Dáil debates

Wednesday, 10 November 2021

Rising Costs and Supply Security for Fuel and Energy: Motion [Private Members]


10:02 am

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I move:

"That Dáil Éireann: recognises:

— that as the second winter of the pandemic approaches, we are now contending with a cost-of-living crisis on multiple fronts;

— that the Government’s climate action policies are having a profound socio-economic impact on everyone;

— the key EirGrid report (operator of the national grid) warning that Ireland could face electricity deficits for the next five winters;

— the EirGrid prediction that low availability of power plants in Ireland was likely to contribute to the energy issues faced by the country this winter;

— that there have been at least 31 energy price hikes by suppliers this year, meaning bills skyrocketing by as much as €805 for some customers, leaving the country in the grips of an energy crisis;

— that electricity prices in Ireland are the highest in the European Union (EU), according to Eurostat;

— the warning from the Irish Road Haulage Association that the all-time high record increases in petrol and diesel are ‘crippling the sector’ and increasing all consumer goods, as a consequence of increased transport costs;

— that soaring petrol and diesel prices will continue to rise unless the Government stops heaping taxes on consumers;

— that soaring petrol and diesel prices are disproportionately affecting people in rural Ireland, who have very limited access to public transport and alternative fuel sources;

— that currently the motorist is paying approximately €1.70 for a litre of petrol, of which €1 (around 60 per cent) goes directly to the Government, mainly via excise duty, carbon taxes and VAT;

— that the Government will increase the price of petrol and diesel even further from 1st January next, when the increases from Minister Eamon Ryan’s ‘Energy Efficiency Obligation Scheme’ and ‘Biofuels Obligation Scheme’ kick in, with consumers facing a hike of a further three cents per litre;

— that the Government-imposed carbon tax (now at €41 per tonne of carbon) is having a bruising impact on the cost of home heating oil, electricity, petrol and diesel;

— that the Government’s skimpy fuel allowance increase announced in Budget 2022 is grossly insufficient;

— that research by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVP), earlier this year (and before recent price hikes), reported that many people had already been cutting back on heating or electricity due to cost, including 42 per cent of people unable to work due to illness or disability; that’s almost one in three renters and 36 per cent of one-parent families;

— that Government-imposed taxes on fuel and energy are having a profound impact on all rural residents, who have no alternative but to use oil to heat their homes and to use their cars to commute to work and bring their children to school;

— that the European Commission developed a ‘toolbox’ of measures to mitigate the short-term surge, encourages member states to cut taxes and levies that typically account for around a third of energy bills;

— that the Irish Government blatantly objected to a fundamental change to the EU’s energy market, proposed by Spain and France, which would have brought about reduced energy costs and greater security of supply, through a new joint energy procurement initiative;

— that Irish produced gas has four to thirteen times less carbon intensity than the natural gas we import from the United Kingdom (UK);

— that despite the benefits of Irish produced gas for the planet over imported gas, the Government made the illogical decision to ban future gas exploration in Ireland, through the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021, which completely undermines our uncontested need for more gas-fired power generation to ensure continued security of electricity supply;

— that Ireland’s energy security is now at risk, due to frenzied Government bans on new gas explorations, by relying solely on the UK (who can control supply and price) for this country’s gas supply to heat homes and provide electricity;

— that in Spain, where energy prices increased by 35 per cent in the twelve months to August (less than in Ireland’s case), the Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, has dialled back prices to what Spaniards paid in 2018, by cutting taxes and capping costs; and

calls on the Government to:

— immediately act on the European Commission DIY toolbox aimed at mitigating the impact of higher energy prices, by slashing taxes and offering help to impacted households, motorists and sectors such as agriculture and road transport;

— immediately reverse the decision to increase the carbon tax in Budget 2022 and beyond, until the full impact of the energy crisis is fully understood and a cost-benefit analysis undertaken, by whatever parliamentary means necessary, including new legislation, if required;

— reduce the excise duty on all motor fuel by 50 per cent until the energy crisis abates and a proper and common-sense plan for rural public transport alternatives is put in place in every rural community, and the purchase price of electric cars is affordable to the ordinary motorist;

— reduce the excise duty on petrol (currently 62.77 cent per litre) and diesel (currently 51.9 cent per litre) by 50 per cent from now until at least the end of 2022, which alone would save up to €18 on a €100 fill up of petrol/diesel, for the regular motorist;

— reduce VAT on all motor fuels, electricity, and home heating oil to below 5 per cent until the end of 2022;

— establish a multi-million-euro discretionary fund to support energy costs for all low-income households and introduce a voucher (to be paid before Christmas) of at least €250 for every low-income household in the State;

— implement measures to ensure suppliers must commit to keeping the lights on for vulnerable and financially insecure customers and make sure that there are flexible options available for people to address energy debts;

— fully recognise that for people in energy poverty assistance is needed in the present; while retrofitting offers a long-term answer to the high bills caused by inefficient and substandard housing; it is this winter that those people need the urgent support, not in some Governmental plan in six or seven-years’ time, as well as contributing to climate action targets;

— allocate funding and implement an action plan to clear the piling backlog for applications under the home retrofitting schemes with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland; and

— direct the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities into meaningful discussions with industry actors over how gas and coal-fuelled electricity plants, set to close their doors in the coming years, should instead be kept open to stave off a potential longer-term energy crisis."

Before I discuss this very important motion, I thank Máirín McGrath and Brian Ó Domhnaill, who have helped us to put it together. I also wish Deputy Mattie McGrath, our group leader, the very best. He continues to recuperate from a recent illness. Please God he will be back with us soon.

Some 94% of voters are concerned about the rising cost of living. Consumers are facing higher charges at the fuel pumps and for their electricity and gas bills due to the surge in energy prices. Data from pumps.ieindicate that in March 2021 petrol was €1.33 per litre and diesel was €1.24 per litre. On 7 November, just three days ago, petrol was €1.728 per litre and diesel was €1.62 per litre, more in some places. That is an average price increase of 30%. The Government in VAT alone takes 12% from that increase in the price of petrol and about 9% from the increase in the price of diesel. As the price of fuel increases, the Government gets more income.

There are a number of causes of the natural gas and oil demand surge. Europe's unilateral reduction of its nuclear power capabilities and coal power production is one cause. Chinese and other Asian coal output coming in below what is needed as the global economy recovered from Covid-19 is another. As many power plants can switch between coal and gas, global competition for natural gas supplies has kicked in.

The energy price surge in Ireland is an extraordinary and urgent situation that requires urgent action. The energy transition, ecological transition and decarbonisation the Government talks about are possible only if consumers and industries perceive the benefits of transition. In Ireland, consumers are not experiencing any such benefits. In fact, the opposite is the case, and many leading international economists are now warning that matters will get much worse. In Ireland, EirGrid is now warning that heavy industry, business and householders face real-time risks of electricity outages during morning and evening peaks. The Government has failed utterly to guarantee the security of electricity supply.

As for the financial impacts, I have no doubt that if there is a blackout in this country, the Government will be run out of the Dáil, so it should be very careful if that is the outcome the people will have to suffer. They are suffering enough in the pocket, but if they have to suffer mentally and physically because of the Government's inadequacies, I assure the Minister of State that its days are numbered. Many Government Deputies' days are numbered in any case, judging by what the people out there tell me. The financial impacts of the pandemic remain with the households and many families, having used up savings, are carrying the burden of debt from the extra costs and lower incomes of the past 18 months. Worrying numbers of people identified by research commissioned by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul at the beginning of the year reported cutting back on heating or electricity due to costs. They included 42% of people unable to work due to illness or disability, almost one in three renters and 36% of one-parent families.

Throughout this winter, those in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment will also see their incomes reduced as the payment is gradually withdrawn. The main welfare rate onto which people will transfer has been shown to be inadequate and will remain so after it was increased by €5 in January. Data from the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice show that in 2021 the gap between social welfare for a single adult and the cost of a basic but decent standard of living is €49 every week. For a lone parent with two children, the weekly gap is €82.

We are deeply concerned that this crisis will come to a head during the coming months as households are unable to find extra room in their budgets for escalating energy costs. For those at risk of disconnection or those on prepayment meters who cannot afford to top up, this could mean being unable to afford to stay warm and keep the lights on. That has serious health implications and is a situation that should be avoided at all costs. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, to imagine not being able to afford to turn on the lights or the heating. There is no solution. Deputy Leddin was in the House the other day saying the Government has no solution. It has no solution, only continuing to hit people in the pocket harder and harder. We already have the highest electricity prices in the whole of Europe so we cannot just say this is a global issue. It is an Irish issue.

Household energy costs are rising at a rapid rate. The Government must now step in and protect households facing significant arrears and acute risk of disconnection by establishing an emergency response fund. The budget saw the fuel allowance extended to more people but, crucially, it still misses out on the low-earning families on working family payments. For those households a discretionary fund to alleviate energy costs and debt will be vital. Suppliers must commit to keeping the lights on for vulnerable and financially insecure customers and make sure that flexible options are available to people to address energy debts.

Weakening Ireland's economy will do nothing for the environment because our emissions are incredibly low, globally speaking, and because countries such as China can easily counteract whatever Ireland does with the flick of a switch. It is bad enough that the Taoiseach went to the COP26 conference and made a large number of economically devastating promises in an effort to blow up his image for a global crowd. He was treating Irish money like confetti thrown around at a wedding. I do not know what game he was up to. What he did not realise was the absence of any honest commitment on the part of countries such as China, Russia, India, Australia and America. We cannot blame Greta Thunberg for saying it was a whole load of "blah, blah, blah" out there. That is exactly what it was from start to finish. When the big powers are only laughing at the small boys coming into town trying to show off their muscle, we are nothing, and the way our Taoiseach carried on was a disgrace. It demonstrated how self-destructive the Government's approach is.

The increase in energy prices is also having a significant and immediate impact on the agriculture, fishing, transport and mobility sectors, resulting in higher costs for farmers, drivers, passengers, bus owners, lorry owners and freight transport users. In the long term, this will mean the destruction of Ireland, especially rural Ireland, thanks to the Green Party, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. There is a mindset change here. There is no mindset change on the part of the Green Party - we know where it stands - but there is on the part of Fine Gael. I saw a former Minister stand up here about a month ago to say agriculture must now take its cuts so we can save other sectors in our country. That was an astonishing statement from a former Fine Gael Minister. It is no wonder agriculture is worried and terrified by the way the Government is continuing.

Pensioners are finding it very difficult to keep their homes warm. The Minister of State might say they got €5, but €5 is nothing. Considering what they are trying to pay extra for a bag of coal, home heating oil and electricity, that €5 is soon gone out of their pockets. It is like giving them money with one hand and taking it away with another. I was talking to a bus owner in west Cork who runs a bus company for public transport, West Cork Connect. He told me it was costing him €110 to do a return trip.

This man is doing several return trips from Skibbereen and Bantry every day and is saving the State millions of euro every year. Taking cars off the road is great for the environment and he also has a very good time schedule. Last year, it cost him €110 to do one trip. It is now costing him €160. What is the Government doing? It will destroy the economy and country. We can forget about green policies because a continuous rise in fuel costs will stop this man operating, which will put cars back on the road. These policies are having the most unbelievable negative effect on our environment.

Carbon tax is nothing but an attack on the people of rural Ireland. I have said this often enough. It affects only one sector, which is people, including those I represent in my constituency. People are incensed. I was at a funeral on Monday and people were pulling me aside and telling me this had to stop and somebody should pull the plug because these guys are out of control. I was astonished by the number of people saying this and the anger out there. The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act was blindly supported in this House by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin. Nobody saw it but the devil was in the detail. These parties have turned their backs on the people. They should have looked at the detail before they signed up.

There must be an immediate cut of 5% in the VAT rate for petrol, gas, home heating oil and electricity. A once-off energy voucher worth €250 must be given to people because they are facing an immediate crisis on their doorsteps. There must also be a freeze or reversal of the carbon tax because people cannot afford it. Any Deputy who tells the House that people can well afford it should be damn well mindful of his or her seat. We also call for a 50% cut in excise duty. This is the least my colleagues and I ask for in this debate.

10:12 am

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

There is not one Member of this House who does not have a green agenda or does not want the environmental agenda to work. There must, however, be a common-sense approach here. If the Government wants people to get electric cars, it must incentivise them to do so. If it wants people not to use their cars, it must provide public transport services. I have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no public transport in rural villages and towns. There may be public transport in the larger cities but beyond the areas where the 50 km speed limit applies in the cities, there is very little rural public transport. It cannot work.

I want to save my planet but I also want to use a common-sense approach. My car does almost 1,000 km per tank of diesel. I do my best coming up and down to Dublin. There is no infrastructure to bring me to Dublin by train because trains are not available if I go home late. There is no place for me to park my car if I want to use bus transport. The cheapest way for me to come to Dublin is by car, which burns a tank of diesel for each 1,000 km I drive.

In recent weeks, I have listened to Deputies debate fuel increases and propose that this or that be done. I remind the public that on 16 June, Deputies passed the deeply damaging climate action Bill, which means extra costs for goods, higher electricity bills and fuel costs, the culling of the cow herd and the ending of turf cutting. Thirty-four Fianna Fáil Deputies, 27 Fine Gael Deputies, 12 Green Party Deputies, all six Labour Party Deputies and all the Social Democrats Deputies, five Deputies from Solidarity-People Before Profit and five from the Regional Group, 30 Sinn Féin Deputies and four Deputies from the Independent Group voted for the Bill. Two Deputies from the Independent Group voted against it, as did the members of the Rural Independent Group. The same people who, day in and day out, hammer the Government and call it a disgrace voted for this Bill. All of the Opposition parties, bar ten Independent Members, voted for all of these cuts.

I was missing on the day the House voted on the climate action Bill because I was in hospital. Otherwise, the vote would have been 128 in favour with 11 against. I have my morals and I will say it as it is. Everyone, bar ten independent Deputies, voted for the Bill. RTÉ gives full coverage to Opposition Deputies who voted for increases in fuel and electricity costs when they now say they are against the Government. Independent Deputies are not against legislation but we want infrastructure put in place so we can all work together. However, there is no infrastructure.

I highlight our call on the Government in this motion "to immediately act on the European Commission DIY toolbox aimed at mitigating the impact of higher energy prices" by slashing taxes and offering help to impacted households, motorists and industry. Last week, I spoke on haulage costs and the impact this has on every household in Ireland. Bringing food to the tables of these households is a primary objective. I appeal to the Minister of State to take the lead, as other European countries have done, by increasing the cap on fuel allowances for truckers. Every other country has increased the rebate scheme for truckers. In Ireland, the rebate is set at 7.5 cent per litre. Other European countries have increased it to 26 cent per litre to counteract the knock-on effects of higher fuel costs. If fuel prices are higher, haulage costs will be higher and the food in our shops will get dearer. Everything, including materials costs, will be higher. Why has the Government not done the same as every other European country by increasing fuel rebates for haulage companies? The Government could easily increase the cap to 16 cent per litre. This would halt the rise in transport costs in this country.

The Government is spending €8 billion on retrofitting houses that would use the equivalent of one tank of oil per year. A truck would burn that amount in one week. The only form of transport we have to get our food into shops and to transport our children to school is the diesel engine. We have asked the Government to spend €108 million on transport to upgrade trucks to Euro 6 engines. Those engines can be modified down the line for further emissions savings. The Government has decided, however, to spend €8 billion on retrofitting house when €108 million would reduce the carbon emissions from trucks. That makes no sense.

Probably the only way the Government will listen is to do what truckers have done in France and other areas. On 24 November, a convoy of trucks will travel to Dublin and block the whole place. The only way the Government will listen to people outside Dublin and other urban areas is if we turn off the lights for a week. Let us see how long people will last then. That is what happens to us.

The Rural Independent Group is fighting for equality. We are not fighting against climate action but for equality so that everyone can be incentivised to bring down carbon emissions. We must have the same infrastructure the cities have. This morning as I drove to Leinster House I was watching the buses. None of the open-topped buses had a passenger. We passed 38 buses in the final 5 km of our journey into the city. I estimate those buses did not have 100 passengers between them. We in the countryside are trying to get our kids to school and buses are at capacity. Private bus operators are trying to get our children to school at a minimum cost, while the Government subsidises Bus Éireann. The Government has never incentivised anything outside the city areas. It must invest in infrastructure and incentivise people to come along with it.

If the Government provides incentives, people will work with it but it does not intend to do anything in that regard.

The local area plans and national development plans show that the Government wants between 65% and 75% of people to move into the cities. That is what the Land Development Agency, LDA, was all about. Everything is to be built in towns and cities and not one house is to be built in county areas. Why is that? The reason is that the additional population in the cities will give the Government more Deputies and it will maintain control of the Dáil.

Some 37% of the population live in rural areas. As I said, I want the people who live in rural areas to remember who voted for the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill in this House without any infrastructure being put in place. That is the main message we want to put across to the people. Truckers drive 1.9 million miles per day to keep food on our tables. The Government is putting all the money into retrofitting rather than trying to bring down emissions. Solar panels and heat pumps have been incentivised but when people install solar panels they are told they are not allowed to send their electricity back to the grid because there is some technicality preventing it.

In farming, the Government was told about ash dieback back in 2009. In 2012, an instrument was introduced to stop trees coming in from the Netherlands. This happened under a previous Government and this Government is now offering farmers €1,000 to fix the problem, with no income for the next 20 years.

10:22 am

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:


— the increase in energy costs and their impact on households and businesses;

— that the increases in wholesale and retail energy prices in Ireland and across Europe are predominantly related to international wholesale gas prices;

— that Ireland faces particular challenges in this regard as we are a price taker on international markets and that Irish electricity and gas prices have historically been higher than other European Union (EU) countries due to long standing drivers such as geographical isolation, dispersed population, fossil fuel dependency and small market scale;

— that the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU), which has statutory responsibility for security of electricity supply, published an information note on 29th September setting out the programme of actions being progressed to deliver secure supplies of electricity;

— that the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications is carrying out a review of the security of energy supply of Ireland’s electricity and natural gas systems which is focussing on the period to 2030 in the context of ensuring a sustainable pathway to net zero emissions by 2050;

— that, while national average diesel prices have increased significantly since the start of the year, there are schemes in place, such as the Diesel Rebate Scheme, to partially insulate licenced haulage and bus sectors from such increases;

— that businesses that are registered for VAT may deduct the VAT charged to them on the purchase of business inputs such as road diesel and other motoring costs; and

— that carbon pricing is an essential element of any credible plan to decarbonise the economy;

and affirms:

— that the best long-term approach for Ireland to insulate consumers from volatility on international wholesale energy markets is to invest in energy efficiency, renewable energy and expand interconnection with European and neighbouring markets to deepen the internal market and competition;

— that the Government is committed to supporting households with their energy costs through energy efficiency measures, with a total budget of approximately €300 million in 2022;

— that of this amount, €194 million is targeted at either local authority housing or low income private households through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland’s energy poverty retrofit schemes;

— that the recently published National Retrofit Plan provides for an unprecedented level of State investment in retrofit of €8 billion between now and 2030;

— that Ireland has already put in place several of the measures proposed by the European Commission toolbox, including investment in energy efficiency measures and renewable energy measures;

— the targeted welfare supports in Budget 2022, including increases in the Fuel Allowance, Qualified Child payment, Living Alone Allowance and Working Family Payment, amounting to €146 million on a full year basis with a substantial proportion of this funded through the carbon tax; these measures are in addition to adjustments to basic welfare and pension rates; adjustments to income tax bands have also been introduced primarily to cater for the cost of living increases driven, in part, by energy prices;

— a suite of customer protection measures overseen by the regulator, the CRU;

— that further analyses and assessments of the current energy prices spike are underway by the European Commission, in particular studies on the functioning of the gas and electricity markets and the EU Emissions Trading System market;

— that Ireland will engage further on these matters with our European partners at the Energy Council and the European Council in December on the basis of the assessments currently being carried out under the auspices of the European Commission;

— that Ireland continues to support the current electricity market design and views the European Green Deal and the Fit for 55 package as the long-term solution to energy price rises;

— that additionally the Government is committed to ringfencing all additional carbon tax revenue, estimated at €9.5 billion, as follows: — approximately one third will be spent on targeted social welfare and other initiatives to prevent fuel poverty and to ensure a just transition;

— just over half will be spent on a socially progressive residential retrofitting programme; and

— the remainder will be spent on incentives for farmers to farm in a greener and more sustainable way; — the Government’s commitment to review the implementation of the Strategy to Combat Energy Poverty (2016) by early next year;

— that the Energy Efficiency Obligation Scheme proved to be hugely successful between 2014 and 2020 and supported energy efficiency actions in more than 300,000 homes and 3,000 businesses; the new scheme to operate from January 2022 will more closely align with policy objectives, particularly in the residential sector including energy poverty; and

— that continuing gas exploration would be inconsistent with the Government’s ambition to decarbonise the economy by 2050.”

I thank Deputies for raising this important matters and for allowing time to discuss them today. Clearly, the current situation, where we are witnessing significant increases in international gas prices with their knock-on effects in the Irish market, is a matter of serious concern for the Government and our EU colleagues. The Government fully accepts that recent energy price rises, including electricity, gas and other fuels, will not be welcomed in light of the current economic environment. In speaking on our amending motion, I will deal with substantive elements of Government policy and household supports for energy costs.

I will first set out the global market developments that have affected Irish energy prices, after which I will set out for Deputies the functions of the independent regulator, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, in these matters, including its highly relevant activities in consumer protection monitoring competition and ensuring security of supply. Finally, I will set out for the House the amendment I have tabled.

As part of describing our amendment, I will outline what the Government is doing in providing significant supports for household energy costs both in terms of energy efficiency and welfare supports. It is important to recognise that these price increases are not Government or even regulatory decisions. Price regulation ended many years ago and suppliers compete with each other on prices and set their own prices accordingly, as one would expect in a competitive, commercial, liberalised market.

I will first outline then for the House what has happened to prices in the market. Increases to wholesale energy prices following rises in international gas prices have been the principal driver of these increases. These have been impacting across Europe and are not just an Irish phenomenon. These prices reflect the cost that suppliers face, including in particular wholesale gas prices. The most immediate factor affecting electricity prices in Ireland is the upward trend in international gas prices. In Europe, wholesale and natural gas prices have been on an upward curve since the second half of 2020. This feeds directly through to retail electricity prices as the wholesale price of electricity correlates strongly with the price of gas.

Various commentators, including the International Energy Agency, have stated that the various demand and supply factors have contributed to a tightening of the European gas market. Such factors include a lingering 2022-21 winter, post-Covid recovery, supply constraints in Europe and increased demand in Asia. European gas reserves during 2021 started out low and what was used during winter 2020 was not replenished in the summer months. The ongoing need to replenish these reserves means higher gas imports. This has fostered competition between Europe and Asia for supplies, thus further increasing gas prices.

Geopolitical tensions over gas infrastructure have resulted in significantly lower gas supplies from Russia to Europe than last year. As this is a Europe-wide phenomenon, an extraordinary meeting of the EU energy Council was held on 26 October 2021, having being tasked by the European Council meeting of 21 and 22 October to take forward discussions on the increase in energy prices and discuss possible mitigation measures at both national and EU level. Energy ministers agreed to take stock of energy prices and progress made on the implementation of the measures contained in the European Commission’s toolbox, Tackling Rising Energy Prices: A Toolbox for Action and Support. This was for early December. The next energy Council meeting on 3 December will prepare the ground for the December European Council meeting at which EU leaders will return to the issue of energy prices.

I reaffirm that the Government welcomes the European Commission’s toolbox and the Commission’s ongoing work. The Government is carefully monitoring the situation and already has many of the measures in place that were proposed by the Commission, including, for example, energy efficiency measures, targeted welfare supports, which were set out in budget 2022, and a suite of customer protection measures, which are overseen by the regulator, the CRU. Ireland continues to support the current electricity market design and views the European Green Deal and Fit for 55 package as the solution to sudden energy price rises rather than the problem. This view is shared by other member states, including Austria, Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Finland, Luxembourg, Latvia and the Netherlands. Together with Ireland, these member states signed a joint statement affirming their commitment to the Fit for 55 and the current market design as part of the energy Council's deliberations on the matter.

I turn to the regulatory role of the CRU in these matters. Deputies should be aware that the Commission for Regulation of Utilities is the independent energy regulator and has a wide range of economic and customer protection responsibilities in this area and also in respect of security of supply. As part of its statutory role, the CRU has consumer protection functions and it monitors energy retail markets to ensure that competition continues to develop for the benefit of the consumer. The CRU also oversees non-price aspects of competition and continues to take steps to increase transparency and consumer engagement in retail markets. This includes, for example, developing various codes of practice and setting out customers rights which are to be found in a suppliers' handbook. Additionally, the CRU certifies price comparison websites, leads the smart metering roll-out and participates in initiatives such as the supplier-led voluntary energy engage code under which suppliers will not disconnect a customer who is engaging with them. I note the CRU recently appeared before the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action to which it is accountable.

The Government amendment to the motion acknowledges that international energy prices have been increasing and that these increases are having a knock-on impact on households. The amendment also asks that Dáil Éireann notes that Ireland faces particular challenges in this regard as we are a price-taker on international markets and that Irish electricity and gas prices have been historically higher than those of other EU countries due to long-standing drivers such as geographical isolation, dispersed population, fossil fuel dependency and small market scale.

The amendment upholds the Government’s conviction that the best long-term approach for Ireland is to insulate consumers from volatility on international wholesale energy markets, invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy, expand interconnection with Europe and the neighbouring markets and deepen the internal market in energy. The amendment reaffirms that the Government is committed to supporting households with their energy costs through energy efficiency measures and the solar photovoltaic scheme with a total budget of approximately €300 million in 2022. Of this amount, €194 million is targeted at either local authority housing or low-income private households through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, energy poverty retrofit schemes. Furthermore, the recently published national retrofit plan provides for an unprecedented level of State investment in the retrofit, comprising €8 billion between now and 2030.

The amendment reaffirms that Ireland welcomes the European Commission’s toolbox and is carefully monitoring the situation. Ireland already has in place many of the measures proposed by the Commission, including energy efficiency measures, targeted welfare supports, which were set out in the budget, and a suite of customer protection measures overseen by the CRU.

The amendment notes that further analysis and assessments of the current energy prices spike are under way by the European Commission and, in particular, studies on the functioning of the gas and electricity markets and the EU emissions trading system, ETS, market. A preliminary report by the EU Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators, known as ACER, will shed light on the situation in the electricity market. The first preliminary assessment by the European Securities and Markets Authority, ESMA, in mid-November will give member states greater clarity on the integrity of the European carbon market.

This market analysis will provide input for further deliberation and possible further action when the matter is addressed further by the Energy Council and the European Council in December.

The amendment affirms that Ireland continues to support the current electricity market design and views the European Green Deal and the Fit for 55 package as the solution to sudden energy price rises, rather than the problem. The view is shared by other member states. Together with Ireland, these member states signed a joint statement affirming their commitment to the Fit for 55 package. The amendment also notes that Ireland will engage further on these matters with our European partners at the Energy Council and the Council of Ministers in December on the basis of the assessments currently being carried out under the auspices of the European Commission.

I now wish to highlight the parts of the amendment that deal with the extensive Government supports in place. Deputies will be aware that the amendment to the motions affirms that the Government provided additional social welfare supports in the budget to protect the most vulnerable against fuel price increases and that the following social welfare measures can help to alleviate fuel poverty. The fuel allowance, which is a payment of €33 per week for 28 weeks from October to April, is made to over 370,000 low-income households. It was increased by €5 a week in budget 2022 and the increase applied from midnight on 12 October 2021. Increases to the qualified child payment, the living alone allowance, the income threshold for the working family payment and the pension were also announced. The total cost of these interventions is projected to be €146 million in 2022. They will be funded by additional carbon tax funds, through the €105 million that has been allocated to the Department of Social Protection, with the remaining €41 million cost to be met by the Exchequer.

These measures are in addition to adjustments to basic welfare and pension rates. Adjustments to income tax bands have also been introduced, primarily to cater for the cost of living increases driven in part by energy prices. The household benefits package, which consists of a set of allowances which help with the cost of running a household, include allowances towards covering electricity or gas costs. Recipients are paid €35 a month.

Under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, a special heating supplement may be paid to assist people in certain circumstances. Exceptional needs payments can be made to help meet essential one-off costs where an applicant is unable to meet them from his or her own resources. The living alone allowance, which is targeted at recipients of certain social welfare payments who live alone and often have significantly higher heating costs, is paid at a rate of €19 per week, in addition to primary social welfare payments, such as the State pension.

The Government is committed to ring-fencing all additional carbon tax revenue as follows. Around one third will be spent on social welfare, around a half will be spent on retrofitting and the remainder will go to helping farmers with greener schemes. The Government also reaffirms its commitment to review the implementation of the 2016 strategy to combat energy poverty by early next year.

10:32 am

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

At the outset, I thank Brian Ó Domhnaill and Mairéad McGrath for their help and work on this most important motion. I also wish the leader of our group, Deputy Mattie McGrath, good luck and health. I hope he gets back on the road to good health very quickly.

Through this motion, as a group, we are saying that Dáil Éireann should recognise that as the second winter of the pandemic approaches, we are continuing with a cost of living crisis on a number of fronts. The Government's climate action policies are having a profound negative socioeconomic impact on everybody's lives. The report of the key operator of the national grid, EirGrid, warned that Ireland could face electricity deficits - in other words, blackouts - for the next five winters EirGrid has predicted that low availability of power plants in Ireland will likely contribute to the energy issues faced by the country this winter.

The Government has continuously said that we should use more and more electricity. At the same time, it has shut down the plants that generate this electricity. It just does not make sense. The Government shut down Bord na Móna at a time when we need it more than ever. Its answer was to shut it down. There have been at least 31 energy price hikes by suppliers this year, meaning bills are skyrocketing by as much as €805 for some customers, leaving the country in the grip of an energy crisis. This is not just affecting householders; there are small shops and businesses that use a lot more energy. They are seeing their costs going through the roof and their income, if anything, is reducing . Electricity prices in Ireland are the highest in the EU, according to EUROSTAT. The Government must recognise the warning from the Irish Road Haulage Association, representatives of which I met with two weeks ago, that record increases in the prices of petrol and diesel are crippling the sector and increasing the price of all consumer goods as a consequence of the increased transportation costs. Everything in this country rolls on wheels; nothing falls out of the sky. When I met representatives of the Irish Road Haulage Association in Killarney two weeks ago, their message to me was very clear. They told me that I should stand up in the Dáil and ask the Government to recognise that the haulage industry is going through a massive crisis. People who have lorries on the road and are delivering goods, the goods that we need every day, are in crisis.

The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act completely undermines our uncontested need for more gas-fired power and energy generation to ensure continued security of the electricity supply. Now, more than ever, the Shannon liquefied natural gas, LNG, project should be going ahead. What was the Government's answer when it came into office? It was to capitulate and give in to the Green Party. What did the Government do? It said it would not go ahead with Shannon LNG. Everybody knows we need it and it is the right thing to do. The Government chose to satisfy the needs of the Green Party, which is really running this country into the ground. Nobody will ever point his or her finger at us and say that we are climate change deniers, we do not agree with anything and we think it is all a load of nonsense. We are not saying that; what we are saying is that there are sensible, prudent things that the Government should be doing but instead, it is taking actions which are adversely impacting on farmers and householders, the people who have to live, pay their ESB bills, send their children to school and pay their food bills today. At the same time, what are they getting from the Government? They are facing the massive shock wave of implications resulting from the implementation of the carbon budget and what that is going to mean for them. It is actually frightening.

Unless you are living in the Cabinet bubble that seems to be so far removed from reality that you can be oblivious to what is happening in the countryside, you will feel the wrath of what is happening in the countryside. The amazing thing about it is that I do not know what the people are going to do. It is not just the Green Party. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party are blind and asleep. Many Opposition Members are telling the Government that it is not going far enough, fast enough. What does it want to do? Does it want to make it impossible for people to live today? We are all interested in the climate and the future but you have to protect the people in the present and the Government is choosing to ignore that completely. We see what other countries are doing. They are recognising the energy crisis. In Spain, for instance, the Prime Minister there has reduced the VAT and tax take to try to ensure that the people can survive and pay their bills today. I ask the Government to wake up to the needs of the people now.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am glad to get the opportunity to speak on this most serious matter. It is affecting every man, woman and child. Everyone is suffering because of the high cost of energy and fuel prices. While costs have increased worldwide, more than half the cost of fuel and energy is going in taxes to the Government. Indeed, €60 in every €100 spent on fuel, diesel, petrol or home heating oil is paid in carbon taxes. The sheiks in Iran, Iraq or wherever is getting somewhere in the region of €15 of that, while transport and retail makes up the rest of it. The retail outlets, that is, the petrol stations, get around €3.50. We should remember that that is charged on top of all these carbon and other taxes. The Government is taking the people for a ride all right. Perhaps we will also run out of petrol.

The Government gave away €225 million last week in the name of climate change. This money was collected from carbon taxes that hard-pressed Irish people were forced to pay and will be forced to pay. The Government appears to be hanging its coat on offshore energy, which may not happen for more than ten years. The Government closed down Bord na Móna and one third of Moneypoint, only to have to open it again. It put in nothing to replace the generating stations that it closed. It is opposing the Shannon LNG project. It is telling us to buy electric cars when there is nowhere to plug them in. It is very likely that there will be no electricity to charge such vehicles when people go to charge them.

In the recent past we have had eight amber alerts. We have the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, saying we will bring in electricity and we will have a connection to France and the UK. We are all under the one sky. They have to generate electricity there also somehow. It costs more to bring it from far away. There is a carbon footprint in that. We have had 35 electricity price increases in recent months. The cost has increased by almost 20%. Imagine it has increased by almost one fifth. The price of gas has increased by 14%. Home heating oil has increased by 50% from 38 cent this time last year to 84 cent now. The Government is closing Bord na Móna, Shannonbridge and Lanesborough and 10,000 acres of bog are left in Littleton. We are importing peat from Latvia and briquettes from Germany. At the same time, a special case is being made for Romania because it relies so much on coal. It will be allowed to produce coal and sell it and do what it likes with it. We cannot cut a sod of turf. The Government does not want us to cut a sod of turf.

Householders and people trying to heat their homes cannot cope with the savage energy costs. Farmers are being put through the mill. The increased cost of diesel means tractors, jeeps, cars and other work vehicles cost way more to run. These extra costs are eating into the profit margins of farmers. We rely on commercial transport for all of our goods, as has been said. When the cost of transport increases the cost of everything else increases and it has done so. We are calling on the Government to increase the diesel rebate in commercial industry from 7.5 cent to 15 cent. It should be doubled to give people a chance to keep going. It is one thing if we have to pay more for services, food and hardware but if we cannot get them it will be way more serious. People trying to heat their homes are in a desperate way. The Government left one serious crowd behind in the budget. These are people on social welfare benefit payments. They cannot get a fuel allowance. At the same time, they must pay exorbitant prices for their fuel and perhaps must leave their homes without heating. They end up cold and getting pneumonia and other problems people get when their homes are not heated.

10:42 am

Photo of Darren O'RourkeDarren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It has been merely a number of weeks since we previously debated a motion on energy prices. This shows how important this issue is. In these few weeks we have witnessed yet more price hikes from suppliers but we have seen absolutely no action from the Government to address the crisis. There have been more than 35 price hike announcements from Irish suppliers this year. They are having a crippling effect on families. A dual customer of Flogas, for example, will pay €1,385 more this year than last. This is an unprecedented increase in costs. The Government seems to be blind to this reality. Where are workers and families supposed to get this extra money? The sky-high cost of living driven by out-of-control rents, and we will hear more on this today, along with childcare costs and other costs have put people to the pin of their collar and beyond. Thousands of families will soon have to turn off their heating or put on extra layers of clothing to keep the heating off in the depths of winter as they simply will not have the money to meet these bills.

Not only is the Government failing to act but it is contributing to the crisis. According to figures from the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, 16.2% of an electricity bill is made up of Government charges in VAT and the public service obligation, PSO, levy while 17.4% of gas bills are made up of Government charges comprising carbon tax and VAT. This is before excise and other duties. In agreeing to exacerbate this issue by increasing the carbon tax, pushing up gas and home heating oil prices even further, the Government is both tone deaf and belligerent. Sinn Féin has consistently highlighted the unfairness of the carbon tax on heating people's homes when they have no alternative. This is certainly the case for many families and it is most certainly the case for haulage companies and others dependent on fuel. It is a punitive measure.

One argument the Government makes in defence of the punitive carbon tax is that some of it, a fraction of it, will be recycled to assist those who need it most but this argument simply does not hold up. The climate action plan states €9.5 billion from carbon tax will be ring-fenced for retrofitting, social welfare payments and agri-environmental projects. However, in reality there is a serious question mark over this funding and the actions to be funded by it. If the carbon tax is successful, receipts should be falling by the end of the decade and this is not taken into account. Second, and this is where the more serious issue arises, the EU Commission's Fit for 55 climate package proposes to take 70% to 80% of all carbon tax receipts into a central EU fund with Ireland as a net contributor. This leaves a black hole in the Government's finances and completely undermines the retrofitting targets and the promised social protection increases. As it stands, carbon tax will increase each year, all while Europe is positioning itself to siphon away the vast majority of it to redistribute it across Europe. This is a charge the Government has never addressed. Regardless, no level of carbon tax redistribution will address the immediate crisis. We need urgent and immediate action from the Government.

In recent weeks, my party leader, Deputy McDonald, asked the Taoiseach whether he would cut VAT on electricity over the winter months to provide households with some breathing space on utility bills. The Taoiseach had no answers on that day and has taken no action since. The Minister for Finance was similarly intransigent with my colleague, Deputy Doherty, when he raised the same issue last night. The figures we have received from the Department of Finance show the State collected €228 million in VAT on domestic electricity bills in 2020. How on earth can the Government stand over this, given the financial pressure workers and families are facing this year? The European Commission has said EU countries can reduce VAT and energy taxes, issue fuel vouchers, defer utility bills and ban grid disconnections to help families get through the winter months. While other EU countries have taken such action, the Irish Government has left Irish households to fend for themselves. It is a dereliction of duty and something that needs to change.

To get us out of this energy crisis the Government states we need a massive move away from fossil fuels towards renewables. For this we need a new grid. Today, EirGrid launched its Shaping Our Electricity Future plan, another glossy plan that states commitments to deliver essential grid capacity. It includes an outline of the key developments needed for networks, engagement, operations and market perspective to support a secure transition to at least 70% renewable electricity by 2030, in its words. I want to speak about engagement, particularly as it relates to the North-South interconnector. It is easy to write it on a page or say it is important but I do not believe EirGrid knows the meaning of it, unless "engagement" means predetermining outcome and driving through regardless; patronising local communities when they put forward reasonable and fair arguments; picking the information that suits its argument and ignoring other perspectives; or throwing taxpayers' money at sponsorship deals in a hopeless attempt to win over the people. In the most recent example, my local newspaper is reporting is a charge made by local communities in County Monaghan that EirGrid secretly intruded on the land of private landowners. There was no request made for access and no notice given. This is all at a time when a Government review of the project itself is under way. No one is holding out hope for the review because the terms of reference are so constrained. Quelle surprise. This company needs to learn lessons and engage with the community.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I wish to address something I would like to think the Minister of State is aware of, which makes me very disappointed that he is prepared to do nothing about it. Perhaps he is not aware of it. Every winter, in homes up and down the State, people do not get formally disconnected but many people are on a meter because they have fallen into arrears.

The Minister of State will acknowledge we are in the grip of a cost of living crisis. While he may not want to acknowledge the part he played in the crisis, it certainly exists and outside of the walls of this House, in real life, we know it is affecting people. Due to the cost of living, people fall behind in the payment of their electricity bills and are put on a meter system. They must pay back some of the money they owe and heat their home. The day before payday for low-income workers can often be the day they have to put on both extra jumpers and a coat, while indoors, when it gets very cold. That is absolutely reprehensible. This Government needs to reach out to those people. Every day of the week, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul or other charities give people money to keep their homes warm, which is a basic need. I do not know how people tell their kids that they cannot turn on the electricity or the heating. There must be real and meaningful action taken on this. These people want to play their part, but what they hear from the Government is that they can play their part by being freezing cold for one or two days a week. That is not good enough.

10:52 am

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Rural Independent Group for bringing forward this motion. This is the second month in a row in which we have debated a motion that seeks action to address an energy crisis. The Government does not care that workers and families are struggling to pay the increase cost of bills. Last month, the Government and its supporters, including both of my constituency colleagues, voted against a motion that would have made a real difference. That motion would have set a maximum unit price on electricity, gas and home heating oil under section 62 of the Consumer Protection Act 2007. The choice is in the Government's hands, but time after time it chooses vested interests over the needs of people.

This crisis must be recognised and we need real action to relieve the pressure ordinary workers and families are under. We are facing our second winter of this pandemic and families have been through enough following a tough year. Many have been laid off work and have been ill or have lost loved ones. They have experienced difficult financial circumstances and they need help. Instead of throwing them a lifeline, the Government is offering them a rock. There is a cost of living crisis and it needs to be addressed.

While there is also a climate crisis, loading carbon taxes on the working poor who cannot afford to change heating systems or install renewable technology is not the answer. As other Members have stated, there have been at least 35 energy price increases by suppliers this year. Household bill costs have skyrocketed by more than €800. Electricity prices in Ireland are the highest in the EU. The Money Advice & Budgeting Service has warned that households face a potential emergency this winter in trying to heat their homes, which Deputy O'Reilly has just explained to the Minister of State. As energy prices soar higher, voters will remember who stood up for them when it comes to the next election. I urge all Deputies to support this motion.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The cost of living has gone through the roof, as has the heat from people's houses because they cannot afford to retrofit or insulate their attics. Central Statistics Office, CSO, figures indicate that inflation rose by 3.7% over the past 12 months to the end of September, which is the highest rate since 2008. The cost of electricity, gas, oil and petrol and diesel has increased by 20%, 14%, 45% and 15%, respectively. Today, a report was published that stated rents are 6.8% higher than they were this time last year. The cost of living is out of control.

I take on board some factors that influence the increase are outside the Government's control. However, it is a question of how the Government responds to these challenges. The Government has choices to protect people on lower incomes, ensure the lights stay on, putting workers and families first and in regard to the carbon tax. The carbon tax is a brutal and punitive measure. The people who can least afford it are those who have to pay it. It is in the everyday cost of living. The petrol to get to work, the gas to cook dinner and oil to heat homes are all needed and this carbon tax affects them.

We are in a climate crisis but taxing our way out of this crisis is the wrong approach. We all want to save the planet but sometimes, I wonder what planet the Government is on. People who are affected by this have different choices to make. They can choose between heating their home or putting food on the table. They can choose between leaving the lights on or sitting in the dark. They can choose between filling the car with fuel or buying presents for Christmas. These are the choices people have to make. There is a new phenomenon occurring. As public representatives, we have all been asked in the past to get sleeping bags for people who are homeless. We are now getting sleeping bags for people who are in their homes just to keep them warm.

Photo of Pat BuckleyPat Buckley (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I have listened to the speakers and I congratulate the Rural Independent Group for bringing forward this motion. Only yesterday, I read a recent newspaper headline stating:

Spain cuts soaring energy prices with emergency measures. Government expects to redirect €2.6bn from firms to consumers in next six months, with average monthly bill falling by 22%.

Some Members today have stated that while we acknowledge green policies, we must also acknowledge the current emergency in energy. The Minister of State said in his opening remarks that is not all due to Government policy. However, the Government in power has the power to make changes and we should be assisting those who are in deep trouble.

I also read during the week that a church in the midlands has threatened that it might have to close the church for the winter if it gets very cold because it will not be capable of heating the building. Another issue people who fill their tank of petrol or diesel may not be aware of is that the energy efficiency obligation scheme comes out again in January. This will result in a further 3 cent increase on the cost of a litre of petrol or diesel, which will affect ordinary people. The Minister of State spoke about rural and urban areas. However, the speakers are correct: if a person is not in the hub of a city, he or she will have to rely on public transport which is scarce. Many people are not on the natural gas network and therefore need home heating oil. They are being hammered left, right and centre and it costs them a fortune to travel to work and school. As many of the previous speakers have said, we are in a crisis and the Government has an obligation to look after our own people. I urge the Government to considers measures similar to what Spain or Italy are currently introducing.

Photo of Claire KerraneClaire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We all know people are struggling to make ends meets in regard to energy costs. Energy prices continue to soar, further carbon tax increases are anticipated and households are struggling like never before in some instances. A major study by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul earlier this year found that nearly 20% of working people cut back on fuel and electricity due to costs. As my colleagues said, this year alone there have been more than 35 different price increase announcements from energy suppliers in Ireland. There have been increases to diesel and petrol prices at levels never before seen by many of us. The budget was limited in what it did to help people with energy costs. It was in regard to the fuel allowance which, as we all know, is extremely limited. There was a slight increase in eligibility but the fact remains that the budget did nothing for the vast majority of workers and families who will struggle this winter.

I refer to the mad situation whereby we are importing peat at rates never before seen. Some 40,000 tonnes were imported in the first seven months of this year alone. Will the Government tell the workers who were let go, almost overnight, from plants in Shannonbridge and Lanesborough, many of whom have not had their jobs replaced, why the situation exists where we are importing peat, from thousands of kilometres away, to this State rather than transporting it down the road, as was the case, from bogs in the midlands? This is a laughable situation but it is not laughable for the workers whose livelihoods have been taken from them while we import peat.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The coming months will be difficult for a lot of low and middle-income households as a result of the 35 energy increases introduced this year, with many more expected. The annual bill for heating a home can cost between €400 and €500 more than it was this time last year. Electricity prices have risen by 21%, gas by 14% and home heating oil by 46%. The Minister of State and his party want those prices increased even further, which will make those households even poorer, in the hope they will find magic money under the mattress in order that they can switch to air-to-water or underground heating.

That is not the reality. It is not what is happening in real life. We need to respond to this unprecedented increase in the cost of heating homes and the way to do so is to do what other countries have done. Spain has reduced VAT on electricity bills dramatically, by 11%, until the end of the year. The British Labour Party is trying to convince the Conservative Party to institute a 0% VAT rate for household energy bills. The Czech Republic has already passed legislation, and is in discussions with the European Commission, regarding a 0% VAT rate for household energy bills over the winter period. The Government should do the same. It should have these households' backs and it should be on the side of these families. It could reduce the VAT rate to 0% over the winter months, thereby reducing these household bills by 12%. Other options are also available if the Commission does not approve a change in the VAT rate. A refund could be provided. As recently as last month, the Commission said that this is a tool that member states have used. Instead of pushing additional costs onto families, let us do the right thing. Let us have their backs and take the pressure off them this winter.

11:02 am

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Discussions on issues such as this can sometimes become a bit abstract but we need to remember the concrete realities of this and what it will mean for individual families. It should be obvious but we need to keep it in our minds that a cold house is a terrible thing. It is a horrible thing to experience. What is equally horrible is the fear that many families have that their services will be disconnected over this winter. They fear that they will be without energy or heat for days, or perhaps weeks, because they do not have the money and will be cut off by their providers. The first thing I ask the Minister of State and his Government to do is to ensure a moratorium on energy disconnections this winter. It could be a very hard winter. It has already been an extremely difficult time financially for many families. With energy prices as they are and with the way that bills will follow, it is essential that a moratorium be introduced.

I will raise a point that my colleague, Deputy Kerrane, and others including the Society of St. Vincent de Paul have been raising for some time, namely, the need for a discretionary fund. The fuel allowance is an important part of our social welfare system but, like any part of that system, it cannot anticipate all of the circumstances in which people will need support. I believe in a social welfare system that is largely rules-based but there always needs to be a bit of space for discretion. There are people who will not qualify for the fuel allowance but who will really struggle to pay the bills and keep their houses warm. As I said at the start, that is what it will come down to. It will come down to choices between heat and food, clothes and other essential purchases. Those families who fall just outside the threshold need additional support and I urge the Minister of State and Government to move on the proposal to put in place a discretionary fund to assist those families.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on the energy crisis. There are three specific crises facing us in this country as regards energy. The first is the most pressing for many households, namely, the rising cost of energy bills. The average household in Ireland is facing significantly increased costs. All 14 of Ireland's energy suppliers have increased prices at least once this year. In September, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities warned that people will face higher charges due to record demand and reduced supply. Many people, households and families have real concerns that they will face fuel poverty over the coming winter. That is a real and pressing concern for all of us. We need to hear more from the Government as to how that will be tackled.

Second, there is a potential crisis building with regard to the security and certainty of our energy supply. My colleague, Deputy Kelly, raised this with the Taoiseach yesterday. He asked whether it can be guaranteed that the lights will stay on. He also noted that the response to a parliamentary question tabled by Deputy Sherlock in recent weeks pointed out that there have been seven amber systems alerts in the past 12 months, the most recent having been on 28 October. All of us are concerned about guaranteeing the security of our energy supply. That is very much linked to the rise in prices and the great burden this is placing on households.

Of course, there is also a third crisis, which is a global crisis. I refer to the crisis currently being addressed at the Conference of the Parties, COP26, which is discussing how to decarbonise our energy and how to move to reduce our emissions to ensure we do not see a devastating rise in global temperatures over the next decade and beyond. We also need to focus policies on this area. All of us in the Opposition accept that these are challenging crises for the Government to address. There is no doubt about that. It is very difficult to address the challenge of enormous increases in prices for households and the burden that is placing on hard-pressed families and individuals alongside difficulties with supply and the urgent need to decarbonise. However, we need to see more from Government. We need to see more firm and concrete commitments to address these three crises.

Half of our electricity is powered by gas and demand for that has increased as most countries have exited lockdown. That has led to the shortages in supply. Urgent increased investment in other forms of energy generation, particularly in renewables and microgeneration, along with urgent investment in retrofitting will help us to tackle the crises in cost and supply. We have discussed before how we have no shortage of potential energy sources, including solar and wind generation. There is an abundance of wind potential in particular in Ireland. However, to date, we have not put in place the investment to develop infrastructure for offshore wind generation. We need to do so urgently in order to meet the ambitious targets we have set for this decade, up to 2030.

I heard the radio interview with the chief executive of EirGrid, Mark Foley, this morning. He spoke about the challenges in meeting these targets. EirGrid has launched a very ambitious blueprint today, Shaping Our Electricity Future, but there are real questions about how that blueprint can be delivered upon, particularly in light of last week's news of Equinor's withdrawal from Ireland and slowdowns in many areas, not least in transport with the announcement of the greater Dublin area transport plan being delayed.

We need to see more firm commitments on green hydrogen and the roll-out of new technologies. Last week, I asked the Minister of State to outline how the Government intends to make the production of green hydrogen more cost-effective. We again need greater clarity on that. We also need an update on when the new planning regulations on solar generation will be submitted. We all get correspondence from schools, community centres, GAA clubs, football clubs and other sports clubs in our constituencies about how they can contribute to meeting targets by investing in solar generation. There is tremendous goodwill in the community but these groups have so far been stymied and obstructed in installing solar panels and in feeding back into the grid. Microgeneration is of great importance in dealing with shortfalls in energy supply. We also need greater clarity from the Government on the issue of data centres. We know how much of a burden they place on energy supply and we need to hear more about how that is going to be addressed in the future. We have had that debate here.

We also need more firm commitments from the Government with regard to a just transition and how allowances are to be made for those on whom the measures necessary to tackle climate change will have the most impact. We need to ensure that households that are struggling to pay rising fuel and energy bills are supported in doing so. My party believes in the need to sustain a carbon tax. It is one of a suite of measures that is required to help us meet the challenge of this global climate emergency. However, we also believe that Government needs to do more to address the cost that imposes on households. We need better allowances in respect of the fuel allowance and a new carbon tax credit. In our alternative budget, Labour put forward a proposal for an alternative carbon tax credit worth €200 a week for households with incomes of less than €50,000 and whose homes have a building energy rating, BER, lower than B2. That sort of initiative would have been a real signal that Government understands that the transition to a low-carbon or decarbonised economy will have an impact on people and that this impact must be addressed.

There are ways to address this. There are ways that a Government that is green but which also recognises real burdens on struggling households can address these crises in energy costs and energy supply, while at the same time moving forward to decarbonise in all of our interests and in the interests of our global society. As COP26 enters its final days, we all hope and anticipate that we will see a clear pathway given at international level through the memorandum that is being prepared.

We also need clarity on the pathway in this country. We need to see how the climate action plan that was launched last week will deliver in practice on the ground and how the impact it is likely to have on individuals who are struggling with fuel costs will be addressed through other Government measures, ensuring a just transition.

11:12 am

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

This is a very important motion and I thank the Rural Independent Members for tabling it. It is very timely as obviously we are heading into winter and this issue will impact people significantly over the coming months. I had previously called for the Dáil to set aside time for a debate on the surging energy prices and had requested such a debate from the Business Committee but unfortunately it was not provided for. It is unfortunate that we need to rely on Opposition motions to raise this because it is an issue that will significantly impact on every individual in the country.

At the moment we have a perfect storm on energy. We have a crisis with cost and affordability which is obviously affected by international factors. However, there are also factors relating to the demand being placed on our energy system and on the antiquated infrastructure we have in place. The wholesale price of natural gas has nearly tripled this year and that is before peak winter demand sets in. As a consequence, consumers are experiencing enormous hikes in their energy bills. The price hikes resulted in Bord Gáis charging almost 28% more for gas than during last winter and nearly 24% more for electricity. Last week Energia announced that it would increase charges for electricity and gas by 15.5% and 18.5%, respectively, on top of two rounds of price increases earlier in the year. Others such as Panda Power and Pinergy have already raised prices four times this year.

Consumers could see increases this year of €500 to €800 in their bills which is an incredible amount of money and many people will not be able to afford to deal with those. The rising cost will have a negative impact on many vulnerable people on fixed or low incomes, including pensioners and those in receipt of social welfare payments. Only small increases in social welfare payments were provided for in the budget and these are not sufficient to keep people afloat. It also did not address the needs of households with one or two people working in the home but still finding it very hard to keep up with the rising cost of living, including increasing rents or mortgage payments, rising childcare costs and other general cost increases. These people will not be able to get any supports from the budgetary measures the Government has put in place. The Social Democrats had called for the fuel allowance to be extended to those getting the working family payment, but the Government missed the opportunity to assist those working families who will find it difficult this winter.

The measures the Minister of State outlined in his statement are all long-term ones. We want to see retrofitting and we want to see people being able to feed back into the grid through the microgeneration schemes, but none of that will happen in the short term. At the moment there is a 26-month waiting list for people to get retrofitting grants. None of the measures the Minister of State listed will help people in the short term. In the budget the Government failed to take the opportunity to help people in the short term through the expansion of fuel allowance payments to those on the working family payment.

I have spoken to the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, requesting a moratorium on disconnections because we do not want people to be disconnected over the winter. I understand that some measures are in place but they are not sufficiently widespread. The CRU advised that people who are struggling to pay their energy bills have a series of options but the problem is that not many people are aware of this. The CRU needs to communicate widely to tell people what supports are available and what safeguards are in place to ensure that people are not disconnected. That would be a very sensible and feasible thing for the Government to do. I ask the Minister of State to put that in place or to discuss it with the CRU.

The Minister of State spoke about all the measures, tools and policies the Government had put in place as a result of the climate action plan. He spoke about retrofitting, solar energy and so on, which are all welcome. However, I have concerns that the value of the climate action plan announced last week was portrayed in the media as €125 billion. That gave the impression that the Government had invested €125 billion in those measures, which is completely incorrect. In reality, the Government will be looking for people to carry the financial burden of this. The majority of that €125 billion is the money that individuals, families and businesses will need to put into their homes, cars and business operations to upgrade to meet the targets under the climate action plan.

I do not think the Government has invested sufficiently in this to assist people to make those changes. As was said earlier only ten or 11 people disagreed with the climate Bill and while most of us agree with the targets, how we get there is equally important. Unfortunately, the concept of just transition does not seem to be making it into the Government's policy-making discourse.

Ideally individuals should have warm homes where they do not need to spend a lot of money paying for energy bills, where their homes are insulated and efficient, and where elderly people and people on low incomes do not need worry about that. That will happen through things like retrofitting. We also want people to have the opportunity to install solar panels and feed back into the grid. I know that is Government policy and it is welcome. It would make a big difference for many families.

Even within rural communities we need a transport system so that someone can catch a bus within a few minutes' walk of their door. I believe that is what the Government is trying to achieve with the Connecting Ireland plan, which is welcome. However, the level of investment the Government is making will mean that those targets will not be met. The real-life experiences that we want people to have will not be met through the investment the Government is making. Last week the NTA gave us a presentation on the Connecting Ireland plan. It seems like a very ambitious plan with the goal of 75% of Ireland having access to regular public transport. The entire plan will take five years to roll out. The investment the Government has given the NTA for that for next year is a paltry €5.6 million which will not meet people's needs in rural communities across Ireland. If we want people to move away from cars, we need to make public transport available, efficient, fast and affordable. Allocating €5 million to rural transport next year will just not do it.

The Government's solar panel policy has not been successful, with only 2,500 or 3,000 applications for the solar grant scheme every year which is very little. We need to make it more attractive because the payback on solar panels is over many years. If the Government wants people to invest and make those changes, it needs to assist them to it, but the grant scheme it has in place is not doing that. Similarly, many people will not be able to retrofit which is estimated to cost approximately €56,000 per home. Who has that kind of money? People are worried about keeping a roof over their heads and feeding their children. They will not have €56,000 to invest in something that not only does the Government want them to do, but we need them to do it. If the Government needs them to do it for us to meet our targets and to live more sustainably, it will need to invest in them to do it. We should take the opportunity to ring-fence the entire yield from the carbon tax for this as opposed to just the increase in the carbon tax.

It is interesting that even many Green Party Deputies do not understand that the full carbon tax does not go towards these measures, and that is worrying. The Government should examine that issue.

It is positive that we are having this debate. The Government really needs to focus on it, in regard to not just the long-term measures but also those in the short term. It needs to see what it can do in the coming months to assist families and individuals who are finding the fuel crisis tough.

11:22 am

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am sharing time.

I often feel as though I am in an echo chamber here, particularly on this issue. In 2019, at a meeting of the all-party Joint Committee on Climate Action, we passed a motion committing the Government to conducting a review of energy poverty throughout the population. As the Society of St. Vincent de Paul research that is mentioned in the motion before us shows, energy poverty is much greater and deeper than what is accepted by the Department of Social Protection and the Government. Only last month, People Before Profit tabled a similar motion on the energy crisis, putting a very different emphasis on its cause and proposing remedies to address that cause. We support, therefore, the call on the Government to take action to deal with the impact of the energy crisis, the low level of Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grants that are available to the poorest of people, the number of households that do not qualify based on income tests or health tests for those grants and the exclusion of many from fuel allowance. We support all the calls in the motion to extend that.

Uniquely, however, the Rural Independent Group has managed to identify the completely wrong cause of the crisis and suggested a remedy for the underlying issues that shows utter contempt for attempts to address the climate crisis and for the concerns many millions of people, in both urban and rural settings, have about it. The energy crisis and the hikes have nothing to do with the ban on fossil fuel and gas exploration. It would not matter if every team of Shell and BP were combing the Irish seas looking for that gas and oil. Nor would it matter if they brought that gas and oil on shore. It would not have any effect on the stability of prices of fuels for the Irish household because it would be privately owned and sold on the open market, like all other fuels. Past governments ensured we the people would never benefit from any exploration of gas and oil, and to say at this stage that it is wrong to ban the exploration of gas or oil is utter climate denial.

In the context of its Deputies' comments on home-made gas, does the Rural Independent Group support using fracked gas? Does it support fracking gas on shore or the idea that we would return to fracking gas on land? The Deputies' constituents might like to know whether that is what they are saying. The energy market here was deregulated, in a neo-liberal policy supported by many of the Deputies pushing this motion, and the inevitable outcome was the Government would not intervene in the energy market. We have now gone from having one of the lowest prices for electricity to the consumer in Europe to having one of the highest, because of deregulation and neo-liberal competition. Nevertheless, the most immediate threat to our lights staying on this winter is not the lack of oil and gas exploration. Regardless of what the Deputies claim, it is the unbridled proliferation of data centres, in a policy cheerled, again, by some of the Deputies supporting the motion because it appeases the multinationals and whatever wish list they have or demands they want to make on the State, even if that means power cuts for ordinary people.

We support the reversal of carbon tax on ordinary people but we want hefty taxes on the profits of those who pollute the planet. We cannot support the motion for these reasons that cut to the heart of where the crisis lies, namely, in the market, as we are denying people the right to access fuel when they need it and pushing up prices for ordinary people, a matter at the heart of the climate crisis. There are good aspects in the motion but there is really reactionary stuff as well, so we will not support it.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

A very significant crisis faces ordinary people in regard to energy prices and the Government cannot say it has not been warned. We have warned it and it has been repeatedly raised in the media, yet the Government has done effectively nothing for anybody, except something completely inadequate for those who receive fuel allowance. For everybody else, the Government is saying, "Well, suck it up" - the additional €500, €600, €700, up to €1,000 for some people this winter - when people simply cannot afford to pay it. The consequence will be devastating. The answer, of course, as was outlined eloquently by my colleague, is not the kind of climate denialism that is at the core of this motion, namely, exploring further and digging up more gas, or keeping open fossil fuel power stations. There is no energy crisis on a dead planet and that is where those sorts of policies will lead us. Equally, the answer is not in the Government's countermotion, which promotes eco-austerity in the form of carbon taxes.

I have seen a point referenced in the media in a kind of offhand way. I think Pat Leahy mentioned it in an article a couple of weeks ago, when he wrote that everyone accepts carbon tax is an important part of addressing the climate crisis. That is not true. It is not what the evidence suggests. The international evidence, such as in a study of 26 jurisdictions that had introduced carbon taxes, shows that in order for carbon tax to have an effect, it would take 110 years. We do not have 110 years. There is a reason the main people who are pushing for carbon taxes are the fossil fuel corporations, big oil. They are doing that because they know it is not going to hit them where it hurts, which would be to say they have to leave fossil fuels in the ground, and they know it turns people off climate action because it presents climate action as something that will make people's lives more difficult as opposed to easier.

The real answer is what was contained in our previous motions. We must stop the expansion of data centres, a proposal that is strikingly absent from both the motion before us and its countermotion, which are projected to use 30% of our energy by the end of the decade. Attempting to shift to renewables while continuing to expand data centres is akin to attempting to walk down an escalator that is going up. Price controls, too, are absent from the motion. The Government has the power, and a ministerial order can introduce them and demand providers stop the extortionate prices for ordinary people. We should also renationalise the sector and use it both to guarantee decent jobs and services for communities and homes and as an instrument in a change in energy policy towards fully renewable energy.

I might make a point about fuel allowance. The Government made much of the paltry additional €5 per week announced in the budget, which was one third of what is necessary, but it announced at the same time that it would increase the means test threshold by €20. I have been working with a man who is just above the current means test threshold. When we heard the news the means test threshold was increasing, which was great, we contacted the Department, which told me the threshold was not being increased until January. When I asked the Taoiseach about it, he stated in the Dáil:

The Government decision was to implement the decisions with immediate effect on budget night. The two key decisions were the amount of €5 ... and the increase in the threshold [...] It could be an administrative issue.

I have reverted to the Department, which confirmed the man will not be able to access fuel allowance until January. Either the Taoiseach needs to correct the record of the Dáil if he misled it or, preferably, he can fix the decision. He should not accept circumstances whereby the man will need fuel allowance in January but somehow is supposed to scrape by in November and December.

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Rural Independent Group for tabling the motion and exercising this debate. It is important we recognise the increased difficulties that are arising for our population as part of our new climate action policies and the fluctuations occurring in international energy prices. Indeed, further motor fuel, electricity and gas price increases are on the way, and we may yet have also to contend with additional Brexit breakdown matters. This is putting further economic pressure on vulnerable families in the State and increasing household costs. Carbon tax levies on fuels are placing a significant hardship on rural families, as the Minister of State will know well, and on those with fewer public transport options.

Turning to some of the disjointed policies occurring under our transport initiatives, the Government has removed the rebate of €2,500 to support plug-in hybrid cars, which allowed many people to buy an energy-efficient car, plug it in at night and use it, without having to revert to fossil fuels. By doing that, it has taken away that car from the matrix of purchasing options for people.

Indeed, there is increased tax now on new cars, making changeovers more difficult. It means there will continue to be more heavier polluting cars left in the fleet. The roll-out of electric charging networks in rural areas is making the electric car almost impossible as a purchase decision. There is an absence of policy to continue to support the purchase of petrol hybrids to allow a graduated roll-in of electric cars. This is also feeding into our energy costs. We have no policy regarding the generation of hydrogen technology for heavy vehicles. I am sure the Minister of State has heard many times about the haulage and transport components that are adding significant costs to the household consumer budget. We have to examine these matters.

There is also the overall electric energy policy into the future. We are told that the grid output is to rise by 50%, with a mix of 70% renewables and 30% gas. There is currently talk about offshore fixed-bottom and floating platforms, but they are years away. We have yet to designate a wind port in this country. I have spoken a number of times about the need to designate Rosslare harbour as the most viable harbour for this for the east and south coasts. What are we waiting for? We will not meet the offshore wind goals at the rate we are going at present. That means we will have to increase fossil fuels, which means a further carbon levy will be levied on vulnerable families.

Beyond that, there is carbon sequestration and carbon trading. I heard the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine speak recently about his desire to see this get up and going. We need this for the agriculture sector and for the rural economy to try to impact energy prices. Indeed, 20% of the carbon levy is paid to agriculture to reduce emissions. This must be ring-fenced for research activity. It must go into the agriculture sector but it must go into research. A very telling research proposal from Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, on horticulture, agriculture and forestry has been sent to Science Foundation Ireland. I believe there must be ministerial effort to ensure that it is supported as part of our climate action policy into the future.

11:32 am

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Families throughout Ireland are being hammered by rising costs. The prices of rent, childcare and food are rising significantly. This increase is happening to the people who probably suffered most during Covid. Many people have lost their jobs and have had their incomes decrease significantly because of Covid. On top of this, energy and fuel prices are going sky high. The facts are startling. Ireland has the highest electricity prices in Europe and is the 21st most expensive country in the world for petrol. Diesel prices are up more than 24%. The wholesale price of natural gas has surged by 251% since the start of this year.

These increases are hammering rural Ireland, in particular. I do not believe that this is by accident. Fine Gael and the Green Party are Dublin-centric parties that are mainly in large urban areas. They do not have the feedback they should have from people living in rural areas. Fianna Fáil is rolling over in this regard in a big way. The Government is not standing idly by, but is actually adding to the problem. Consider the issue of the carbon tax. How can the Government design a tax today that can be implemented six, seven and eight years hence without understanding the circumstances of people six, seven and eight years hence? Surely that is a blind way of implementing a tax. It is a dangerous and damaging way to do it. Aontú has produced an amendment that will hopefully go into the Finance Bill which would put a ceiling on the carbon tax plus market price effect on the end price of fuel. It would have the objective of pushing people away from fossil fuels without scalding them economically to do that.

The other issue is that the Government is seeking to push people away from fossil fuel without providing alternatives in much of Ireland. The electric car is still too dear and charging points do not exist in rural Ireland. The bus service in many towns and villages in this country is absolutely rubbish. There are towns and villages in my constituency that have no bus service or where a bus rolls in at 7 a..m. and perhaps again at 8 p.m. Yesterday in County Meath, the information came through that the rail line between Navan and Dublin which has been promised for years, as long ago as when Mr. Noel Dempsey was the Minister, is being put on the long finger again. This morning the majority of Meath workers left the county to go to work. It happens nowhere else in Ireland. Navan is the largest town in the country without a rail line and plans by this Government to build a rail line are for 2040 to 2050, which is really never-never land where the Government can say that it is in the plan but never has to deliver it.

The manner in which the Government is engaging with people with regard to building a proper energy system is incredible as well. We have seen it when it comes to the pylons the Government is seeking to build in my constituency. It is seeking to build 409 pylons of up to 51 m carrying 400,000 volts through Meath, Cavan, Monaghan, Armagh and Tyrone, with a minimum distance of 13 m from people's homes. There has been massive opposition since 2008. People have agreed that they would like it to be underground, but the Government will not do that. This week, we learned that EirGrid and the ESB have secretly intruded onto landowners' properties without notice to, or permission from, those landowners. I understand that EirGrid and ESB staff told landowners that the reason for trespassing was that they were studying bats and bees, while at the same time digging holes for pylons. It is incredible. In some cases, the management of EirGrid is offering thousands of euro to farmers to let it onto the land. The Government does not have a policy for the development of a proper infrastructure for energy in this country at a reasonable price. As a result, the people of Ireland are getting salted by its policies.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

There is no doubt that we are in the grip of a severe energy crisis. What is more terrifying is the fact that the Government is knowingly and purposely leading us down a dangerous path. Energy import dependency is said to be one of the simplest and most widely-used indicators of a country's energy security. Ireland is very heavily dependent on imported fossil fuels and, given this, our energy security is at very high risk. This is something that requires action beyond the empty words spoken at COP26.

It is extremely concerning to read EirGrid's winter outlook and that our electricity system will be operating at double the maximum safety threshold for potential loss of power. The prediction that this country could face electricity deficits for the next five years is particularly worrying. The fact that we may be facing winter power blackouts is truly terrifying, yet somehow this Government does not seem too fazed about this prospect. Instead we are expected to roll out the red carpet for data centres, which are set to double our power demand by the end of the decade. We are expected to make personal sacrifices, to wrap up and reduce our electricity consumption in order to cut carbon emissions, while at the same time welcoming the development of data centres that guzzle all our energy. We are expected to accept over 30 different price increase announcements from energy suppliers, with costs expected to rise by a staggering €500 per household. We are expected to accept that this is the way it has to be because Amazon, Facebook and all the other big tech companies that have this Government lining their pockets say so. I refuse to accept this.

The Government’s climate action plan states that data centres are forecast to take up to 23% of Ireland’s electricity demand by 2030. This is absolutely shocking. Despite this, we are not imposing any environmental conditions on these centres, which are putting huge pressure on our country’s energy infrastructure. At the very least, we should oblige them to pay an environmental tax, to tax them for the demands they are putting on our electricity infrastructure and our water resources. Each data centre is the equivalent of a large town in the amount of water it uses. Where will data centres get the water? We will supply it. Who will pay for it? We will. It is unacceptable that this Government is willing to look after these big corporations over the needs of its citizens. It asks citizens to make sacrifices, endure price hikes and to pay ridiculous carbon taxes, as if it would make an iota of difference what individuals do when data centres are not subject to any environmental conditions. We must have a better-managed system for data centres. We cannot expect citizens to pay carbon taxes without enforcing a pollution tax on those centres.

Such a tax would provide more funding for things like increasing the fuel allowance and assisting with the backlog of Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grant applications. I have constituents in Donegal who have been waiting over two years to be awarded their SEAI grant.

There is no point blaming Covid-19 for this because there were long waiting times prior to 2020. A pollution tax would give us the means to properly fund policies to support sustainable energy and transport rather than having unfair carbon taxes, which we know disproportionately affect low-income families and especially those in rural communities with extremely limited access to public transport or alternative fuel sources.

I have spoken before about the huge potential of wind and hydroelectric power. Given our position off the north Atlantic, we are sitting on a potential gold mine of renewable energy. It has been proven that Ireland could be energy independent in the next ten years using only wind and hydroelectric power. We have seen that a Norwegian company has withdrawn from a partnership with the ESB in the past week or so. Such events make a mockery of everything the Government states it is doing in becoming climate resilient and building a climate action plan. Companies are walking away when we might think they are the be-all and end-all. Perhaps Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were not too interested in a state-owned company and perhaps if it had been a private sector company, they would have bent over backwards to ensure it could be looked after.

Numerous Members have mentioned Bord na Móna stopping the harvesting of peat but we are importing peat briquettes from Germany hand over fist. That does not make sense. How can the Government stop the manufacturing of peat briquettes and not stop the importing of those briquettes into the country? How can we expect people to buy into a climate action plan or the need to reduce our carbon usage when we see such stupid acts? It is nonsensical and we must stop such activity to get people to have faith in the idea that the Government is working on their behalf. That is what it comes down to.

It seems the Government is working on behalf of data centres and not the citizens of the country. We all know consumerism and capitalism are the real causes of environmental decline and in order to truly address the energy crisis we need to stop the development of these data centres, which are to the detriment of our citizens. I ask the same important question as Mr. Niall Williams; how much of the world do we have to destroy in order to save it?

11:42 am

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome this debate and I thank colleagues from all sides for their contributions.

The Government accepts consumers are currently facing volatility in energy prices due in particular to a spike in international gas and oil prices. We know over the coming winter they will be faced with higher energy costs as suppliers and energy companies seek to recoup their energy outlays.

Current market expectations on energy commodities, particularly gas, indicate that wholesale gas prices will remain high during the winter months and fall from later in 2022 onwards. Beyond the winter season, EU forward contracts anticipate a reduction in the current wholesale gas prices. This is welcome news. A reduction cannot come soon enough but we should not be complacent. Markets are volatile and the optimum policy is to move away from fossil fuel dependency and the unpredictability of international commodity markets. That is what the Government is doing.

The programme for Government sets a clear pathway towards less reliance on fossil fuel across every sector of society. It specifically contains a commitment to end the issuing of new licences for the exploration and extraction of gas. This is on the same basis as the decision taken in 2019 by the previous Government relating to oil exploration and extraction. Therefore, continuing gas exploration would be inconsistent with the Government's ambition to decarbonise the economy by 2050.

I turn to Government policy in this area. Electricity and gas markets are commercial, liberalised and competitive in line with EU policy. The position of successive Governments for almost 20 years has been that competitive energy markets result in greater choice for consumers and businesses in terms of suppliers, products and prices and support competition to drive down prices. Within this overall competitive framework, the best long-term policy is to support households with their energy costs through energy efficiency measures, with the Government providing a total retrofit budget in excess of €280 million this year. We will also continue the development of renewable electricity and enable Ireland to reach EU renewable energy targets and our own national energy and climate target of delivering at least 80% of renewable electricity by 2030. We will also continue with measures such as the EU emissions trading scheme and the carbon tax as providing incentives to switch to cheaper renewables and lower carbon energy sources. These measures provide essential economic signals to support the energy transition away from fossil fuels.

Carbon pricing is an essential element of any credible plan to decarbonise the economy while supporting those most directly affected. This includes allocating the revenues received to fund those availing of social welfare, home retrofits and sustainable farming methodologies. We must also promote further electricity interconnection both to the EU and the UK and further integrate Ireland with the EU internal energy market.

The Government welcomes the European Commission's toolbox and the Commission's ongoing work and is carefully monitoring the situation. It already has in place many of the measures proposed by the Commission. In pursuing our objectives of decarbonisation while supporting those who are vulnerable, our collective efforts have led, for example, to over 143,000 homes receiving free upgrades under the better energy warmer homes scheme. In the first six months of 2021, the average value of the energy efficiency measures provided per household was approximately €17,100. Strong growth in wind power has had a major impact on energy production costs and is key to achieving our greenhouse gas emission reductions and further electricity interconnection to both the UK and France is under way.

I will now outline the regulatory regime in which we operate. Operating within an overall EU framework, the independent regulator, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, has a wide range of economic and customer protection functions. In particular I mention the CRU's role in promoting switching and smart metering, both of which offer immediate benefits to consumers. The CRU has certified three price comparison websites, which are bonkers.ie, switcher.ieand powertoswitch.ieto assist consumers in switching. Even if they do not switch, customers should engage with their supplier to avail of the best offer available. This is because switching, whether it is switching supplier or to a lower cost product with an existing supplier, makes the supports go further in meeting costs.

Switching supplier could save a customer consuming the average amount of energy up to €240 on an annual electricity bill, €408 on combined annual electricity and gas bills and €238 for an average annual gas bill. This is based on a comparison made on 9 November 2021 using a CRU-accredited comparison website. Based on CRU data, active customers who switched supplier or renegotiated with their current supplier every year for the past four years could have saved €704 on gas, €1,097 on electricity or €1,696 on their dual fuel costs. A recent CRU survey indicates over half of electricity and gas consumers have switched supplier at least once.

The programme for Government commits to ensuring the energy efficiency potential of smart meters is realised and that all mechanical electricity meters are replaced by 2024. The smart meter upgrade led by the CRU is a meter replacement programme to modern, smart-ready technology. New generation electricity meters are being rolled out across Europe and internationally and when the programme completes in Ireland in 2024, all domestic and business premises will have a new modern meter installed.

Of significant importance is the Government's commitment to helping households with their energy costs, particularly Iow-income households and those in danger of energy poverty. The Government is acutely aware of the impact on households of increasing energy costs and its primary response is to increase funding for the social welfare system to counter rising costs of living, of which energy costs are one of the biggest drivers. To directly address this, budget 2022 increased the weekly rate of the fuel allowance by €5 to €33. This increase was applied from the week of 11 October, meaning the recipients of fuel allowance this year will receive €932. The fuel allowance has a budget of €292 million for the upcoming season to pay an estimated 400,000 households. As everybody knows, people in receipt of the fuel allowance can get it on a weekly basis or twice yearly.

Increases to the qualified child payment and the living alone allowance and an increase to the income threshold for the working family payment have also been announced.

The total cost of these interventions is projected at €146 million in 2022. This will be funded by the additional carbon tax funds of €105 million that has been allocated to the Department of Social Protection, with the remaining €41 million cost met by the Exchequer. This is in addition to adjustments to basic welfare and pension rates. Adjustments to income tax bands have also been introduced, primarily to cater for the cost-of-living increases driven, in part, by energy prices.

The household benefits package includes allowances towards covering electricity or gas costs. Recipients, the majority of whom are pensioners, are paid €35 per month. The Department of Social Protection will spend approximately €195 million this year on the household benefits package for over 47,000 customers. Targeted supports provided under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, exceptional needs payment and urgent needs payments may be made to help to meet essential once-off costs which an applicant is unable to cover from their own resources. In addition, under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, a special heating supplement may be paid to assist people in certain circumstances who have special heating needs.

I reiterate that supports are in place to assist with household and business energy costs. Moreover, our regulatory framework underpins a competitive market in which consumers can make considerable savings. That framework also provides protections to consumers through the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities. Furthermore, the Government has provided additional social welfare supports in the budget to protect the most vulnerable against fuel price increases. I welcome this debate and thank Deputies from all sides of the House for their contributions.

11:52 am

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank all of those who have contributed to this important debate. I particularly thank the Deputies who have indicated their support for their motion and who are, like us, listening to constituents who are telling us they are enduring great hardship. These are ordinary families, businesses, farmers and hauliers. This crisis is affecting everybody in the State. There have been several power cuts in my county in recent weeks. There were, in fact, two power cuts in one week. As power cuts become more common, I wonder will we be dancing in the dark this Christmas.

The Government is not doing enough. It is not listening to people and there is a big disconnect. It does not have the empathy to reach out and listen to what people are saying. People in this country are enduring great hardship. We are still in the midst of a pandemic, unfortunately. Businesses are struggling to keep their doors open. Families are telling me they are struggling to put diesel or petrol in their cars every week. Heating bills and electricity bills have risen enormously. We have the highest electricity bills in the EU. Our average electricity and heating bills have now increased by between €500 and €800 per year. That is a colossal amount of money for any family or business struggling to keep its doors open. Despite the Government's rhetoric about helping people, I do not believe it is doing so. More needs to be done and proper regulation is required.

I wish to correct a statement made earlier by a representative of Solidarity-People Before Profit. That party tries to be true socialists. Electricity hikes are affecting the most vulnerable in our society. A representative made some sorry and incorrect statements this morning to the effect that we support data centres. I want to correct that because it is incorrect. At no point did Solidarity-People Before Profit engage with us or submit an amendment to the motion. Its representatives prefer to come in here and jump up and down----

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Hear, hear.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

-----about austerity and everything else but they have nothing constructive to add. Some socialists they are. We all must question that.

People are struggling. I have had meetings with farmers, hauliers and ordinary working people who are being hit hard. I can honestly say they are facing real hardship and I am asking the Government to please take action. I ask it to ensure some action is taken because it does not make sense to me or anybody else that Ireland has the highest electricity costs in the EU. That does not make sense. Much more could and should be done. There needs to be true leadership. The mistake the Government is making is that it is leaving people behind and that is a problem.

We all want to do our bit for the environment. Nobody is denying anything but we are saying that some of the solutions and actions being taken are ludicrous. A power station in Shannonbridge in my constituency closed down. Another closed in Lanesborough, County Longford. Those closures happened at a time when we needed those power stations. We are seeing inferior quality peat coming in from thousands of miles away, as far away as Latvia, and that is increasing our carbon footprint. It makes no sense. The Government is losing people who want to do the best by the environment and want real justice. All of those people are being left behind and are disillusioned.

I am asking for the Government to listen to what the people in the country are telling us. They are saying they cannot sustain the electricity or energy prices. It is not sustainable. We are going to lose many businesses. Some hauliers and farmers are at the brink at this point. We must do more. Ordinary families cannot afford these costs.

I am asking for action. Energy security and energy price fairness are issues of fundamental importance. If we are to assess the Government's intent by its actions rather than by its rhetoric, it would appear that energy blackouts and sky-high energy costs are a price it is willing to accept in pursuit of ridiculous policy objectives that bear no relation to reality. Those ridiculous policies include the importation of peat and briquettes into the country. It makes no sense because it increases the country's carbon footprint. The Government is putting people out of jobs and it is not good enough.

As the lights go out and businesses the length and breadth of the State receive more and more scheduled loss of power notifications from the ESB, this Government and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, continue to act like the knight from the famous Monty Python sketch. The knight's arms and legs are gone but he insists on calling it a scratch. "Nothing to worry about", he says, as if there is nothing to see here. It would be funny if the matter were not so serious and if so many people in our State were not suffering. Indeed, the Minister is like the parent who, in all sincerity, would tell a child, "This is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you." That is not the case. Who does this Government think it is kidding? The people who are going to suffer the most from this energy crisis are the same people who have always suffered, whether from Government incompetence or from situations that require decisive action in favour of citizens. The Government is not taking decisive action. It will be the poorest who will suffer, those who cannot pay the estimated €56,000 for retrofitting, despite all the bloated promises around grants and financial support. We have already heard a number of times from Deputies, and I will say it too, that the waiting lists for grants from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland are too long. We are not getting to grips with that issue.

I represent peat harvesters and turf cutters. We are sacrificing an important part of Irish tradition without showing any regard for them or putting value on them. Those harvesters will continue to see their traditional lifestyles and livelihoods decimated. I again call out the importation of briquettes and peat. I call on the Minister to come into the House and explain why we have such a scenario when it is increasing our carbon footprint. It is all well and good for him to swan off to Glasgow or wherever he is. Our carbon footprint increases if we import peat. The Minister should come into the House and explain himself. It makes no sense whatsoever.

The Minister, in a press statement in September, stated that in order to accommodate those with rights to harvest sod peat, no ban on its burning will be introduced. Yet here we are, a little less than two months later, with a climate action plan that specifically targets the banning of coal and peat for residential use by 2030. We cannot believe a word this Government says because it is full of contradictions when it comes to protecting people's capacity to heat their homes in the way they see fit and are entitled to do, as the generations before them have done.

This is exactly what I have called the creeping criminalisation of people who want to burn turf and the turf cutters. I have been warning about this for some time. The plain reality is that the Climate Change Advisory Council and the Government are helicopter-dumping ideological nonsense all across rural Ireland with the full blessing of a complicit and grossly out-of-touch Government that does not have the first clue about how hard life is becoming.

When it came to the vote on the climate action Bill only ten Independent Deputies voted against it. That Bill condoned the carbon tax and the Climate Change Advisory Council, which devised carbon budgets and punished our farmers, as it continues to do. Let us not fool the people. Let us make it very clear only ten Independents, including me, opposed that Bill.

The members of the Climate Change Advisory Council, who are essentially acting as the Minister's personal cabinet, will not suffer. The people in this State who are unnecessarily suffering will continue to suffer because of these short-sighted and stupid policies. That is what they are. Some of them make no sense whatsoever. Some of us are increasingly starting to wonder who the real Taoiseach is in this Government. The Taoiseach, Deputy Michéal Martin, spoke last week about how he took it as a great compliment when somebody said he sounded like a member of the Green Party. That must have gone down very well with those in Fianna Fáil who lament the total collapse of the party's political identity. It ought to be as plain as the noses on our faces that the energy situation, as it currently stands, risks causing not only significant national damage but significant international damage to this country. This is a time when we need real statespeople to step up, show leadership and defend our people. Ordinary families and working people, and our farmers and hauliers, are being punished and it has to stop.

Amendment put.

12:02 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time this evening.