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Energy Bill 2016 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 915 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Brian Stanley: Information on Brian Stanley Zoom on Brian Stanley] I would also like to use this opportunity to point out, regarding the underground-overground discussion surrounding the interconnector, that our party, Sinn Féin, has made detailed submissions on this. We have been active in campaigning on it for a number of years. The cost between undergrounding and pylons has narrowed. This needs to be revisited, and the Department and the new Government need to consider it because, as the Minister will be aware, there is huge resistance to pylons and in the medium to longer term the better option, we believe, where at all possible, is to go underground.

The Bill provides for the renaming of the Commission for Energy Regulation as the Commission for Regulation of Utilities in order to reflect the expanded remit of the commission to regulate water services. I reaffirm my position and that of our party that water is not a consumer product and we should never treat it as such. We are an independent State. It does not matter what everybody else does. The North of Ireland is doing its own thing on water, as is Scotland, and we can also. It is not a commodity and should not be treated as such. It is a crucial public service necessary for life, so we are not convinced and we do not believe that water needs to be brought under the commission's remit.

Deputy Martin Kenny: Information on Martin Kenny Zoom on Martin Kenny Energy is essential for life, for all production and consumption activities. It is necessary whether in the home or in the workplace. The supply of most energy is subject to regulation to ensure that there is continuity of flow of electricity, petroleum and fuel. Regulation plays an important role in the energy industry, and the impact of regulation reform and of the relationship between the level of regulation and the performance have been continually debated. Regulation is an important tool for Government and policy-makers. It allows the Government to assert a level of control over an industry which in recent years has witnessed major liberalisation and privatisation measures. This has allowed governments the opportunity to assert some form of authority in an area of great importance to its citizens. The level of influence which governments may or may not have is dependent on the strength of regulation and this is reflected in the importance the Government and policy-makers place on the Commission for Energy Regulation.

However, we must ensure that all energy projects - there are many crucial ones - are carried out in partnership with the host communities. There is widespread public opposition to high-voltage pylon towers passing through communities and near residential areas. In order to avoid putting these projects in jeopardy, consideration must be given to the concerns of affected communities and the new Minister should consider the undergrounding of cables wherever possible. The successful implementation of the Government’s energy strategy will be largely dependent on the way it communicates its plans to the public.

Enhanced consumer awareness and understanding of how we meet our future energy needs are essential requirements to allow citizens to properly grasp the importance of developing sustainable energy policies. The day of minimalist consultation with communities is long gone. Any future energy policy must engage citizens in the way the State produces, transmits and consumes energy. Public consultation must be placed at the heart of the process when formulating future Government policy. From an early stage, there must be clear and direct lines of communication established between the Government, industry and host communities. It is our hope that the new Minister for Communications, Climate Change and Natural Resources will learn from the mistakes of his predecessors in dealing with such matters.

Fuel poverty is in many respects a matter which greatly affects the elderly and the poorest in society who lack adequate heat and warmth in their homes. The consequences of fuel poverty are clearly evident. Not only does the lack of adequate heating make conditions more uncomfortable for those who must live in fuel-poor households, it also has a direct impact on their physical and mental health. Fuel poverty can also play a role in deprivation levels in other areas of the household. For example, if families are forced into a "heat or eat" situation, they may have to make a conscious decision whether to feed themselves or their children or provide an adequate level of heating in the home.

Research shows that changing energy supplier is an effective means of reducing energy costs. Energy companies do not reward loyal customers, instead those who remain with the same company benefit the least from possible savings on tariffs. Those who tend to be least aware of potential savings are those in low-income households, vulnerable people and the elderly, often the very same households who are at risk of fuel poverty. The new commission should take a greater role in educating households about the benefits of switching tariffs. There are already a number of websites that demonstrate to the public the savings that could be made if they changed their energy supplier. The commission could aid in tackling fuel poverty by making the public more aware of these facilities.

It is essential that transparency in energy pricing is an integral part of the system of regulation. Energy companies resist greater levels of transparency, which is hardly surprising as they do not wish to pass information on to others that could have an impact on their profit margins. It is therefore essential that the commission ensure there are consistent levels of transparency in energy pricing and that consumers have full knowledge of what energy costs. This is not just beneficial to the energy consumers, but also to Government and policy-makers as the more information that is made available to the public, the greater the options available to them.

This Bill provides for the renaming of the Commission for Energy Regulation as the Commission for Regulation of Utilities in order to reflect the expanded remit of the commission to regulate water services. We reaffirm our position that water is not a consumer product and should never be treated as such. It is a public service that is necessary for life. In fact, any time we see experts on space exploration wondering if life can be found on faraway planets, the first thing - in fact, the only thing - they look for is the presence or possible presence of water. Even from the first year of national school, children learn that water is critical for life. The protection of our water sources is vital and I can only assume it would be a central responsibility for this new commission if it is to regulate our water services.

One vital protection of water courses is to ensure that fracking for gas does not take place anywhere on this island. Sinn Féin is committed to renewable energy and supports the maximum use of renewable energy sources. We must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and our dependence on imported sources of energy. However, we feel that the current source is too heavily reliant on wind energy and that there should be a mix of renewable sources brought on stream. Sinn Féin has identified tidal or wave and biomass energy as possible rich sources of renewable energy in Ireland. Semi-State bodies must take a lead in developing these energy sources. The ESB, Bord na Móna and CoilIte have all been identified by Sinn Féin as potential leaders in the field of renewable energy production. With a proper focus from Government, there is a potential to create jobs, to create energy and to ensure a balanced and secure energy supply into the future. In recognition of our international responsibilities surrounding CO2 emissions and climate change, I suggest that the Minister consider not issuing any licences for fossil fuel exploration in the future and instead ensure that community-based ownership of renewable energy projects be supported as a priority.

Deputy Sean Sherlock: Information on Seán Sherlock Zoom on Seán Sherlock We welcome the Bill-----

Acting Chairman (Deputy Catherine Connolly): Information on Catherine Connolly Zoom on Catherine Connolly Gabh mo leithscéal, a Theachta. We will take a break at 3.50 p.m.

Deputy Sean Sherlock: Information on Seán Sherlock Zoom on Seán Sherlock That is fine. I will be finished well before then.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Catherine Connolly): Information on Catherine Connolly Zoom on Catherine Connolly We will resume at 4.30 p.m.

Deputy Sean Sherlock: Information on Seán Sherlock Zoom on Seán Sherlock I start by congratulating the Minister on his appointment as I have not yet formally done so. The Labour Party welcomes the Bill, which was introduced by the Minister's predecessor in the Seanad during the lifetime of the last mandate. We welcome the power to apply administrative sanctions which it is proposed to give the CER so as to reflect changes in the sector since it was set up in 1999. We acknowledge the 2013 Forfás report on sectoral regulation and recommendations on regulatory sanctions. We also acknowledge the International Energy Agency review, specifically regarding ensuring the enhancement of the powers of the CER so as to deliver ultimately in the public interest and in the interests of consumers. We have no issue with the name change from the Commission for Energy Regulation to the Commission for Regulation of Utilities.

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