Wednesday, 25 January 2006
I wish to ask the Minister of State to respond immediately to the many wind farmers who are unable to gain access to the national grid because of the current management and monopoly of the ESB and to clarify his responsibilities in this area. The Minister, in a parliamentary reply in the Dáil, denied responsibility for it and said it was a question for the regulator. My understanding, however, is that the regulator is a civil servant and, as such, he is responsible for the implementation of Government policy. In 2005, when the Minister was addressing the Wind Energy Association in Dundalk, he clearly indicated his involvement in Government policy and his wish to expedite such policy in the area of wind energy connections to the national grid.
On numerous occasions over the past year many Members of this House expressed concern over continuing unexplained issues as regards access to the national grid for renewable energy, in particular wind energy. The Minister knows the considerable moneys and time that have been expended by many groups and private individuals as regards monitoring the suitability of particular planning for wind energy and also in the planning process. For many groups both of these initiatives have proven to be very expensive. All of this development took place in response to clear and unambiguous Government policy in support of wind energy. Having gained sight of the finishing line, many of the wind energy developers now find their planning permissions are running out, while those responsible for access to the grid are sitting on their hands and doing nothing to progress matters. At present approximately 2,000 MW of electricity are waiting to be connected.
It is important to be truthful. The suspicion among many of those proposed promoters is that the ESB and its subsidiaries, which already have access to the national grid, are being given first preference. The Minister of State will be aware of the situation from Donegal down to Galway and into Kerry and west Cork that there are proposals there ahead of projects beside lines that could provide access to the national grid. In other words, the capacity is there and many promoters are looking at a national grid that is capable of taking their capacities if they were allowed to go. Other projects, however, particularly in Kerry and west Cork, that are far removed from the national grid are, nonetheless, ahead of them in terms of access. This means the others will have to wait for up to ten years for access. There is a clear indication from this that something is seriously wrong. It is very important that the Minister now takes responsibility for the situation.
We know that up to 90% of the electricity generated in this country is based on fossil fuels imported from outside. Some 50% of that is gas. Only a few weeks ago, because of the disruption in the Russian supply of gas through the Ukraine, there was growing fear in many of the industrialised countries that use this source of energy over what might happen in the future. Ireland depends on Britain for gas, which comes from Scotland through the pipeline, for up to 50% of its generating capacity. All of these countries were fearful as to what might happen as regards energy. There was talk in England about "dimming the lights" in homes and in Germany some classified the impending crisis as the "war of the 21st century". At the same time officials in the Department as well as in Bord Gáis were dismissing the crisis as was the regulator.
However, Professor John Simmie of NUI, Galway, clearly indicated his concern. He failed to understand why a country like this, so dependent on fossil fuel and particularly gas imported from Britain, could make so light of such a serious crisis. All of this is a warning sign that in the future we need to get real about access and developing wind energy, especially where it is readily available. The excess capacity is available but it is not being allowed. People are suspicious as regards the regulator because of his past association with the ESB. I ask the Minister of State to clarify the situation in this regard.
My other request is that we prioritise connections for those proposals that are ready to go, which have ready access to the national grid nearby. It is also vitally important to consider the complete separation of the ESB from the national grid. That will allay the fears and suspicions felt by so many people.
I thank Senator Ulick Burke for raising this issue. He asked at the outset for clarification on the position with regard to the Minister and I will do that. First, I will clarify for the House where actual responsibilities lie as regards access by wind farmers to the electricity, distribution and transmission systems.
In accordance with Part V of the Electricity Regulation Act 1999, on access to transmission and distribution systems, responsibility for access to the national grid, together with the subsequent costs pertaining to same, rests solely with the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER. The Minister has no function in the matter. The CER gives directions to the transmission system operator, TSO, and distribution system operator, DSO, as regards grid codes, matters to be specified in the code and the terms for the connection to, and use of, the transmission and distribution networks. These are all solely matters for the CER, with the Minister having no function or power to intervene. Having stated that, I take this opportunity to advise the House on the background to the issue raised by Senator Ulick Burke and current developments.
On 3 December 2003, the CER decided as an interim measure that the electricity network operators ESB and ESB Networks were not required to offer new binding connection offers for windfarms before the end of 2003. In making this decision the CER was exercising, as I have already pointed out, its exclusive competence under section 34 of the Electricity Regulation Act 1999. The commission was responding to concerns on the part of the grid operator about system stability and reliability if all proposed windfarms were connected. The House should be aware that the CER also has statutory responsibility for security of supply. After the moratorium announcement was made the CER established a working group representing itself, the network operators, Sustainable Energy Ireland and the Irish Wind Energy Association to address the issues and concerns.
In July 2004 the CER published a direction, which appeared to lift the moratorium. However, the Minister is advised by CER that a number of technical issues were unresolved which meant, in effect, that no new connection offers issued before end 2004. Following progress on the outstanding technical issues the CER issued a further direction to the system operators in December 2004. This direction mandated the operators to give immediate priority to issue connection offers to those 34 applications — referred to as "gate 1" applications — which were deemed complete by 3 December 2003, the date of the moratorium. The total capacity involved amounted to 371 MW.
Subsequent to this the CER has been developing, in co-operation with the system operators, proposals for those grid applications still within the application process. These are termed as "gate 2" applications. The Minister is advised by the Commission for Energy Regulation that a draft decision regarding its criteria for entry to gate 2 will issue from the commission within the next fortnight. The Government is firmly committed to progressing the contribution of renewable energy sources to national electricity generating capacity. We are on track to meet our EU target of just over 13% by 2010. The private sector is playing no small part in the meeting of that target by making significant investments in wind energy and in other types of energy.
In order to ensure delivery of the required new renewable energy capacity, the Minister will shortly launch a new support programme which will feature a fixed price feed-in tariff mechanism. Further prospects for the renewable energy sector as well as the institutional arrangements and market structures for the Irish electricity sector, are part of the comprehensive strategy review by Deloitte & Touche. This review has just been completed and submitted to the Minister. It is currently being considered by the Department in the context of the finalisation of an energy policy consultation paper.
Senator Ulick Burke questioned the impartiality of the commission. Both the Minister and I are satisfied there is no question of a lack of impartiality. The Commission for Energy Regulation acts in a totally impartial manner. Its only concern is to ensure that Ireland can strive to meet or hopefully surpass its EU target by 2013.