role in this instance as being to give the best quality and most objective advice we come up with and to feed that into the process but ultimately, the policy decisions which are made on foot of that advice - which in our case is in the public domain because we publish reports and do not just privately, behind the scenes, give advice to Ministers - are a call for the Minister of the day. However, it is a valid question. Sometimes things will come up where we will produce a report which may be slightly out of kilter with the direction the Government chooses to go but so be it.
At the outset, I compliment Ms O'Neill on her presentation and wish her well into the future. From listening to her and reading her documentation, she appears to have a very broad vision. Will she state what inhibitions or prohibitions she sees down the road in realising her aims and aspirations in the role she is taking on? Does she believe the role of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland is very restricted in its present format? What are her thoughts on achieving the targets on decarbonisation coming in to 2020, for instance or, out further to 2050, on climate change, in which she has a special interest at both national and global levels?
There is the issue of the elimination of fossil fuels for this country and the general transition to clean renewable energies. Another issue is our security and national reserves of fuel. In Ms O'Neill's view, how secure are we really? Occasionally the interconnection with Scotland with regard to gas importation to this country, for instance, can be uncertain. What is Ms O'Neill's opinion on the delay in the construction of the gas plant by Shannon LNG in Tarbert, County Kerry? There has been a serious delay there for some time. It has been involved in legal aspects for a couple of years. Would she have a part in resolving that matter with the relevant Minister?
There are some new techniques and materials, for instance a new heat retention brick. I presume Ms O'Neill has heard of it. It is a new concept or a new material. It is a quarried material. I do not know if it is available in this country as of yet but it appears to be fairly good in terms of sustainability and retention of heat.
Is there enough being done by the Government in terms of energy conservation in facilities and buildings of government bodies at full State level and local government level? My county of Kerry has a conservation officer who has been doing outstanding work for a long number of years. It is harnessing energy at its water sources to supply public water.
A changeover has been undertaken in some counties in respect of low-wattage public lighting and the associated areas. Will Ms O'Neill offer her views on those aspects?
Ms Julie O'Neill:
I hope I remember all those questions as I go through them. I will start with one of Deputy Fleming's earlier questions on whether I believe the role of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland is unnecessarily restrictive. No, I do not. I believe generally when it comes to power or influence it is not so much what an organisation is given, it is how that organisation uses the opportunity it is given. I believe we have an interesting and exciting opportunity in the coming years, now that the issue of sustainable energy is firmly before people's minds, to build on the good work that has been done and to become even more effective in getting that message out to a wider audience throughout the country. As things stand the authority does excellent work with schools, school programmes and young people. Some weeks back, before I was invited back onto the board, I went to an event in Dublin Castle. It frankly blew my mind when I saw the kinds of ideas that young children in schools throughout the country were coming up with for energy efficiency, energy conservation and renewable energy proposals. There is a whole new generation to whom we need to reach out. We produce some excellent publications. Quite apart from our grant support work, which is very important and where the lion's share of our resources go, our publications are excellent. However, we need to broaden the reach through the media and in other ways to reach out to a wider audience. I do not believe we are overly constrained.
Deputy Fleming asked what will get in the way. There is no doubt that while we are half way to reaching our 2020 targets they are challenging targets to meet. People tend to get the easier stuff out of the way first and then it gets harder as time goes on. Let us consider energy efficiency. What tends to happen is that all the early adapters and all the people who move fast are on board early. Then we have to try to reach the harder-to-reach people, who are less convinced or who have other things on their minds. As against that, one thing that is helpful is that this is no longer simply the agenda of a small statutory authority; it is the agenda of every business, big and small, in Ireland as well as every business that is seeking to establish in Ireland, whether Google, Apple, any of the foreign direct investment companies, the major food companies like Danone, Kerry Group or others which have their origins in Ireland or whether it is a small start-up business. Everyone sees the opportunity that sustainable energy offers in terms of reducing their carbon footprint and cost base. Many see the opportunity for innovation and creating new job opportunities as well. We need to work with that opportunity.
Deputy Fleming mentioned public bodies. Numerous large public bodies, including those with the biggest energy burn in the education and other sectors, have made significant progress. There are others which have work to do. I could not agree more with Deputy Fleming. I have been astounded, even at a personal level, at how such things as switching off the lights, turning down the temperature by 1° Celsius in the house and various other measures can make a difference. Demand management, which is a major part of meeting our efficiency target, is a combination of the things we do to insulate and so on as well as changes in the behaviour of energy users. To the extent that we reduce energy demand we reduce the challenge of achieving the targets of a certain percentage of energy usage coming from renewable sources.
We have talked about it already but there is no doubt that the wind challenge will be a challenge in the time ahead. There is juggling to be done and a balancing act for the wider powers that be in government and the planning authorities to get right. This involves balancing the planning aspects, which are clearly important to those communities where wind farms are placed, and the contribution that energy can make to the grid.
Heat is another question as is the related issue of finding new sources. Transport, which is where I came from into this area, is still a significant untapped area. I was party to producing our first transport sustainable energy policy. Unfortunately, it was predicated on there being the ability to put in place a significant investment into public transport and so on. Obviously, the downturn in the economy made that far more difficult. As things stand, we are gradually moving towards 10% of our fuel coming from biofuels. Electric cars, which had a very slow start, are now beginning to take off as their range and battery life increase and as costs begin to come down. In recent years the shift in the mindset of individuals towards not only sustainable energy but the wider health benefits of walking and cycling has made a significant difference. There is a good deal that is positive and under way in that area.
Deputy Fleming asked about one or two specific aspects that I might raise with the Government.
Ms Julie O'Neill:
That does not come in because it is a non-sustainable form of energy and so it is not on my table. We do not have a direct role in that or in energy security. However, I know energy security will be important in the context of the White Paper. It is something the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources monitors closely all the time. It is yet another reason we need to reduce our reliance on imported fossil fuels and do everything we possibly can in that regard.
Deputy Fleming mentioned some technologies. I love game changers in technology and watching out for the disruptive technologies that might change the opportunities available to us. The reality is that in a sector like this new things will come on-stream and they will add value, but in some cases they will be literally a slow burn over time. We need to have that part of our minds looking well beyond 2020 and set to thinking to 2050 and beyond. It is interesting because as we get older in life we realise that we are doing this not for our benefit but for the next generation.
Ms Julie O'Neill:
A good deal of excellent work is going on. The authority has produced a wonderful teaching pack that is used with young children in primary schools now. It is fabulous and involves games and so on to encourage them. It is a little like what has happened in waste management over the years. I find it fascinating when I see five and six-year-olds coming home from school and telling their mothers and fathers to turn off the lights and not to charge their mobile telephones through the night and so on. Exciting work is going on in this area. There is a competition supported and sponsored by SEAI that encourages youngsters to come forward with what are essentially small business ideas. That is in primary school and secondary school. I would like to see more of that.
I thank Ms O'Neill for her presentation. In the line of the pump of houses and so on the work has been a great success throughout the country. I am taken by Ms O'Neill's comments. She believes that wind seems to be a considerable part of the way forward for Ireland. Is that correct?
Ms Julie O'Neill:
I need to be careful about that because it can sound like a one-size-fits-all approach. At the moment, wind and bioenergy contribute in almost equal share to renewable energy, approximately 30% apiece. The reality is that from an electricity point of view for the foreseeable future it is difficult to see a significant alternative to wind to meet the target of 40% of our energy and electricity coming from renewables. I believe that over time biomass will play more of a part. It could get up to 5% by 2020. However, given the fact that we need home-grown biomass to meet our heat targets, unless we are prepared to go down the road others have gone, involving significant imports of biomass with the associated costs and supply issues, I do not see it. The knock-on consequences in terms of prices could be significant. I remain of an open mind on it but certainly if I am asked in an honest way to say what I believe from what I know now - something I continue to challenge - it seems that on the electricity side wind will make up the lion's share of it, certainly up to 2020.
Does Ms O'Neill agree with the view that two thirds of our biomass will have to be imported because Ireland is not set up for biomass? Does she agree that if we go down the wind road once a 50% threshold is reached we will be unable to handle it on the grid because of our generators?
There is a study being done at the moment, which will not be completed until the end of 2017, but the generation from wind cannot go past 50% at the moment because it is up and down. Does Ms O’Neill agree that at the moment in the wind sector we are guaranteeing prices to investors and we are not getting the net benefit cost from that? If we use wind would she agree that for businesses employing people throughout the country, to make it sustainable, if they have to manage on their own, the price of electricity per unit will be a lot higher?
Deputy Tom Fleming talked about blocks, Roadstone has produced a block that is very efficient.
Ms O’Neill mentions cars and agriculture in her submission. The transport sector has saved 25% because the manufacturers in other countries brought in diesel vehicles that are more efficient. In agriculture the emissions are going to increase. If Ms O'Neill had to decide in the morning between people being employed or living in a tent and keeping everything beautiful and green, which would she do? Would she decide that employment is more important or that we have to meet the targets?
Ms Julie O'Neill:
I do not see myself proposing anything that involves people living in tents in the countryside. I made the point about agriculture that I see personally its huge value to this country. We are very lucky that it is not an either-or situation. If, for instance, we were to deliver on our wind targets that would add approximately 4,400 net extra jobs to the Irish economy. Sometimes the impression is given that using wind costs jobs but it actually adds net jobs to the economy.
Ms Julie O'Neill:
There is no evidence that wind and the refit tariff on wind is contributing significantly to the price of electricity. I will continue to keep that under review. The Deputy mentioned an absolute limitation. Our target at the moment is 40% for renewables and wind is part, not all, of that. I agree with the Deputy about the wider issue of going beyond 2020 and towards 2050 and getting 100% from renewables. All the indications are that the net impact of the investment in wind is positive for the economy and the Exchequer and ultimately for the taxpayer. There are wider issues around wind, such as the planning issues, and I understand those in terms of its impact on communities but I am positive about the benefit of wind to the economy, the jobs it generates, its positive impact on gross national product, GNP, and the minimal impact on electricity prices.
Has the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland looked at anaerobic digesters as a future possibility? Ms O'Neill appears to be converted in the line of wind, climate change and all these different things. One of the Deputies spoke earlier about standing up and questioning things. Is she a person who questions and looks at the economic viability of a measure?
Ms Julie O'Neill:
Anaerobic digesters are part of the options we look at in bio-energy and I do believe they have a role to play. They could certainly play a role on the heating side.
To pick up the Deputy's second point, I most certainly am a person who questions and challenges everything. I described the role of the chairperson in my opening statement as being a critical friend to the organisation. I mean "friend" in the sense that I am there to help the organisation to be as effective as possible, and "critical" in that I believe the role of the board is to challenge the executive of the authority, to look at the evidence and proposals the executive brings and subject them to critical examination before they are put into the public domain.
When the Deputy says I have been converted, it sounds like I might have taken to wearing sandals, growing a beard - if I could - and going around with a tent on my back.
I do not see it like that. In fact, what appealed to me about this role is the opportunity to build the synergies, not the conflicts, between employment creation and the other challenges of making Ireland economically, environmentally and socially sustainable and to build on those in the context of meeting our targets on sustainable energy. While I am certainly at this point convinced of the value of wind as a contribution to this, I remain open on the role of all the technologies. I remain open to any analysis that is brought forward to me, from within the authority, from around the board table or from outside the authority and I will subject that analysis to the same critical analysis as what I get from within the authority.
Solar energy was mentioned. I am certainly hoping that, over time, we may not be too far off where solar begins to be able to make a bigger contribution than it can currently. The chief executive of the authority, Dr. Brian Motherway, has accompanied me today, along with William Walsh who is the finance and corporate services director and Mattie McCabe, who is the company secretary and whom I should have introduced at the outset. He has made the point recently that one should beware of snake oil salesmen. There is no new product that comes on stream in this territory that will provide the one magic bullet that will solve all the problems. I wish there were but there is not. Therefore, we have to keep all of the technologies under review with an open mind and watch where they are contributing. To pick up on the Deputy's point, every single proposal that comes before my board will be subject to rigorous cost-benefit analysis both in terms of whether it is the best and most efficient use of the limited resources available to us as an authority and also in terms of its wider cost-benefit effects for the Government and for the economy. We do this quite rigorously.
I welcome Ms O'Neill and I wish her well in her important position which will be the challenge of delivering renewable energy and energy efficiency. I compliment SEAI for its work. In particular in recent years I have become aware of its projects which encourage innovation in industry to achieve energy efficiency. The results are the exciting stories. People and communities are working with SEAI and getting results in energy efficiency as well as a lowering of costs and removing their reliance on traditional energy sources. I would like to see a widespread take-up of grants for energy efficiency in households. I refer to the 100% grants for people on certain social welfare payments which I have found are not well known about, for some reason. People know about the grants which provide a contribution towards the cost but they do not seem to be aware that a full grant is available. It seems there is more work to be done in this regard. I compliment Dr. Brian Motherway and the team for being accessible and for reaching out because that is what is required. It is a case of a paradigm shift in that one must look at things differently. We have had a long reliance on traditional energy generation and all our technologies have evolved around fossil fuels. If we had started years ago perhaps we would not be in the position that we have to introduce refit tariffs, support the use of wind and support new industry in an attempt to diversify our energy dependency.
Renewable energy, the delivery of wind energy and the use of biomass, are real issues for both Deputy Fitzmaurice and myself on the ground in terms of community acceptance. I am interested to hear Ms O'Neill's comments. Some projects have not been a great success and in my view they have led to more challenges. I refer, for instance, to those midlands wind projects which were never pinned down. These are the big industrial wind farm projects. Every part of the midlands thought it was going to have a turbine. I am from the west and the aftermath of what happened in the midlands and the showmanship and the competition between two companies caused more negativity about wind energy. It is such a vast area for discussion but the conversation always seems to be piecemeal.
When wind is talked about it is often as if we were looking for 100% wind energy but that was never suggested. However, this is the conversation. The reality is that we are supporting wind as the cheapest form of renewable energy we can support. We rely on experts, on SEAI and other bodies for expertise in this area but I ask how much conversation has been carried on with people on the ground about this to persuade them to embrace it because this goes back to community acceptance. When I go to national schools and secondary schools which are raising An Taisce green flags I often think that these youngsters are perhaps being exposed more to a different way of thinking while in the broader society the same attitude or embrace is not there.
There must be a national conversation about this whole area. I am interested to hear Ms O'Neill's views on community acceptance and also the notion of how we deliver wind energy. Are we really not to expect to deliver via big industrial wind farms? We know that as technology is developed the turbines have got higher. Should we be going for smaller scale operations and introducing more micro-generation? For people who are opposed to wind or who have valid questions, visual amenity is one of the most valid arguments. The environment committee has had people objecting to offshore wind, people objecting to onshore wind, people objecting to biomass, people against fracking. I watched Ms O'Neill's presentation on the screen in my office and one of the earlier speakers referred to the recent article by Colm McCarthy. I wonder whether it is accepted that we are going to invest. It cannot just be a case of cost as the only basis. If cost is the only basis then we should remain with fossil fuels. It would be a great argument for us to begin fracking in this country. Some members represent areas which are being explored for shale gas and therefore fracking is very controversial but neither do we want nuclear. All these options bring their own challenges and it is a case of needing to have a real conversation about what is the most efficient and whether we build offshore when we can build onshore. How do we bring this into communities and make it acceptable?
From a democratic point of view and also from the point of view of social justice, we can never remove ourselves from the question of affordability for the ordinary person. I ask Ms O'Neill and the SEAI about the contradictions such as the contradictions with regard to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. The SEAI and Ms O'Neill are pursuing a policy of energy efficiency and yet we see that when local authorities upgrade their housing stock they are installing oil-fired central heating with upgraded burners. People who have been given new oil-fired central heating systems cannot afford to put oil in the tank but the councils will not install back boilers or ranges. It does not make sense. It means that people are sitting in the cold and may be left with just an open fire. That is a very real situation because people are coming to my advice clinics who tell me the council has revamped their house, put in new windows but the central heating is oil-fired. They might have had an old range in the house and a back boiler but these have been taken out and they are in the cold. That seems ridiculous. I ask if Ms O'Neill would take up this issue because it is a question of how it is consistent with what SEAI is trying to achieve in the longer term. The people who are getting carbon tax slapped on them are these people who are in energy poverty.
I am always mindful that everything we do must be tempered with the reality of the burden we are putting on people. When we think of the attitude of the United States and many of the big energy guzzling countries, and also the developing countries, with regard to carbon emissions and targets and how many European countries are way ahead in this regard even compared to ourselves, some of what we do is a drop in the ocean in the case of renewable energy. It is not that we should not have sustainable plans and be prepared to co-exist with our environment because there is a price to pay if we do not.
We must be careful, however, where the responsibility in this regard is heaped. We need to ensure, in particular, that we look after vulnerable people.
In regard to the energy efficiency measures, the cost of which is being passed on to the utility companies to implement, my concern is that those companies will, in turn, pass that cost on to customers in their energy bills. If people's bills are going up, it will be difficult to get any buy-in from them. Even if a doctor is telling me that such and such is the best thing for me, if there is no buy-in from me, I will be reluctant to go along with it. It is often the case with experts, whether in respect of EirGrid and the transmission network, for example, or anything else, that they tend to speak at a level beyond where most people are at. People are being asked to embrace things that are not properly explained. There must be more dialogue and conversation. As I said, I am concerned that this cost will be loaded onto people's bills. They are already paying a public service obligation levy; now they will face an energy efficiency charge. Where does it end? Furthermore, such a charge would have an impact on the commercial side in terms of our competitiveness. I was disappointed to see we have fallen down the rankings in that regard after being told for so long that things were improving in terms of the cost of electricity for commercial and domestic customers.
On my reading of it, Mr. Colm McCarthy's argument was purely framed around the issue of costs. Of course we must be mindful of cost, as I have argued, but he was referring to gas generation and electricity generated from gas. Is there any possibility of converting Moneypoint to gas? Ms O'Neill has pointed out that gas is conventional generation, which is not what she is concerned with, but I am strongly of the view that one cannot have the conversation about sustainable energy without looking at the full picture.
Ms Julie O'Neill:
There are many questions to answer but I will do my best. I thank the Deputy for her points, many of which were very well made. I welcome, in particular, her very positive comments about the staff of the authority. One of my main motivations in putting myself forward for this position was the very high regard in which I hold Dr. Brian Motherway and the team he leads at SEAI. He and his staff are among the most professional bunch of public servants - they are, indeed, servants of the public - I have come across in my career. It is a pleasure to work with them and listen to their views.
The Deputy is right on the energy efficiency measures issue. The authority is doing a lot of very good work in terms of raising awareness, but I agree that much more needs to be done. The Deputy made the point that Ireland is a very small player on the world stage, and there are many larger players who ultimately may have a greater contribution to make on the whole issue of climate change. One could use that as an argument for Ireland being a follower rather than a leader in this area. It would be a case of letting the big boys and girls take the burden of climate change while we continue to do our thing. I do not support that position for a number of reasons. Even leaving aside our binding international obligations and the value of burden sharing in a European and global context, it would be a very foolish and short-sighted approach for Ireland to take. I am not saying that is what the Deputy is suggesting, but it could be read into her wider comments.
Apart from the values we hold as a society, of which sustainability in the economic, social and environmental sense for ourselves and for future generations is an important one, there are real opportunities for Ireland to create jobs and reduce our dependence on dirty and polluting imported fossil fuels. If we allowed ourselves, for argument's sake, to go down the Colm McCarthy route, which is to forget about all this and keep going as we have been going, the problem is that nobody is coming up with a plan B. Everybody is prepared to say what they are against, but it is difficult to get any consistency in terms of their saying what they actually are for. The Deputy is correct that if we start saying, for whatever reason, that we do not like wind, biomass or whatever, then we either reopen the debates about fracking and nuclear or we go back to a situation where we are increasing our dependence on imported fossil fuels.
The Deputy is right, too, about gas generation. Moneypoint and all those issues are not really on my radar and agenda because gas is not a sustainable form of energy. It is for others to make that call. Obviously, gas will be an important part of the mix for the foreseeable future, but we still have the issues of security, supply and everything else.
In regard to the broader issue of community engagement, I would take that at three or four levels. One level is the role of SEAI, and I endorse the point the Deputy made that we have more work to do. We have done quite well in terms of getting messages out, but there may be a lack of awareness about the warmer homes scheme for fuel-poor homes, for instance, despite that information being available on our website and so on. I agree there is more we can do in that regard. It is interesting but not surprising that over the period of the very severe decline in the economy, people's interest, even with grant support available, in investing in insulation for their homes declined because they did not want to spend any of their spare money on anything to do with renovations. They were trying to hold onto whatever small amount of savings they had. It is noteworthy that demand for those schemes is beginning to come back up this year, which is obviously related to the increase in demand for housing and renovations as cash flow begins to improve and the economy picks up. We need to build on that.
I see a very important part of the role of SEAI in setting out its next strategy as relating to its communication function at all types of levels, including encouraging the new generation of young people and working with industry, with clients of our services and with stakeholders in the wider sense. I take the Deputy's point about the hard analysis we can produce that might influence the decisions of local authorities and others. Interestingly, more efficient boilers do help to increase energy efficiency, even if those boilers use gas or oil. Gas is better than oil. Part of the energy efficiency challenge is that even where we continue to rely to the extent we do on fossil fuels, if we can at least reduce the demand for them and use them more efficiently, that in itself will help towards meeting the targets we have to meet.
I distinguish between our role as an authority, which is to produce the hardest possible information about what works and what does not, costs, benefits and all of those issues, and our function in managing community engagement through the planning and other processes. I agree that engagement has not always been done well in the past. It is very much an objective of the White Paper on energy to increase community engagement around energy, and I expect almost every political party will have that as part of their manifestos. Looking at some of the numbers I jotted down, to meet our target for wind, we are looking at 400 to 600 more turbines, which equates to 30 to 40 additional wind farms. One can choose to have larger farms and a smaller number of them, in which case one must think carefully about where to locate them, or a greater number of farms with a smaller number of turbines in each. Microgeneration and the like can make a contribution but one needs to get the sum of the total sufficient to meet the targets.
There is work to be done, too, by the sponsoring companies, not all of which have covered themselves in glory in the past. There is work under way through the planning process concerning the guidelines around this. There is a job to be done by all of us, including SEAI, in terms of getting the information out there about costs and benefits. Another speaker said that many of these projects do not create jobs. In fact, there is potential for wind to contribute 4,400 net jobs between now and 2020, some 2,000 of them in construction, 500 in operations and the remainder in knock-on impacts. We do not always get that message across in a tangible way.
In general, though, I agree with what has been said in this regard. In many instances, engineers from a particular company will service wind farms in respect of which that company has a contract to do so. The exception is in the circumstances to which Ms O'Neill referred. For the most part, local authorities receive substantial rates and there are other benefits which accrue and that is why it is important - all other things being equal, including a wind farm being located in the proper place - to get the community gain right. Many of the jobs involved tend to be centralised in Dublin. This is despite the number of wind farms that are located in rural settings.
Ms Julie O'Neill:
This is always an issue because one is trying to take decisions for the benefit of Ireland as a whole. As the Deputy noted, one is also obliged to try to manage the community gain aspects and stakeholder interaction at local level. That is why we need and must have a robust planning process. That is not our responsibility but it is certainly something to which we contribute.
On energy efficiency measures in homes, I understand and accept that people can upgrade their oil boilers in order to make them more efficient. I am particularly interested in situations where new heating systems are installed in circumstances where someone might previously have had a range and a back boiler. People are sitting in the cold - hopefully not at this time of year - and are going to community welfare officers because they do not have enough money to fill their oil tanks. Matters would be different if they still had their ranges and could buy a bag of coal or some turf, logs or wood chips. The individuals to whom I refer, many of whom are elderly and cannot do things for themselves, are living in misery. What is happening does not make sense. I understand that local authorities are intent on replacing old heating systems with new ones because there is too much servicing involved with back boilers. That is a contradiction in itself. I would like this matter addressed for the good of those who have been affected. I do not accept the idea that people cannot have ranges in their homes as a result of what is involved with servicing their back boilers. That is not the way to go.
We have covered a large number of issues during these proceedings. On behalf of the committee, I thank Ms O'Neill for coming before us. This has been a very worthwhile engagement, even if some of the questions posed were not totally focused on her proposed appointment. I thank her for fielding all of the questions put to her and for demonstrating her knowledge and experience and her vision for Sustainable Energy Ireland. Ms O'Neill also demonstrated the sense of teamwork that marks the entire organisation. I propose that a copy of the transcript of today's discussion be forwarded to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources for his information and consideration. Is that agreed? Agreed. I wish Ms O'Neill well and every success in her new appointment.