Tuesday, 2 December 2008
Question 78: To ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the consultations he has had with EirGrid on the viability of putting a new electricity grid structure underground as an alternative to overhead transmission lines; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43664/08]
Question 117: To ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources his views on the progress of the North-South interconnector; his further views on the findings of the ASKON report on undergrounding; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43616/08]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 78 and 117 together.
The Government's energy policy framework 2007–20 underlines the importance of ensuring the continued availability of reliable, secure and competitively priced energy supply. This is vital for the competitiveness of Irish industry and Ireland's long-term economic and social development.
In delivering on this imperative, the energy policy framework committed to the publication of a grid development strategy and to the delivery of the North-South and Meath-Cavan transmission lines and the east-west interconnector. EirGrid's grid development strategy, grid25, was launched on 8 October 2008. This sets out a road map for the development of the electricity transmission network for the next 17 years and aims to double the capacity of the national grid during this period.
The North-South and Meath-Cavan transmission lines and the east-west interconnector are interrelated projects which are of strategic national importance to Ireland. They will link Ireland to the wider UK market and facilitate competition as part of the all-island electricity market. They will also lead to major improvements in the reliability and quality of supply, both locally and nationally, to the benefit of business and consumers and will facilitate higher levels of renewable electricity penetration in line with Government targets.
While I have no direct role in regard to routes and the planning of transmission lines, I am mindful of the concerns expressed about specific developments and the development of the grid generally. To this end, earlier this year my Department commissioned an independent study on the comparative merits of high voltage overhead electricity transmission lines versus underground cables. I published the study in July 2008 and conveyed it to the Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.
The study concludes that underground transmission cables can be expected to have forced outage rates which are at least ten times greater than those expected of overhead lines. The consultants describe this as a severe limitation for underground cables and, consequently, underground cables do not compare favourably to overhead lines in terms of adequacy of the electricity transmission system and reliability of electricity supply. The consultants describe this finding as the dominating criterion when comparing overhead and underground technologies. They note that the associated negative impacts cannot compensate for any of the advantages of underground cables. The study also concludes that the cost implications of underground cable proposals are difficult to quantify but would be significant. Based on case studies conducted by the consultants, they state that the cost of underground cables would be approximately five times greater than the capital cost of overhead lines and three times the life cycle cost.
I am aware of the ASKON report commissioned by North East Pylon Pressure and I am advised that EirGrid is examining the aspects of this report that have been made available. EirGrid has also had a number of constructive meetings with North East Pylon Pressure. Arising from these meetings, EirGrid has stated that they would welcome an opportunity to meet the authors of the ASKON report to more fully inform its understanding of the basis for the report's conclusions. This engagement with North East Pylon Pressure is part of ongoing pre-planning application consultations by EirGrid on the North-South transmission line. In its planning application to An Bord Pleanála, EirGrid will be required to submit full details of its proposed route and technology selection, as well as a full environmental impact assessment. In addressing technology selection, EirGrid will provide An Bord Pleanála with a full report analysing the issues involved with undergrounding the 400 kV project.
EirGrid expects to submit a planning application for the North-South transmission line to the strategic infrastructure board in 2009. The target completion date for the line is 2012.
I thank the Minister for his reply but I disagree with much of what he said. He stated that he has no direct role in determining whether Ireland's infrastructure should go underground or over ground but that is not the case. He is the policy leader in this area. This issue does not solely affect EirGrid.
In Denmark, politicians and policy makers have agreed under a compromise arrangement that all power lines built in the future, including 400 kV lines, will be put underground. I understand that has been formalised in a new law. Let us have a frank discussion instead of saying it is EirGrid's problem.
The ASKON report will be——
The Deputy misquoted me. I did not say I have no role but that I have no direct role in regard to routes and planning applications for transmission lines. The Department retains a policy role on how we develop our electricity supplies and network. That is why we commissioned an independent study on the merits of this clearly contentious issue. I have regard for that report, as well as the ASKON report. I have considered both reports.
Yes. For the Deputy's information, I travelled to Denmark earlier this year, where I met the engineers responsible for the development of that country's transmission line. They had every interest in putting their 400 kV lines, which are similar to ours, underground. They desperately wanted to construct the interconnector because they are to Denmark's economic advantage in terms of the trade in energy between the north pool and the German markets. Similar planning concerns arose in regard to whether the lines should be installed underground or over ground. The engineers were pulling their hair out because they said, in an honest way, that it was not technically feasible to put them underground. This response is similar to the findings of the independent report commissioned by my Department. Deputy Coveney heard in committee from a professor of electronic engineering in UCD who is an independent expert and has no vested interest in the matter but who gave exactly the same answer. Transmission systems of this type and over this distance cannot be built underground.
At this time of economic difficulty, we must recognise that the option of not proceeding with the transmission connections is to condemn certain areas of the country to being ignored for future employment opportunities. In regard to what the Deputy said earlier about being ambitious for electric vehicles——
Why does the Minister not meet the people concerned and tell them what he thinks of overgrounding? He is fairly clear in his statement and should tell them this. He has refused to even reply to their letters and they have received no correspondence whatever from him. The Minister has come in here with a clear position and yet he will not be up front and tell the people campaigning, who have gone to considerable expense and trouble to put forward what I believe is a very well-researched case. He is treating them with a certain amount of disdain. He should speak to them as they are being directly affected.
It would be disingenuous for a Minister in each individual case where contention arises to pretend he or she can come in like a white knight and solve a problem. There are contentious issues regarding building of transmission and distribution pipelines across the country. I cannot intervene in each instance and say I have a role in planning.
As I stated in my response, I fully understand the concerns of the pressure group and have listened to the issues with no vested interest or in wanting to do them down——
As I understand it, that pressure group has had a series of meetings with EirGrid and I hope some common ground can be realised where possible to achieve the aims of the group and EirGrid. There are good public policy reasons to try to deliver an electricity system for the area as well as the wider country.
As one living in the Border area I welcome that there will be a connection at some stage but we must make every effort to ensure the issues raised in the ASKON report and others be fully looked into. Will the Minister advise if he will make every effort in instructing that the ASKON report be discussed at the relevant committee level so that all aspects of it can be looked into? Will he ensure the rights of the people will be looked after?
When I met some of the EirGrid people, they seemed to have their mind made up. Is the letter sent by the Minister to Monaghan County Council definitive? The letter stated the process could not be underground.
With regard to Deputy Crawford's comments, I support a discussion of the ASKON report at the relevant committee as suggested. One must recognise at the same time that it is a difficult, complex and technical area and one needs a detailed knowledge of the law of physics and how transmission networks work to do justice to some of the issues raised. I support the suggestion and any committee that would give time and attention to those difficult issues.
I fully commit the Government to the protection of the rights, interests and views of the people involved within the planning system, as well as their right to put forward alternatives.
The Government is not blind or insensitive to people's concerns. We will always listen to such issues. In the first instance, it is appropriate for the group to engage with EirGrid, as it has done. EirGrid has the role of looking at the specifics of what is possible. I support the process rather than wishing to set up a separate process.
It is important we get some agreement so we can deliver what we all agree is a crucial economic infrastructure for the stimulation of the country's economy.