Tuesday, 12 October 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I tabled this Commencement matter in response to recent reports of a potential energy shortage in the next 24 months. This is very worrying for many house owners and businesses. We also had discussions on whether we should grant permissions to develop data centres which, in general, do not provide jobs, although many of the companies developing those centres employ thousands of people here. The large amount of energy these centres use has been discussed. We have also seen significant increases in energy costs. Only in the last two weeks, we have had another one from Electric Ireland.
A large number of employers in County Longford are reviewing their energy use. They include Panelto Foods, which recently doubled the size of its operation and opened a research and development centre in what was our enterprise office in Longford, and Birds Eye, which is owned by Nomad Foods and supplies pizzas to virtually the entire UK market. A number of businesses in the county are expanding, including Abbott which employs almost 1,000 people. In response to the need to address climate action, Longford County Council, in conjunction with Gas Networks Ireland, having consulted local businesses, submitted an expression of interest some years ago under the climate action fund seeking an extension of the gas network from Ballymahon to Edgeworthstown and Longford. I have a copy of the submission with me. In this regard, I recognise the work of the former Minister, Eoghan Murphy, the former Minister of State, Senator Kyne, and the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, in supporting the proposal to have the pipeline brought from Athlone to the Center Parcs site in Ballymahon, rather than from Mullingar. The reason it came from Athlone was to allow the potential expansion of existing capacity to do this.
The application made provision for the development of anaerobic digestion and associated biogas to be deployed into the gas network via an injection facility as part of the proposal. It did not seek only the extension of the pipeline. It proposes an extension from Ballymahon to Longford and Edgeworthstown of almost 60 km to facilitate connections to high energy users, allowing them to reduce their energy emissions, utilise energy efficiencies and apply renewable technologies while exploring expansion potential. The injection of renewable gas to this network would be carried out in tandem with the development of anaerobic digestion facilities at the Lanesborough-Mount Dillon area as part of the just transition process, following the closure of Lough Ree power station and the Bord na Móna works. The core aim is to deliver renewable energy back to the grid, driven and supported by the local communities most affected by the process of climate action. The holistic package will provide employment opportunities and economic development and enhance biodiversity and environmental quality by promoting community-based initiatives to decarbonise the difficult areas of agriculture and transport.
Since this application was made, Lough Ree power station has closed.Bord na Móna works have also ceased. The just transition fund was initiated and Longford County Council is progressing a study, funded by the just transition, on anaerobic digestion, AD, in this area and engaging with the national stakeholders and the local communities. This study will support the original expression of interest, which I have here, lodged under the climate action fund to develop and extend that pipeline into Longford. I have asked that this project be supported and our county town get infrastructure of which it was deprived in the early 2000s, while all other towns in the midlands received natural gas. It is the most efficient energy for running businesses. We have found it difficult to attract some businesses due to the fact we do not have that infrastructure. I ask that this application be looked at in a positive light.
I thank Senator Carrigy for referencing the climate action plan which, as he probably knows, is being updated. The newly revised climate action plan will be issued in the coming weeks, but I will take into account what the Senator has being saying. The routing of gas pipelines or the connection of towns to the gas pipeline network are matters for Gas Networks Ireland, a commercial State-sponsored body under the control of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and for the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, the statutory independent energy regulator, which conducts consultations on its regulatory decisions.
Gas Networks Ireland is mandated under section 8 of the Gas Act 1976 to develop and maintain a system for the supply of natural gas that is both economical and efficient. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities has, since 2002, been charged with all aspects of the assessment and licensing of prospective operators who wish to develop and-or operate a gas distribution system in the State, under the Gas (Interim) (Regulation) Act 2002. Therefore, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications has no direct statutory function on the connection of towns to the gas network. I understand Gas Networks Ireland continues to engage with Longford County Council and relevant stakeholders that seek to build an economically-viable business case to extend the network further to the town, as per the requirements set out in the Commission for Regulation of Utilities' approved connection policy.
Despite the formal regulatory process, it is difficult to see how extending the gas network to new towns would be in keeping with the Government's overall climate and energy targets. With regard to the Government's upcoming climate action plan, I confirm it is not intended to include extensions of the gas network to new towns as a means of decarbonisation. The connections policy there allows for the appraisal of a new town, either on its own, or as part of a regional group of towns, and appraises both domestic and industrial commercial demand. Proximity to a major pipeline or a large industrial or commercial gas load tend to be the most significant factors in town appraisals.
Gas Networks Ireland is mandated, under section 8 of the Gas Act 1976, to develop and maintain a system for the supply of natural gas that is both economical and efficient. In terms of the engagement between Gas Networks Ireland and Longford County Council, there was a recent assessment under the connections policy, in 2017, which found connecting Longford to the gas network remained, at that time, unviable in the absence of significant new demand. That is the honest situation in which we find ourselves.
At the same time, every town in Ireland has to find a way to decarbonise. If it is moving people away from solid fuel and oil and will not be to natural gas, it has to be to something else. As the Senator said, biogas is certainly one option. Heat pumps are another option. Retrofitting is a part of the answer as well, but it is not the case there is no answer. What comes out in the climate action plan will be important to that.
I do not know what to say, to be honest. I am disappointed. The application is cognisant of the fact of developments in anaerobic digestion and injecting biogas.It is not a case of just looking for a pipeline in a business case scenario because the reality is that the business case is not strong. It is strong, however, when other things are taken into account, such as providing that AD and injecting biogas into the system. It ticks the boxes as regards climate action, in my opinion. I ask that this be taken into account rather than being ruled out. We are based in the midlands. Lough Ree power station has closed, as has the Bord na Móna plant. We have an entire site there as part of the just transition. It was a priority from Government that alternative infrastructure, and maybe an energy park, be put there. I ask that this be looked at in tandem with that if possible.
The Senator agrees that it is unlikely that, under a strict cost-benefit analysis, extending the gas network will be found to be viable. He has also said that there is a project of investigation to see whether biogas can be injected and whether we can make progress on that. I support that. The midlands have been targeted for just transition funding. We need to find ways forward and biogas has not been developed in Ireland in the past in the way it has been in other countries like Germany. That will certainly be an important part of the climate action plan. I am happy to engage with the Senator further and put him in contact with the Minister if that helps, although, as pointed out, Gas Networks Ireland technically comes under the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. However, it is obviously an energy matter and a matter of heating homes. The key thing is that we need to help towns in places like Longford and the midlands to find a way to transition to something different and that certainly could be AD or biogas. I would be keen to do anything I can to help in that regard.