Dáil debates

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

Environmental Protection Agency (Emergency Electricity Generation) (Amendment) Bill 2023: Second Stage


5:05 pm

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the Deputies for the opportunity to present the Environmental Protection Agency (Emergency Electricity Generation) (Amendment) Bill 2023, which I am grateful to commend to the House.

Although many Members will be familiar with the exceptional energy security challenges that face us, as I spoke about these matters when we were debating the Development (Emergency Electricity Generation) Act late last year, which I will refer to today as "the Act of 2022", it is important to take this opportunity to reiterate the complex situation in which we find ourselves. Against this backdrop, I will also describe the sections of the Bill in detail and, with regard to its main provisions, set out the background and why they are needed. However, my overarching message today is that it is essential that this legislation is passed quickly to deliver the supply we need in time for winter 2023-2024 and, therefore, I seek Members support to achieve that.

First, I will discuss the generation capacity shortfall that exists which the provisions in this Bill seek to alleviate. Second, I will reaffirm the urgency of this Bill in order to enable delivery of emergency capacity to maintain a secure electricity supply for customers. Third, I will outline the Bill.

The legislation before the House today is part of the overall legislative package required to facilitate delivery of almost 450 MW of temporary emergency generation capacity identified by the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities, CRU, as urgently required to mitigate the security of supply risk for next winter and subsequent years. The recent Act of 2022 provides for the disapplication of the planning and development Acts and of requirements under the environmental impact assessment, EIA, directive, for designated developments comprising the installation of up to 450 MW of temporary emergency electricity at the specified sites at Shannonbridge and Tarbert, or at alternative appropriate sites, on the grounds that they constitute exceptional cases for the purposes of Article 2(4) of the directive and that the application of the directive to these projects would adversely affect their delivery.

This Bill intends to ensure that legal provision is made for the processing of industrial emission licence applications under the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992, in respect of activity involving the designated development at Shannonbridge and Tarbert, in the context of Article 2(4) of the EIA directive, and to ensure that such applications can be processed in a timely manner to facilitate generation, if the applications are successful, in time for winter 2023-2024. It is the next step in the legislative package that is needed.

In the normal course of events an applicant for a licence for an activity that is likely to have significant effects on the environment would be required to submit an environmental impact assessment report, EIAR, to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, for its consideration of the application and the agency would be required to carry out an EIA to feed into its licence determination. The process of producing an EIAR is lengthy and has a number of seasonal components that cannot typically be accelerated. In the normal course of events, the likely timescale for EIAR preparation for power station developments of this type is approximately 12 months, depending on site-specific factors. Not addressing the requirement to have a full EIAR accompany a EPA licence application for these designated developments, with the associated EIA required to be carried out by the EPA, would mean that licence applications could not be submitted until quarter 3 of 2023, at best, resulting in a situation where the agency would have insufficient time to consider the licence application, in order to issue a final decision by the end of winter 2023-2024.

Just as was done in respect of the development aspect previously, under the Act of 2022, it is necessary to provide for the exemption under Article 2(4) of the EIA directive that the Oireachtas has already deemed appropriate, now in the context of the consideration of the industrial emissions licence applications, and to review the current licensing processes provided under the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992 for designated development, in order to give the projects the opportunity of receiving a final determination on their licence applications to facilitate - subject to acquiring the necessary consents - generation in quarter 4 of this year.

On 17 February 2023, I received applications from the ESB for designated development at Shannonbridge power station site, County Offaly, and from SSE for a designated development at Tarbert power station site, County Kerry, under section 4 of the Act of 2022 for an approval under section 7 of that Act. As is required, l have arranged for An Bord Pleanála to carry out the required assessments under sections 5 and 6 of the Act of 2022. The public consultation opened on Monday, 20 February, and will continue until Thursday, 23 March 2023, inclusive. These applications are subject to the most comprehensive environmental assessment possible, using the information available at this time, so that the overarching objectives of the EIA directive are met in a manner that will achieve the delivery of the projects in time. The timeframe for the delivery of significant temporary emergency generation is still on track for year-end 2023. However, this further legislative change is required in terms of the licensing of the temporary emergency generation plants.

There are nine sections in the Bill. Section 1 is a standard provision providing for a definition of the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992, for the purpose of this Bill. Section 2 proposes to amend section 3 of the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992, the Act of 1992, to include in its definitions the Development (Emergency Electricity Generation) Act 2022 - the Act of 2022 - a definition for "designated development" and assigns a meaning for an application for a licence that forms part of a designated development as a "designated application".

Section 3 proposes the insertion of section 82C in the Act of 1992 to state that the exemption under section 5(1) of the Act of 2022 applies to an application under Part IV of the Act of 1992 in respect of activity relating to designated development. Furthermore, section 3 provides, by way of inserting section 82D, that the agency, in performing its function in respect of designated development shall do so in a manner consistent with the plans, strategy, framework and objectives referred to in section 15(1) of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, to the extent that the agency considers practicable, taking particular account of the said exceptional circumstances and urgent compelling necessity.

Section 4 proposes to amend section 83 of the Environmental Protection Agency Act. Section 83 concerns the determination of applications for licences and the amendments proposed. It inserts a definition of the alternative assessment and associated environmental report that form part of that process. Provisions proposed in this section disapply, in the case of designated developments, certain provisions of section 83. Section 4 also provides for an alternative assessment to be carried out by the agency and for designated applications to include the environmental report prepared in accordance with of the Development (Emergency Electricity Generation) Act 2022. The process and format for alternative assessment will be set out in regulations under section 89 of the Act of 1992. This is provided for under section 8 of the Bill.

Section 5 proposes to amend section 87 of the Environmental Protection Agency Act to disapply, in the case of designated applications, provisions of section 87 that relate to planning and environmental impact assessment. Instead, a new provision, 87A, is proposed to be inserted for designated applications at section 6. In addition, it is considered appropriate and necessary, given that the timeframes associated with the existing procedures and the requirement for a decision to be made on the licence applications, to facilitate generation in quarter 4 of 2023, are incompatible to replace the current two-step decision process of issuing a proposed determination and a final decision, with one consultation period on the licence application and associated documents.

This provision will only apply to the licence applications from designated development. It is worth noting separately that there will have been two rounds of consultation on the specific project to deliver the almost 450 MW of power, taking the assessment of An Bord Pleanála into account.

Section 6 provides for a new provision for designated applications, section 87A, to be inserted into the Act of 1992 and is intended to ensure that the agency does not grant a licence in respect of a designated development unless the Minister has approved the designated development in accordance with section 7 of the Development (Emergency Electricity Generation) Act 2022.

Section 7 proposes inserting a further new provision, section 88A, after section 88 of the Act of 1992. Section 88A proposes procedures for the agency to take alternative assessment into account before making a decision on a designated application and that these procedures will be set out in regulations.

Section 88A(2) enables the agency to incorporate, as a condition to a licence, any feature of the project or measure envisaged to prevent, reduce or offset significant adverse effects on the environment, while subsection (3) ensures that the agency incorporates into its decision documentation relating to the alternative assessment as may be prescribed for the purposes of ensuring that the objectives of the EIA directive are met. Section 88B is provided for to oblige the agency to inform the public, and other persons, of its decision in respect of a designated application.

Section 8 proposes an amendment to section 89 of the Act of 1992 to enable matters to be prescribed in relation to the alternative assessment, procedures for consultation to be carried out by the EPA, and includes a provision, as part of the alternative assessment, that the agency is obliged to assess the impacts, if any, on natural habitats, fauna and flora in accordance with Council Directive 92/43/EEC, as amended, including to consider whether there is a need for a derogation for the purpose of Article 16 of that directive in respect of a designated development.

Section 9 comprises Short Title and Commencement provisions. I have outlined the main provisions of this emergency measures Bill and provided additional detail on the relevant sections. I want to clarify that by passing this legislation, the Oireachtas would not be approving or providing consent for any licensable activity. Rather, it would be providing that, as a result of the pre-determination that an exceptional case exists for the purposes of Article 2(4) of the EIA directive, an alternative environmental assessment can be carried out to support an industrial emissions licence determination and further provides for streamlined and accelerated consenting procedures related to those licences. I stress again that these proposals are confined to licence applications associated with the designated development sites - Shannonbridge and Tarbert only - which would only be operated if and when they were required for emergency purposes.

I hope this is of assistance to Deputies. I look forward to an informed and meaningful debate and to working constructively with Deputies on all sides of the House.

5:15 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy O'Rourke, who is sharing time with Deputies Cronin and O'Reilly.

Photo of Darren O'RourkeDarren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to discuss this Bill. Sinn Féin will not be opposing it, although, as we have said at committee meetings and when dealing with similar legislation in this House, we are very frustrated with the process. It is no way to do legislation. It should be acknowledged and recognised that we are in this situation due to the spectacular mismanagement of our energy system. It is now an emergency situation where the Government is rushing through legislation and, essentially, making it up as it goes along, instead of recognising the hurdles it has to pass. We had the development Bill a number of months ago when we are advised that it was the key to unlocking these developments. Here we are a number of months later with more legislation to deal with EPA licensing, specifically industrial emissions licences. That architecture is there, in terms of planning and EPA licensing, for a very good reason. It is most regrettable that we find ourselves in a situation of having to tinker with that legislation or to dilute it in any way on the one hand, while on the other hand, running the real risk of the lights going out this winter and in the time ahead. It is an absolutely incredible situation in which we find ourselves. More needs to be done to shine a light on how we got to this point. In his concluding remarks, I ask the Minister to provide us with an update on the Dermot McCarthy report into energy security and the T-4 auction. Where is it at and will the full report be published?

Sinn Féin will not oppose the Bill. This is no way to do legislation. It is a serious step to seek to dilute these measures. It is important to recognise at the same time the significant adequacy gap that has been repeatedly highlighted by the CRU and EirGrid. It emphasises two points: one, the importance of getting this transaction, this planning, right; and, two, the spectacular mismanagement of our energy supply on the one hand and demand on the other. We, on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action, pursue the CRU for regular engagement and updates. It is not always satisfactory engagement but in the most recent response from it, projecting to winter 2023-2024, the CRU stated that the energy system will remain at significant risk throughout 2023 and into 2024, similar to this winter. This winter is not over yet, from the CRU's perspective, and we know we have several tough days of weather ahead of us. It stated that it would be well outside the reliability standards set by the CRU and that in the absence of any further generation capacity being delivered, winter 2023-2024 is currently forecasted by EirGrid to have an adequacy gap of 490 MW in a median demand scenario and that this compares to an adequacy gap of 380 MW over this winter.

It emphasises the increasing tightness of the system and the importance of bringing on tranche 2 temporary emergency generation project. It also serves to highlight a number of factors that have contributed to the increase in tightness, such as our capacity constrains and generation capacity deteriorating and coming off line, in addition to increasing demand. We can point towards large energy users, or an electrification of heat and transport to a lesser degree, but it is clear there are several unique features to the Irish system that responded to Government incentives and policy in recent times.

I refer to a response from the CRU, dated 1 March 2023, on the number of islanded data centres. It is an issue that arose last summer and the Minister said he would intervene in policy terms. However, the CRU has confirmed that the number of island data centres that are connected, and scheduled to be connected, as advised by Gas Networks Ireland, as of February 2023 is that 11 data centre sites are contracted to connect to the gas network directly. While the rest of Europe was weaning itself off gas or reducing its demand, in some cases very significantly, there was an increase in demand in Ireland not by our residential customers but by the system itself. Something needs to be done to respond to that unique feature. There are energy companies in Ireland with secure gas supply and gas power stations building data centres without tenants.

They are building the data centres without demand but as customers for their gas supply. That policy of islanded data centres is completely inconsistent with the energy transition and needs to be addressed.

Sinn Féin has submitted a number of amendments to this legislation. In his opening address, the Minister said he wants to work with the Opposition. We engaged in the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action when pre-legislative scrutiny was waived. We are correct in our assessment that this is no way to do policy. We are here again despite having been told a number of months ago there was an urgency and that the legislation under consideration at that time was the key to unlocking everything. That is confirmation that this is no way to do legislation.

Our amendments point towards the wider problem here, which is on the demand side. We wanted reports prepared to examine the level of increased demand from large energy users in the period 2017 to 2022 and a breakdown of the large energy users that participated in demand-side reduction mechanism during that period. We also wanted a critical appraisal of existing demand-side reduction strategies, which is desperately needed. Equally important, if not more important, we wanted a comprehensive plan to ensure the prioritisation of demand-side reduction measures over increased electricity generation into the future.

In the coming weeks and months, the Minister will have the report of Mr. Dermot McCarthy to tell us how we got here. Hopefully, we will get to a position where we get through this winter, which we are not through yet, next winter and the winters ahead. We need to learn the lessons of this experience. I put the blame firmly on the policy of successive Governments and their failure to manage our energy system. We also need that demand-reduction strategy. I can say at this stage, because of the rushed nature of this legislation, that our amendments have been ruled out of order. That does not mean they are not good, relevant amendments that should be acted on. That is why I wanted to raise these issues on Second Stage. We need a comprehensive plan to ensure the prioritisation of demand-side reduction measures over increased electricity generation into the future. That needs to form a cornerstone of energy policy into the future. As I said, we will work with the Minister in the days ahead to get this legislation through but it is most regrettable that we are here in the first place.

5:25 pm

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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As my colleague, Teachta O'Rourke, said, Sinn Féin will support the Bill, but with reservations, as we have articulated at the climate committee. I hope the Minister will note those reservations. That this Bill is necessary at all is due to the negligence of this Government and its failure to plan. Sufficient unto the day might work for the headlines that this Administration governs by but it is in no way sufficient unto the people who are depending on adequate electricity supply for their day-to-day lives. We were incredibly lucky to have had a winter that was relatively mild but we might not be so lucky again. It is unfortunate to use the work "lucky", which is inappropriate considering what the mild weather signifies in respect of climate change.

It is seven years since EirGrid warned of the increasing tightness between demand and supply. For seven years and more, Fine Gael-led Governments have spectacularly failed to manage our energy system with something approaching competence. The party has brought the State to the brink of blackouts and has introduced social uncertainty and the economic harm that goes with it. Successive Governments have squandered ten years by failing to generate additional electricity, failing to address the exponential increase in demand from data centres and failing to protect our State from the threat of shortages that, in turn, threatens inward investment, as IDA Ireland has warned. This Government is all show and spin. The visionaries who set up Ardnacrusha hydroelectric power station and gave us rural electrification must be turning in their graves at how their legacy was frittered away for the sake of ease and international popularity.

In its panic, this Government is now giving EirGrid extra powers to procure 450 MW of emergency back-up generation capacity but that is far too tight an amount. Our homes and businesses cannot run on luck. Simultaneously, the Government parties have failed to provide gas storage capacity and to realise the potential of our renewables, especially offshore wind. However, the ports in the Twenty-six Counties are not ready for offshore wind and our planning system is not ready either. All this Government has left us ready for is to fail and to face blackouts. It is bad for families, private businesses, public businesses and our international reputation, about which the Government seems to care so much. Lights are going out except in the data centres, which got the céad míle fáilte and the red carpet rolled out for them with no regard for the strain it was going to put on the grid. Right now, data centres use as much electricity as all the homes in rural Ireland combined. They are responsible for 14% of the electricity consumption in the country and that figure is set to double over the next seven years. Within eight years, EirGrid predicts demand for electricity will increase by 37% and a large swathe of that increase will be down to data centres and their voracious appetite for energy. The projections of the Department of the Environment, Communications and Climate show that data centres and large energy users will consume six times more electricity than all electric vehicles and heat pumps combined by 2030. Not for a second do we accept that the electrification of heating and transport is putting equal pressure on the grid compared to data centres and their devouring of electricity.

Prioritising the energy needs of data centres over the needs of people is farcical in the context of just transition. The retrofitting plan is flawed, as it is designed to help the better-off, who can afford to put large sums of money upfront. Meanwhile, the warmer homes scheme, which focuses on the most vulnerable households, has a two-year backlog. It is not just cold houses for people who are not well off under this Government. It is also damp houses, with mould on the walls and windows, and massive energy bills landing on their hall mats. Energy poverty is rampant under this Government and I do not understand why we are not looking at photovoltaic, PV, panels, which are an absolute no-brainer. They can help households reduce their bills and allow them to sell excess electricity back into the grid.

Accelerating our abundant renewable energy resources, including wind, solar, hydro, wave, tidal and green hydrogen can help us to cut our carbon emissions, reduce the price of electricity, make energy secure and bring well-paid jobs to our people.

This legislation is rushed and signals the chaos that is running through this Administration. Things are always done at the last minute. For a State to amend its planning and licensing laws like this is as serious as it gets. We are getting chaos, pretence, headlines, spin and amateur dramatics from the Government, as has always been the way. It is a joke.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution to this debate. I support the concerns and criticisms raised by my colleagues. While we will be supporting this Bill, the manner in which it has been rushed before the House is unsatisfactory and it is not an acceptable way to legislate on any issue, let alone one as important as this. The genesis of this legislation is a failure to plan for, and deliver on, our energy needs on the part of successive Governments. On this front, it is the continuous failure of Fine Gael, which has been in government for more than a decade, that has driven the State to the precipice of an energy crisis. For years, EirGrid has warned of the increasing tightness between energy supply and demand. The failure to deliver additional energy generation capacity, the failure to provide gas storage capacity and the failure to realise the potential of our renewables has been made much worse by the exponential increase in electricity demand from data centres, among others. Such a situation unmasks a Government that penny-pinches with regard to investment in our critical infrastructure, on the one hand, and rolls out the red carpet for data centres on the other.

We often speak in this House of potential energy blackouts but in many constituencies, there are regular temporary blackouts. In Lusk, in my constituency, there are regular electricity outages. This has gone on for nearly two years with no sign of improvement. I have raised the matter in the past and I want the Minister to know it was raised again with me last night at the Lusk action group annual general meeting, AGM. The people of Lusk talk about this matter constantly. They cannot rely on their electricity supply and that is not good enough.

I ask the Minister to please not send any more Government representatives to my constituency to explain that this is happening elsewhere. They are not fooled. They can see for themselves that it is concentrated in one area. This situation is allowed to occur because the Government would rather that the people I represent in Lusk sit in the darkness than upset the CEO of a multinational company who wants to open a data centre. Politics and government are all about priorities and the Minister can believe me when I say my constituents hear loud and clear where they figure in his priorities.

In the short term, I hope this Bill has the desired effect and allows us to deliver the emergency energy backup electricity generation we need. On the whole, it would be remiss of me not to address the current situation in respect of the cost of energy for ordinary people. Energy prices for ordinary citizens remain sky high and workers and families across the State have been left dismayed that there were no additional measures in the Government's cost-of-living package to reduce extortionate bills for electricity, gas and home heating oil. Energy companies reported record profits for 2022 at a time when prices were hiked and businesses and families were struggling to pay their bills. In many cases, these record profits are multiples of previous records. The figures are eye-watering and obscene and are facilitated by Government inaction. Why is the Government still dithering over a windfall tax? Why has it failed to introduce a cap on energy prices? Last week's confirmation that Electric Ireland will reduce bills for small and medium enterprises by 10% is welcome relief for those businesses but it does not go anywhere near far enough. Workers and families are being left out in the cold again. The Government cannot remain inactive on this issue. It cannot abandon those who need help the most and cannot keep dithering on the introduction of windfall taxes. It needs to intervene now to ensure energy companies pass on reduced wholesale energy costs to their domestic customers in full rather than to just a small cohort of business users.

However, I will not hold my breath because inaction on energy costs and the lifting of the eviction ban show ordinary people in exactly whose interests Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party govern. They get that message. They hear the Minister saying things like we absolutely could not introduce free public transport because someone might take an unnecessary journey. They are not foolish and know exactly where that comes from. They hear the attitude that it is okay for the Minister to go to Shanghai, China or wherever it is he is going, where I am sure he will do good work, at no personal cost to himself but rather at the taxpayer's expense. I wish him the very best of luck and hope he does well on his trade mission but people see it is all free travel for the Minister and his pals in Government but, when it comes to the mere mention of free or reduced-cost public transport for ordinary people, that is an absolute no-no because, God forbid, they might take an unnecessary journey. How awful would that be?

5:35 pm

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak for the Labour Party on the Environmental Protection Agency (Emergency Electricity Generation) (Amendment) Bill 2023. Our party whip, Deputy Duncan Smith, has already expressed frustration at the fact the progress of this and other legislation relating to energy has been compressed into such a short timeframe. Indeed, during the debate on the Development (Emergency Electricity Generation) Act 2022, I expressed frustration at the tight timeframe in which we were expected to submit amendments and deal with legislation on such an important issue as the security of energy crisis. This is a technical Bill and one of a series, an overall legislative package, as the Minister has said, required to facilitate delivery of 450 MW of temporary emergency generation capacity. It is essentially an emergency Bill and a technical Bill enabling due consultation by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, on licence applications relating to temporary emergency generation in the context of ensuring we mitigate the security of supply risk for winter of 2023-2024 and subsequent years. However, we will be forgiven for feeling this is like Groundhog Day and that a similar approach was taken to the winter we are still coming through.

This Bill will further assist with allowing for works at Shannonbridge and Tarbert generating stations. In that context, we accept the need for quick legislative progress and will not be opposing the Bill. However, as I have said, we are concerned about the process and the fact this is just one of a series of Bills introducing emergency measures to ensure the security of energy supply. That is not good enough as a way of planning an energy policy. The nature of this series of Bills raises serious questions about failures in Government energy policy, failures in planning and the circumstances that have led us to a point at which we need to pass such emergency legislation again this year to secure energy supply not even for the long term but for the immediate future, the winter just ahead in 2023-2024. It also raises questions about how we can achieve the necessary steps to ensure we make the transition to renewable energy sources and a net-zero future. We are all conscious that a review of our energy security, led by Dermot McCarthy, is under way. I hope, and I am sure Government hopes, this review will lead us to a place where we can ensure more coherent long-term planning of energy security.

It also has to be said we are debating this Bill in the context of an energy cost crisis. A great many households and individuals are contacting all of us because they are seeing massive increases in their energy bills, both for electricity and gas. This is feeding into a cost-of-living crisis for a great many squeezed households. Last week, I raised with the Taoiseach the fact that Electric Ireland had passed on the reduction in wholesale prices to business customers but not to households. The reasoning we were all given seemed somewhat spurious. We were told there was more of a delay in passing on cost decreases to households because of hedging policies. That seems extraordinary. I was reassured to hear the Taoiseach say in response to me that the Government will be introducing a windfall tax on the profits of energy companies, but we have been given no timeframe for that legislation. We have been looking for this for some time now. We in the Labour Party and other Opposition parties have been calling for a windfall tax. There would be support from the Opposition for the introduction of such a tax. The proceeds could help to alleviate bills for households. It is a source of frustration to all of us that we have been given no clear timeline for Government, although the Taoiseach committed to the introduction of such a tax last week, which is welcome.

Our concern is we may be back here again in another few months for another emergency Bill if long-term issues around energy security are not addressed. We have seen the briefing note provided to us. It says all potential options under the conventional planning processes have been ruled out as they would not enable delivery of the necessary emergency capacity within the limited timeframe. However, one must ask why this is so and why we have not by now put in place better capacity in the system. Thinking of the Derrybrien wind farm, we know that failure to comply with EU environmental laws can have serious consequences for planning security of supply. It is concerning that the State now appears to be reliant on exceptional and emergency measures to ensure security of supply for the winter ahead and future winters.

I believe we would all accept this situation is the result of a flawed and failed electricity supply market and I believe there is agreement and acceptance that, where markets fail, it is incumbent on the State to step in to address that failure. However, this stepping in and this State intervention should happen in a more structured and strategic way rather than through a series of last-minute or emergency Bills.

Why are we in this situation in the first place? It is because of a failure over successive years to scale up storage capacity. I have written to the Minister about this before and have raised it in the Dáil. It is also about a failure to scale up renewable energy and the ongoing failure to bring on capacity to generate wind energy offshore. We in the Opposition supported the introduction of the Marine Area Regulatory Authority, MARA, infrastructure and the new planning model to speed up the development of offshore wind capacity. There is immense frustration among stakeholders in the wind generation sector at the slow pace at which we are seeing offshore wind being developed. However, as the Minister himself has said, it could be a game changer for Ireland's energy supply. In that context, we in the Opposition have also raised issues around the data centre strategy and have sought to establish the Government's policy in respect of data centres. Is it going to listen to calls from the Opposition for a moratorium? We are conscious of the very significant impact data centres have on energy usage in this country.

The electricity sector has a central role to play in combating climate change, which is clear from the Government's climate action plan and from international plans, but achieving our emissions reduction targets will involve putting much more electricity from renewable sources on the grid. That will arise, especially from generation through using offshore wind capacity. It is regrettable that Ireland's emissions increased again last year and that we are now purchasing 4.1 million credits from Slovakia to help meet our 2020 carbon emissions target at a cost, I understand, of €2.9 million. This is an extraordinary sum and it is a false economy not to invest, therefore, in our own infrastructure. The State is losing money through failing to meet our legal obligations and we are wasting money by having flimsy energy infrastructure and by failing to have planned for the future.

Importantly, there is also a huge social cost to people who worry we will see blackouts over the winter ahead or who worry they will not be able to afford their own heating bills as they see these astronomical rises. We are seeing these concerns. People approach us, not only because they have received a bill with a big increase but also because of their fears about future increases to come and about the failures of energy companies to pass on wholesale reductions to them. There is a huge social cost. It generates fear among many households. They are fearful because of price-gouging providers. They are fearful our creaking energy infrastructure will not manage. That is why it is crucial we see development of large-scale capacity to store electricity, particularly as we move towards bringing on greater capacity to generate through offshore wind.

I will speak a little more about Mr. Dermot McCarthy's energy security review. Others have sought clarity as to when that will be produced and when we will see it published. My question is how we will go about seeing the recommendations likely to be in the report implemented in a measured and structured way? How will we see a coherent longer term strategy adopted by Government which will mean we will not need to be back before the House with yet more emergency legislation to guarantee energy security over this coming winter and other winters ahead? We need to hear more about that more long-term vision. The Minister's speech focused of necessity on this Bill, on the measures it contains and on those emergency measures necessary to see us through the winter ahead. As I say, my party is not opposing the Bill. However, we also need that bigger debate about where we will see energy security policy going, that focus on offshore wind, bringing on more renewables, a data centre policy, and a clear account from Government as to how we will guarantee energy security while meeting our necessary climate emissions targets.

5:45 pm

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution on this Bill. As a member of the Committee on Environment and Climate Action, I must mention that waiving of pre-legislative scrutiny has become quite common, especially in this area. Of course, I fully understand and appreciate the rationale the Minister has set out and I appreciate the briefing we received from the Minister's officials in the making of that decision. Nonetheless, it is necessary to note it. It would be my preference that we would not have to deal with emergency legislation, but I understand the circumstances in which the Minister and the Department find themselves.

This Bill gives an opportunity both to address the deficiencies in the framework that allows for grid development and to ensure we are capable of keeping the lights on. Without proper planning and sustainable development of the grid, these deficiencies will hinder our ability to cater for the level of renewable energy inputs that will shortly join our grid throughout the country and offshore.

Clean energy will define the coming decades in this country. It will be consequential to our efforts to deliver jobs and innovation, and it will play a pivotal role in the decarbonisation of our society. A coherent and ambitious process that has already begun must be enhanced in the years ahead to allow our country not only to provide clean affordable energy at home but also potentially to become an energy exporter, bringing inward wealth to our country that to date has been a distant concept.

The debate taking place within many homes is about the huge energy bills they are receiving. While these energy prices have been driven by many external factors, it does not mean we cannot take action at home to ease the financial burden on families and individuals. Throughout this time, energy companies have made huge profits well beyond what they would normally expect. I welcome the work that is under way to introduce a windfall tax on such companies, and I hope the result is of more assistance to people and businesses in paying their energy bills.

It would be remiss of my not to use the opportunity to mention wholesale gas prices, which rose sharply over the past year. A significant amount of this increase was passed on to customers in both the residential and business sectors. We are now seeing those wholesale prices starting to fall but we are not seeing the same rate of reduction drop for the bills that are arriving in customers' homes and businesses. I am, therefore, encouraged by recent comments by the Taoiseach and others about ensuring this reduction is passed on to customers by energy providers, notwithstanding the very limited reduction delivered by two suppliers in the past week.

Over recent months, the Government introduced important protections and supports, including the series of energy credits provided to each household, a wide range of increases in supports provided for under budget 2023, and other measures. The rise in energy prices is part of a much wider increase in the cost of living. We must send a message to people and businesses that we will step in and use some of the hyper-profits amassed, in particular by State-owned energy companies, to help people manage the rising cost of living.

I am encouraged that wind energy has had its best January on record in January 2023. This result must be built upon in the time ahead. Developing the wind energy sector in Ireland offers a significant opportunity but must be supported to by Government if we are to realise its potential. I noted Deputy Bacik's comments on the slowness of offshore wind energy development. While I agree it is slower than we would like to see achieved, the wind farm off the coast of Scotland recently visited by the committee, of which there are three members present, two of whom took part in that visit, took 14 years to deliver. The same company, which is now in the midst of a joint venture with Bord na Móna, is talking about being able to deliver such a project in less than seven years. We have learnt great lessons from other jurisdictions. Our ability to deliver upon our own ambition will be tested in the coming years, but there are measures we are taking, both as a Government and as a committee, to make the process happen all the faster.

Significant work has been done on developing a national hydrogen strategy but we have yet to see the publication of this. Hydrogen is crucial to solving several of the storage barriers the renewable energy sector faces. It is imperative the Government publishes this strategy, which many other jurisdictions have already in place. When published, it will provide much more clarity to businesses and the wider Government as to how to harness this power and plan for the future.

We must employ all options in the effort to deliver clean energy that meets demand in both public and private realms. A review of direct lines or so-called "private wires" is committed to under the programme for Government, and I would like to see progress being made on that as well. These routes of supply are currently unavailable on a wider basis due to the Electricity Regulation Act 1999. We need to deliver a clear plan on this aspect of energy supply which can play a positive role in meeting demand and unlocking the potential of some local areas.

Like many in this House, I look forward to the launch of the small-scale energy generation scheme, which I understand will be delivered later this year, providing an important bridge between microgeneration and large-scale projects taking place within the State.

The electrification of our public transport system requires a reliable and sustainable energy supply and is becoming ever more important as we aim to increase the number of passengers on the public network.

I understand this was subject to discussion today.

The generation of renewable electricity can provide a sustainable future for our country. However, we have little time to lose. I hope that, in time, we can as a society look back on recent years' developments and recognise we were laying the groundwork for a brighter, cleaner and healthier future.

5:55 pm

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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This Bill will allow Ireland to procure up to 450 MW of temporary emergency generation capacity to mitigate the security of supply risk next winter. However, the Minister cannot say the threats of blackouts just happened or blame this situation on the war in Ukraine. This is an unmitigated failure by the Government to manage electricity demand and supply. EirGrid has been raising this issue since 2016. Its generation capacity statements have warned of an increasing tightness between demand and supply. EirGrid has issued 18 amber alerts since 2017. Of these, 17 have been issued since the Government took office in 2020. Still the Government adds significant strains onto our electricity supply year on year without a properly thought-out and joined-up plan to tackle how these will affect the grid overall.

As I left Drogheda today, I passed the large Amazon data centres. They, and others like them, are putting a large strain on our electricity grid. The first Amazon data centre in Drogheda is a 48 MW facility. The second is due to come online this year. By Amazon's own estimates, cumulative demand for three phases of data centre development at the IDA Drogheda business park will be a maximum of 144 MW. All of that power consumed for just a handful of local jobs in a business park that is supposed to accommodate thousands of employees. While these data centres have backup generators so that the centres are protected in case of a blackout, local homes and businesses do not.

In its appeal last year against the second data centre, An Taisce stated there were 70 data centres in operation using 900 MW and that a further eight that were under consideration were expected to use an additional 250 MW. Data centres now consume 11% of Ireland's grid-generated electricity. This figure is projected to grow to 31% by 2027. The Government needs to put the pros and cons of these power-sucking data centres on a scale and look at the harsh reality of large electricity consumption and CO2 emissions versus the handful of jobs they create.

Every day, people are facing unprecedented energy bills. Constituency clinics are full of people shocked to the core by the amount they are being asked to pay. Demand drives up prices, yet the Government, knowing the demands the grid is going to face, that there are red flags and that people are struggling to pay their bills, comes up with 450 MW of temporary energy generation capacity as its plan. Does that not say it all?

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
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All too frequently, we debate emergency legislation from the Minister's Department. As my colleagues stated, I am on the Committee on Environment and Climate Action, which has probably received more requests for pre-legislative scrutiny to be waived than to be done. At some stage, it ceases to be an emergency. At some stage, the Department must be expected to be able to plan ahead for legislation.

This Bill is the third legislative element. I believe the previous element was dealt with in October. Prior to that was the EirGrid, Electricity and Turf (Amendment) Act in June 2022, so it is probably a year since the Department was aware that this Bill would be required to meet the demands of the system, yet we are still dealing with it as emergency legislation. I contend that the Minister and his Department should have been in a position many months ago to deal with this legislation. It is not acceptable to put a rush on the entire legislative process and to put a committee under pressure not to go through the correct process, that being, pre-legislative scrutiny. That is not good for democracy. We should be able to debate these issues. I hope this is the last emergency legislation we will be dealing with on this issue. I ask that the Minister take my comments into consideration for future Bills so that they follow the full and proper process that has been set down by the House.

I have tabled a number of amendments. I have concerns about an aspect of the Bill. It is less than a year since the Minister introduced legislation to amend the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015. It was enacted on 23 July. It is a relatively short time since that legislation was enacted, yet here we are debating a technical emergency Bill that, from my reading, essentially seeks to override it. Less than a year after it was introduced and only seven or eight months after it was enacted, the Minister is already introducing legislation that is looking for a little more wriggle room in how we deal with our climate obligations. Section 3 of the Bill before the House reads:

82D.Taking into account the exceptional circumstances and the urgent and compelling necessity for securing the supply of electricity in the State set out in the Act of 2022, the Agency, in considering designated applications, shall do so in a manner consistent with ... the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 to the extent that it considers practicable, taking particular account of the said exceptional circumstances and urgent and compelling necessity.

Twice in this paragraph, the Minister is applying caveats - "exceptional circumstances and the urgent and compelling necessity" - to his responsibility to implement the 2015 Act. I looked at the exact section of the Act in respect of which the Minister wants to give himself wriggle room. It is section 15, which reads:

(1) A relevant body shall, in the performance of its functions, have regard to— (a) the most recent approved national mitigation plan,

(b) the most recent approved national adaptation framework and approved sectoral adaptation plans,

(c) the furtherance of the national transition objective, and

(d) the objective of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the effects of climate change in the State.

The Bill seeks to override this section. The language in the section is very loose anyway, which is one of the criticisms held by me and others when we debated the Act. "A relevant body shall ... have regard to" essentially just means the body can just consider it. That is very flexible, although apparently not flexible enough for the Minister, who wants to introduce additional flexibility. I have serious questions about this and am tabling an amendment to strengthen the provision. We will debate that amendment in the coming days.

When members of the public hear the rhetoric from the Government, they think climate action and the legislation relating to it are strong and robust and that climate action is one of the Government's great successes. During the Second Stage debate on what became the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2022, the Minister stated: "The Bill reflects the need to provide a strong and clear governance framework to achieve its ambition and will permanently cement a strengthened statutory framework to drive this transformative change over time." He did not state that it would only permanently cement it until one year later when the Government wanted to bring in emergency legislation to undermine the Act.

The Taoiseach spoke recently about the need to accelerate our work in this area and to move much more quickly to implement agreed climate actions across all sectors. I have repeatedly said to the Minister that the talk from the Government is good. It is exactly what people want to hear. The reality is that its actions say something completely different. In this instance, the Government, through its actions, is trying to override the climate Act that was recently passed in order to bring in generators that will add to our emissions. That is the difficulty. We all understand that the Minister is in a very difficult situation in trying to balance the needs of our energy system, the level of demand and our climate targets. Everyone understands that is challenging. However, the piece the Government is missing is that it cannot keep growing demand, encouraging that demand, if it is also trying to meet the targets because do not have the renewable energy we need. Perhaps we will in ten years' time. I hope we will in ten years' time and that we will be exporting renewable energy but we are not at the moment and there is no guarantee we will be. When I talk to stakeholders even about onshore wind energy generation, they say that there is an eight- to ten-year process to get it through the system, never mind what it is for offshore wind-energy generation. From Wicklow, I look out onto the Arklow Banks and can see a small number of turbines. How many years as it taken us to put in place those turbines? While the ambition to have renewable energy generation in place is good, it will be a challenge. Until it is absolutely set in stone and until the Government can stand over it and state that we will be producing a certain amount of energy from renewables, we should not be allowing demand to grow to the extent we are allowing it to do so. It is because it has been unmanaged and because the Government has continued to facilitate the growth in the demand for energy that we are in the position of talking about emergency Bills and the fact that the Government is hoping to make the obligations under the climate Act even weaker. That is the reality.

Every second week, we see more details in the newspapers about data centres seeking permission to connect to the grid or to get their energy permits. It is constant. It seems to be the one growth area. The Minister must acknowledge that and recognise it for what it is. I am not saying that data centres are evil or bad per se. I understand that we need them in the context of the online environment we - people in Ireland and internationally - use. I am saying that it must be controlled. There does not seem to be any control at the moment.

The Minister specified that this legislation only relates to the stations in Shannonbridge and Tarbert. I have concerns. I see that the data centres have essentially the same problems the Minister is having. The reason he brought this Bill forward is that the application process for permits from the EPA is taking too long. The Minister is bringing in legislation to shorten that process or to get around it. I ask him to confirm that there is absolutely no way those provisions can be used for anything else and that there is no way they can be used to expedite the permits for data centres that are currently seeking to have applications fast-tracked.

It will be challenging for the Government and for the country to meet our energy targets. I have previously spoken about the need to get the systems right. That is where the Government is not getting it right. The systems are not right. It is also about getting the smaller things done. There was talk earlier about comments relating to public transport. I understand that comments can sometimes be taken out of context by the media and can be taken in a different direction. However, it is important that people are assisted as much as possible. I ask that he ensures that the little things and not only the big things happen. I will raise a small, local matter with the Minister which is indicative of the challenges we will be facing to get the big things done. More than a year ago a grant was provided for an electric vehicle charging point in Blessington, County Wicklow. We are still trying to get it connected one year later. A number of Deputies have been working on it. The local district forum has been trying to get it done. I have been assured by the ESB that everything that needs to be done has been done, and yet it is still not up and running. This should be simple. It should be pretty much automatic. If the systems are not in place to make something that small and simple automatic, it will be incredibly difficult to reach the big targets and to get the systems changes we need in place.

I do not know whether the Minister mentioned that we need to see the detail relating to the actions in the Climate Action Plan 2023. We need to see the relevant annexe because it is important we know what is planned and what the path is for us to meet our targets. There is also the McCarthy review. Ultimately, the debate we are having today represents a failure of Government, and not only this Government. Perhaps the fact that we are debating this Bill represent more the failures of previous Governments to proactively plan for our grid. It is important that the review in question be published. I am not sure whether the Minister has committed to making it available. I ask that he does so. It is important we have a discussion about it. I hope when it is published, we will have a debate on it in the House.

I and my colleagues in the Social Democrats want to engage constructively with the Minister on this incredibly important and difficult issue. We want to work constructively with the Minister on it, but he must take on board what we are saying. It is clear it has not been taken on board so far because this is probably my third time saying pretty much the same stuff. Many of the previous contributions were also made in other debates. We need the Minister to listen to us about this and we ask that he does so.

6:05 pm

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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This Bill is essential. I do not share the belief of some that we should try to delay its passage. The officials from the Department and from the CRU were convincing when they briefed us. The terms of an environmental impact assessment that would otherwise have taken 12 months to create are being modified.

This will be shortened so that an EPA licence can be granted. There will still be scrutiny, consultation and opportunities to make submissions. The case is very strongly made that we need this. We need the 262 MW in Shannonbridge, the 150 MW in Tarbert, the 191 MW in North Wall and the 50 MW in Huntstown. These are very important. The CRU pointed out that without them we would see a 30% increase next year in the inadequacy level of our grid provision. This would constitute an additional risk. One thing that families do not need at this stage is further risk and the risk of the lights going out. It is right that we go ahead with this. We should ask why the need for this modification in the licensing procedure had not been anticipated. We had emergency legislation previously. A critical path would have identified that the licence was needed. I do not know why it is not included in the previous legislation.

We also need to fair to the CRU and EirGrid. They are charged with ensuring the adequacy of the system. They have avoided alerts over the winter period. This is against a background of a loss of load expectation in 2023 of 118 whereas the target for safety is just eight. We are exposed and we need to accelerate this as well as take other measures.

It will be interesting to see the McCarthy report. Unlike some on the Opposition benches I have not already decided what the outcome of the report will be. I will wait to see what it is. At meetings of the Oireachtas committee I saw quite trenchant arguments between agencies with responsibility for adequacy who were criticising one another. There will be issues that we need to resolve. It is simplistic to point the finger at the Government with regard to some of these areas. We need to get to the bottom of this and take the measures that need to be taken to make sure it does not happen again.

We need to streamline the path to renewables. I hope the Government is absolutely determined to deal with planning or other obstacles. We rightly have the ambition to be a renewable energy hub not only for ourselves but for Europe. This also means providing for data centres. I do not hold with some who pretend that data centres are at the root of all our problems. We have created a competitive advantage in the communications sector quite deliberately. Data centres are part of this. Of course they have to be managed prudently and I know the Minister is doing this.

We also need to look at other things we are doing or not doing as the case may be. We have installed smart metres and they are not being used. We need to have more smart controls in the home. We are not pressing them enough. They should be in the 80% support category, which is the same as cavity wall insulation and attic insulation. We need more commercial battery storage. We need community energy advisers to complement the warmer homes scheme. It was interesting to see the Society of St. Vincent de Paul coming out in favour of community energy advisers. The warmer homes scheme is becoming a bit too rigid. There will be only 6,000 in the scheme next year and they will all be pretty deep retrofits. In an energy crisis such as this we should have community energy advisers to pick up lower-grade improvements and do them quickly and smartly under the warmer homes scheme. In France there is the sobriété énergétiquecampaign. I am sure the Minister knows about it from his colleagues. People are being asked to reduce their energy use by 10%. It has been very successful. We need to look at how we cut back on energy, not in terms of people being in cold homes but by putting in place smart controls and having good demand management strategies for industrial and domestic use.

We must be very conscious of the price that people must pay. I acknowledge the Government's move in introducing an €800 electricity credit, a €1,324 fuel allowance and a €420 household package. These are very helpful to people who are eligible for them. Energy providers, and in particular renewable energy generators, should recognise they have been creaming considerable windfall gains. Even the European windfall cap that will be introduced on renewable energy generators will leave them with very generous profit margins. They should look at this as an opportunity to win public support for the wind capacity and renewable capacity that we need as a community by showing some willingness to cut back and take lower profits at this time. They are earning super profits. They should give families a break. It would be good in the long-term interests of the development of the sector for it to show this generosity of spirit. We should also have the removal of barriers to more renewables. There has to be something on both sides. In the first half of last year they enjoyed wholesale energy electricity prices of €100 per MWh and it was €200 per MWh in the second half of last year. Very generous profits have been earned. Many of them contracted at approximately €75. They are earning significant amounts and they should show some understanding of the pressure that families are under at this time.

6:15 pm

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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Once again we are in the Chamber debating legislation that the Government is attempting to rush through the Oireachtas. The approach of the Government has been nothing short of chaotic when it comes to firefighting scandals and attempting to ram through legislation to cover up its mistakes and the mistakes of previous Governments. Week after week we come into the Chamber to have a Minister of State apologising for blatant disregard of rules of the State and legislation being rammed through without the proper time or consideration. It is no way for a Government to operate. This is not only me saying this. We saw it when we had the troika here. We saw it when Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael tried to privatise Irish Water. Rushed legislation is bad legislation. We even see it with strategic housing developments and the disaster that was. This is more of the same.

We will support the legislation because we are constructive in our opposition and we recognise that it is needed. People need to keep the lights on. It is only needed because the Government has mismanaged our energy supplies and ignored warnings since 2016. It has rolled out the red carpet for the energy-guzzling data centres. Currently, data centres use the same amount of electricity as all the homes in rural Ireland. They are undoing the good work of people who saved up and managed to afford to put in heat pumps or buy electric vehicles. Not everyone can do so. There are those who can wait the two years for the warmer homes scheme but what about those who cannot afford it? There are those who do not have the money to pay the difference between grants and the actual cost of the work being done. The levels of energy poverty we are experiencing is a scandal. It is a scandal that the Government could have helped with but did not. It could have targeted retrofitting at those who most need it and it could have capped energy prices.

In recent weeks we have heard shocking story after story about the amounts that people are paying for their energy this winter. For some people it is a bill too far they are so high. The Minister has spoken about the windfall tax. Here we are coming out of winter and the energy companies are creaming off the top and pushing people to the pin of their collar to keep their homes warm. Where is the windfall tax? Will the Minister consider Sinn Féin's amendments to the Bill? We recognise the work that Deputy Darren O'Rourke and Senator Lynn Boylan have done on trying to reduce energy costs and secure energy supply.

6:25 pm

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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If we are honest, the purpose of this Bill, which is being rushed through the Dáil in an emergency fashion by the Minister with the support of all his Green Party colleagues, is to bypass current environmental protection legislation. It is not about shortening the process in that regard. It is about bypassing , fast-tracking and streamlining it and avoiding the need for an environmental impact assessment in respect of two emergency projects at Tarbert and Shannonbridge.

This is the third item of legislation that will have been rammed through this House in this manner in the past six months to deal with the same issue. The panic does not arise as a result of the fact that EirGrid had to issue amber alerts at an alarming rate last year, which it was, because the grid cannot keep up with the demand. We are told that the war in Ukraine, Putin's plans and the wind not blowing have all conspired to push us towards the brink of blackouts. That is why we have to bypass the norms and safeguards in this Chamber and fast-track legislation, and why that legislation is bulldozing over environmental impact assessments. That is why a Green Party Minister is pushing legislation to facilitate 450 MW of gas-fired, carbon-belching emergency generation plants.

What is happening is unbelievable. It is worth thinking about what that means. The Green Party has three times now pushed through emergency legislation bypassing planning laws and regulation and environmental safeguards because we have an emergency in power supply. However, that emergency does not stem from Putin’s machinations or from our geography or precarious connections to other markets. It is also not because the wind does not blow occasionally. It stems from the fact that, uniquely in Europe, our power demand has grown at a time when we need to shift from reliance on fossil fuels to renewable energy.

When Covid-related peaks and troughs are excluded, Ireland is unique in the European Union in having had power demand increase by 9% over the past five years. The EU average for 27 nations is flatlining. Many comparable nations have seen declines in electricity demand over the same period. That demand increase is not natural, normal or explicable as a result of our success in building a better society or more homes for our people. It is driven by the obscene needs of data centres and the obsequiousness of this State when dealing with the demands and wish lists of big tech and international corporations.

The Green Party has fought the corner of the data centre industry, spinning a fairy tale that we can have unlimited growth in data centres and it will all be fine as we grow our offshore renewable sector. We cannot do it. We cannot address the climate crisis by handing over the keys to State policy to private investment firms or big tech. This is what happens when we try to marry climate and social goals to the imperatives of capitalism and big business. We end up with the farce of a Green Party Minister tearing up environmental legislation, not in order ensure that the lights stay on in people's homes or in hospitals but to ensure that the data centres of Meta, Amazon and Twitter remain cool as they burn up our electricity and drive demand.

We have over 70 data centres and a further more will be connected to the grid soon. Applications have been filed in respect of four more centres and the operators of another 12 centres are talking to EirGrid about their plans. In addition, the ESB is reviewing the position relating to five separate centres. Meanwhile, Gas Networks Ireland is separately processing applications for 11 data centre connections to the gas grid. Therefore, we went from data centres consuming 5% of our electricity to 11% in five years, and it will jump from the current 15% to 30% in double-quick time. This is a sector whose energy demand rose by 144% in five years, which is single-handedly propelling us to the likely power cuts that this legislation is trying to head off.

The Minister's party is fast-tracking the purchase of gas-fired generators and bypassing planning and environmental regulations in order to facilitate data centre proliferation. It is as simple as that. No excuse will mask what is happening. It is in stark contrast to the Minister's latest approach to the idea of free public transport and how it might cause unnecessary trips by some people. I wonder if he equates those unnecessary trips with those who currently avail of free public transport, such as pensioners, people with disabilities and so on.

I have a final observation on the Bill and on previous legislation. It is still unclear to me from the briefing provided by the Minister and his officials if the phrase in the previous legislation on bypassing planning and environmental regulation applies only to the sitting generators at Tarbert and Shannonbridge. The previous legislation added the words “or alternative appropriate sites”, so the question then becomes whether we are setting a precedent so that any Minister or Government in the future can simply say it is an emergency, so X or Y site can also bypass these rules. Could, for example, Amazon or Meta say that their demand for gas-fired generation in the future is also an emergency? Could any other site not detailed here be suddenly pushed to the front of a planning process without planning or environmental regulations applying?

As outlined by some previous speakers, this is the problem with emergency legislation. It facilitates the tearing up of existing safeguards. It is a slippery slope and we cannot say for definite that it will end here.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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For Members who are listening, this debate is moving quickly so they might keep a close eye on proceedings. There are many who want to participate who are not present.

Photo of Cormac DevlinCormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to examine the Bill. It is a largely technical Bill to amend the EPA Act of 1992 to enable the Government to make arrangements to provide emergency generation capacity. Given the instability brought on by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, there is an onus on the Government to provide confidence to households and businesses with respect to the security of Ireland's energy supply. As a Member of the Oireachtas climate committee, I am very familiar with the issues at hand and the urgent need to procure up to 450 MW of temporary emergency generation capacity in order to mitigate the risks to supply next winter. While it is generally not desirable to set aside regulations or accelerate the development framework around power generation and EPA licensing, given the current uncertainty around electricity, it is in the public interest to proceed with these changes. I also note the points raised by the Minister around the provisions for public information.

Like my colleagues, I would welcome a statement from the Minister on Dermot McCarthy's report on energy security. Energy security and the cost of energy are linked. The extremely tight position is hindering competition and households are paying the price, with continued high prices for energy. Households saw their bills increase quickly when prices went up and they now need to see bills being reduced as prices return to normal levels. We need urgent action from the Minister and the regulator on the high price of electricity being charged to households.

I also want to raise again the need for urgency on household retrofitting. The Minister will be aware that I have raised this issue on a number of occasions in the past. In particular, we need to see urgency around retrofitting of council housing stock, support for vulnerable people with underlying medical conditions and a greater roll-out of minor retrofitting schemes ahead of next winter. I raised these issues with the Minister last summer. Perhaps I sound a bit repetitive. However, I am of the view that we need to see action in respect of this matter. Communities are depending on the Minister.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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The negative impacts of higher energy prices on consumers, society and the economy have been felt. We did good things in the budget to help people with higher energy prices. There are supports in place, but we need to reassure the public that there is energy security. We have to be able to keep the lights on. We need unbroken availability of energy sources at an affordable price and we must do all we can to ensure the most vulnerable in our society do not suffer massive energy costs or disruption of power.

We have to provide confidence to households and businesses with respect to the security of Ireland's energy supply. Energy security is enhanced by having in place a multitude of robust emergency plans that seek to mitigate, offset or prevent supply issues emerging. However, to really lower prices for consumers is the most crucial point. We have to look at alternatives. It is stark that the CRU warns that there is a critical need to procure temporary energy in order that we do not hit winter this year with shortages or, even worse, outages.

This Bill allows provision to be made to allow for alternative environmental assessments to be made by the EPA when considering licensing applications in respect of designated developments. From an environmental perspective, the proposed legislation provides for second assessments as part of the licensing process in a way that will allow the objectives of the EIA directive to be met. The proposed legislation also provides for a streamlined licensing process in emergency circumstances that still affords appropriate public participation in decision-making. Public participation is important.

From an energy policy perspective, pending successful licence and other consent applications, the legislation would facilitate delivery of a second tranche of additional temporary emergency electricity generation within the shortest timeframe achievable. However, let us face it - we are the country with the largest opportunity for wind generation. We are an island on the edge of Europe, yet despite our immense natural resources for offshore wind, Scotland and Portugal outperform us in the adoption of every renewable energy technology. This Bill will allow for us to get in the game in a serious way and provide real and affordable choice for consumers. From speaking to people and businesses, older people in particular are having difficulty with the cost of living. There is a crisis there, so we must give reassurance to the people that we are doing our best to ensure everything is affordable and that we will never have a power cut, which is the main thing. This legislation is going to go a long way. This is all about having lower costs for everybody involved, going forward. I thank the Minister.

6:35 pm

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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We are back dealing with this issue. I think I said before that we have a number of energy crises. We have the situation created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and we have particular issues containing and controlling the energy providers. We are finally having a proper conversation about windfall taxes and the actions that are absolutely necessary to ensure there is a bit of order and there are manners and that we can protect our people, to some degree. My colleagues will be dealing with this later in our Private Members' motion. We must look at capping prices for electricity, ensuring people have the security of knowing what the costs are going to be and then bringing in windfall taxes as a final piece of leverage. We were talking about brownouts and blackouts. We had rushed legislation previously. We all supported it, but we asked then how we ever got into this situation.

We all know the one thing this State has got right, to a degree, is foreign direct investment. We have provided a well-educated workforce. There is no doubt in regard to the tax element for some of the companies and there are the obvious factors like our being an English-speaking part of the EU and that we have an infrastructure we believe fit for purpose, although it has been shown itself to be under severe pressure. One of the points people would have mentioned was a definite, guaranteed electricity supply with no doubts, problems or issues. People would have said security of energy supply was the reason companies would not locate in certain parts of Asia and other parts of the world. However, we have not been able to get our act together to ensure we have the capacity to deliver on the need that is there, and so we are back dealing with this again. We support this legislation because we support ensuring we have that capacity, but we really need to get to grips with things.

A number of Deputies spoke about the Dermot McCarthy report. It is tasked with establishing how we got here and how we can ensure we do not go through this mad process again and that we do a decent piece of due diligence on what our energy requirements are going to be into the future. As I said, the two major issues are energy prices and our energy capacity. These are on top of the madness of the scenario we have with accommodation, which is impacting across the board.

Unfortunately, I have gone over time and will not be able to ask questions on Carlinn Hall. I am going to need information on the geothermal survey and whether that piece of work is on the correct trajectory.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Did you or did you not ask the question?

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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He is going to.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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All right.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I could pick on part of Deputy Ó Murchú's last comment and spend the next 20 minutes very easily answering how we got here. It was obvious to me when I was the Minister with responsibility for energy. Some of the officials present will know, from the quite heated discussions I had in the Department and at Cabinet, that I was aware the lack of management of energy demand on the grid was going to create a significant problem for us. I flagged this back in 2017 when it became very obvious to me what was going on. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. At that stage, when we were designing the new renewable electricity support scheme, we included in the new scheme a specific windfall tax for renewable energy providers were they to end up in a scenario like they are in today. Any of the operators now producing electricity under the renewable energy support scheme I designed, as Minister, are subject to a clawback built into it. The difficulty is my predecessors, including the Minister, Deputy Ryan, who designed the previous scheme, did not put that clawback in place. That is part of the reason we are in the situation we are today.

Another part of the reason is we decommissioned some of our capacity to meet the 450 MW deficit we have at present. The impression being given was that we were decommissioning old kit, but that was not the case. Both the power plant in Lanesborough and the one in Shannonbridge had a ten-year lifespan left in them. Back in December 2020 I questioned the Tánaiste on the closure of those plants in this House. I pointed out at that time that Kieran Mulvey, the Government's just transition commissioner, had described the two plants as being in a "pristine state". That is why I, when Minister, took the decision that we would transition these plants away from burning peat to burning indigenously-sourced biomass. Not only would it have ensured security of energy supply, but it would have also provided a fair transition from peat to domestically-sourced biomass and allow farmers across the midland counties, struggling to make an income from beef production, to move into production of biomass where there would be a guaranteed, contracted price available to them. This would have created local jobs and provided a sustainable income for local farmers. However, it did not happen.

Some of the people wringing their hands today are the very ones who were giving rounds of applause and going on local radio and national television to say closing down these plants was a great thing. The closure of those plants led to the effective wasting of €176 million of electricity customers' money, because that money had already been paid for those two power plants that had a ten-year lifespan left in them.

Electricity customers are again being asked to put their hands in their pockets to pay for the mistakes of decisions made. It is frustrating to think that not only are electricity customers paying for this, but we also have the perverse situation that we are now suspending our environmental laws to allow us to facilitate the commissioning of diesel generators to replace what would have been these two biomass plants in Lanesborough and Shannonbridge. On top of the €176 million in lost payments that have already gone to the ESB for these plants, we are asking every family in this country to pay an extra €40 for the replacement 450 MW that must now be provided as a result of this legislation. A point I made back in December 2020 was that we would be forcing electricity customers to pay for the replacement of the power plants in Lanesborough and Shannonbridge, as well as for the decommissioning of those plants.

While I am on the issue of customers' pain, the one way people can try to avoid these additional costs concerning electricity is to retrofit their homes. We know what has gone on with the warmer homes scheme for people in fuel poverty. If I have time, I will come back to this issue at the end.

I will turn now to the better energy, warmer homes scheme for people accessing the grant for the new retrofit scheme. As the Minister of State will know, this is something that is close to my own heart. I piloted the deep retrofitting scheme when I was the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, and I wanted to see it mainstreamed. As soon as the application process opened, I applied for it for my house, which is an old one. I went through the process in this regard. The agent, through the one-stop shop I was working with, told me there was now a condition that it was necessary to have a home energy assessment carried out before making any decisions. It was necessary to pay upfront for that home energy assessment, which I did. Information concerning the cost of carrying out the work came back and the amount of grant aid I would get. I decided to go ahead with the project. The home energy assessment was completed in August 2022. The one-stop shop contractor approved by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, then got each of its agents to come in and do the pricing for this project. In the first week of November 2022, I got the final price back from them, with the contract to start work.

Between August and November 2022, the cost had gone up by 33%. The cost to me, as a homeowner, had gone up by 53%. The reality is that the home energy assessment is nothing but a three-card trick. The Government is extorting additional taxation out of people to carry out a home energy assessment which is not worth the paper it is written on. In fact, in my case, and the cases of many others, what it did was to discourage us. People postponed the carrying out of works on their homes, which would have reduced their energy costs last winter, because they went through this farcical process. This is a practical example of what is happening right across the country.

If we look at the figures, and from talking to people who I encouraged to go through this process, the exact same problems have been encountered. Once they have engaged with a contractor, people find that the figures, in the context of those approved and authorised by the SEAI following the home energy assessment process, have absolutely nothing to do with those derived from the home energy assessment. If we want to get people to take up this scheme, then we must go back and look at the basic mathematics concerning it.

I refer to the point I made regarding forcing electricity customers across this country, who are already struggling to pay their electricity bills, to pay for the mistakes and the additional electricity being put into large energy users across this country. It is immoral, wrong and should not be happening.

6:45 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I call Deputy Canney. Another speaker will be turning up, but there is ten minutes overall.

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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Picking up where Deputy Naughten left off, regarding the warmer homes scheme, this is a fantastic one for people in fuel poverty. There is no doubt about it. The problem with it is the timeframe in which an application is processed and a building energy regulation, BER, assessment done. By the time the work gets done on a house, it will probably have taken about 18 months or longer.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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It is two and a half years.

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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We are talking about a length of time that is unacceptable. It would be good if we were going to be as quick with these types of schemes as we were to shut down Lanesborough and Shannonbridge power stations. To give the House another bit of history in this regard, this situation reflects what we did with the sugar beet industry. We made a decision, based on some desktop survey that was done, that closing down the sugar beet industry was the right thing for this country, for Europe and for people in general. What we actually did, however, was to create something else entirely. We created farming which was unviable. There were no more cash crops. All the farmers in Galway East, Galway West, Roscommon and south Mayo went back to beef and sheep. There is no tillage. This was a huge mistake and we have just repeated it here with the Shannonbridge and Lanesborough power plants. It is a classic example of people not understanding the consequences of making decisions. Peat milling is another aspect in this regard. We are now importing water and turf mould from the Baltics to take care of the horticultural industry here.

To come back to the point at hand, it is important to say that when we make a dramatic decision to close something down, in my book, and given my background, it would always be better to make plans to put the replacement or substitute in place and have it up and running prior to cutting off something. In this regard, we are a long way behind the curve in offshore energy and its delivery. We are pushing wind farms into communities where these turbines, which reach hundreds of feet towards the sky, are causing great distress. Instead, we should be putting in place a quick solution to get offshore energy on the way.

This is emergency legislation and it is being brought forward because we have an energy shortage crisis. I accept this point. However, we should have more emergency legislation to ensure we can actually build out the infrastructure and the grid we need to replace what we have cut out. We should bear in mind that we will be relying on electricity for everything in future, from heating our houses with our heat pumps to driving our electric cars and other transport vehicles. Everything is going electric. The demand for electricity is rising and yet we are plodding along, maintaining the status quo. We are not taking into account the fact that our population is rising and demand is increasing.

We face many challenges and emergency legislation is required. Since February 2020, we have seen much emergency legislation coming through the Houses, some for the good and some for the bad. We need more emergency legislation not only for electricity but also for housing. We talked today about housing and the crisis in that regard, but the electricity aspect goes hand-in-hand with that. Instead of having policies, reports and reviews of legislation, if we do not grab this issue quickly and question how we are going to do things, this will go on for years.

It is important that we take this seriously. We cannot keep going on the way we are going. We must make sure that we build the capacity to meet the demand. We must get in front of the demand and create the infrastructure so that we are not giving out about having data centres in Ireland, as we will have the green energy to fuel them if needed. We are getting to a stage where we are dividing up what we are doing and we are trying to keep ourselves going on a piecemeal basis. I accept that we need energy security, but we must preplan and make sure it is there when we need it.

6:55 pm

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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I had some IT issues so I do not have the comprehensive speech I was going to make. I will address some points relating to what is proposed in the Bill. Essentially, it responds to the need for emergency backup electricity generation, which was introduced in legislation back at the turn of the year. What it fails to do is highlight the very slow rate of progress in terms of trying to deliver renewable energy and also with the warmer homes initiative. Those are two significant deficits we have in the economy.

I pay great credit to my colleague, Deputy Naughten, who in recent years has been promoting the idea of converting some of the redundant power stations, namely, Lanesborough and Shannonbridge, to biomass for the purpose of generating up to 250 MW of electricity annually. This would be done by incentivising farmers to grow 10,000 acres of willow. It would also mean that we could take forestry thinnings to produce electricity. However, the Government totally refused to look at the proposal on the basis of the climate action plan, yet here we are today implementing diesel-generated electricity generation backup at Tarbert in order to try to provide a backup for electricity generation. We have been remiss in rolling out the wind development policy. The Maritime Area Regulatory Authority, MARA, has still not been instituted.

I am not sure where the community dividend lies legislatively speaking, but I had a meeting recently with some of the people involved with wind energy and, as I understand it, the community dividend for one of the large wind farms on the south coast would be between €1 million and €1.5 million per annum for 15 years, which is wholly inadequate given the total outlay on the project might be €1 billion. I urge the Minister of State to look at that aspect of the licensing framework before these licences are considered.

The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications is responsible for the warmer homes initiative. Unfortunately, the underperformance in that regard is stellar. In five years, the average cost has gone from €3,450 in 2017 to €22,000. We are probably providing greater infrastructure, but it is hard to know how much greater it is. Deputy Naughten outlined some of the issues he encountered when trying to apply for the scheme. What is clear is that we are not keeping up with the rate of demand. The Government gave a significant commitment that we would be able to roll out the scheme, but it is patently clear that we are running at less than 50% of the applications per year and in terms of the costs arising. This is something the Minister of State must examine. I note that additional personnel resources are to be given to the SEAI, but we have a significant problem with the recruitment of people for jobs in construction in this country. It was highlighted when the policy was introduced that both sectors would be competing for labour. I refer to the construction sector and the retrofitting scheme. That is exactly what is happening and it is pushing up the price. Perhaps the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment should consider bringing in skilled labour from abroad. We must consider changing the work permit system to allow us to bring in labour. Otherwise, we are just going to keep on raising the cost of the schemes and this is all going to come back on the taxpayer.

I reiterate a point that was already made about hard-pressed families which is that they are paying for the change in the climate agenda. Having put charges and levies on people's electricity bills for proposed carbon capture and sequestration and the development of renewable energy, we are now asking them to pay for diesel generation and we are happy to set aside our environmental planning laws to make that a reality. That is not a very positive step.

I highlight the amendment tabled by Deputy Naughten for a 12-month sunset clause on the legislation. I endorse that because I do not think we can have this runaway development of a diesel-generated backup. We must give impetus to renewables and find a way to incentivise and accelerate the development of solar energy and offshore wind energy in this country because we need to do it far more quickly than we are doing currently. That would give us some relative security in terms of energy supply. It is paramount that we include a sunset clause in the legislation, as per Deputy Naughten's amendment.

Photo of Alan DillonAlan Dillon (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Environmental Protection Agency (Emergency Electricity Generation) (Amendment) Bill. This temporary emergency electricity generation will provide capacity to mitigate the security of supply risk for the winter period at the end of this year and into 2024. It is crucially important that Government plans are in place to ensure a reliable and resilient energy supply in times of crisis or disruption. The Bill will ensure essential services continue to operate, reducing economic impacts, supporting disaster response efforts, improving our energy security and also promoting investment in resilient infrastructure to help build a more sustainable energy system for the future. In essence, that is what is important when we speak to the Bill.

While energy companies continue to make enormous profits in the electricity sector, we must continue to voice our concerns in that regard, in particular in terms of affordability for householders and businesses. It is important for the Government to continue to monitor and regulate the electricity sector to ensure energy companies act in the best interests of their consumers and the environment. Last year, when Irish customers faced higher electricity prices than the EU average, we were told that the most important factor affecting the price of electricity here is the continuing upward trend in international gas prices, which is affecting electricity prices across Europe and the world. The Government's long-term solution to this issue was the deepening of our interconnection with the EU energy market.

Ireland sources approximately one quarter of its gas from the Corrib gas field and three quarters via the interconnector with the UK, which has diverse sources of supply. We must work out what we do given the declining production in the Corrib gas field. We have still not answered that important question. Have we identified alternative natural gas supplies? Otherwise, Ireland will end up depending on imports via the UK and Scotland or from the European network, which is already under pressure. Relying on the interconnector with the UK seems like the easiest option but it exposes Ireland to EU gas supply and demand issues in the winter months, as we have seen previously. We must ensure we have an equivalent alternative to the Corrib gas field to supply the building of the new gas-fired electricity plants that are described by the Government as a national priority. As the Minister of State is aware, the country's only gas reserve that is licensed for exploration is off the coast of Mayo. If these fields prove viable, they could tie into the existing Corrib infrastructure. We have a €3 billion asset in north Mayo and that would ensure the jobs there are secured in the long term. The gas could also be brought ashore with minimal disruption. The Government must continue to realise the full potential of our indigenous renewable energy resources, but we must also build the State's energy security as that is essential to address the structural issues that currently exist.

I also want to touch on the lag between the wholesale price and the retail price for businesses and homeowners. The process is taking way too long and reductions are not being passed on quickly enough.

Numerous companies are quick to impose higher prices but take their time bringing prices down. The Government needs to take that on board in implementing a policy response in this area. In recent days, we saw two companies, Pinergy and Electric Ireland, announce decisions to implement price reductions, which was important. It is a step in the right direction but nowhere near enough to solve the issues of outrageously high energy prices. We need to be conscious about this. We need action to help consumers. Some energy companies are not inclined to pass on reductions quickly enough, so the Government must ensure reductions in prices are passed on in a swift manner. We can no longer politely request companies to reduce their prices. We must be more strict and responsible in how they manage it. It is important the national energy security framework continues to deliver for Government and ensure the Department develops and implements energy policies tailored to specific circumstances and that reflect the priorities and values of our citizens.

7:05 pm

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I will move to emergency generation in a minute. The Government must take greater measures to control and manage our energy needs. Households continue to receive sky-high energy bills, with electricity and gas bills more than double what they were just two years ago. One pensioner in my constituency, who lives alone, received a bill of €9,015.48, while a single mother on maternity leave, living on her own in a small flat, got a bill for €978.57. I have copies of the bills for the Minister from those two people. Energy companies are making supernormal profits on the back of the war in Ukraine, some of it as an excuse, and ordinary people are paying for it. The Government has sat on its hands while families and workers are literally robbed. I want to know why this Government has not introduced an energy windfall tax on company profits. The Government has been talking about this for long enough. Spain, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic and many other have introduced retrospective and future windfall tax on the superprofits. This would disincentivise companies from increasing prices and would pay for further energy credits. The €200 credit people got is welcome but is gobbled up. Without a windfall tax, companies are simply upping their profits. We are simply throwing money at companies and subsidising those profits.

Last summer, Sinn Féin called for a windfall tax. Since then, I do not know what the Government is waiting for. It is also wrong that Electric Ireland is reducing prices by 10% to 15% for businesses while householders are being left in the cold. Energy companies are choosing not to pass on the 40% reduction in wholesale electricity prices. What justification is there for allowing these companies to charge skyrocketing prices for wind- and solar-generated power? That is the question the Green Party needs to answer. The wind and sun do not cost any more now than they did two years ago. Fianna Fáil, the Green Party, Fine Gael and the Labour Party have failed spectacularly to manage our energy system for decades. We have been brought to the brink of blackouts, yet we have some of the highest energy bills in Europe. We used to have one of the lowest, by the way, when it was run by the ESB alone.

The Government's solution is now to purchase diesel-burning generators to meet increased demand, at a cost in excess of €300 million which could go well beyond that. You could not make this up. This highlights the chaotic approach of the Government. EirGrid warned in 2016 that we needed to ramp up supply to meet increasing demand. If the Government had taken on board the proposals we in Sinn Féin brought forward in 2017, Powering Ireland 2030, which would have moved us towards 80% renewable power, we would not be in this supply crisis or it would not be as bad as it is. We need to move back to ten- to fifteen-year planning. That used to happen in this State. There were ten- to fifteen-year plans for energy security. In the past ten years, however, long before the Minister's party came back into government, that has not been done. It has not been done by the past three or four governments. People in the industry have been highlighting this and we need to get back to fifteen-year planning. That is why we are in a crisis.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Mattie McGrath is sharing time with Deputies Collins, O'Donoghue and Healy-Rae.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Seo í seachtain na Gaeilge. Déanfaimid ár ndícheall chun an Ghaeilge a chur chun cinn. This is a Government-Rialtas of the three-card trick, as I call it: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. We are now talking about emergency energy generation. Here we are, about 18 months since we in our group said this was a crisis, a crisis was upon us and was going to come. Then the war arrived, that heinous war the Government has blamed everything on. Thankfully, the wholesale price is now lower than before the war. The Government has been caught napping. It has the cheek to introduce emergency legislation 18 months into a crisis, and the cheek to call it emergency legislation. It is just a bland excuse because the Government had an experiment during Covid-19 with experimental emergency legislation and the Government got away with black, blue and holy murder in that regard. The Government thinks it can slip it all under this radar now.

The first I heard of this on behalf of my group was last Thursday morning at the Business Committee meeting. We have seen neither sight nor sign of the Bill, there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny and there is no time - as I objected to today - to debate it. There are six hours for Second Stage and all the other Stages to Final Stage. In fairness, Deputy Naughten got an amendment in, but there was very little time to submit amendments. The Green Party is in government now. This is how it deals with people: the massive guillotine. The Minster, Deputy Ryan, is like wonder man; he can work miracles. He can stop every man, woman and cratur in the country from burning a turf fire, yet he cannot stop a drone being flown over Dublin Airport that is reckless and could bring down a plane with 300 or 500 people on it. What kind of tomfoolery is that? He is the Minister for Transport and we have no emergency legislation to deal with that.

The Government tells us this is an emergency, but we know it is not an emergency. I am all for getting the lights on. We have been warning about brownouts and blackouts and we spoke to EirGrid three years ago, which told us this was nigh. What did the Government do? It closed down a power station in the midlands, stopped gas exploration and stopped everything else it could. There are licences piled high on the Minister's desk that he will not even respond to. He tells us in the Dáil, as he told me last week, that licences are still being issued. He will not even respond to the mail. He does not have the respect to answer decent companies making an application to renew their licences. That was in part of the deal, all they had to was extend it, and the Minister will not even allow them to do it. He will not even give them the courtesy of doing it.

This is shambolic and the public are sick and tired of the Government. The public are paying the price and there is price gouging. The Government had to be brought kicking and screaming to use the toolbox the EU gave us to decouple the price of wind. You could talk a lot of wind and hot air in here. Balloons would take off if they were in here, I would say. The Government was told it could do it, but it still has not done it. Many other countries have brought in windfall taxes, but the Government has brought in none. The last speaker is gone - there is always someone from Sinn Féin here - but I was in Stormont yesterday and Deputy Howlin led a delegation from our committee C. We met different people dealing with the energy crisis. There is no windfall tax either up there. There are no supports either up there. Sinn Féin is supposed to be the party of the First Minister, even though it has not had a sitting. The door is dúnta. I walked up, it was locked and níl aon duine istigh. Tá an áit folamh. I do not know what is going on up there. I was going to suggest something, but I will not now because they will make a mockery of me. I will keep a béal dúnta for once.

You are codding the people. People are getting these bills and then some energy companies are giving a 10% reduction to businesses and nothing for the hard-pressed, unfortunate, misfortunate people out there who are trying to pay their taxes, live, put food on the table, and who are being priced out of existence. The Government talks about congestion taxes. It thinks it is going to throw 30 cars or ten cars, I think it was, into a village for three hundred people. There will not be any congestion in that village anyway if the Minister gets his way. We will all be on the rothar, síos an bóthar, freewheeling down the road. There are freeloaders in the Green Party who were in government when I was privileged, or not privileged, to be in with them in 2007 to 2011. I saw what havoc they did. The havoc they did that time is nothing to the havoc they are doing now. The Government allowed a pipeline to go across the country from Tiobraid Árann suas go dtí Baile Átha Cliath that caused massive damage, a project that was wilful waste. The Minister was to sign an order - I do not know if it happened or not - to send lorry-loads of ready-mix down to Ballyroe to block a perfectly good pipeline that is so high and fill it up with mass concrete so it could not be used again.

The fellas in white coats should come in here, back the wagons into the front gate and bring away the people dreaming of these policies and introducing and implementing them. It is crazy stuff.

7:15 pm

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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I appreciate the Minister of State being before us but am disappointed the Minister, Deputy Ryan, does not stay. He seems to run away when Rural Independents come before him recently.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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Is he your favourite?

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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The Minister of State might pass on that we would like him to stay. I am not degrading the Minister of State but a senior Minister needs to hear facts and he will not hear them from most of his own crowd back-patting him and not explaining to him what is happening out there.

In order for temporary emergency generation to be available in quarter 4 2023, licence applications are required to be lodged by the end of March 2023 to enable due consultation and consideration of the applications by the EPA. Legislative amendments are required urgently to facilitate this process. Ireland is one of the most fossil fuel-reliant countries in Europe and is largely dependent on costly imports of oil and gas. Most of our electricity is generated from natural gas, the price of which is something we cannot control in Ireland. The Government’s failure to provide new exploration licences for domestic oil and gas means we are dependent on the price set by other countries and companies.

Renewables are probably Ireland’s greatest strength, given the weather, but our greatest weakness is the snail’s pace at which the Government is delivering them. Families pay €4,000 per year or more for electricity following sustained price increases dating back to mid-2021. Making matters worse, energy industry analysts say delays in new windfarm developments will contribute to a supply squeeze that will keep prices above pre-pandemic levels until 2030. By December 2022, consumer electricity prices were 62.7% higher year on year according to the Central Statistics Office. The price of gas rose by 86.5%. Liquid fuels and home heating oil were up 39.9% and solid fuels were up 46.9% in the year. Wholesale gas prices hit their peak in August 2022, rising to a whopping €346 per MWh, a more than 450% increase on prices before the invasion. The price of gas remains high but has fallen to a level not seen since the second half of 2021, when we first started to feel the rising costs. High energy costs are having a significant impact on all sectors and groups of people. From households and businesses to the agriculture and transport sectors, everybody is feeling the strain of ever-increasing energy bills. Households face the most immediate and significant impact. The cost of electricity and gas has more than doubled in the past two years, making it difficult for families to make ends meet. This is particularly true for low-income families who are more likely to experience energy poverty, which is defined as being unable to afford adequate warmth and energy services in their homes.

Many have spoken about the warmer homes situation. When the Green Party got into government, I thought that was an area it would focus and deliver on but some people in my constituency are still waiting to be seen after two years, including elderly people. There are extraordinary bills. I was speaking to a person the other day in west Cork who said they opened their electricity bill and sat down with a pain in their chest. How would they pay €700 for two months? They could not figure out what to switch on in the house. Modern homes have everything electric and nothing else. They were horrified thinking about how they would find that €700. They were obviously going to have to ring the electricity company to try to do a deal. That is only kicking the can down the road. It is astonishing what businesses are paying.

We gave little grants and bits and pieces to people last year off their electricity bill but the energy companies are not brought to task at all. It is as if the Government is afraid in case it would insult them or hurt their feelings. Government Members should not be worried about their feelings. It is the feelings of the people who vote for them that they should worry about. Those people are not being thought about. No one living should get a bill of €700 for the little bit of electricity they use. There is a lot more. We hear of elderly people getting €1,600 or €1,700 bills. They are cold in their homes and have no choice but to heat them. The Minister, as with the drones in Dublin Airport which were mentioned, is way off the mark. He should get these energy companies around the table, put his foot down and give them strict orders. They can get profits but they must give back some of the moneys they are grabbing out of people's pockets. They have crucified people and the Government has stood idly by.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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Tonight in Ballyneety, County Limerick, a meeting is being held by concerned citizens over a plant like this that is suggested for a disused quarry in the area. The Government wants to bring in emergency legislation to provide that an environmental impact assessment does not have to be done. Is the Government opening the doors for a unit like this to be put anywhere in the country without such an assessment being done? If I build a house tomorrow morning, an environmental impact study is done. If a farmer wants to build a slurry tank, an environmental impact assessment is done. However, if you want to build a big gas unit or put in huge diesel generators, you do not have to do that.

Two years or a year and a half ago, I mentioned Fossetts Circus here. It was a big laugh at the time. My God, we could put a show on the road with the amount of stuff that is going on here. It is going around in circles. The Government could do a sell-out and would probably make enough money to cover the increased energy costs in this country with the farcical things it brings in front of us. It puts every business, person and householder in the country under financial pressure. It closed Shannonbridge and Lanesborough, sold the equipment and now has to bring in emergency legislation because we have not got enough power. If a director of a business made a decision like that, he or she would be gone out the door and fired on the spot. However, the Government just says it made a mistake and will now cost the taxpayer more money for electricity.

Does the Minister of State knows how much it costs to produce a MWh of electricity in this country? It costs €50. Does he know what was charged in October 2022? It was €154.70 per MWh is what the companies charged. Then the Government came in with a cap of €120 per MWh. That is still 140% profit made on the back of every man, woman, child and businessperson in this country, along with the taxes that go on top of it. Do you know something? It is beyond words. How can the Minister of State sit here and look at this? What is the problem in this country? The Government comes out with grants. The grants for solar panels for a house allow for a maximum of 6 kW. People came to me and said they wanted to put on 20 kW because they will be able to help the country. No, they can only apply for the grant on a maximum of 6 kW. People with CHP units can provide their own electricity and, if there is an overspill, they will send it back to the grid. The power companies are saying no to overspill back onto the grid. Why? Because the grid cannot take it.

Our ESB, sewerage and water infrastructure have never been invested in but now the Government has the idea of running diesel generators. It has already taxed people out of existence with diesel and petrol. It takes exorbitant taxes of 50% in petrol and 44% in diesel. Now it is burning diesel in generators to provide power after closing down plants. If you could write a book as good as this, it would be a bestseller.

I thank the Minister of State for coming here and listening to us, whereas his leader does not have the courage to sit down across the floor from us. The second we stand to talk he leaves. That is the mark of the man. Every time we go to speak, he gets up and leaves.

He will be leaving soon enough, and the sooner, the better.

7:25 pm

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I am glad to get the opportunity to talk about the energy situation. The Government has been found out. It is bringing in this emergency legislation to make sure the lights will not go out. The Government has been reckless since it took office. It closed Shannonbridge and Lanesborough, even though it had no alternative. There was plenty of turf available to keep those generating stations going. There are even 10,000 acres in Littleton in County Tipperary that is untouched. I was always brought up to know that willful waste makes woeful want. That was the motto in our house, going back to my grandmother's time. At this time of crisis, when energy, gas, fuel and everything is so expensive, we should be using every means we can avail of in our country to ensure our people will not be suffering with the exorbitant costs they have been suffering since the Government took office. The Government is the cause of it. Since it closed down those places, the cost of electricity has gone up every day. What the Government has done is reckless.

The Government has been talking about wind energy since I was elected to the House in 2016 and even before that. The Government has to realise that counties such as County Kerry have played their part. There are as many wind turbines as we can fit into the county. We have more than any other county in the country. We will not accept turbines beside our homes. I do not want a turbine put beside people where it is proposed to put them. The Planning Regulator shot down the County Kerry county development plan so that he can go ahead with wind turbines very close to houses. That is wrong.

The Government is against Shannon LNG in north Kerry. Maybe we could get gas cheaper from the west, that is, from America or other places, but the Government is against that. The Taoiseach stopped the offshore licences for drilling for gas off the Kerry coast in 2019. The Government is against drilling for oil off the Cork coast, even though we have it. It wants us to stop cutting the bit of turf we always cut to put into the fire. I am cutting it and will continue to do so, as my people before me did, in the same bog, going back to 1800. We will continue to do so. My daughter Maura brings it home.

Germany is mining for coal because it is seeing after its people. It is even taking out a village and putting it somewhere else to ensure it will have coal for its people. When our pockets are empty, we will go with a begging bowl to Germany for a loan or a bailout. China is building more coal-burning generation stations. It has up to 3,000 of them now. We are all under the one sky and whatever the Government does, it will not change the weather. We see what is happening in the USA. Americans have the largest of jeeps of 5.7 l and 7.7 l. They are all petrol. The USA is under the same sky as well. Our energy costs are skyrocketing and energy companies are boasting they are doubling, tripling and quadrupling their profits. The Government is benefiting as well because the more profits these companies make, the more tax the Government gets. However, the poor, hardworking people on the side of the road and small employers are suffering.

My phone is broken every day with people ringing me about the-----

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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It is working fine.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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It is ringing every day, anyway. I do not know about it being broken too often.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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We will know if it is broken.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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-----smart meters. Anyone who has put in a smart meter is paying through the nose for it. I want the Government to investigate whatever has gone wrong because, where a bill was €200 or €300 before, it is €700 or €800 now. Many people are blaming the smart meter. I want that to be investigated because it is time that people who are suffering are recognised. They are suffering and they cannot continue to for much longer. I ask the Government to deal with it.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this legislation. First, I condemn the last-minute publication of this Bill. I have been forced to raise this issue quite often recently, but I will continue to do so as long as the Government continues to facilitate such last-minute publications, which completely undermine the democratic process. The issues addressed in this Bill are not new. There have been concerns over energy demands outpacing supply for years. There is no excuse for this rushed legislation.

As I understand it, the legislation provides for the procurement of 450 MW of temporary emergency generation capacity to mitigate the security of supply risk for this winter. I call on the Minister to be honest with the public about why this legislation is needed and why we are facing the supply risk. The truth is the legislation is not being introduced to protect ordinary citizens. The Government's real intention is to protect data centres, which consume more electricity than all of our rural homes put together. Figures show that all of Ireland's rural homes use 12% of the country's electricity, while data centres use an incredible 14%. Sadly, this disparity will only continue to grow, as data centres are forecast to take up to 30% of Ireland's electricity demand by 2030. This would mean data centres consume about the same amount of electricity as all households in Ireland, and yet the Government tries to blame the concerns of energy supply solely on the war in Ukraine. This is disingenuous and insulting to our citizens, who deserve to know the truth behind the causes of blackout concerns and why this Government is so keen to avoid them.

There are approximately 70 data centres in Ireland, a number which is set to grow. Ireland is a prime location for data storage facilities for tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon because of our low corporation tax and the fact the European headquarters of these companies are already established here. TikTok is in the process of opening the first of its European data centres in Dublin while also finalising plans for a second data centre in Ireland. It has now been announced that TikTok is in discussions for a third European data centre, and the fact the Government is allowing and facilitating this to happen through legislation such as this is completely unacceptable.

Data centres are a considerable drain on our resources, not just electricity. They are a drain on our gas, water and land, never mind the fact they are completely at odds with our climate goals. Our electricity grid can no longer keep up with this and the level of electricity percentage consumed has forced us to face the possibility of energy shortages and blackouts. The Minister should not say the war in Ukraine has caused this. We are the only country in the world that has allowed this immense level of electricity consumption from data centres.

Dr. Paul Deane points out that electricity consumption from data centres is approximately 1% globally, and yet Ireland has allowed data centres to take up to 14% of our electricity. According to Dr. Deane, Singapore is one of the next biggest countries with regard to the drawdown on the grid, with data centres using approximately 7% of the country's electricity, that is, half the usage of here. Singapore brought in a moratorium on data centres two years ago while we have allowed them to continue to use up as much electricity as Kilkenny city. Even the national power operator has warned that he country is struggling to cope. We have recently added the equivalent of more than 200,000 homes' worth of electricity to a power system that is already struggling, and yet we continue to welcome more data centres. By the end of this year, we will have welcomed at least two or three more centres for TikTok alone. Where will it end?

As well as the impact they have on our infrastructure, there is no doubt data centres have severely impacted the energy policies and legislation of this country. The fact we need emergency legislation today to deal with a power system that is on its knees and at risk of failing in the winter shows this. The legislation is anti-green to its core, but it is being introduced by a Green Party Minister of State. How can the Green Party stand by the facilitation of more data storage facilities for tech companies when the opening of more centres will make it impossible for us to meet our climate goals? How can the Minister justify the fact he has not imposed any environmental conditions on these centres that are putting considerable pressure on our country's energy infrastructure?

The same Minister fears free public transport in case, God forbid, people may actually start to use it. This is despite calls in the Green Party's 2020 manifesto for a strategy that would allow Ireland to increase and improve the capacity of public transport and active travel while working towards free transport for most users. How the Minister can view free public transport as a bigger concern than data centres is beyond me.

It also explains why he did not bother to show up when I tabled my motion on free and accessible public transport in October. The U-turns the Green Party has made in respect of so many of its policies since going into government are incredibly disappointing. As James Connolly once said: "Governments in capitalist society are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class." EirGrid has informed the CRU that the root of the problem is the market mechanism used to deliver Ireland's security of supply. Although EirGrid used to plan and develop the grid around the protected growth of towns and cities, it is now guided by the demands of large tech companies and their data storage requirements. The power and influence of these companies on the Green Party and on Government legislation is a matter of concern. It is also a reflection of the capitalist society in which we live. We can see where the priority lies in respect of it.

7:35 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Bill. I deplore the manner in which the Bill has been introduced. This is based on legislation that was introduced in December, with no pre-legislative scrutiny, no learning and no indication that we would be back here again in March looking to pass an emergency Bill. The Title to the Development (Emergency Electricity Generation) Act 2022 states that it is an Act to provide for emergency measures "because exceptional circumstances have arisen in the market" and "further because of the situation in Ukraine". I fully understand that the situation in Ukraine has had detrimental consequences, but it was primarily because of the market, the failure of the market and what was going on. What is stated in the Title to the Act tells me that we have utterly failed to learn.

I refer to the Aarhus Convention and the lip service being paid to it in a moment. In 2019, we were forced - screaming and shouting - to declare a climate change emergency and a biodiversity emergency. That was almost four years ago, and there has been no parallel action in relation to energy that is sustainable. Here we are now with emergency legislation that bypasses the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended. It is clearly set out that we are completely and utterly bypassing that. There has been no pre-legislative scrutiny, no digest from the Oireachtas Library, no analysis of how this situation has arisen other than blaming the market and the failure of the market. Yet, we are proceeding with a system that is utterly reliant on the market. There has been utter consumption on a constant basis without any questioning. One of the eye-opening reports for me was the data centre report and the Government policy endorsing it - giving it the thumbs up - going back to 2018, without a single attempt to analyses what data centres were doing to our environment. Of course we need them, but we need analysis on them and on the use of electricity. Here were are, in a country where there is a climate emergency, completely bypassing the planning legislation to allow for emergency generation of electricity through the use of diesel.

While I will end up probably supporting this legislation, because nobody wants blackouts in winter, I utterly deplore the manner in which we have been led by the nose to this point without the provision of a sunset clause in the legislation. Fair play to Deputy Naughten who has tabled an amendment in this regard. We have an open-ended emergency in the context of electricity generation based on the use of diesel in order to avoid blackouts while not dealing with the huge consumption of energy by data centres and others. No regulations are laid down for them. We then have reports in the newspapers of Microsoft, Amazon and Google seeking to expedite applications to the EPA for industrial emissions licences. We are told how worried they are because they have submitted licence applications and because the EPA is apparently very tardy. Not a single Government spokesperson has mentioned whether the EPA needs extra help to cope with the workload or referred to what will happen in that regard. What I find extraordinary is that a spokesperson for the EPA stated that the agency is assessing 16 requests for industrial emissions licences from data centre operators alone. At the bottom of the EPA statement, there is a comment to the effect that a spokesperson for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment described the engagement between the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and Cloud Infrastructure, the representative group, as being a good meeting. The spokesperson indicated that the Minister had informed the companies involved that matters relating to mandatory demand curtailment and industrial emissions licence applications are got EirGrid and the EPA. He stated that they are not matters for him. If that is the case, what was the purpose of the meeting? That meeting should have been over in two minutes if these are matters for EirGrid and the EPA and not the Minister or the Government. However, the meeting was described as having been very good. The difficulty I and the people I represent have is that we have major problems with trust because language has been turned on its head.

This Bill ignores the planning legislation. It also makes a mockery of the Aarhus Convention, which se signed up to a quarter of a century ago. It took us from 1998 to 2012 to ratify the convention. The three pillars of the convention - access to information, access to decision-making and access to justice - have all gone by the board.

We are told that the EPA will make available a copy of the alternative assessment. The Government has introduced a parallel system to the planning laws in order to deal with an emergency that should not have been an emergency; it should have been planned for. If the Government says that emergencies come up and we have to be realistic, I will go with it on that argument. The Government should put its hands up and say that it is only doing it for a specific period but that it is because successive Governments utterly failed to make proper plans in respect of renewable energy. The same model should apply to the energy for the future.

People should also up their hands up in regard to wind farms and windmills - in the sea and on land - particularly where there is no overall picture as to how communities will benefit from or get ownership of these or how we get communities to buy in. Last week, I pointed out to the Minister that an application for a decarbonisation zone in Galway has sat in the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications since it was submitted two years ago. The Minister sought to criticise the local authorities, which I am very guilty of on occasion, and I hope rightly so, but on this occasion they are on the side of the angels. They submitted their application for a decarbonisation zone more than two years ago and nothing has happened. They are still waiting for directions. That is just one practical example. A mitigation plan was brought in - not by the Green Party - that was found to be vague and was quashed by the High Court following the involvement of Friends of the Environment. All the while, there is a certain type of narrative that there are too many objectors when, in fact, we are utterly reliant on them to protect our environment. What the Government is doing is cutting the ground from under those seeking to protect the environment. In addition, it has not provided a time clause or any recognition that this is unacceptable. If it has to be acceptable, let it be for a short period provided for by means of a sunset clause. Nothing like that is included in the Bill. There is absolutely nothing.

The legislation is difficult to understand. I ask the Minister to clarify what is meant by the phrase "it was rushed". The proposed title of the new section 88A, which will be inserted by section 7 of the Bill, is, "Agency to take alternative assessment into account". Section 2 states, "The Agency may make any feature of the project or measure envisaged to avoid, prevent, reduce". I do not know what that means. I think I know what is trying to be said but it is being done is such a rush that it does not make sense. It is not written plain English and it is not understandable. If I vote in favour of this Bill - so far, the jury is out in my head as to whether I will - I will do so most reluctantly because an emergency has been allowed to develop, which should have been avoided. With this type of legislation, we need pre-legislative scrutiny. Equally importantly, we need a range of actions which tell me that the Government is serious about energy and renewable energy owned by the people. If we have learned anything, it is that bigger does not work. We need transformative action and this is not what we are getting.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I would very much like to continue along similar lines to that of my colleague, Deputy Connolly, with regard to the emergency and when it is going to come to an end.

What steps are going to be taken by the Government to bring this emergency to an end? Everybody in the House accepts that there is a potential shortage of energy in the State and that something needs to be done about it. I would, however, question why there is such a shortage of energy and what is going to be done to meet the energy demands of the State, other than to import energy when it is possible to do so. We are not the only country that is short on energy but I dare say we are short of energy for very different reasons to some other countries, with which we now have to compete for hydrocarbons to generate electricity.

In considering why we are short of energy, I accept that data centres have very much become a bogeyman of many in this House, for understandable reasons. I would differ slightly from them in that I do not blame data centres. There are many multinational corporations based in Ireland, primarily for corporation tax reasons. That will come under increasing scrutiny as time goes by because we have an over-reliance on the revenues they provide. One of the requirements of those multinational corporations is for data centres. If they do not have data centres in Ireland, they are going to have to construct them elsewhere. The reality of the world in which we live is that increasing amounts of data are being stored by multinational corporations. If data centres are not being built in Ireland, they will be built in countries where they will have an even bigger impact on the environment because those countries have climates that are less temperate, which will mean more energy to cool the enormous servers in the summer and heat them in the winter than would be the case in Ireland. We knew for some time that these large corporations were going to be requesting permission to build data centres in Ireland, but we seem to have done very little to produce energy or allow them to source it. Obviously, there is huge interest in the offshore sector in Ireland. EirGrid is unfit for purpose. Our grid is not able to take the amount of energy it is hoped to develop offshore in Ireland. There is the possibility, of course, of power-to-X, where the energy is produced offshore, brought ashore and directly fed to data centres that are located nearby. My understanding is that the Department and EirGrid have completely ruled out power-to-X as a possibility, which leaves us reliant on a national grid that is not able to take on the amount of energy that is proposed.

Every time I have raised the energy shortages in this country, I have been told that the solution is offshore energy. It is presented as a wonderful solution that will make us Ireland the Saudi Arabia of wind energy. In response to some of that verbiage, there has been considerable interest from international investors. An exciting announcement close to the start of this Government's term was that Equinor was to team up with the ESB. A little later, Equinor pulled out of the market entirely, apparently unconvinced that there was any capability to deliver on those exciting promises. Royal Dutch Shell followed Equinor by pulling out of the market shortly thereafter. A couple of weeks ago, we learned that the ESB has a new partner in mind and was in negotiations with the very large renewable company Ørsted. That was followed by an announcement regarding phase 2 of the offshore sector to the effect that we would not be proceeding within a foreseeable timeline. No timeline could be given as to when we will proceed with phase 2 other than in respect of two sites, one off the south of the country and the other off the south east of the country. I asked the Taoiseach where that left phase 2 and all the promises that had been made. He said he was not aware of that announcement, which was made by an official of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. If I am to vote for this emergency Bill, I would like the Minister to outline what is happening with phase 2. What is happening with the rest of the country? The Taoiseach said we would have a phase 2 but that it would be plan-led rather than developer-led. That would be great if we had the capability as a State to develop a plan and to determine what areas would be the subject of offshore wind energy but I am not convinced we have.

It is a bit like those who opposed the involvement of Siemens in the development of Ardnacrusha and said we should do it for ourselves. I fear that if we were left to do it ourselves, we would still be in the process of constructing Ardnacrusha. We have limitations as a State. We have limitations on State expenditure. Some 33% of the State's GDP was spent on Ardnacrusha. I do not think the Minister is going to be able to spend 33% of our GDP on developing offshore wind energy. There are investors who want to invest in it but there is simply no coherent plan, at least according to what I hear from people involved with those investors, coming from the Department. There is nothing in which they can invest to instead of investing in Ireland, they are moving to Scotland, which is proceeding with real, tangible plans to develop an offshore wind sector to power its needs. Where is our plan and what is happening? I look forward to the Minister's response.

7:45 pm

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I thank Deputies for their contributions. I want to respond to some of the issues that were raised. The first of these relates to the process. It is challenging when we bring forward emergency legislation and have to waive pre-legislative scrutiny. That is unfortunate and regrettable. It is not something we want to be doing except in extremis, which is the position we find ourselves in because the power supply to the country is tight. We have a responsibility to the people of this country to keep the lights on, particularly next winter when we expect further difficulty because there will be an increase in demand, as we have seen in recent years, with our growing economy. That is a result not only of data centres but also of a growing population. We have a lot of older plants on which we cannot rely and which will have to come out of the system. We need to provide alternatives.

This is the third piece of emergency legislation to deliver some of the emergency powers we will have next winter. It is regrettable and I would prefer if we did not have this legislation. We looked at every avenue and mechanism to avoid it. We considered the use of secondary legislation. We examined whether the earlier piece of legislation for An Bord Pleanála could be applied across to the EPA, but the legal advice we received last month was that having looked at the various different alternatives, we needed legislation and it needed to be introduced quickly because of the timelines required to ensure power for next winter. It is something I regret but it is the responsible thing to do rather than to risk leaving us without power.

A number of Deputies mentioned the Dermot McCarthy report in their submissions. I asked Mr. McCarthy, former Secretary General to the Department of the Taoiseach, to conduct a review to examine why we ended up in a situation where we were short of power and had not purchased the back-up generation we need to keep our system working. The report will be published, I expect, shortly after our return from the St. Patrick's Day break. It will be accompanied by other measures to enhance and support our energy security. The review will likely show what we have seen in the wider world, that is, that we need to put more attention on security and low carbon, as well as competitiveness. People talk about the trilemma in energy policy of how to keep the price down and ensure security of supply while not breaching environmental regulations. Across the western world in general, and in western Europe in particular, including in our own case, we should have put greater attention on the security aspect. That is not a specific criticism of any agency - I will let Mr. McCarthy's report speak for itself - but a recognition that in this uncertain world of high energy prices, one of the best solutions is to ensure a resilient system so a country is not exposed.

I share some of the sentiments expressed by others, including Deputy McNamara, that data centres are not a representation of all that is evil. We have to manage the growth in demand and ensure data centres are part of a flexible, low-carbon system. However, to depict them as the source of all our ills would be unfair and inaccurate. We have a significant increase in demand to manage due to data centres. I believe we can do that, including, particularly, through the development of our renewable power supply. That is not just talk. We have probably the highest concentration of integrated renewables from variable supply on a synchronistic market system anywhere in the world. We are in the top two or three countries in terms of how we integrate such variable power supply, particularly from wind, which has such variable characteristics.

We are good at this. Last year was a record year for renewables deployment. I am convinced we will beat that record this year and next. This is the way the world and our country are going. We are going to go 100% renewable but that will take some time.

7:55 pm

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Will the Minister comment on phase 2?

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I will come back to Deputy McNamara on phases 1, 2 and 3. He should not always believe what he reads in the newspapers. We are absolutely committed to floating offshore wind generation. It will involve the power-to-X approach the Deputy mentioned. As Government committed to the summer before last, we want not only a form of electricity but also innovative solutions that will use that power when it comes ashore at the likes of the Shannon Harbour or Cork Harbour. It is not just about electricity; it is also the potential development of other industrial applications. That is exactly what we are doing. We are doing it with proper planning to get the environmental planning right. The plan agreed by Cabinet will make it clear to developers how they can bid to be part of the initial phases, which are really only a first toe in the water. The scale of the potential after that is beyond compare. That is why this must be led and planned by the State. We do not need a Klondike gold rush; we need an ordered and organised mechanism which makes use of international development finance and capability as part of a well-planned system to make the most efficient use of the resource.

A number of Deputies referred to the possibility of a windfall tax. We will be introducing such a tax in the coming weeks. It will help us in providing further supports to help our people through this incredibly difficult time of high power prices.

A number of Deputies, including Deputy Whitmore, asked whether we are overriding the climate Act. Our climate plans require us to have an 80% renewable-powered system by the end of this decade, but we will still need some fossil fuel infrastructure as balancing capability. I would prefer to have this emergency generation plant as a backup rather than having to keep the likes of the plants at Tarbert or Moneypoint running forever and a day, generating very high emissions. Part of a low-carbon electricity system is balancing capability and the ability to turn on at the last minute an emergency power supply that is only run in exceptional circumstances and which therefore has low emissions. We cannot say to the Irish people that we will provide them with a power system for 51 weeks of the year. It has to run for all 52. That is what this does.

This Bill does address exceptional circumstances. These power provisions cannot apply to any other plant or in any other circumstances. It is absolutely and exclusively for use at Shannonbridge, Tarbert or both. There is no creep into any other environmental legislative arrangements. It is not the case that the EPA process is bad, wrong, flawed or too long as some, again including Deputy Whitmore, have said. That is not the problem here. The problem is that we need this power supply before Christmas. There will be full public consultation and access to all the information that has been garnered for the An Bord Pleanála planning process. This will be done in a thorough, rigorous and independent regulatory manner. There are no guarantees about getting through that environmental assessment or alternative assessment but we need to do this, using the articles in the environmental impact assessment directive that allow us to apply these emergency measures under European law, to make sure we can get this delivered within the necessary timelines.

To respond to Deputy Connolly, the Aarhus Convention provides for full access to information. That is an absolute line within the convention. As always, the EPA will abide by the convention in its public consultation, which will be thorough, rigorous and independent and which will live up to the agency's high standards. To answer the question of what this does, it is fundamentally about using that alternative assessment to alter the timelines in such a way as to give us a prospect of being able to deliver this by next winter rather than within the typical timeframe of 12 months. It is about following rigorous process and procedures but not falling foul of not having power next winter, as could be the case if this power plant was not available.

Why is there such a shortage of energy in the country? It is primarily because the capacity market systems that are in place did not deliver the gas generation backup we knew we needed. Auctions were initiated but, for a variety of reasons, did not deliver. It is not a conspiracy or anything hidden. It was an open and transparent process. The reason for those----

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Did it benefit any particular company?

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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No, I do not believe it did. The rectification will similarly not benefit any company. The way we have arranged for emergency generation is time-limited and will come to an end. Plant will have to be sold on or decommissioned. While it is an unusual intervention, it is designed in such a way as not to undermine our market investment in other plant. We expect some 900 MW of plant in total to be delivered this year as backup flexible capability. That will include other private providers. It was right for Government to introduce this legislation to allow us to deliver that emergency generation capacity as a backstop guarantee to keep the lights on.

Question put and agreed to.