Seanad debates

Wednesday, 22 November 2023

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Renewable Energy Generation

10:30 am

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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This matter does not relate to the Minister of State’s Department but I hope she will have answers for me. I thank her for being here.

This is to do with community energy. Two community energy projects are in jeopardy now, in Galway and Mayo. It is fantastic that we have community energy for the first time but it does not work if there are State bodies, such as ESB Networks, holding projects up and actually could in fact be the cause of these projects not being able to go ahead.

The two community-owned solar projects in question are the Barnaderg solar project in County Galway and the Claremorris solar project in County Mayo, for 4 MW and 5 MW. They were successful in the first renewable energy support scheme, RESS, auction two years ago and it was the first ever community category for renewable energy projects in Ireland. It was heralded as a huge success at the time and we pushed very hard to have it. It was celebrated by the whole Government. The renewable energy community sees it as an important step in transforming communities.

There are seven milestones. They have both reached their first six milestones and their seventh is due to be reached by 31 December this year. There has been no communication from ESB Networks as to whether they will be able to do this, but it seems it is in significant jeopardy at the moment. They have gone through the planning permission and the grid connection agreements. They funded the grid connection agreements themselves and I will come back to that. For the two projects, that comes close to €1 million, and the projects have been in development for five to seven years. The final milestone under the RESS contract must be reached by the end of this year. For this contract, to sell their electricity to the grid in Ireland, it is required that they achieve commercial operation by 31 December. What that actually means is ESB Networks building out the grid in order to achieve that. They have no control over it whatsoever. When we look at the difference between a community operation and a commercial one, we see that commercial operations can build projects and leave them sitting idle. However, these projects accumulated significant debt in order to get to this point, so they are reliant on this contract from the State in order to make it a successful project. They are paying back the debt at the moment - or certainly will be once they reach that point - and they just do not have that kind of financial flexibility.

I ask the Minister of State to respond with an explanation of what the delay is. I also ask the Government to intervene and reconsider that final deadline of 31 December, which was included in RESS auction 1, because of the huge constraint for these community groups. In addition, community groups all over the country are looking at what is happening with regard to RESS 1 and they are making decisions on whether to go into solar energy or not. Therefore, this is about these two projects but also so much more at this stage. We are asking communities to step up to the mark and be part of the transition. In Galway, Mayo and other parts of the country, they are doing that, and semi-State bodies are interfering with their ability to achieve it.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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First, it is important to note that the management of new connections to the electricity grid, including community-led energy projects, is a matter at distribution level for ESB Networks - which I note the Senator knows - and at transmission level for EirGrid under rules determined by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU.

My understanding is that ESB Networks and EirGrid are both independent of the Minister in the exercise of their functions. The CRU, ESB Networks and EirGrid have respective contact email addresses for Deputies and Senators, of which they are aware, should they wish to raise matters of concern such as those raised.

There is currently no intention to make any changes to the terms and conditions for RESS 1. However, if community energy projects were to drop out of the RESS auctions, they will be given the security that they can enter the small-scale renewable electricity support scheme, SRESS, which will be in place from next year and provide a more sustainable long-term support for their projects.

The Minister asked me to explain the background to the new scheme. A community projects preference category has not been included in RESS 3. Rather, support for communities for the development of renewable projects will now transition to the SRESS, which will support renewables self-consumers above 50 kW and up to 1 MW, community and SME export projects between 1 MW and 6 MW, and export-only projects below 1 MW.

The SRESS will differ from RESS in that there will not be a competitive auction for participants to take part in. Through the continued engagement of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications with renewable energy communities, RECs, there is evidence of significant challenges that REC projects may face with the competitive, auction-based nature of RESS, along with grid and other barriers to project delivery. SRESS has been designed with these community projects in mind. It will offer such projects a simpler, non-competitive route to market.

The export tariff phase of SRESS, to support small-scale and community renewable projects, is due to be launched in the coming months. Potential applicants will know what export tariff they are eligible for before planning on their project begins. This will give them much more certainty compared with the competitive RESS scheme.

This scheme will align more closely to the experience and capacity of the community energy sector and support a more sustainable delivery pathway to the renewable energy community target of 500 MW by 2030.

A revision of the levelised cost of energy estimates required for small-scale and community-based generation is being undertaken by economic consultants for the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications to inform the tariff-setting process for the SRESS.This is important in light of recent inflationary pressures and the interest rate rises facing renewable energy projects.

A set of technical and financial supports for community projects are currently available to communities in a community enabling framework under the RESS. Similar supports will be available to community projects under the SRESS.

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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As already outlined, we need these projects to go ahead as soon as possible in light of the debt and financial issues associated with their not proceeding in a timely manner. One of the issues I have is that there is an enabling grant of up to €180,000 per project through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI. No community project of which I am aware is in receipt of that enabling grant. Therefore, we have situation where they were effectively promised something under a two-year timeline, and, through no fault of their own, ESB Networks is not fulfilling its end of the bargain. However, it is the community energy projects that are facing financial difficulty. When we talk about future schemes, the Minister of State mentioned that people and these community projects will know in advance. There was knowledge in advance of how the project would work, and they invested on the basis of the terms and conditions of RESS 1. We cannot talk about future schemes for these projects because those involved have already invested heavily. The projects that were successful under RESS 2 are now actively being chased for money by ESB Networks to pay their grid connections. They will go into debt immediately once they start paying that, as they are doing.

With respect, I would like a response on these two projects and on those that were successful under RESS 2 in order that I might see what the workaround is for those projects rather than speaking about future projects. Conversations are happening right now among community energy providers in the context of whether they going to sign up and pay over money to ESB Networks. If they do not know that the project is finally going to get the connection, why would they hand over the money? This is an urgent issue. We cannot wait any longer. The deadline is 31 December. I ask the Minister of State to go back to the Minister and ask for something satisfactory regarding to these projects.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I note what the Senator said about the enabling grant. I will certainly bring that back to the Minister and the Department. I also note what she said about RESS 1 and RESS 2. The information I have on the small-scale renewable electricity support scheme is that it will help those community projects in the future. It will be launched in the coming months and will provide a strong level of support to and certainty for community energy projects, notwithstanding what the Senator said about the fact that they have signed up for RESS 1 and RESS 2.

The Senator mentioned that the deadline is 31 December next. I will certainly bring her comments back to the Department. Obviously, we do not want a situation where we have community projects in any way delayed, scuppered or not being able to function properly because of a commercial project. I will certainly bring that back to the Department and the Minister.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.44 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 12.01 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 11.44 a.m. and resumed at 12.01 p.m..