Tuesday, 29 September 2015
Alternative Energy Projects
I thank the Minister for taking this debate personally, as it does not happen too often in this House. As he is aware, I am not a fan of wind energy, which I believe is a folly. When we do a cost-benefit analysis subsequently we will discover that. However, that is not the essence of the matter I raise, which is to discuss the community fund these wind farm developers put in place. When communities fight against these developments and lose, and these unsightly turbines are imposed upon them, there should be certainty as to how much the community will benefit from the wind farm developments. They need to be set by the Minister and not the way it is being done currently, which is that the more one objects, the more one will get and if one does not object to a wind farm development, one will get nothing.
I will give the Minister an example. In Sliabh Bán, in County Roscommon, there are 20 wind turbines which stand 130 m high into the sky. They will destroy the landscape of Sliabh Bán. On initial consultation the wind farm developers were offering €57,000 a year to the local community. Following further consultation and discussion they increased that to €87,000 per year. The first problem with that is that in the United Kingdom, and we always say we follow the UK model because that is the way they do their business, they decide how much the community gets based on a certain amount of money per megawatt produced. That is £5,000 per annum per megawatt being produced. If that were to apply to Sliabh Bán, in County Roscommon, the community would be getting €420,000 per annum.It appears that, through negotiation, the Sliabh Bán group has managed to get €1,500 per megawatt produced, while in the UK the amount would be €7,500 per megawatt produced. A fair fee needs to be set by the Minister. What is not fair is the negotiated amount in place. Second, the wind farm developers need to deal with a local community group to decide where the money is spent. What is happening in this particular case is that the developers are handing the money over to the Leader programme. The Leader programme will accept applications from football clubs and so on but many local people will not benefit. Farmers who are adjacent to these developments, perhaps 500 m away, have their land devalued as a result and get nothing. Many of the local people will end up with nothing. Basically, we are buying off community groups with a set of jerseys every year. It is not fair on most of the people who lose out as a result of these developments.
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.
Indeed, community and citizen engagement has proven to be a joke in the past but I hope the situation will improve. I read in my local newspaper this week that the ESB has launched a scheme called community fund 2015 for another development in County Roscommon. At least it has advertised that it is willing to sit down with communities to talk to people and agree a set figure.
I shall return to the point I made earlier. In Sliabh Bán people were originally offered €1,000 per MW produced but that offer was increased to €1,500 after negotiations. A Minister in the UK, and that is why I suggest that the Minister here should analyse how the calculation came about, introduced a rate that is five times greater than what wind farm developers get away with here. The final rate is purely down to the Minister here. I would appreciate if he would examine what mechanisms were brought into place in the UK that have given greater security to communities there. People know what they are going to get when they learn what size of wind farm development is going ahead.
What the Senator has said is not unreasonable. I will carefully consider what he has said. I have looked at the models adopted in other countries. It is not just in the UK but in northern Europe where a regime has been developed whereby communities, local groups, sometimes co-operatives have equity in wind farms comprised of one or two turbines and, in some cases, larger enterprises. The Senator has made a very helpful and useful point which I shall carefully consider.