Seanad debates

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Adjournment Matters

Electricity Transmission Network

5:40 pm

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I have no objection in principle to the new Grid Link project for the south east and the necessary enhancement of supply and expansion of the electricity grid in the region. As the Minister knows, the project will involve identifying a number of feasible 1 km wide route corridor options for a new 400 kV overhead power line linking Leinster and Munster. The Grid Link project will help secure a future electricity supply for homes, businesses, farms, factories and communities in Leinster and Munster, providing a platform for economic growth and job creation in the south east and helping Ireland meet its 40% renewable electricity target. That is the object of the EirGrid, which is laudable. Nevertheless, I cannot support EirGrid's determination to use overground pylons and wires for the entire length of the routes and rule out the underground option. In the coming weeks I intend to meet EirGrid representatives, including its chief executive, to discuss my concerns in some considerable detail.

The Minister is aware that a number of community-based groups have been established to help inform communities about the project and voice the many genuine and serious concerns that people have about it. I intend to compliment in every way the community-led campaign of opposition that has manifested across the length of the proposed new power lines. We are at one with campaigning communities across all affected counties and we will continue to use our influence to enhance this community-led effort to secure a rethink of the approach to these planned power lines by EirGrid.

It appears that despite the clearly expressed opposition of thousands of families living close to the proposed routes of these power lines and support pylons, EirGrid remains fixed on the overhead approach to these projects. Communities along the length of the proposed power lines are vehemently opposed to the installation of unsightly pylons and rightly fear for the health of all exposed to high-voltage power conduits. They are fearful for themselves, their families and for the children of these communities. It is essential that we recognise the reality of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006, which the Minister and my party voted against. This legislation facilitates the forcing through of projects, regardless of the expressed wishes of communities, and there is real fear and absolute opposition to the overground approach, which has been voiced along the entire route through County Waterford and other counties in the region. Large public meetings have been held in several centres and points across Waterford and the south east and the concerns know no political boundaries. People of all opinions and none are coming together as concerned communities endeavour to ensure that EirGrid takes a different approach.

There can be no question whatever that there is significant information on record, with eminent, professional and well-researched opinion stating that there is every reason for genuine health concerns. That fact is indisputable. These communities are also conscious of the visual impact on the environment of the proposed unsightly string of pylon structures stretching across the beautiful and scenic Comeragh area in County Waterford. I am not sure if the Minister has ever been in that part of Waterford but if he has been, he would agree that it would be unsightly and not very popular for any State agency to put pylons through this scenic route.

There are many fears and I am sure the Minister is familiar with many of them. I hope he will take on board these views. What role will there be for communities in the planning process, including the first stage that is ongoing? What supports will be given to communities to raise objections and lodge submissions? EirGrid has much money at its disposal but local communities do not. What supports will the Minister put in place to ensure local communities can have a real voice in the planning process?

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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Development of the high voltage electricity grid as planned in EirGrid's GRID25 strategy is critical to our long-term economic recovery. Energy policy has a pivotal role to play in creating the conditions for an economic recovery and for the job creation we need. We all require access to an affordable and dependable energy supply and the businesses that sell goods and services and provide quality employment need a reliable energy supply that enables them to compete. Ensuring secure, reliable and safe supplies of electricity, gas and oil is critical to Ireland's ability to attract inward investment and retain and create jobs.

EirGrid's GRID25 national programme, and specifically the Grid Link infrastructure project, is vital for future socioeconomic progress in Ireland. The Grid Link project is a key initiative under GRID25 and the project consists of a new 400 kV overhead power line linking Leinster and Munster. Without this project, the grid in the south and east of Ireland would not be sufficient to meet the region's future electricity needs. The project will facilitate both conventional generation and renewable energy projects, reinforce the grid in Leinster and Munster, and support future interconnection with grids outside of Ireland. It is a significant upgrade of the electricity grid across the south and east and is the largest project under the GRID25 programme.

The Grid Link project will help enable a secure supply of electricity for the region well into the future. It will empower growth in the south and east of Ireland and involve an estimated €500 million investment. It will also enable Ireland to meet its 40% renewable target and reduce our reliance on imported fossil fuels. The Government wants to be able to give a strong consistent message to Irish business and multinationals, and our citizens, that Ireland's electricity networks are robust, modern and safe. This project is part of EirGrid's programme and is a practical illustration of our collective and continuing commitment to large-scale investment in electricity infrastructure.

Currently the EirGrid project team is undertaking detailed analysis of the study area to identify the best possible corridors for development. As part of this process, on 3 September EirGrid published the stage 1 report on the grid link project identifying a number of route corridor options for the new 400kV power line. The publication of that report coincided with the beginning of a 12-week public consultation period.

In the Government Policy Statement on the Strategic Importance of Transmission and Other Energy Infrastructure of July 2012, the imperative for the State companies and all developers of energy projects of early, transparent engagement and consultation with local communities and stakeholders was emphasised. EirGrid is committed to public consultation and it has engaged in a comprehensive process in regard to the grid link project, which has involved opening five regional information centres, a lo-call project information telephone line and local radio advertising, backed up by national and local print advertising. The company will take on board information and views on the project, which is still at an early stage. The identification of route corridor options is a key opportunity for public input, as no decisions have been made regarding the final route of this electricity line.

5:50 pm

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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There have been many public meetings in counties Waterford and Kilkenny and elsewhere about the proposed route. Does the Minister agree that tourism could be curtailed if the landscape is blighted with these pylons, especially in the Comeragh area in County Waterford? Does he further agree that householders and landowners could experience a reduction in the value of their properties if unsightly pylons are erected up to 50 m from private dwellings and livestock holding areas? The Minister will agree there are large farming counties and highly populated areas with livestock and wildlife habitats along this route. How will they be protected? Does he concur that the proposed pylons would represent a blot on the landscape? What supports will be put in place to help communities make submissions, especially when the proposals go to An Bord Pleanála, but also to propose alternatives to overhead power lines? Why is the underground option not being examined by the company or supported by Government?

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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I have a very good idea of what Sinn Féin is opposed to but I am having great difficulty finding out what the party is in favour of. The Senator said he acknowledges that we cannot have economic development without energy and power.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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This is about communities, not Sinn Féin. The Minister should address their concerns. Will he address the communities?

Photo of Lorraine HigginsLorraine Higgins (Labour)
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The Minister without interruption.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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I did not interrupt the Senator.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I did not get party political.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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The Senator said he acknowledges that we cannot have economic development without energy and power and I agree with him but he seemed to say we cannot run lines near areas of tourist beauty or across farmland where cattle or horses might graze. Where will we run them? The Senator cannot have it both ways. He cannot say we have to have power lines but not in my backyard. What is going on in Waterford and along the possible corridors of this essential transmission connection is a public consultation programme where a number of offices have been opened along the way by EirGrid to hear from stakeholders and to stimulate debate but we should not scaremonger about blighting the landscape and blotting the countryside or say, like Hanrahan, "Ochón, ochón, before the year is out we will be all ruined". How are we going to develop a modern economy in this country if we do not have power? It is essential-----

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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Are the communities scaremongering then?

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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No, but I suspect that they are being stoked up by guys like the Senator to cause them to fear. He even dragged in health issues. We have had power lines in the country since the late 1940s. My colleagues and I, especially me because of my equable personality, tend to agree with Sinn Féin too often and let the party away with things. The Senator cannot come into the House opposing the provision of power to the regions in the interests of economic development and then say he acknowledges the necessity for the power lines but they should be erected somewhere else.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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We are addressing concerns and we are asking the Minister to address them and consider the alternatives, which he has not mentioned once.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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We have established in respect of the North-South grid that it is approximately three and a half times as expensive to put the lines underground. If we were not here in an adversarial context in this very reflective Chamber and we were outside the House, the Senator would agree it is difficult to find investors to put €500 million into this project, never mind to invest three and a half times that. This is a welcome investment. I agree with the Senator that the Comeragh Mountains are a beautiful area and I sincerely hope that whatever happens, they are not in any way despoiled. I do not think they will be.

Photo of Lorraine HigginsLorraine Higgins (Labour)
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Unfortunately, a Minister is not available to take the matters to be raised on the Adjournment by Senators Burke and Moloney. I am informed they will be deferred until tomorrow when the Cathaoirleach will select both matters again.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.40 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 23 October 2013.