Seanad debates

Thursday, 15 September 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Energy Policy

10:30 am

Photo of Micheál CarrigyMicheál Carrigy (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. This Commencement matter concerns the need to reopen Lough Ree power station. That is the issues I wish to discuss. Lough Ree power station in Lanesborough, County Longford, closed nearly two years ago, seven years ahead of what was to be a just transition from brown to green in 2027. The plant has the capacity to generate 100 MW per hour. We are in the midst of an energy crisis. We hear talk in the media of blackouts. I understand the ESB has a drawn up a list of towns that will face blackouts should this need to happen. There are businesses that are high energy users, which will be asked to go off grid, possibly putting people out of work. We know that was agreed in the most recent auction, which I believe took place in 2019, with regard to input into our grid. The reality is that those targets are not going to be reached by certain companies, including the ESB.

People are in fear about this issue but there is no need for that fear. If we had the capacity within our network, we would not have that fear. We have the facilities that are capable of producing the energy required, whether it is through Shannonbridge power station or Lough Ree power station in my local area, which has the capacity to produce 100 MW per hour. It can be done. The equipment is still there; it has not been sold off. If there is a will in the Government to do it, it can be done, and it can be done in the short term. We need to look seriously at that idea, even if it is only for the winter months, in order to alleviate the fear out there.People are dealing with high energy costs at the minute but the stark reality is that there is a possibility they might not have energy. If we have an extremely cold winter, we will be in serious trouble. If we have low winds, we are going to be in trouble. If the UK decides to shut off the interconnector we rely on between the UK and Ireland, we will be in major trouble. What will have to happen then is that businesses will shut down, and ultimately there is the possibility of a blackout in towns. Fuel can be sourced from peat that is on-site. There is 45 loads of it being drawn off the site every day. We have sawmills in the facility for chipping. We have an issue with ash dieback with which the Minister will be aware. A serious number of forests throughout the country have been affected. These trees could be cut down, transported, chipped on-site and burned. We would be alleviating another problem and contributing to the energy network in the country. We cannot have a situation where there are towns without energy, businesses shutting down and the possibility of knock-on effects on other facilities and hospital appointments being cancelled when there is no need for it. We need to bite the bullet, make a decision and put these plants back to work, for the winter months at least, to make sure we do not have a situation where we have energy cut off or any town facing a blackout.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I have a personal interest in this as I have a lot of friends in the Lanesborough area.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I thank Senator Carrigy for raising this matter, which is very timely.

The management of the ESB-owned facilities is an operational matter for the board and management of the ESB. The ESB ceased electricity generation at Shannonbridge and Lanesborough power stations in December 2020 because their planning permission had expired. The just transition commissioner made a recommendation in his first progress report published in May 2020 that a study be undertaken regarding the future potential at both ESB power stations for the establishment of a dedicated energy hub in the midlands. This was subsequently included as a commitment in the programme for Government.

The ESB has been participating in a number of working groups established under the just transition programme which looked at the future of the midlands area following the closure of the ESB midlands stations and the ending of the harvesting of peat by Bord na Móna. One of the working groups, which included representatives of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, relevant local authorities and the just transition commissioner, looked specifically at how the existing infrastructure on the station sites might form part of a future renewable energy hub. To that end, the ESB commissioned an internal engineering report to examine how the power plants might be reused in the future. The options reviewed included the possibility of using other types of fuel. The report was subsequently reviewed by Fichtner, an external international consultancy firm with acknowledged expertise in these areas. These reports have not identified any viable alternative use for the existing power plants. However, based on the recommendations and the conclusions drawn from the review, the ESB decided to seek planning permission for both remediation and redevelopment works at both sites which would involve the construction of electrical grid systems support technology hubs that can facilitate greater levels of renewable energy generation at the grid, in line with ESB's Brighter Future strategy.

In terms of securing our electricity supplies for the coming winter, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, currently has a programme of actions under way to ensure the security of our electricity supply over the coming winters. The security of supply programme of actions contains a number of both demand-side and supply-side mitigation measures to address the forecasted shortfall. These actions include: procurement of new enduring capacity through a number of capacity options; procuring additional temporary generation; extending the availability of existing generators; additional use of grid scale batteries; and improved demand-side measures.

Photo of Micheál CarrigyMicheál Carrigy (Fine Gael)
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Two words the Minister of State used near the end of his statement were "expected shortfall". He is admitting or stating here what we know will happen, that is, there will be a shortfall in energy. The alternatives we are talking about and a lot of the proposals that are being mentioned are all years down the line. The just transition was due to happen in 2027. We have a situation where the power plants were closed at the end of 2020. We have a facility there that can produce 100 MW per hour of energy for the network and, therefore, we would not have an anticipated shortfall. We are willing to take that risk of having a shortfall and closing down businesses and the possibility of towns facing a blackout, rather than making the right decision, even if only for a number of years, over the winter months or whenever it may be, to re-power up that plant. We have energy that can be used on-site. We can alleviate another issue I mentioned in that the large amount of trees with ash dieback that have been affected can be burned and chipped to produce energy. This is only a temporary measure to make sure we do not have the anticipated shortfall we are saying we will have. I request the Minister of State to take this message back to the Department. We need to be realistic about decisions we make and not face an anticipated shortfall with nothing put in place while there is an option on the ground. The infrastructure is there, the equipment is there and it would not be a major cost to fire that generator up and make sure we have energy in the country this winter and next.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I should clarify that the phrase "anticipated shortfall" refers to an anticipated shortfall in the buffer of the surplus energy we have, on top of what is needed to power the country. I do not expect there will be power cuts this winter or next winter, although it is always possible. It is always possible every year. There is always a possibility of power cuts happening and it is the job of the CRU and EirGrid together to work out how to minimise that possibility. It is for that reason we passed emergency legislation to provide for extra generators next winter. The Senator mentioned as a possibility using wood affected by ash dieback. That is an inventive and creative idea. I know the Department of agriculture is working on ash dieback schemes and will be thinking about it before the upcoming budget. I will bring that suggestion back to that Department for consideration.

Regarding the renovation and re-use of the existing facilities at Lanesborough and Shannonbridge, that has been looked at, examined and externally reviewed. It really has been considered if there is any possibility of re-using them using either existing or alternative fuels. If there was a possibility and if it could help, and is something we need to do, that door is open. I will come back to the Senator on the idea of using wood affected by ash dieback.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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Thank you. Will the Minister of State oblige, given that we did not circulate copies of his speech, by emailing it to the Seanad Office? Senator Carrigy would possibly like a copy too.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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Absolutely, yes.