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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 Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy] Regulations on distances and so forth will make an important contribution to people feeling more comfortable. Areas where there have been community initiatives have had much better experiences than those where lands have been bought, neighbours have found out what was happening and projects were suddenly on the verge of radically changing living environments. I support a move to clean and renewable energy, but it must be done sensitively. There will be significant resistance.

I take the well-made point on efficiency. We must build efficiency into everything. We are now starting to see various devices that people can use to manage demand in their homes. The more of this we see, the better. It will have an impact on the cost of energy, one of the major factors in every household's budget. We must do more about the cost of energy. Why should it be so much more expensive in this country than in other European countries? We must drill down, discover the reasons and eliminate them. This issue affects not just households but the entire economy.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Deputy Browne is among the last group of speakers, with 20 minutes. With whom does he propose to share his time?

Deputy James Browne: Information on James Browne Zoom on James Browne My colleagues, depending on time.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute on the Energy Bill 2016. I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. He has settled in, but I have not had the opportunity to congratulate him before now. I broadly support the Bill, particularly the part that gives greater enforcement and sanctioning powers to the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER. To date, private and retail consumers have been ripped off by high retail energy prices. The consumer has not been getting a fair share of wholesale price cuts. Average oil and gas prices are at historical lows, with a 35% decrease in Irish wholesale electricity prices and a 45% decrease in wholesale gas prices, but the consumer has seen only minimal cuts. We need greater enforcement to ensure more fairness for domestic and retail consumers. While some reductions have been announced in recent weeks, they are not sufficient. The energy regulator's recent proposal to increase the public service obligation, PSO, by 36% would effectively wipe out these savings. It would see domestic energy bills increased by as much as €90 per year when VAT is taken into account. The PSO is subject to VAT, which is effectively a tax on a tax. While the original purpose of the PSO was a worthy one, it is a flat tax that lacks fairness and affects struggling families. The proposed increase, added to others, equates to a 400% increase in the PSO levy in just five years.

I support renewable and sustainable energy, but the levy seems to have little relevance any more to green energy and is instead a stealth tax worth €450 million per year to the Exchequer. As a flat tax, it makes a disproportionate contribution to the energy bill, and customers who are use-conscious have little incentive to reduce their usage, as any reduction results in little saving, given the high level of fixed charges. We have the third highest electricity prices in Europe, and the fixed nature of the PSO levy disproportionately affects the poorest. Perhaps it is time to review the levy's effectiveness and, most importantly, fairness.

Deputy Shane Cassells: Information on Shane Cassells Zoom on Shane Cassells I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this Bill. I was present when the Minister started this debate some weeks ago. As he stated, the Bill deals with technical legislative updates and revisions to energy legislation. I would like to touch on a related matter, namely, the change to the legal definition of the all-island wholesale electricity market - the single electricity market, SEM - to bring it fully into EU compliance. The coming together of the CER and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation in 2007 to act jointly as the SEM committee for the purpose of regulating the wholesale electricity market was an important process in ensuring security of supply in an efficient, cost-reflective market.

During Question Time a number of weeks ago, the Minister told me that the SEM was something that he regarded as vital, but the issue of cross-Border supply has caused major controversy in my constituency of Meath and the neighbouring counties of Cavan and Monaghan due to the planned construction of industrial pylons across their landscapes. The rationale for this project is the potential for power blackouts, as the Minister stated two weeks ago, and threats to security of supply, but at what cost to the lives of the people of those counties? Their lives will be destroyed by the project. The appeals to have the project changed by placing the cables underground fell on deaf ears in the previous Government. The former Minister, Pat Rabbitte, went so far as to say that prices would increase by 3% if the project was undergrounded. This scandalous claim was disputed and verified as being wrong by the North East Pylon Pressure, NEPP, group during deliberations. I fear that people's appeals are falling on deaf ears again. I hope not.

All of this feeds into both Governments' mantra of tasking the SEM with developing new market arrangements for an all-island wholesale electricity market, but at what price? While EirGrid might be happy with the arrangements being discussed by the House, as they further solidify what EirGrid is trying to achieve and provide the basis for pursuing its infrastructural goal of a North-South interconnector, who is speaking out for the thousands of residents who would live in the shadow of these monstrosities? It is certainly not Deputy Eamon Ryan. I am sorry he has left the Chamber, as what he said was scandalous. It verifies what we know from our time in coalition with the Green Party, something that no Fianna Fáil Member reflects on with pride.

The NEPP, spearheaded by Dr. Pádraig O'Reilly and Ms Amy Treacy and supported by thousands of residents, has valiantly led the campaign to stop the pylons and bury the cables. People have collected donations to fight a giant body that has no end to the money that it can throw around in sponsorships in the affected counties, including through newspapers, local radio shows in my county that had the capacity and gumption to challenge it, and the GAA. As a proud GAA man, I am really galled by that. To see players from Meath and Tyrone being used in television adverts to promote the project and the GAA taking EirGrid's money for the under-21 football championship is a sad reflection on how money is ruining the greatest amateur organisation in this country. What about the young kids, including my own, who kick footballs for their clubs in the shadow of these monstrosities on the playing fields of County Meath? It will make the old British army tower at Crossmaglen look like small fry in comparison.

The recent High Court challenge where the community effort was faced down by dozens of high-powered legal teams representing EirGrid and the Minister demonstrated how the arms of the State were working against people. They need the arms of the State to work for and stand up for them. At the recent oral hearing by An Bord Pleanála, EirGrid's tabling of significant changes eight weeks into the process showed contempt for the people and landowners involved. An Bord Pleanála's decision is not due until late September. That notwithstanding, I urge the Minister to intervene, bury the project in its current guise and bury the cables with it. People are not asking for the project to be buried, only for the cables to be buried.

Plenty of officials will welcome the technical changes to the legislation for the SEM, but all these do for the people of County Meath is serve to remind them of how the Government is doing everything it can to allow bodies to achieve whatever they need in order to put their plans in place. No one is standing up for the people. I appeal to the Minister as an intelligent and, importantly, brave man, as he demonstrated in the previous Dáil.

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