Seanad debates

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Renewable Energy Generation

10:30 am

Photo of Lynn BoylanLynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Across the country, homes, schools, community buildings, farms and businesses are crying out to generate their own solar energy but, unfortunately, the restrictive planning framework for solar generation has undermined progress in this regard. Planning regulations currently require planning permission for all but the smallest of solar panel installations on homes or businesses which are exempt. This has had a major chilling effect in rolling out solar energy generation. The problem is even worse for schools and community groups because there is no exemption, even for smaller installations, on their buildings. This means that planning permission is required for all solar installations on educational or community buildings. As a result, schools and community groups are locked out and cannot share the benefits of renewables. In the rare circumstances where schools decide to plough ahead, they are at a disadvantage because the requirement to obtain planning permission adds €5,000 to €7,000 to the cost of installing solar panels.

Before I go on, I want to make it very clear that I am not against strong planning regulation. In fact, I am in favour of greater democratisation of the planning system and more curbs on the ability of vested interests to manipulate that system to their own benefit. I also very strongly oppose any attempts being made by this Government to undermine the public's ability to engage with the planning process. If there was ever a case for less red tape in the planning system, then surely putting in place rooftop solar arrays on primary schools in the middle of a climate crisis is it.

For the past two years, there have been nothing excuses and delays. Successive Governments have committed to updating the regulations. There were specific commitments in the Climate Action Plan 2019, including a commitment for the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to complete a review of the regulations in the fourth quarter of 2019. In 2020, the Department was still conducting that review and it is still doing so in 2021. What is the status of the review?

A new roadblock was then thrown up. I refer to the supposed need for a review of the potential for glare and glint to impact on aircraft around airports. This is news as Dublin Airport has just opened its own solar farm. At this stage, it is farcical that schools are not able to put up solar panels without planning permission. In response to a parliamentary question tabled in June, the Minister of State indicated that the tendering process for this research had not been completed, let alone the research itself. When is the research on glint and glare going to be completed?

In January we were told that we would get interim planning regulations which would at least allow for greater solar installations, excluding installations in the vicinity of airports to allow for detailed analysis of the potential for airport exclusion zones to be finalised. In April we were told that the revised regulations for solar panel exemptions would be submitted to the Oireachtas for approval shortly. In June it was claimed that a strategic environmental assessment was needed and that interim regulations would instead be put in place in the fourth quarter. However, the full strategic environmental assessment process only started in earnest in September and an associated public consultation will only commence in November. The result of this is that the interim regulations are now set to be completed in early 2022.

Why is it that Ireland suffers these difficulties when other European countries do not? It does not bode well for the climate action we are going to have to take. Can we hear when we will be done, once and for all, with the excuses and delays? When will the interim regulations be delivered to the Oireachtas to allow schools and community groups to participate in the transition to a decarbonised future?

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Boylan for raising this very important issue. To provide some background, under the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, all development, unless specifically exempted under the Act or associated regulations, requires planning permission. Various exemptions from the requirement to obtain planning permission are set out in the Act and regulations and these exemptions are subject to compliance with general restrictions on exemptions set out in the Act and regulations. Included among the planning exemptions are those applying to the installation of solar infrastructure on a variety of building types including houses, business premises and industrial and agricultural buildings, to which specific conditions are attached. My Department, in the context of the climate action plan and in consultation with the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications, has undertaken a review of the existing solar panel planning exemptions set out in the regulations, with a particular focus on facilitating increased self-generation of electricity and in recognition of the limitations of the current exemptions. This review is now complete. Substantial changes to the current planning exemption thresholds for solar panels are proposed, in addition to the introduction of new classes of solar panel planning exemptions relating to their use in apartments and in educational, community and religious buildings.

In light of the need to appropriately address aviation safety concerns arising from the glint and glare impacts of solar panels and the easing of the solar panel planning exemption thresholds, my Department is in the process of commissioning the development of detailed aviation safeguarding maps which will identify and delineate specific but limited areas in the vicinity of airports and aerodromes, referred to as exclusion zones, within which the exemptions will not apply. Project scoping feedback has been received from interested parties through the draft request for tender process and has been considered by my Department in the development of the final tender documentation. My Department intends to publish the call for tender imminently.

While this work is ongoing, my Department has advanced interim regulations, adopting a temporary, albeit more stringent, approach incorporating initial defined exclusion zones around airports and aerodromes. These interim regulations, allowing for increased solar panel planning exemptions, will cover the vast majority of the land area of the country, only excluding those limited exclusion zones around airports and aerodromes.

The draft interim regulations have been reviewed under the strategic environmental assessment, SEA, directive, 2001/42/EC, and it is considered that they are likely to have significant effects on the environment, thereby necessitating the undertaking of a full SEA on the draft proposals. The Senator referred to this in the context of the need for a robust planning system. The completion of the SEA screening stage has been delayed by a further requirement for completion of screening for appropriate assessment, AA, under the habitats directive, by my Department's ecological assessment unit. Once this AA screening process is complete, a formal SEA process will commence with scoping of the SEA. Following the latter, the SEA environmental report will be published alongside draft interim regulations for a period of public consultation of not less than four weeks. This public consultation is expected to commence in December. Written submissions or observations will be taken into consideration before finalisation of the draft interim regulations in the first quarter of 2022.

As required under planning legislation, the proposed exempted development regulations must be laid in draft form before the Houses of the Oireachtas and receive a positive resolution from both Houses before they can be made and the SEA process concluded. Accordingly, the process for finalising the interim solar panel planning exemptions as referred to above, with interim exclusion zones around airports and aerodromes and allowing for the vast majority of the country to be covered by the exemptions, is now expected to be completed in early 2022.

Work on the development of the aviation safeguarding maps for airports and aerodromes is expected to be completed in the second quarter of 2022. The final supplementary set of regulations, which will delineate the final exclusion areas around airports and aerodromes in which the exemptions will not apply, will be prepared thereafter and, subject to environmental reporting considerations, will subsequently be laid in draft form before the Houses of the Oireachtas for approval.

Photo of Lynn BoylanLynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister of State for outlining all of the roadblocks that are in place and for saying there is a deadline of early 2022. I hope that deadline will actually be the deadline and that it will not move again, as it has previously. This will come as little comfort to schools and community groups that are desperate to be part of the transition and to do their part for climate action. It does not bode well because this is the low-hanging fruit as regards climate action. When we know there are enormous changes to be made, if we cannot get the low-hanging fruit right, I have serious concerns as to how we are to implement carbon budgets when they finally come before this House.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I again thank Senator Boylan for raising this very important issue. I appreciate the concerns in the community with regard to getting this up and running because it is the low-hanging fruit and will aid in building a sustainable model in our communities.We will progress as quickly as possible and there is urgency in the Department on it. We have to comply with the directives and ensure we have the scoping documentation and seek public consultation on it. We will come back to both Houses of the Oireachtas to approve the draft guidelines. I assure the House there is huge urgency in the Department to progress this and get it right. Communities need it. It is essential and it will make them more sustainable.