Seanad debates

Wednesday, 24 November 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. Today I am particularly interested in hearing the Minister of State's response to the plans for the offshore community benefit fund. The terms and conditions for the first offshore renewable energy support scheme, RESS, are out for consultation, but I would like to tease out how the scheme will be administered. While the consultation is ongoing, the Government has made a couples of statements that indicate its preference, namely a nationally managed fund. That is very different from the community benefit funds in respect of the onshore RESS, whereby each project administers its own fund.It is stated in the consultation documentation that one reason for this is that while a single, medium-sized, 500 MW offshore project could generate €4 million in community funding for a year, it would take 80,000 onshore projects to achieve the same level. According to the Government's document as well, when dealing with projects costing millions of euro, the cost of administering the funds could be reduced significantly by administering them centrally. We must be careful in this regard, however, because other factors beyond that of lowest cost are involved and should be considered when we are talking about community benefits. Communities' experience of how they have been treated onshore has not been a good one in this regard. They now have access to the community benefit fund, but the legacy of how they were treated by onshore wind projects remains.

Making the administration of funds national will mean that communities will miss out on developing skills and jobs in funds management, and this aspect should not be discounted by the Government. It is important that all community groups have access in this regard and that the administrative burden is not too high, but I urge caution regarding what will happen around the ownership of the scheme. I refer to there being a centralised, Dublin-based fund and, once again, applications being made to Dublin for these community benefits. It is essential, therefore, to get the model right, and I encourage the Government not to close the door on the opportunity of having these funds administered at the community level by individuals who live in the communities and know what will work for those communities. I say that because this is also part of what a just transition is; it concerns community ownership of the transition.

I would also like to hear about the plans regarding the climate-proofing of the community benefit fund. It must be ensured that it will be possible for the money used on projects not only to facilitate a just transition through microgeneration and similar endeavours, but also to have an ultimate outcome that will not result in making the climate crisis even worse. The projects the funding is intended for must be climate-proofed and must also create employment opportunities in the non-extractive sector.

I would also like to tease out some detail on the possibility of allocating a portion of the fund specifically to the small fishers who face unique challenges. They are going to be directly impacted by the development of offshore wind. These are communities that have been alienated for a long time by many Government bodies and by EU bureaucracy, and they should have a separate fund that they can access to enable them to be net beneficiaries of the development of offshore wind.

The community fund could also enable opportunities for marine research and allow us to learn more about the indicator species and the rich biodiversity we have in our marine area. Equally, we should not close the door on community ownership of offshore wind. While nobody is in a position now to do anything on that scale, we must explore co-operative models in this regard and definitely not close the door to communities if they want to become involved in creating their own offshore wind projects. This scheme should not just be about the microgeneration element.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue. Ireland has one of the best offshore renewable energy resources in the world with a sea area of 490,000 sq. km, which is approximately seven times the size of our landmass. Ireland’s location at the Atlantic edge of the EU means that we have more offshore energy potential than most countries in Europe. The Maritime Area Planning Bill 2021, which recently completed Committee Stage in the Dáil, will enable the realisation of our offshore renewable energy ambitions by establishing well-regulated developments, streamlined consent and comprehensive environmental assessment of proposals and consultative processes to better enable community investment and engagement.

The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications is developing terms and conditions for the first offshore wind auction under the offshore renewable electricity support scheme, ORESS 1. It will support the first phase of offshore wind development in Ireland. All offshore wind energy development will be required to make community benefit fund contributions and, owing to the larger scale of offshore wind developments, these contributions are expected to be significantly larger than those from their onshore counterparts. Additionally, as a result of the longer construction period required by offshore wind projects, mechanisms for early community benefit are included in the draft ORESS 1 terms and conditions, which are now undergoing public consultation until December.

The Senator mentioned the national managed fund proposals. To better account for the increased governance requirements of offshore funds, the ambiguity of the offshore community and the increased State aid risk posed by benefits payable to certain marine community members, the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications is proposing that the offshore community benefit fund be managed at a national level. The main role of the national fund manager, as proposed, would be to support local decision-making by undertaking the administrative obligations and burdens of collecting and managing the funds on behalf of the local community. The local community would then be left free to concentrate on decision-making on funding applications and implementation. In no way is a nationally administered fund intended to weaken local community decision-making. The proposal is also expected to reduce administrative overheads and to realise a greater proportion of funds for expenditure in coastal and marine communities. The proposal for a national fund is also included in our ORESS 1 consultation and will be subject to the feedback received by that process. The Department has also highlighted that community benefit funds will be open to all communities, inclusively and equitably. In this regard, as part of the ORESS 1 consultation process, views are invited regarding how the fishing and seafood sectors can be inclusively engaged as a part of the wider community.

Significant investment in Ireland’s offshore renewable energy sector through ORESS will deliver considerable benefits to coastal communities more generally in respect of high-value jobs and indigenous supply chains. A cross-departmental offshore renewable energy team, chaired by officials from the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, is being established to capture wider economic and business opportunities associated with the development of offshore renewables in Ireland. The significant role of regional ports in the development of Ireland’s offshore renewable energy sector and the need for investment in port infrastructure will also benefit local coastal communities through employment and commercial opportunities. A review of the national ports policy by the Department of Transport will consider the port infrastructure development required to facilitate Ireland’s future offshore renewable energy sector.

Photo of Lynn BoylanLynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister of State's provision of some clarity on these questions. I still encourage that the decision concerning a nationally administered fund be kept open. It is, once again, being said that the decision-making will come from the community, but the best model of community involvement is the one led by the community for the community. There is a job creation opportunity here for rural communities if we encourage people to learn skills in administration and funds management.

Turning to the State aid risk for the small inshore fishers, there are ways around that aspect. We must continue to examine that issue, and part of the solution involves port and harbour infrastructure. It also involves sustainable equipment and research into where the fish are and how to fish sustainably.

I did not get an answer regarding climate-proofing in respect of ensuring the community benefit fund will not be funding projects which will make the climate crisis worse. I ask the Minister of State to raise that issue with the Minister.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I will certainly raise climate-proofing with the Minister. The Senator will be aware that the Department recognises that increased participation by people in offshore renewable energy projects will bring about significant supports for climate action as people in turn become personally invested in their delivery. The Department continues to engage in the overall package of community participation and benefits in line with Ireland’s climate ambitions to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and to deliver on the European Green Deal.

The Senator is absolutely right that this is a huge opportunity for people and communities to be involved in major decision-making. Two lines of thought exist in this regard, namely, that decision-making will occur nationally or it will take place locally. Working together, however, we can get the best of both worlds. I take on board the views of the Senator, and also her request for more information about climate-proofing. I agree as well that the development of many skills and abilities can be explored in these communities.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. Even though he has had a long and intense session this morning, his voice is certainly in good fettle, which is good.

Sitting suspended at 11.20 a.m. and resumed at 11.34 a.m.