Tuesday, 29 September 2015
Alternative Energy Projects
I thank the Senator for raising this issue.
One of the central themes in the Green Paper on energy policy, published in May 2014, is citizen engagement. Following its publication, the Department undertook a public consultation process which included analysis of more than 1,200 written submissions and 13 stakeholder seminars, held in Dublin, Westmeath, Sligo, Cork and Wexford, on the various priority areas highlighted in the Green Paper.
A recurring message coming from the written submissions and the seminars was the role that community energy could play in our future energy systems. The views submitted are being considered in the formation and finalisation of the energy White Paper, which will be published before the end of the year, and which will, inter alia, address community energy projects and how best to facilitate communities in playing their part in the energy transition.
My Department is also preparing to publish a draft renewable electricity policy and development framework. The framework, which addresses the matters of early consultation, community engagement, and building community gain considerations into energy infrastructure planning and budgeting, will be published for public consultation in the coming weeks. I look forward to receiving submissions, which will be considered in the context of the strategic environmental assessment, the appropriate assessment under the habitats directive and the subsequent finalisation of the framework.
I should also highlight the various community-level initiatives administered on behalf of the Department by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. These include the development of community energy projects through the Better Energy Communities programme, which allows community- and locally based organisations to apply for funding on a competitive basis to support sustainable energy upgrades to existing buildings and facilities. It also promotes the creation and development of locally based entities that can engage and mobilise community resources to lower energy bills and boost employment.
On the specific issue the Senator has raised, the notion that community engagement and citizen engagement could be reduced to - as he rightly put it - the idea of a set of jerseys for the local team is completely unacceptable and inadequate in terms of constituting any kind of community engagement policy. Despite the impression conveyed by the Senator's question, the community benefit fund was established by the developers. It is not something they do in agreement with me. As matters currently stand, I do not have any legal or other means to intercede or to involve myself in the community benefit fund. However, what we have done as a Government, and what my predecessors have done, is to set a policy directive in relation to community engagement. That community engagement has to be real and robust and in many cases it has been neither. Certainly, that has to be greatly improved, and I think the White Paper will help us to do that. I should also clarify for the Senator and the House that the Minister of the day does not have an involvement with wind farm developers in that way; in other words, it is not a question of me as Minister, or my predecessors or successors, entering into agreements or contracts with wind farm operators. That is not the way the system works. We have a price support system through REFIT.When project promoters are successful in terms of gaining access to REFIT funds, that is administered by the regulator. There is not this kind of close nexus, that may be suggested, between the Minister, whoever the Minister is, and particular wind farm developers.
It is not possible under current arrangements to do the sort of thing that the Senator has advocated. I agree with his basic point that we do not currently have in place a sufficiently robust regime of community engagement. We must do an awful lot to improve it and the White Paper will help us to do so.