Seanad debates

Tuesday, 20 February 2024

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Energy Conservation

1:00 pm

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I also welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber this afternoon. I raise an issue today with regard to the warmer homes scheme. As she is no doubt aware, the Government's climate action plan was published in November 2021. Among many other very welcome schemes, it included the warmer homes scheme. I have been contacted by a constituent. I would like to put on record the correspondence the person received from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, which, through the warmer homes scheme, provides free home energy upgrades to homeowners who get certain social welfare payments. These upgrades help improve the energy efficiency and warmth of the homes. The constituent who contacted me has mould in the house so there is a necessity for the scheme to be expedited, not just for the environmental outcomes but to help with the personal needs of the people who are probably living in energy poverty at the moment.

For the record, the correspondence the constituent received stated:

Current approximate wait times from initial application until the completion of works on the Warmer Homes Scheme is in the range of 24 months. It is important to be aware that it may take more than a 2 year waiting time before your home is completed. The following are the current approximate wait times for each stage of the application process.

- Survey - Approximately 14 months

- Works Completed - Approximately 24 - 26 months from application

- Post works BER/Inspection - Approximately 2-3 months after works completed

As per the estimated timeline, the post works BER/Inspection could be 29 months after the application is first made.

The SEAI also stated elsewhere:

We appreciate that the wait time may be disappointing for homeowners, however, the scheme does work within tight parameters and resources. This coupled with a high demand has led to the current wait time.

I do not want to be negative here this morning. I welcome this scheme and all similar schemes, but the wait times I have outlined associated with the application are not acceptable. This is on the back of the climate action plan, which was introduced in 2021. The application I am referring to was made in 2023, which was basically at the outset of the process, or the infancy of the project. The target is for 500,000 houses to be done by 2030. If we have such large wait times at the outset, it is quite obvious that by the time we get further into the decade, by 2027, 2028 and 2029, if the interest remains as it is at present, this process is only going to snowball and God knows what the wait times might. Thankfully, there has been a keen interest and a large uptake and this has been given as the reason for the long wait time

We must also take into consideration that, along with the warmer homes scheme, there is also the local authority retrofit programme and the low-cost energy home loan scheme for people who do not qualify for social welfare. Thankfully, the demand is enormous. There must be manpower issues. When we ask a question we are told how much money is being invested in the programme but money is not always the answer to every problem. There must also be manpower issues relating to bureaucracy and administration staff given the waiting times at the outset of a programme. It leaves a lot of questions to be answered. I hope the Minister of State might have some of those today.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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The climate action plan does set out ambitious targets to retrofit the equivalent of 500,000 homes to a building energy rating of B2-cost optimal and the installation of 400,000 heat pumps in existing homes to replace older, less efficient heating systems by the end of 2030. The national retrofit plan sets out the Government's approach to achieving these targets.

Fairness, universality, and customer centricity are three of the key principles of the national retrofit plan.In line with these principles, the plan recognises that supports are necessary to help households vulnerable to energy poverty to retrofit their homes. The warmer homes scheme, which provides fully-funded energy upgrades for households at risk of energy poverty, is a critical support in that regard.

Increased awareness of the multiple benefits of retrofit and significant improvements to the upgrades provided under the warmer homes scheme has resulted in increased levels, as the Senator said, of demand for this scheme in particular. Approximately 24,000 applications were received by the SEAI in 2022 and 2023. More than 1,600 additional applications were received in January of this year.

The depth and complexity of retrofits provided under the scheme have also increased significantly in recent years. This can be seen in the average cost of upgrades provided, which increased from €2,600 in 2015 to €24,000 last year. Last year, we saw very strong growth in the delivery of energy upgrades under the scheme, with 5,900 homes upgraded. This was an increase of 33% on the number delivered in 2022.

The average waiting time from application to completion of upgrade works for homes completed in 2023 was just under 20 months, which is a decrease from average of 26 months for homes completed in 2022. It is a six-month reduction. The reduction in wait times follows a range of measures introduced by the Department and the SEAI, including: additional staff who have been allocated to the SEAI for the warmer homes scheme; a significantly increased budget allocation; SEAI work to increase contractor output through active contract engagement and management; and actions to address ongoing supply chain and inflationary pressures. In addition, the SEAI established a new €700 million contractor panel in September 2023, which is in place for the next four years. This added seven additional contractors, bringing the total number operating on the panel to 36. The overall spend for 2023 was €157.4 million, which is the highest ever to date under the scheme.

It is also important to note that the worst performing homes are prioritised under the scheme following a Government decision in 2022. This means that homes rated E, F or G on the building energy rating scale are prioritised for works before those with better energy ratings. This also means the support is reaching the homes and households most likely to be affected by energy poverty faster.

In order to further increase the impact of this prioritisation, the SEAI will shortly be going to tender to expand the capacity to carry out BER assessments under the scheme. This year, the budget for the scheme is increased to nearly €210 million. This is the largest allocation ever for this scheme and will support even more households at risk of energy poverty with energy upgrade works in their homes. This includes funding from the European Regional Development Fund.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State’s response and I welcome and appreciate the facts she mentioned with regard to the increased spend and the reduction of six months. However, the reduction of six months to 20 months is still unacceptable. I also welcome the fact that new staff are being recruited. This needs to happen.

The bottom line on this is we can all say we are delighted about the large uptake. However, even with the large uptake, we knew setting out that the target was 500,000. Even with the keen interest, we still will probably not make the 500,000. We knew the target at the outset.

I welcome the changes that have been made but there more is needed. Perhaps there needs to be a root-and-branch look at the entire scheme, the bureaucracy and the application process to help trim some more time along with the six months that has already been trimmed off to reach a more acceptable time.

We all know what happens in Ireland and all over the world. Somebody applies and get the letter that I put on the record today. They talk and other people hear there is such a wait, and it puts those people off applying at all. We need to be putting a positive spin on this.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I acknowledge the Senator's comment on the reduction of time from 26 months to 20 months. It is progress and I think there will be more progress as time goes on. I note he welcomed some of the measures that have been put in place, including around staffing, which hopefully will help. It is important to note there are other schemes as well. Some 700 approved housing body and low-income homes were upgraded under the national home energy upgrade scheme and the community energy grant scheme. I appreciate the points the Senator raised and I will bring them to the attention of the Minister for the environment.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State and Senator Daly. Our next Commencement matter is in the name of Senator Seery Kearney.