Dáil debates

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Electricity Infrastructure: Motion [Private Members]


7:45 pm

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

agrees that Ireland’s electricity infrastructure and transmission capability be modernised, as well as expanded, to allow for a clean, sustainable and affordable supply to the public and to support all future economic and societal development; accepts that Fáilte Ireland has raised concerns about erecting overhead pylons in certain areas, and there is considerable concern amongst the public about the lack of consultation, as well as health and visual concerns on the proposals being put forward by EirGrid, that involve high voltage lines to a height of 135 feet being erected in many regions throughout the country; and calls for an independent international assessment of the EirGrid proposals to take place, so that the health and visual concerns held by the public are fully addressed, the cost and placing underground of the transmission cables are fully examined and a report on these matters to be published by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.
The Fianna Fáil Party introduces this motion at a key moment in the planning of electricity infrastructure which will ensure the nation's energy supplies for decades. We fully accept and agree with plans to upgrade the national grid. Ireland must ensure that its electricity infrastructure and transmission capability is modernised and expanded to allow for a clean, sustainable and affordable supply to members of the public. It must support all future economic and societal development and ensure we remain at the forefront of the renewable energy revolution.

My party has tabled this motion for three reasons. First, we are responding to growing concern among communities nationwide at the possibility that pylons of 135 ft. in height will be erected beside their homes. We seek to highlight he ineffective consultation conducted by EirGrid thus far in the process, which has caused great anger in many communities. Second, we are seeking clarification and justification for the decisions taken by EirGrid well in advance of the public consultation on the national grid upgrade plan. In particular, we seek to understand the reasons EirGrid ruled out any construction of lines underground and chose single high voltage lines over regional lines. Third, we are offering a credible solution to address the justifiable concerns of the communities in question. We urge the Government to support our call for an independent international assessment of EirGrid's Grid25 proposals for upgrading the national grid. Previous reports conducted on certain aspects of the Grid25 proposals in 2013 and 2012 were too narrow in their approach and did not take into account the impact on residential areas or areas of high tourism potential.

The consultation process associated with the Grid25 plan was supposed to herald a new era of transparency and openness in the planning of national strategic infrastructure. We have found that local communities feel neglected, uninformed and ignored in the planning of this massive project. As a result, trust between EirGrid and the local communities has broken down. The failure of the consultation process has resulted in citizens finding it necessary to form protest and representative groups to ensure their voices are heard in this debate. This is not acceptable and the only way to restore trust in the process and ensure the voices of local communities are properly heard is to establish an independent body to assess the EirGrid proposals. The motion sets out such a proposal.

The appointment of an independent assessor to conduct a full examination of EirGrid's proposals is clearly required. For this reason, the Fianna Fáil Party urges the Government to support our call for an independent international assessment of EirGrid's plans. This assessment, unlike previous reports, should be allowed examine all possible options and seek out best international practice for the implementation of the Grid25 project. It could address all health and aesthetic concerns held by communities and thereby create local confidence in the planning process.

The concerns of residents about the implementation of EirGrid's plans are understandable. The planned pylons and transmission lines are of a huge size and scale. EirGrid has done little to correct fears surrounding the health and aesthetic impact of the planned overhead lines in rural areas. On the contrary, it has stoked these fears further through its refusal to engage in proper consultations. These concerns, it seems, are held by the new chairman of EirGrid, Mr. John O'Connor. Responding to questions from members of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications this morning, Mr. O'Connor stated he would not like to live close to a pylon. He and EirGrid, as an organisation, must understand how communities that will live close to pylons feel on the matter. The company's plan to construct new grid lines in the north east, south east and west regions constitutes the most comprehensive upgrading of the national grid for more than two decades. For this reason, this investment must proceed correctly with the support of the communities which will be affected.

The Fianna Fáil Party is concerned with EirGrid's current plan to erect overhead pylons near residential areas and areas of scenic beauty. As I outlined, residents in a number of counties do not believe the company is listening to their concerns and have lost faith in the consultation process. One of the reasons for this lack of confidence was the fact that EirGrid made a number of key decisions in advance of any public consultation in planning the Grid25 project. The company decided that the capacity of the new power lines would be 400kV and the upgraded network would be carried in single routes. It also decided against underground lines due to perceived cost. These decisions need to be clarified as they have resulted in members of the public having little influence in the final planning decision of the project.

For these reasons, it is necessary to have an independent international assessment of the EirGrid proposals. An all-encompassing review is required to analyse the cost of placing the new transmission cables underground. It is vital that this option is considered. The report should also allow the proposed projects to be developed to the best international standards. In Denmark, for example, pylons are increasingly rare sights in the landscape because the country's policymakers have decided that underground cables are more sustainable and aesthetically pleasing. While this approach may result in increased costs in the short term, it would have incalculable long-term benefits.

The Government should support a review, especially in light of concerns expressed by Fáilte Ireland in response to a parliamentary question tabled by Deputy Dara Calleary in which the organisation stated the "character of the landscape" and "cultural heritage" of parts of the country close to the proposed electrical pylons could be at risk. The national tourism development authority indicated it had met with EirGrid to discuss the proposed schemes and outline its "objectives to protect the key tourism assets and amenities within the vicinity of these schemes". Fáilte Ireland has commenced working on a number of the schemes to ensure "key tourism assets and amenities are identified and considered appropriately within the planning process". This demonstrates that the concerns of residents about the impact of new power lines on the countryside are shared by the national tourism authority.

In its reply, Fáilte Ireland also stated, "It is considered that the character of the landscape and the various aspects of the cultural heritage of the area within the vicinity of the proposed [pylons] are the main tourism amenities that could potentially be at risk." We welcome the decision of the organisation to make a formal submission on the proposed schemes by the first week in January. It is also noteworthy that proposals to erect pylons have been accepted without restrictions as part of a planning process which imposes severe restrictions on other types of planning applications in sensitive areas and so forth.

Fáilte Ireland's concerns further highlight the need for proper and thorough consultation with communities and interest groups. The authority has clearly emphasised the need to consider alternative means of electricity transmission in certain areas where the landscape and tourism may be significantly damaged by overhead pylons. While the need to upgrade our electricity transmission system is clear and supported by Fianna Fáil, it must be done in a way that does not undermine other key strategic national assets. EirGrid must consider sustainable alternatives to overhead pylons in areas with high tourism potential.

Fianna Fáil's position is clear. We accept that the Grid25 projects are of national strategic importance and as such support the projects' construction. However, we believe that the amount of public consultation needed in order to advance and best inform the planning permission being sought has not been conducted properly. The fact that residents in most counties affected by these plans have accused EirGrid of not engaging in proper consultation shows that such consultation is not working. These accusations should be investigated, addressed and properly resolved.

From listening to every group that has contacted me and that I have met, those involved have far more to be doing with their lives than forming groups that are concerned about health, visual impact, their residential areas etc. They have joined these groups because they are genuinely concerned about the future of their families and communities. In some of the scenic areas, there are significant restrictions on any kind of alteration, even in some places in changing the pier of a gate, through the normal planning process through the local authorities, and I cannot understand how we can foist these pylons on them.

We believe that the construction of these projects must not have any substantial impact on residential properties in the regions which are currently being assessed. EirGrid must consider the laying of these transmission cables underground where possible. There is a precedent for this course of action. In 2004, similar concerns were raised in Cork and an independent mediator was brought in to adjudicate. In the end, transmission lines were laid underground in a number of areas where pylons were judged unsuitable.

This is not an insurmountable challenge. There is a way forward which will be acceptable to both EirGrid and local communities. The only way is to appoint an independent international assessment body which would report impartially on the EirGrid proposals. In addressing the health, visual and economic concerns held by the public and examining best practice internationally, we can go forward together.

To date, consultation has been lacking. Communities are up in arms trying to protect what is theirs for generations to come. The motion asks that we take a step back and appoint an independent international assessor to look at all the options so the best informed decisions are made on how we progress with this project.

7:55 pm

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity of speaking on this debate.

In the motion, we in Fianna Fáil propose that Dáil Éireann, "agrees that Ireland's electricity infrastructure and transmission capability be modernised, as well as expanded, to allow for a clean, sustainable and affordable supply to the public and to support all future economic and societal development." My party's motion goes on to call, "for an independent international assessment of the EirGrid proposals to take place, so that the health and visual concerns held by the public are fully addressed, the cost and placing underground of the transmission cables are fully examined and a report on these matters to be published by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources." I am pleased the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, is here to hear this debate and I am sure he would agree with the general sentiments in the motion.

The reason we are here on this issue is to discuss the plans by EirGrid for its grid development over the next number of years. EirGrid is basing all its plans on its document Grid25, which was published in 2008. Grid25, lest people be confused, is not about meeting energy targets, renewable energy or generating electricity. Grid25 is about the grid transmission system for electricity across the island of Ireland. Some believe this is about matters such as wind energy, gas or coal. It is merely about the transmission system for electricity, from where it is produced in the power stations to where it is required, either in industry or in homes.

My essential difficulty here, as I discussed with the chief executive of EirGrid at one of the public meetings in Carlow two years ago, is why EirGrid is bringing all these pylons over the country, from areas where the electricity is being produced to where it is needed. In the interests of sustainable development, I asked would EirGrid seek to have the electricity produced closer to where it is required and it would not need to traverse the countryside with hundreds of kilometres of major pylons and 400 kV lines. I thought that was a most reasonable straightforward question. In reply, the chief executive stated he was prohibited by law from doing that and that his sole remit is to deal with transmission and, under the Competition Authority, he cannot engage with individual generating companies as to where they locate their generating capacity. I believe the separation of electricity generation from electricity distribution has led to a lack of proper integration in the production of electricity and its supply to homes. There were probably good reasons at the time to separate the two organisations but as time moves on this legal difficulty between the generators and the transmitters of electricity is causing a problem. On the east coast, in Dublin and the Leinster region generally, where a large proportion of the population resides, there is a need for more electricity generation. If that was the case, we would not need to bring power lines from the west and from Cork and every other region to the greater Dublin area where it is required. We must look at this in a more sustainable way and avoid the need for erecting all these pylons through the country.

There are different aspects to the grid project. The grid link project, which I have just mentioned, involves bringing electricity from the Cork region, up through Wexford and ending up somewhere in the north Kildare area close to the Dublin region where the electricity is required.

It is important to point out that there is no primary legislation backing up EirGrid. I asked the Taoiseach about this last week and he replied there are plans to publish primary legislation to deal with EirGrid in 2014. It is set up on the basis of a statutory instrument and as such it has no compulsory purchase order, CPO, powers. If a CPO is required, it must be done by the ESB on EirGrid's behalf. I ask the Minister to deal with primary legislation on this matter which, in itself, will provide a further opportunity to have a proper debate on EirGrid.

EirGrid approached this from the beginning on the basis that it is a question of pylons or nothing. The Ceann Comhairle does not like me showing documents in the House, but "The Grid Link Project", dealing with linking the Munster and Leinster areas, published in autumn 2013, as recently as the other day, describes the next steps. EirGrid is looking at various corridors and within that, it will see where is the most suitable area to go. It states:

Following this round of consultation, EirGrid will review and consider all feedback received from stakeholders [the company has now extended that to January] and identify the least constrained corridor and substation sites. The least constrained corridor will be the best option from a technical, environmental, community and economic perspective within which an overhead line can be routed.
Before EirGrid started this, it decided that this was a matter of pylons overground. There are pictures of pylons on the front, in the middle and at the end of its document. Before they ever started, they had a closed mind on this issue. Even if they ever get to lodge an application for planning, such planning will not stand up. It might stand up in An Bord Pleanála, but it certainly will not stand up in the courts because the company will not have considered all the options and it is essential in modern planning that one does so before coming forward with a planning proposal. Their documents have shown from the beginning that they are only dealing with pylons and overhead lines, and they do not consider undergrounding.

We are all aware there are proposals for a North-South interconnector and grid west.

A major issue to be considered, and this is an argument trotted out by EirGrid - it uses glib wording in this respect because that is the type of wording required in an organisation such as this - is that a number of years ago EirGrid said the cost of putting the cables underground would be 15 times the cost of overhead pylons. A few years ago EirGrid officially stated that the cost would be nine times greater, and today it states it would be three times greater. The one thing I can say about EirGrid is that every time it produces a figure it is wrong. As time has passed, the figures have become more ridiculous on each occasion. We can be quite sure that its costing of the underground option as being three times greater than the cost of the overground option is also wrong. It cannot be trusted on that. That is one of the reasons we are asking for an independent international assessment to be carried out on the cost of undergrounding. We do not want to consider the issue of partial undergrounding and partial overgrounding because that would lead to additional costs.

With regard to EirGrid's documents, earlier this year the Minister published a document entitled "Government Policy Statement on the Strategic Importance of Transmission and other Energy Infrastructure", with which he will be very familiar. I agree with the document where it states, "Public acceptability requires public confidence that infrastructure adheres to the highest international standards of safety, health and environmental and visual impact, and technology choice." That document also states, "The Government does not seek to direct EirGrid and ESB Networks or other energy infrastructure developers to particular sites or routes or technologies." However, EirGrid does not seem to have got that message. In other words, the Minister is saying he has an open mind on this issue but EirGrid has not. The difficulty is that in 2008 when EirGrid produced its Grid25 document the cost of undergrounding, according to it at that stage, was about 15 times the cost of overgrounding and, therefore, it did not even contemplated the underground option. In the five years since that document was published the costings have changed. That document needs to be revisited right from the start in that context. EirGrid spoke about €4 billion of an investment on that occasion and the figure is now down to €3.2 billion. The cost has continually decreased as time has passed.

EirGrid started planning the North-South interconnector in July 2007, which was more than six years ago and it is not even at the planning application stage yet. It put in a flawed planning application and withdrew it out of embarrassment at the oral hearing. EirGrid as an organisation is not competent to do the job the Minister would require it to do, namely, to deliver electricity throughout the island of Ireland where it is needed and let that be done underground rather than an overground route. If EirGrid were planning the motorways, there would no motorway opened in Ireland.

Let us consider its experience in planning 400 kV lines. There are two major 400 kV lines in the country which run from Moneypoint to Kildare. They were put up more than 30 years ago. There is no person in EirGrid today who was involved in constructing anything like that in Ireland or in dealing with people and communities throughout the country in the last generation. There is no experience or competence in EirGrid and it is proving that time and time again. If it had been given the task of planning the motorways, we would not be even at the planning permission stage yet.

In regard to a document published on the undergrounding of the network, RPS, the consultants hired by EirGrid, considered alternatives to overhead lines but its report did not favour proposals to bury the cables. RPS said this was because its research suggested underground cables were more prone to problems and it took longer to fix them when glitches arise. I will explain that to the Minister. Two weeks ago I, along with 100 other people, attended an oral hearing in Portlaoise involving EirGrid. The oral hearing continued for six days and I was able to attend on two days. EirGrid was asked about this issue and it falsely created the impression that undergrounding would be less reliable and if a problem arose it could take up to 21 days to fix the cable. It was asked by a local councillor if there would be outages or blackouts during that 21-day period and, after six days of an oral hearing and two tonnes of documents supporting its planning application, it eventually conceded that there would not be a single minute of electricity outage because it always lays two cables when it goes to the trouble of laying cables underground. If one cable breaks it just switches to the other one and there is no disruption to power supply. It is a bogus, false statement for EirGrid to say undergrounding is unreliable and to create the impression that it would lead to blackouts. It always puts down two cables just in case one breaks down. EirGrid has never publicly said that but it was dragged out of it at an oral hearing in Portlaoise two weeks ago. The argument about reliability and accessing the cables is bogus and the Minister should run out of his office anyone who puts such an argument to him.

The issue of public consultation by EirGrid is important. It has been running a consultation process on a project in Ratheniska substation in County Laois for the past year or two. In tandem with that, Laois County Council was drawing up its new county development plan and in it the council considered the issue of power supply and transmission of electricity. As part of the public consultation by Laois County Council, a large number of submissions were received indicating that the 400 kV cables in Laois should be placed underground. Ultimately, the elected members of Laois County Council, having considered all the submissions, including those from EirGrid which participated in that public consultation process, and those from the council's own planning department, decided to insert the following requirement into the Laois county development plan, namely, "to require that all future 400 kV lines be put underground in County Laois". That is a simple sentence and that was the requirement. It was included in the final county development plan, as adopted by the elected members in accordance with all legal procedures, less than two years ago. EirGrid did not like that and the reason it did not like it was that it could not control it. It was the people, the elected members and the council who put that requirement into the county development plan. EirGrid took Laois County Council to the High Court to have that sentence deleted from its county development plan. The individual elected members of Laois County Council were informed by their legal advisers that they could be individually surcharged for any legal costs associated with a High Court challenge if they were not successful. In light of this financial threat to individual members of Laois County Council and to their family homes - that point was made clear to them - the council chose not to mount a defence. EirGrid succeeded in having this sentence deleted from the Laois county development plan by the High Court. That, to me, sums up EirGrid's attitude to public consultation. If it controls the process and can control the answer, it will go along with it but if the answer is put by somebody else and the process is carried out by somebody else and EirGrid does not like the answer, it will reject it and it will go to every court in the land to overturn what has been decided by way of public consultation. That is the most recent example in the past year or two of what it has done. That is not what it did in the case of an individual who it thought was difficult to deal with but what it did to a local authority. It took it to the High court because it did not like the development plan. That sums up EirGrid's attitude.

The Grid25 was probably drawn up at a time when it was considered absolutely impractical to consider the cost of undergrounding. That was five years ago. Time has moved on. EirGrid's costs have been always wrong on this topic. It is time to reassess that at this stage and the only way to do that is by getting a firm of international experts to examine best practice internationally because EirGrid does not have the ability or the competence to do the job. If the Minister wants Grid25 implemented, the way the EirGrid is going about it currently is certainly is not the way to do it.

8:05 pm

Photo of John BrowneJohn Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on the motion put forward by the Deputy Moynihan on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party. During the past few weeks in Wexford, in particular, numerous public meetings have been called in every parish, and I am sure similar meetings have held in other counties in the south east. I am a long time in this House, probably as long as the Minister, and I have never seen the likes of the turnouts at those meetings, with people attending who never go to public meetings. They filled halls in Ballindigan, Rathnure and New Ross and right across the Wexford constitutency. They all have the one message that EirGrid has caused consternation by its plans to erect 45 m high pylons across County Wexford and they are up in arms about that. Every issue has been raised at the public meetings including the impact in terms of reducing land valuations, the severe impact on tourism, environmental damage to the countryside and concern that scenic views will be destroyed.

The biggest worry of all is the effect the pylons will have on people's health. Despite politicians turning up to meetings and trying to explain the situation, people are very unhappy. They are unhappy with the attitude of EirGrid and feel EirGrid has not communicated with people on the ground. It announces that it will appear at a certain place at a given time but if it is invited to attend a public meeting, it refuses to attend. EirGrid has caused uproar in respect of the erection of pylons whereas the ESB was always able to negotiate and work in conjunction with the local people.

One of the issues is the number of grid lines EirGrid has put down. It is driving neighbour against neighbour and community against community. It has brought all of the communities together because we have the national pylon pressure group, pylon groups in the north east and pylon groups in the south east. They are banding together to work against the EirGrid proposals.

I have expressed concerns to EirGrid, verbally and in writing, that what they are trying to do will not work. People will not accept the idea of huge pylons erected across the countryside, doing particular damage to the environment and the aesthetics and devaluing land. No one seems to be able to give the assurance that this will not cause health problems. A significant body of research has been performed on the health effects of electric and magnetic fields associated with extra high voltage lines. Current scientific data confirm that exposure to electromagnetic fields above a certain percentage will create the risk of leukaemia, particularly in children. The issue has been constantly raised at public meetings. Increasingly, evidence shows it is associated with the increased risk of miscarriage, brain tumours, Alzheimer's disease and motor neuron disease. We are not, as public representatives, able to contradict this. The time has come for the issue to be sidelined for the foreseeable future, to have proper planning and independent international assessment, as Deputy Michael Moynihan called for, of EirGrid's Grid25 proposals for the upgrading of the national grid using overhead pylons. It is important, for both sides of the House, to have an independent assessment. People are very unhappy with the proposal at present.

Perhaps the Minister will outline why the line from Great Island to Meath, from Great Island to Dublin, and from Great Island to Cork, which is 200Kw, cannot be upgraded to meet the requirements EirGrid is talking about. People tell me at public meetings that we will spend a huge amount of money when lines could be upgraded. Most people are asking for undergrounding of the lines. From discussions with personnel on the ground, I know EirGrid deems this too costly. How costly is it if the current plans will affect the environment, tourism, farming and health-related issues? Having these lines underground seems to be the norm in European countries.

I read that the Minister said the underground option will add to the cost of electricity for the ordinary consumer. People tell me that if it adds a few per cent to the cost of electricity, they would rather that than have large pylons with no solutions from EirGrid in respect of health. They would rather pay extra money than have what is planned by EirGrid. This situation is causing major problems across the county and across the country. People seek answers they are unable to get. EirGrid cannot say there will be no health hazard, that it will not damage the environment, or that it will not devalue land. EirGrid provides the general answer that it does not expect these things to happen but, in this day and age in modern Ireland, that answer is not good enough. People seek real answers, real solutions and fairness from EirGrid and from the Government and politicians. They feel they are being sold a pup and asked to accept something that is not in their best interests or their long-term future interests or that of the country. They feel there are questions to be answered. The suggestion put forward by our spokesperson, Deputy Michael Moynihan, calling for an independent, international assessment of EirGrid's Grid25 proposals should be considered by the Minister. It may set back the situation by a few months but in the long term it will be more than worth our while to get the right way forward for production of electricity in this country.

It is not just Members on this side of the House who express concern or alarm at what is happening. Fáilte Ireland has expressed concern at the installation of overhead pylons throughout the country by EirGrid near areas of scenic beauty. Residents in various counties have also been angered by EirGrid due to its lack of proper consultation. Fáilte Ireland is concerned, the people are concerned, the farming community is concerned and the people creating jobs up and down the country are concerned. I accept the Minister has a job to do but we must do what is right by the people and by the country. We need infrastructure, which is important, but people's views, concerns and interests must be listened to and considered. The right decision should be made. Ireland's electricity infrastructure and transmission capability must be modernised and upgraded but it must be done in a way such that people have a say in selecting, can voice their opinions and put forward suggestions. It is not as if people do not put forward suggestions; they made suggestions to put the lines underground and to have an independent assessment of the health issues. A number of ideas on how to deal with this have been made by a number of people from all counties.

I hope the Minister is listening. The Minister had dialogue with Labour backbench Deputies, who are getting the same onslaught from the public as us. I hope the Minister gave them the message that he will examine an independent assessment and put the project on hold until everyone has been consulted and every community has been asked for submissions and suggestions. I hope the Minister will decide to have most of the project underground as the people request.

8:25 pm

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:“acknowledges the Government’s commitment to retain the electricity transmission and distribution networks in public ownership as strategic infrastructure and to ensure they are developed and maintained in the national interest;

recognises that investment in the national grid is vital to ensuring a secure, reliable and safe supply of electricity and is critical to economic recovery;

supports a grid investment strategy that reduces our dependence on imported fossil fuels, helps us create less carbon waste and enables us to reach our 40 per cent renewables targets by 2020;

recognises legitimate concerns about the impact of new transmission lines and other infrastructure on the landscape, the environment and on local communities;

notes the request of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications to extend the period of public consultation;

confirms, as set out in the Government Policy Statement on the Strategic Importance of Transmission and Other Energy Infrastructure of the 17th July, 2012, that EirGrid must take account of all relevant national and international standards and follow best practice and that, in particular, grid development must:
- be taken forward on the basis of the best available knowledge and informed consultation and engagement on the impacts and costs of different engineering solutions;

- comply with every applicable national and international standard – on health,environment, biodiversity, landscape and safety;

- be based on the best available advice and expertise and must address and mitigate any human, environmental or landscape impact; and

- be delivered in the most cost efficient and timely way possible;
welcomes the decision to extend the current public consultation to the 7th January, 2014 and, acknowledging that the consultation should proceed without disruption, notes that the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources will, after that date, respond on behalf of the Government to the issues raised;

calls on EirGrid:
- to fully engage with potentially affected communities;

- to examine impartially the case for all achievable engineering solutions;

- to undertake and communicate a well-informed, objective and authoritative analysis, impact assessment and pre-planning consultation; and

- to build community gain considerations into its project budgeting and planning; and
encourages the public to participate fully in the consultation process.”
I wish to share time with Deputies Conway, Áine Collins and Hannigan.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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I say to Deputy Browne and his colleagues opposite that I am not opposed to independent assessment but we are in the middle of a public consultation. This motion prejudges the outcome before the public consultation has been completed, and for that reason I must oppose the motion, although I accept that it raises some very important issues. The motion does not adequately acknowledge existing Government policy, the planning process and the legislation, which together provide a framework for ensuring that comprehensive statutory and non-statutory consultation is built into the process for rolling out major infrastructure and that all necessary standards for health, safety and environmental protection are met.

Energy is the lifeblood of our economy and society. Electricity and gas demand for business and households must be met safely and securely on a continuous basis every hour of every day, 365 days a year. The backbone of the power system is the transmission grid. We need the grid to ensure reliability of supply to businesses and households. We need the grid to take the power from where it is generated to where it is needed. Grid25 represents an investment in the transmission system of €3.2 billion over approximately 15 to 20 years, and it is central to ensuring Ireland develops a power system that meets our future energy needs in a sustainable manner. Grid25 will reduce our dependency on imported fossil fuels by putting the infrastructure in place to enable us use our own natural resources, help us create less carbon waste and enable us to reach our mandatory 40% renewable electricity targets by 2020.

As colleagues opposite have noted, building major infrastructure is becoming more challenging, yet most people understand that Ireland cannot attract investment and provide jobs without a modern energy system. Energy supply is at the top of the priority list of those thinking of investing in Ireland and our ability to rebuild the economy, attract and retain foreign investment, sustain Irish enterprise, create jobs and growth and deliver regional development and ensure the well-being of our people all depend on excellent energy connectivity. The Grid25 programme will facilitate both conventional generation and renewable energy projects and it will support future international interconnection. However, I emphasise that Grid25 is completely separate from the work under way in my Department on a possible intergovernmental agreement with the UK on wind export. As Deputy Sean Fleming pointed out, Grid25 was under way long before the notion of exporting renewable energy was conceived. Grid development is required to serve our own domestic energy needs and it will be still required regardless of whether any agreement with the UK emerges. The domestic grid will not be used to carry the energy we are contemplating exporting to Britain.

The Government established the statutory agency EirGrid to deliver a safe, secure and affordable electricity supply and although the Government will not direct EirGrid to particular sites, routes or technologies, as was made clear in the policy statement referred to by Deputy Fleming, the Government requires EirGrid to take account of all relevant national and international standards, to follow best practice and to ensure value for money. I want to reaffirm that it is Government policy and in the national interest - not least in current economic circumstances - that infrastructure investment programmes are delivered in the most cost efficient and timely way possible on the basis of the best available knowledge and informed engagement on the impacts and costs of different engineering solutions, including undergrounding.

With regard to the merits of an overhead or underground option, the House will know that the report of the international expert commission on the case for, and cost of, undergrounding all or part of the Meath-Tyrone line noted that there is no single "right" solution and that technical solutions must be project-specific. The commission estimated that the cost of a high voltage direct current, DC, underground cable would be three times the cost of a traditional overhead line. On the basis of the information available to me, I cannot say for certain that undergrounding other 400 kV lines in Grid25 would automatically be three times as costly.

In Europe, overhead is the norm for high voltage transmission infrastructure, although there is undergrounding of a small fraction of such infrastructure for various reasons. This does not obviate the fact that undergrounding remains the much more expensive option and it is considered to reduce system security. EirGrid is, under its licence, obliged to plan the transmission network in the most safe, secure, economic and reliable way possible. EirGrid has stated that underground cables are less reliable and more costly and can introduce technical difficulties. Moreover, underground DC cables are not the right fit from a technical perspective on major projects such as the 400 kV proposals. I have listened to Deputy Fleming challenging that assertion and it is clearly an issue that should be established beyond doubt.

Currently, short sections of underground alternating current, AC, cables would be considered by EirGrid where an overhead line solution is not practical or environmentally feasible. For example, this could occur in densely populated areas where no alternative exists; in congested areas of infrastructure where no alternative exists; where it is necessary to cross water and no alternative exists; or where no alternative exists except to route through an environmentally sensitive area and undergrounding is deemed to have less impact on the environment. Reference has been made to DC underground cable schemes in service in Europe today, including our own east-west interconnector, but these all involve submarine crossings. A few on-land schemes are planned, and Deputy Browne noted there will be a line from France to Spain, but these are not representative of the transmission system in Ireland because they will be interconnectors between two different grids as opposed to being part of a meshed backbone grid like ours. In Denmark, although there was a national desire and a willingness to pay for the undergrounding of the entire 400 kV grid, it was decided that this was not in fact achievable due to the technical difficulties, uncertainties and risks associated with installing long lengths of 400 kV underground cable, and the process would carry too high a risk for system security and stability. However, Denmark did agree to the undergrounding of lower voltage lines.

It is also important to realize that connecting any proposed new industry to an underground DC cable would cost in the order of five times to ten times more than would be involved in connecting to an overhead line because of the need to convert the power back to AC. This could act as a significant barrier to new industrial investment in areas along the route of an underground DC transmission system. Those areas would not benefit from the power lines they are hosting. This is a very important point with regard to regional development, as if somewhere along the line from Great Island to Dunstown a project was landed by IDA Ireland, the business of connecting the power supply from the DC underground system as opposed to the overhead system would be somewhere between five times and ten times as expensive, according to the professional advice I have. The thrust of reasoning for Grid West coming from Bellacorick in north Mayo to the midlands, or the line from Knockraha in County Cork through to Waterford and so on, is as a critical element of regional development and the capacity to use the transmission system to fuel that development.

I am however aware, as has been noted here, that many people are concerned about the impact that new transmission lines and other energy infrastructure can have on the landscape, the environment and on local communities. I have repeatedly stated that it is essential that Grid25 and other energy infrastructure plans be taken forward on the basis of the best available knowledge and informed, meaningful engagement on the impacts and costs of the various options.

EirGrid must now undertake and communicate a well informed, objective and authoritative analysis, a thorough impact assessment and engage in pre-planning consultation in arriving at optimal routes, technology choices, design and costings. It is required to address and, where possible, avoid any human, environmental or landscape impact in delivering the best possible engineering solutions for our small and still isolated electricity system. It must adhere to national and international standards on health, the environment, biodiversity, the landscape and safety as an intrinsic part of the planning process. Factors such as population density, visibility, biodiversity, water catchment areas and areas of outstanding natural beauty all have to be taken into account in planning the route. In addition, EirGrid must comply with electro magnetic field, EMF, exposure limits set by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection guidelines and with associated EU recommendations and environmental, habitat and biodiversity national and EU legislation. I must point out that national and international health and scientific agencies have reviewed more than 30 years of research into EMFs. None of the agencies has concluded that exposure to an EMF from power lines or other electrical source is a cause of any long-term adverse effect on human, plant or animal health.

I am disappointed to hear colleagues on all sides of the House criticise the quality of engagement in the consultation process. The planning framework which includes the national spatial strategy, regional planning guidelines, the local development planning process and the strategic infrastructure Act, collectively, provides the necessary framework for extensive statutory and non-statutory consultation, which is key to public confidence in infrastructural development. EirGrid has stated it will fully consider the views submitted. Ultimately, it will fall to An Bord Pleanála to decide whether the views expressed have been listened to, understood and properly dealt with in the final project design. Contrary to the impression given by recent headlines, I understand EirGrid is working closely with Fáilte Ireland on Grid25 to ensure it can outline its objectives of protecting key tourism assets and amenities. I expect EirGrid to continue its engagement with Fáilte Ireland and that it will reflect its views in its planning for and roll-out of Grid25 so as to minimise any impact the projects will have on tourism.

The decision to extend the current phase of public consultation on Grid Link until 7 January 2014 will provide EirGrid with an opportunity to reflect further on the valid concerns raised about various aspects of the project. EirGrid has set out the rationale for why overgrounding is preferred to undergrounding, both generally and in relation to Grid Link specifically, but it has also made clear that undergrounding at some locations will be considered in order to deal with environmental constraints and that this issue will be thoroughly investigated during the project development process.

Grid West, a €240 million project, is needed to connect the north west's huge renewable energy resources to the grid and also to facilitate significant job creation and investment. Grid West is being planned in accordance with a five stage roadmap. The timescale for stages 1 to 4, inclusive, is three years. All stages include opportunities for public feedback. Currently, Grid West has completed stage 1 of the roadmap, the information gathering stage. The project stage 1 report was published in March 2013. The report identified a number of route corridor options for the new line and the preferred route corridor was announced after full consideration of the report.

Grid25 will have positive impacts for local communities in underpinning regional and economic development and jobs, but any negative impact needs to be mitigated through the consultation process and also, where appropriate, community gain measures. My colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for planning, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, and I are agreed that a greater focus must be given to co-operative work with local communities and local authorities on the landscape, biodiversity and civic amenity benefits that bring long-lasting benefits to communities. We fully support a community gain approach in delivering energy infrastructure and underline the appropriateness for State companies to build community gain considerations into project budgeting and planning.

This House has not debated Grid25 since I became Minister. Therefore, I welcome this debate. This is the biggest energy network investment programme undertaken by the State since rural electrification. I hesitate to say Deputy Moynihan's motion is motivated by the controversy that has arisen surrounding the adequacy or otherwise of the public consultation process. He is entirely justified in raising the matter for debate. It is amazing that such a major investment plan has not been debated in the House. However, we should also debate the project's economic significance, as well as the need to deliver such an investment programme in the most cost-efficient and timely way possible in the interests of the energy consumers who need this investment and also pay for it. Once again, I urge citizens and public representatives to make their considered input before 7 January. As the amendment I propose sets out, I will return to the House to respond to the issues raised following the closure of the public consultation stage.

8:35 pm

Photo of Ciara ConwayCiara Conway (Waterford, Labour)
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I thank the Minister for giving me some of his time to speak in this very important debate. He is correct; for such a significant infrastructural project it is of concern that we have not had an opportunity to discuss it heretofore. There is much opportunism in the House, in particular on the Opposition side because the reality is that one cannot dismiss the consultation process. Given that it is not even finished, I question how one could presume or guess what the outcome will be. The closing date for the receipt of submissions from the public is 7 January.

I welcome the amendment proposed by the Minister to the motion. Two points are of particular note. There is a reference to EirGrid fully engaging with potentially affected communities. In his response to the motion the Minister expressed disappointment with the grave concerns expressed by Members on all sides about the consultation process to date. I hope EirGrid and those watching the debate will take cognisance of this. The difficulty for public representatives and our constituents is that we believe we are not being heard. In his response the Minister has outlined how EirGrid has stated it will consider undergrounding cables where it is technically possible, taking into consideration population density, visibility, biodiversity and water catchment areas. However, this has not been explained to people and it is not their understanding. I call on those who are carrying out the consultation process to take cognisance of this. When I engaged with EirGrid on undergrounding cables, I was dismissed.

The Minister also referred to an impartial examination of the case for achievable engineering solutions. People would really like to see a cost-benefit analysis of the case for undergrounding cables. We have heard that it is potentially three and a half times more expensive to put cables underground where it is technically possible to do so. However, we do not know if that is the case. The Labour Party, in particular, will put a figure on the social cost and environmental impact. As a Government we have taken decisions to extend measures over months and years. If it is technically possible to do it, the Government should make the investment in the grid to ensure it is environmentally sound, does not impact on the landscape, the environment or communities. We should embrace a process that would allow us to examine such issues because that is what people seek. I join the Minister and other speakers in calling on people to ensure they engage with the process and make their submissions before 7 January.

From engaging with communities along one of the proposed routes, stretching from the Blackwater near Lismore, where the pylons would be potentially disastrous, down through the Comeragh Mountains and up through Rathgormack, I noted their great concern is that not enough people knew about the matter. Concerned citizens engaged in a door-to-door information campaign to ensure engagement with the process. That community groups have taken this on shows us that the consultation process has not been successful. I welcome the communities' approach, however. I encourage communities and other groups to ensure that they make submissions to EirGrid on or before 7 January.

I was glad to hear the Minister say Fáilte Ireland is now engaging with EirGrid on the Grid25 programme. I was not aware of this. I was very concerned given that this is the year of The Gathering, which has been a great success. People have come to our shores to engage with us partly because of Ireland's natural beauty. I am glad of the Minister's statement and thank him for it.

8:45 pm

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I am thankful for the opportunity to speak on this motion. It is fair to say the Government, particularly the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, is very well aware of the concerns people have over EirGrid and the Grid25 plan. We know this because the Minister has agreed to extend the public consultation period to 7 January, thus giving every group and individual the chance to make their views known on this nationally important project. From my constituency, Meath East, I acknowledge there are many who want to make representations about the plans for the pylon network extending from Meath to Tyrone. People know we need a new interconnector but they have concerns about its impact. The preferred route in my constituency would see an additional 92 pylons, and up to 200 homes would be within 400 m of the wires.

People are concerned, largely for two reasons. First, there is concern over the perceived health risks attached to the pylons. Second, people are concerned about visual intrusion. With regard to the health risk, the concerns are over electric fields and magnetic fields. I was interested, therefore, to read the Government's report from March 2007 on the health effects of electromagnetic fields. The report suggests that electric fields are stopped by the walls of a house, which is good news. The peak magnetic field from a 500 kV line at 100 m is the same as that from a colour television in a living room if one is sitting a couple of feet away. I hope we can maximise the distance between people's homes and the wires such that it will be more than 100 m. By doing so, I hope we will allay the health concerns that exist.

Another concern is that the pylons, once built, could be in place for generation upon generation and represent a blight on future legacies. We must be aware of the fact that technology changes and evolves. I hope that, within 20 or 30 years, we will have moved on and not need the pylons anymore. If this is the case, we need to be absolutely sure that we will have funding in place to remove them. We do not want them standing when there is no need for them any more. I suggest to the Minister – I have spoken to his office about this – that a levy be imposed so that when the pylons are no longer needed, there will be sufficient money to take them down. As part of granting permission for the project, I would like the Minister to insist that potential future removal costs will be paid for by an ongoing levy on EirGrid. This solution could help to allay people's worry that the pylons will stand for generations.

People feel their communities will not benefit from the proposals. They agree that there is a national benefit but envisage little benefit for local communities. I suggest a community fund to help local community groups. I was glad to hear the Minister mention this in his contribution. An example of the proposed fund is evident in Meath and it works very well. I refer to the Carranstown environmental community fund, which was set up as a result of the incinerator in the east Meath area. It is paid into by the operators of the incinerator. Funding is given to community groups for walking areas, community arts projects, playgrounds etc. A similar approach could be taken here in that a levy could be imposed to help fund community projects. It would help to give something back to the local community.

We need to be very careful and aware of what we do. People have very genuine concerns and we need to work towards meeting them as much as we can. People recognise that the infrastructure is needed but they want to ensure their concerns are taken into account. I welcome the extension of the consultation period and urge EirGrid to ensure it fully engages with local organisations and individuals. Where possible, their needs should be taken on board.

Photo of Áine CollinsÁine Collins (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion.

As a nation, we import 90% of our energy. We are at the very end of the supply chain in Europe. Russia, to a large extent, controls the natural gas supply to Europe, and we have seen the problems this control is causing in Belarus. While there is still a possibility of gas and oil discovery around our coasts, any finds would, at most, have a minimal effect on the annual energy we import.

We have gone through five very difficult years and the signs are there that we are turning the corner. Unemployment has fallen, our banks have passed the recent stress test by the Central Bank and the public is regaining confidence. Energy security is central to this recovery, not only in terms of our domestic use but also in terms of commerce and industry. Investors will invest in this country only if they can be sure we will be able to supply the power to run their facilities.

In recent days, we have seen the reaction from the public, particularly shops and industry, on the possibility of threatened ESB action. The mere possibility of a few days or even hours of power outages scares the hell out of people. Certainty of energy supply is essential when we are on the cusp of a fragile recovery. Planning for our future energy needs is essential to the long-term growth of our economy. The Government not only wants to restore our current economy to some semblance of normality but also to ensure we have the groundwork done for sustainable growth. All the structural changes we have made during the three years of troika rule would be wiped away if we failed to meet our energy needs. We still have 400,000 unemployed. Many young people who have emigrated would like to return. This can only happen in an economy that can provide them with good jobs and a sustainable future.

The price of energy is important for the householder and industry but slightly cheaper prices are no good without security of supply. Wind energy provides us with a sustainable national resource that will help us increase our supply of energy nationally and also give us the opportunity to export. There will be continued advances in developing alternative energy, but today wind energy is the only answer. Economies that get involved in new technologies benefit early in all sort of ways from the growth and development of that technology. Germany has 40,000 jobs connected to the renewable energy sector alone.

There are issues to overcome. Naturally, people who live close to turbines and cables are anxious that their rights be protected. Every reasonable effort must be made to do that. All options must be costed and examined and compromises will have to be reached. With a reasonable approach on both sides – with some undergrounding in sensitive areas and overhead cables in more remote areas – problems can be overcome. However, undergrounding is four and a half times more expensive than installing overhead cables.

I come from a constituency where there are many wind farms and where planning permission has been granted for many more. I see a wind farm when I look out my window. We have had our problems as well but there are also many advantages. Many small farmers derive an income from wind energy that allows them to continue farming and live in rural communities, thus keeping schools open and GAA clubs operating. Many small community groups have provided community facilities in the villages with the help of funding provided by wind-farm developers. However, by far the most important consideration for the future is sustainable jobs and sustainable communities. As a nation, we cannot achieve this without energy security.

Photo of Michael ColreavyMichael Colreavy (Sligo-North Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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It is at least ten years, and possibly a little longer, since, as a member of Leitrim County Council, I tabled a motion stipulating that a multi-service roadside duct that could be used for anything, including water pipes, gas pipes, electrical wires and broadband lines, be installed during every roadside development. I suggested that such a duct be constructed as part and parcel of road construction, development and improvement projects.

I was told at the time that it would cost too much but consider the funding that would have been available to local authorities had they been in a position to rent out part of all of those ducts to companies. Talk about sustainable funding of local authorities. This was an opportunity identified by Leitrim County Council, passed to the then Government but rejected because it would cost too much. So much for costing too much.

Sinn Féin is not opposed to the Grid Link project: we support it. We recognise that the project will greatly enhance the security of supply and will assist us in reaching our targets for the generation of electricity from renewable resources. However, we share the concerns expressed in the motion before us tonight, concerns which are also shared by many communities with regard to what appears to be a determination on the part of EirGrid to place the transmission cables above ground.

We are also concerned about the promised consultation process and I will be raising this again with the Minister tomorrow during Question Time. Is it really a consultation process if EirGrid, with the seeming support of the Minister, has already decided to place the cables over ground? Such railroading of decisions is, of course, facilitated, and indeed encouraged, by the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act which, ironically, was framed by the party proposing this motion tonight. While important developments should not be overly impeded, there must always be proper consultation with the communities affected. We should all remember Rossport. Such a process also needs to be genuinely open, with the proposers of projects willing to change their plans when required to do so or when common sense indicates that it is the right thing to do. We would argue, therefore, that the aforementioned Act must be amended and updated to ensure that proper and transparent consultation and planning takes place. That would go a long way towards addressing the genuine concerns of communities affected, in this instance by the pylons, and in others, by wind farms and other infrastructural projects. This country needs a landscape and land management strategy and policy, which this Government should develop. We should not always be responding to individual developments, fire-brigade style.

It is the scale of the proposed overhead pylons which is of most concern. We are talking here about 1 km corridors which will have a massive impact on the visual landscape, not to mention on those living in the vicinity, on agricultural land, property values, health and so forth. Apart from research proving the very real dangers to health, such as that conducted by Professor Draper of Oxford, there is also evidence that the cost of placing cables under ground may not be as prohibitive as is sometimes claimed. There are conflicting claims regarding the technical feasibility and the comparative costs of running cables underground. Costs must be considered in the context of the lifetime of the project, which is anything from 35 to 43 years and must not be viewed as a once-off capital sum. That is why Sinn Féin and others have called for a fully independent cost benefit analysis to be conducted into the pros and cons of overhead versus underground cables over the 40 to 50 year life span of the installations. There are also good precedents in other States for placing cables under rather than over ground. We should study what is happening in Denmark, for example, from which we could learn a lot..

It is for all of the above reasons that we are supporting this motion.

8:55 pm

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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Sinn Féin agrees that Ireland's infrastructure must be of the highest international standard and must continually be improved and upgraded to ensure we deliver electricity to those businesses and households who need it. This must be done in the most sustainable and cost-effective manner possible. Sinn Féin welcomes the enhancement of supply and expansion of the electricity grid and the stated aims of EirGrid to help secure future electricity supplies, to help Ireland meet its 40% renewable energy target and to provide a platform for economic growth and job creation. This is vital if we are to meet our international carbon emission targets, but we are concerned at the potential impact of the construction of the proposed high voltage power lines, most notably in the areas of agriculture, health and the environment, as well as on land and property values.

I have been contacted by numerous constituents about this issue and they are very concerned. East Cork will certainly be affected by this, whether it is one parish or the next. The K8 choice runs north towards Fermoy, just falling short of it; the K4 passes south of Castlelyons; the K20 goes through Conna; and the K17 passes by Dungourney and Clonmult. Knockraha will almost certainly be affected as the southern terminus of the Grid Link. My constituents are very concerned about what this will mean for them, in terms of their health, their environment and their pocket.

Sinn Féin welcomes EirGrid's extension of the consultation period until 7 January 2014. I am happy to put on record that Sinn Féin made a comprehensive submission. We commend the community-based groups across the island that have been campaigning effectively on the issue. They have helped to inform communities and politicians of the projects and have been voicing the very many genuine and serious concerns that communities have about the proposed projects. We will continue to work with these campaigns until the outstanding issues are resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

The central issue is whether EirGrid should erect pylons to carry the high voltage cables or lay the cables underground. One argument put forward by EirGrid and others is that it is far more cost effective to use pylons but this is short termism at its worst. It was this sort of drive for short-term gain that brought the economy to near bankruptcy in the not so distant past. We need to take the long-term view. Having researched and consulted with experts, Sinn Féin's position is clear. While underground cables cost more at installation than overhead lines, they are low-maintenance, have lower transmission losses and have a longer lifespan. The initial additional outlay will be offset over time by their many advantages.

Underground cables have lower transmission losses than overhead lines because, due to thermal reasons, underground cables have a larger conductor and therefore significantly smaller losses. Studies on several 400 kV transmission grids show that the characteristics of underground cables can, in many cases, be beneficial to the overall performance of the network. Disturbance of underground cables occurs less frequently than for overhead lines. Overhead cables are affected by severe weather whereas only outside influences can disturb and damage underground cables. Underground cables are low-maintenance compared to overhead lines.

The Sinn Féin submission calls on the Government to direct EirGrid to proceed with the proposed projects only on the basis that the cables will be laid underground, as per its pre-election promises. In the case of the North-South interconnector, we propose that the lines be placed underground using ducts within the new A5/N2 road development. It is possible, reasonable and more cost efficient in the long run. Let us not be penny wise and pound foolish. We also believe the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act, which facilitated the forcing through of such projects, regardless of the expressed wishes of communities, should be repealed. Communities have a right to have their say. The communities in my constituency have legitimate concerns. They want to know what will happen if they are not, as a community, happy. What additional powers does Eirgrid have, beyond those enjoyed at present by Bord Gáis and the NRA, regarding access and entry rights to land? They are concerned as to whether they will be compensated for disruption during construction and for the presence of the pylons. They also have concerns regarding health and, in particular, the question of how close dwellings should be to such 400 kV power lines. Given that our health is so hugely dependent on our immediate environment, this is a very legitimate concern.

People are reasonable and are not opposed to improved power transmission but these are extraordinary constructions. The safest, most sensible and cost-effective thing to do is to lay the cables underground.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue tonight. It is an issue which affects thousands of individuals and families right across this island, from Tyrone to Cork and right through the heart of my own constituency of Cavan and Monaghan. My constituents are angered by the arrogance of the approach by this Government through its designated Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte and, more particularly, by the conduct of the State-owned electric power transmission operator, EirGrid.

I take this opportunity to commend the steadfast work of the Monaghan Anti-Pylon Committee and the North East Pylon Pressure Committee, which have led the way for the campaign of opposition.

It has engaged in this process at every level and taken apart, piece by piece, the false arguments made by EirGrid. It represents communities along the proposed route of the North-South interconnector which is to connect counties Meath and Tyrone via counties Cavan, Monaghan and Armagh. These communities are, rightly, angered by the arrogant approach of EirGrid and successive Governments. More than that, however, they hold legitimate and earnest fears. They fear for their health and that of their children should they be forced to live in the shadow of massive pylons carrying powerful 400kV power lines. They hold the legitimate concerns that the value of their land and property will be decreased if they are unfortunate enough to lie in the path of these metal monsters. They also fear the impact such pylons will have on current and prospective businesses and the tourism potential of the areas in which they live. This concern is also shared by Fáilte Ireland.

These communities have been met by a wall of silence and a sea of indifference. The economic argument in support of overgrounding versus undergrounding, as presented by EirGrid, simply does not stand up to any thorough or robust scrutiny. I recall a time when EirGrid state undergrounding would cost 12 times that of overgrounding. Now, it publically states it is closer to three times the cost. I also refute this figure. I am confident in this regard because we in Sinn Féin commissioned an industry expert to advise us on the likely difference. The Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, and EirGrid officials should have pen and paper at the ready. The industry expert we commissioned stated the real cost of delivering the North-South interconnector underground as opposed to overground would amount to 5p per household bill per year over the 40 year projected lifespan of the project. I invite EirGrid to prove him wrong. It needs to act on the instruction of the responsible Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte.

Communities have spoken, often in numbers and with a unity not seen in 100 years. It has united people of diverse opinion on the issue as reflected in this Chamber. They have gathered in hotels, GAA halls, community centres and local facilities in opposition to EirGrid's proposals as presented. They have sent the clearest of messages - they want the grid placed underground. More than that, they want the opportunity to show EirGrid, as well as the decision-making authorities and individuals, that undergrounding is a safer and better way, both economically and socially.

I support the motion tabled by Fianna Fáil.

9:05 pm

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Seamus Healy is sharing time with Deputy Catherine Murphy.

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary South, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
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There are significant concerns, anger and frustration at the GridLink 25 proposal across the Munster counties of Cork, Tipperary and Waterford and the Leinster counties of Wexford, Kilkenny, Kildare and Carlow. Thousands have turned out at public meetings across the areas in question. I congratulate all of the various action groups involved and the legendary cyclist, Sean Kelly, for his leadership on the issue. This is an intolerable proposal that will be resisted.

Everyone accepts that the country must have a top quality electricity infrastructure. What is at issue, however, is the manner of its delivery. The Grid Link proposal is monstrous, with 750 monster pylons over a route of 250 km, standing 45 m high, ten times the height of the average bungalow, and set at 330 m intervals. Residents will have to live with them 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. These monsters will blight the landscape for locals and visitors alike, destroying local tourism industries. Large scenic areas across south Tipperary and west Waterford are affected by this proposal.

EirGrid is engaged in a sham consultation process that does not include undergrounding or undersea options. It is also involved in a divide and conquer approach, setting residents along one route against another, as well as neighbours along individual routes against each other. There are concerns about the devaluation of lands, houses and properties, with the possibility of not being able to sell them in the future. Significant health issues are also at stake. National and international reports have failed to confirm that high voltage power lines are safe for humans. Some have pointed to significant health issues such as childhood leukaemia.

Best international practice involves the undergrounding of such lines. Denmark, the Netherlands, Japan, France and Spain are good examples of where this has happened. They have shown undergrounding is technically possible and financially feasible. I call on the Government to suspend the Grid Link project pending the outcome of an international independent feasibility study of the laying of these lines underground and underwater.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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This Private Members’ motion focuses on EirGrid’s pylon proposals. However, the major wind energy proposals are, of course, linked. While wind and wave energy projects represent a major opportunity, the main question is how we develop them. The idea of a ring main around the island has not been given the consideration it deserves. Such a ring main would lie offshore, which would bring obvious savings in that there would be no need for a land take. It would only require short land connections to the main onshore wind farms in the west and County Donegal. Offshore wind farms such as the one at the Kish, as well as other future offshore wind farms, present a potential link with wave energy facilities. That is where the big export possibilities lie into the future and where our natural advantages can be found, particularly on the Atlantic coast. Such a ring main offers a potential link for wave energy facilities currently envisaged on the west coast, with the national testing centre offshore near Belmullet. Existing power stations such as Moneypoint, Aghada and Poolbeg are also on the coast, as are all of our cities and areas of high consumption. Accordingly, the ring main could solve many future planning problems.

When undertaking a cost-benefit analysis of any proposal, all aspects, including loss of visual amenity, potential health and safety implications, obsolescence and maintenance issues, must be fully considered. While undergrounding high tension cables will protect the visual amenity, it is also important to consider the environmental impacts which are not often highlighted with undergrounding such as the land take for the necessary corridor and buffer zones, as well as the need for more extensive protection for cables and the large concrete encasement required. While it may be more expensive in the short term to develop it in this way, in the longer term it must at least be explored from the point of view of future investment.

We urgently need a landscape policy that should be in place before such major schemes are embarked on. I would have thought that would be self-evident. Industrial wind farms are proposed in the midlands, with many structures reaching 185 m. While I am in favour of developing wind and wave energy projects, the process cannot be developer-led or cannot ignore the obligations under the Aarhus Convention. It must find acceptance among neighbouring communities if it is to be a sustainable energy source. However, what is happening is that positions are polarising and a major rethink is needed. Will the Minster give more consideration to the ring main proposal which has not yet received the attention it deserves?

Debate adjourned.