Tuesday, 1 June 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed) - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
65. To ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment when the review of the North-South interconnector will be published; if he will ask Eirgrid to halt all activities relating to the construction of the interconnector, including stopping procurement processes until such a time as the Government review into the project is undertaken and reports; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29409/21]
When will the review of the North-South interconnector be published? Will the Minister request that EirGrid halt all activities relating to the construction of the interconnector, including stopping procurement processes, until such time as the Government review into the project is undertaken and reports? Will the Minister make a statement on the matter?
The North-South interconnector is critical to improving the efficient operation of the all-island single electricity market and increasing security of electricity supply in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It will also help Ireland to move towards our 70% renewable electricity target by 2030. A resilient and well-connected energy infrastructure is vital for Ireland's economic well-being and the ability to respond to the future needs of energy consumers.
The option of undergrounding the North-South interconnector has been comprehensively assessed on several occasions. Most recently, the key finding from the international expert commission's report of October 2018 was that an overhead line remains the most appropriate option for this critical electricity infrastructure.
Notwithstanding this, I have decided to commission a further short review to assess if the overall finding from the 2018 report remains valid. Terms of reference for this study were published on my Department's website on 21 April. On 7 May, my Department initiated a procurement process using the procurement frameworks administered by the Office of Government Procurement to appoint an expert to undertake the review. The aim is to complete the review as quickly as possible.
The 2012 Government policy statement on the strategic importance of transmission and other energy infrastructure states: "The Government does not seek to direct EirGrid and ESB Networks or other energy infrastructure developers to particular sites or routes or technologies". Due to the long lead times that can arise in projects of this nature, EirGrid gained early approval from the independent energy regulator to commence procurement. However, there will be no supply of materials until the planning process in Northern Ireland is complete and construction will not commence until the latest review is concluded.
On the current review, has the Minister appointed a review team yet? If so, who is involved and when were they appointed? If not, when will the team be appointed? What is the timeline for its work? When and where will it meet and who will it engage with?
I read the terms of reference for the review. This is a missed opportunity to get the project back on track because it does not do the two things that are needed. The first is to provide assurance that the best and most up-to-date evidence is being used and the project is being developed with the best and most up-to-date information. The second reason is related. The review will not assuage the concerns of residents who see it for what it is, that is to say, another box-ticking exercise. That is regrettable because I believe there is an opportunity to get this right. The Minister needs to be brave and take it.
We have not yet appointed the team. I expect it will be appointed shortly and that the review will take a short number of months. It is important for all concerned that we get clarity on this and it reaches a conclusion. The project has been an issue for many years now. It has been subject to extensive planning consultation, court hearings and ongoing court proceedings in Northern Ireland. Nothing can happen until that judicial process is concluded. That allows us a period to do a further review.
The North-South interconnector is critical infrastructure. We need to assess again the recommendations issued with regard to overgrounding versus undergrounding. One thing is absolutely clear; we need this project completed quickly. There are real stressed conditions in the provision of power in this country. The same applies on the other side of the Border. If we do not provide proper interconnection, a fracturing of energy policy will materialise across the island, between North and South. I imagine we all agree that is something we should try to avoid.
Energy needs in the North have changed substantially according to the information presented. That points to the need to have some analysis and a review of this project that is up to date and takes on board current and future demand. I note reports in the Sunday newspapers on the prospect of blackouts and concerns about energy security.
I believe the North-South interconnector is a perfect example of the failed efforts of EirGrid, supported or enabled by Government, to deliver needed projects.
Will the Minister acknowledge that there are fundamental weaknesses in the approach taken by EirGrid with regard to public involvement in this project when compared with, for example, the approach taken in respect of the Kildare-Meath line? Will he acknowledge that, according to the 2018 report, undergrounding is technically feasible and that the arguments made to the contrary do not stand up and have been busted?
I acknowledge the reports in the Sunday newspapers to which the Deputy referred. They are correct in that we have seen, in recent months, a series of amber alerts on our system pointing out the real difficulties we have. These are due to a whole variety of different complex issues, largely gas infrastructure being out of commission. They are also due to a lack of investment in the grid and our lack of options to move and balance power across the island at local and national levels. One of the other things which is becoming increasingly clear, and which I see in my everyday life as a member of the Government, is that new industrial developments and employment opportunities are increasingly going to those areas where the grid is secure and accessible. This is one of the reasons an overground solution presented itself. Such a solution allows for the north east to attract industry which will need to connect into that grid. This will only work, however, if it is part of a stable grid. This requires North-South interconnections. As we develop more and more renewable power, we will be able to balance our system and provide jobs, which is what this grid interconnection will do more than anything else.