Tuesday, 15 November 2016
Alternative Energy Projects
I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to raise this very important issue. I call on the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, to create national guidelines pertaining to solar farms to help local authorities deal with the applications that have come before them.
There has been a major uptake in applications for solar farms throughout Ireland. In my local area and across the State, planning applications for solar farms have gone through the roof. One source recently claimed that more than 20,000 acres of land are being tied up in contracts for solar farms.That raises the question of where the local authority is in terms of dealing with such planning permissions. Council planners are ill equipped in respect of the national strategy to make a formal decision over these very complex planning permissions. We need to move away from once-off planning permissions to overall guidelines, with a Government vision and a strategy going forward. At the moment, planning applications are being made not with regard to suitability or guidelines but where, realistically, the nearest substation is. That is becoming a major driver in the vast number of planning applications at the moment. County development plans and regional planning guidelines have all stated where a wind farm should be but, in the case of solar farms, it is ad hocand on a once-off basis. We need to tie everything in together in a national strategy.
We are in favour of solar farms and the issue needs to be looked at because we have guidelines regarding the Paris Agreement and those targets need to be met. However, at national, county and regional level we need to put together an overall framework, which we are lacking at the moment. What happens consistently in one county does not happen consistently in the next. Some of these planning permissions have now gone to An Bord Pleanála, which has held hearings on the first and has moved on. The communities are at a loss as to what the national strategy is regarding solar farms and it is an issue with which we need to deal. I will call on the Minister to ensure we have the necessary guidelines in place and a framework under which we can move forward to inform both our local authorities and our communities of where and when these solar farms can be viable.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue. There are no specific planning guidelines in place in respect of solar farms and I have no proposals to bring forward such guidelines at the present time. Under the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, each planning authority's development plan is required to set out an overall strategy for the proper planning and sustainable development of the area concerned. Section 10 of the Act requires a development plan to include, among other things, objectives for the provision or facilitation of the provision of infrastructure, including energy facilities and infrastructure. Many local authorities have developed renewable energy strategies for their areas in this context. Proposals for individual solar farm developments are also subject to the statutory requirements of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, in the same manner as other proposed developments. Planning applications are required to be submitted to the relevant local planning authority with a right of appeal to An Bord Pleanála.
In making decisions on planning applications, planning authorities and the board must consider the proper planning and sustainable development of the area, having regard to the provisions of the development plan, any submissions or observations received and relevant ministerial or Government policies, including any relevant guidelines issued by my Department. Planning authorities must then make their own decision, based on the specific merits or otherwise of individual planning applications.
I am satisfied that the planning code is sufficiently robust to facilitate the assessment of individual planning permission applications for solar farm developments. However, the matter will be kept under review, in consultation with my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, and his Department, which is the lead Department on renewable energy policy, in the context of the Government's White Paper on Energy Policy in Ireland, published in December 2015, the development of a renewable electricity policy and development framework, REPDF, and the launching of a new subsidy support scheme for renewable electricity by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, expected in late 2017. My understanding is that such a new subsidy support scheme is required in order for the development of solar farms to become economically viable, which is not the case at present. The recently published energy White Paper acts out a vision to accelerate the development and diversification of renewable energy in Ireland and a draft REPDF has been formulated, aimed at optimising the opportunities for producing electricity from a variety of renewable energy sources in projects of significant scale on land, which will be subject to further public consultation prior to its adoption in 2017.
The Programme for a Partnership Government contains a commitment to facilitate the development of solar energy projects in Ireland, which builds on the energy White Paper and recognises that solar has the potential to provide a community dividend, thereby also enhancing citizen participation in Ireland's energy future.Consequently, solar photovoltaics - also known as solar farms -are one of the technologies being considered in the context of a new subsidy support scheme for renewable electricity generation being developed by the Department of the Minister, Deputy Naughten. This will require Government approval and state aid clearance from the European Commission before it can come into operation.
We have no proposals to bring forward specific planning guidelines for solar farms at present. However, the matter will be kept under review pending the development of the various initiatives by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment to which I have referred. I am conscious that, as the Senator said, quite a high volume of applications have begun to be received. I will raise this issue with both Departments for it to be monitored more closely.
I thank the Minister of State for this response, which has been helpful in clarifying the position. However, I am disappointed there is not a proposal in this respect. We should be addressing this issue but the Department is not considering such guidelines. We are working in a vacuum. These applications for planning permission are coming in off the back of a subsidy that will be introduced in 2017. The applicants are speculating on questions of when and how and what the rate will be. That is the reason such a vast number of applications are coming through. The figure of 20,000 acres being currently tied up in contracts is a significant one. Because of the speculation in the market, such guidelines are needed now more than ever before. The planning decisions are literally one-off decisions, in that what happens in County Cork might not happen in County Kerry or in County Limerick. We need to re-examine this issue because of the speculation in the market.
Some of the planning granted will have conditions attached with respect to funds from which the community will benefit while others will not have such conditions attached. We need to examine these guidelines to ensure that communities across the board can benefit from having such a development in their localities.
As I said, this is kept under review. I will discuss it with the Ministers, Deputies Coveney and Naughten. I am conscious that there has been a ramp up in the applications received in recent months or certainly in the past year, and it appears that many more will be submitted. We will closely monitor that.
I draw the Senator's attention to guidelines for key infrastructure, including energy infrastructure that were introduced in July 2012 by the previous Minister in the then Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte. Those recommendations from the Government set out that any organisation involved in bringing forward such an application should involve the community and have regard to best practice, which would involve community and planning gains. The Senator might have look at that and we might be able to inform some local authorities of that. We can also drop a note to the Senator on that. I will liaise with my two colleagues and report back to the Senator.