Check against delivery
As Minister for Climate Action and Energy I am in a unique position amongst my counterparts in Europe where both portfolios fall into one. This is a significant step forward for us. Previous Ministers had to go cap-in-hand to other Ministers to try to get movement on some of the more challenging areas. I have the necessary tools within my Department to deal with energy and I am.
Renewable energy must mean better air quality, less human impact on global climate and reduces the oil, coal and gas that would otherwise be burned. In the language of policy makers, it offers a sustainable and necessary alternative to our dependency on fossil fuels as well as a means of reducing harmful greenhouse emissions and reducing our reliance on imported fuels.
In 2015 Ireland's energy import dependency increased to 88%, which was a 3% increase on 2014. And the cost of all energy imports to Ireland was approximately €4.6 billion. That is burning €1/2 million every hour of imported energy. While this was down from €5.7 billion in 2014 due mainly to falling oil and gas import prices, it still represents about 2.5% of Ireland's GDP and there is no certainty that prices will remain low or stable.
It is critical from both an economic and an environmental perspective, that we reduce our reliance on these imports.
This is why indigenous renewable energy is so important to our long-term environmental and economic wellbeing. It will play an increasingly important role in shaping Ireland's long term energy future and our progression towards a decarbonised economy.
I know this audience will appreciate that the ultimate goal of energy policy in any jurisdiction must be to maintain a secure and reliable supply of electricity to all consumers at all times. A secure energy supply is a fundamental prerequisite for economic growth, job creation, and the economic and social recovery that the Government has prioritised.
However, energy consumers also expect that it will be sustainable, and competitively priced.
I can tell you that there is a good deal of opposition to certain types of infrastructure, which are viewed as being imposed on local communities against their will. While I know there are some best-in-class examples of excellent community engagement, there are also other examples of very poor response to genuine local concerns.
Those mistakes will not be allowed to happen again.
I want a complete review of our renewable energy policy. Onshore and offshore wind and solar energy are part of that - I never said solar was not - but I would be disingenuous if I told the farmers of this country that I will allow consumers to fund 5 GW of solar energy. To put that in plain English, it means that if one switched off every single power generator in the country including every single wind turbine, we could turn on all the solar panels and export electricity from the country. I would be irresponsible if I encouraged people to go down the road of the large bubble that is being created. People need to be realistic. Solar energy and offshore wind energy are part of the solution. That is why one of the first things I did as Minister was to sign an international agreement with all the countries in the North Sea on sharing our information and technology and developing that resource.
My challenge to industry is to prove that you can be leaders in adopting best practice to energy infrastructure projects. It is in your own interests to call out those few bad apples whose shoddy practice has tarnished the image of your industry.
That may be difficult to hear but I can tell you I am regularly listening to genuine stories of people at the end of their tether with stress. In most cases this stress could be alleviated with some practical steps that industry can and should be easily able to comply with. I will return to this theme later.
Against this backdrop, I want to talk about a number of key issues of relevance to the renewable energy industry, namely: our progress towards 2020 and the immediate challenges; and the recently published EU Winter Package and future opportunities;
The Progress to 2020
The recent SEAI Energy in Ireland Report 2015 shows that 9.1% of Ireland's overall energy requirements in 2015 were met from renewable sources and that this has avoided €286 million of fossil fuel imports and reduced CO2 emissions by 3.2.Mt.
In other words, we are over halfway to our target. However, 2020 is just 36 months away and we must re-double our efforts to reduce energy demand and use our natural resources for clean energy production.
This is not without its challenges.
On the question of Wind Energy Guidelines: Intensive engagement between my Department and the Department of the Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government is ongoing. I have just come from a Cabinet meeting where myself and Minister Coveney updated our colleagues on progress. 7,000 people across our communities inputted into this review. How far will their home be from a wind turbine was the overarching concern in all the submissions.
Determining setback provisions to balance the demands of communities and realising Ireland's wind energy potential is the most difficult element of the guidelines. Both Minister Simon Coveney and I are working to finalise proposals around a new model that would include new approaches to sound, shadow flicker and community benefit. Work has been undertaken on a Code of Good Practice for the wind energy industry, which would substantially enhance transparency in community benefit provision and engagement of developers with community concerns. This Code would form an input for planning authorities in determining whether to consent to projects within determined set back distances. It would be a blue print for other renewable sectors.
We are currently grappling with the challenge of how we mangage up to 75% wind loading on the grid. It's now known as that "Irish problem". No one else in the world has managed this but we are determined to crack this nut.
Currently we can take 60% loading at any one time and if all the REFIT applications currently in the system are powered up we will be going over this 75% threshold at peak wind forcing us to spill electricity. As Minister for waste efficiency this is not good.
A clear methodology to allow planning authorities determine the effectiveness of the engagement will be developed and will form part of the statutory planning process.
These measures aim to strike a better balance between the interest of communities and the need to invest in renewable energy to meet our obligations. Ultimately, revision of the guidelines will reflect the most recent technological developments in the wind energy sector, setting a standard for best practise in the industry.
On the question of REFIT support scheme: in recognition of planning and grid delays experienced by renewable energy projects, I can announce today that I intend to extend the development milestones in the REFIT scheme. It is important to note that this is not an extension to the scheme itself and will apply only to applicants that applied for REFIT support before the closing date of 31 December 2015. Officials are currently engaged with industry. There will be no more extensions.
New Support Schemes
My Department is working on a new support scheme for renewable electricity to be available later at the end of 2017. The scheme will be subject to the new rules on public support for projects in the field of energy, adopted by the Commission in April 2014, which seek to promote a gradual move to market-based support for renewable energy. I have recently appointed consultants and the findings from this work will facilitate a decision on the cost of a new scheme early next year.
A key part of the new Renewable Electricity Support Scheme will be a focus on community participation. This is a new departure for Ireland and has worked well in other countries such as in Scotland and Germany. In the heating sector, a new Renewable Heat Incentive to support the deployment of renewable energy in this sector is being drafted. I plan to introduce a new Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme targeting larger industrial and commercial heating installations to convert from fossil fuels to renewable heating covering a range of technologies. The final public consultation paper on the design options of the new scheme will be published shortly.
The EU Winter Package
On 30 November, the European Commission published draft proposals for the extension of each Member State's renewable energy target up to 2030. If passed, this proposal would see Ireland retain our 16% target up to 2030. This means we must ensure that at least this proportion of our energy needs continues to come from renewable sources up to 2030. Given the growth we expect in our population and economy, it is likely that our energy demand will grow.
Therefore, getting to, and maintaining, a renewable energy level of 16% is a key priority for me as Minister. Indigenous renewables will play a key role in shaping Ireland's long term energy future as we look to the 2030 time horizon.
The proposals published by the European Commission, which are part of the so-called Energy Winter Package, will be the subject of negotiations at EU level over the coming 12-18 months.
We are looking at a far more comprehensive suite of solutions than heretofore.
Returning to the conference theme of Enabling the Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future: I believe we are at a key juncture. We have a unique opportunity to harness Ireland's indigenous renewable energy resources in a sustainable way. In a way that offers long term opportunities for investment in the sector and for real community participation.
We need to start bringing people with us. We have the opportunity to do so. We could continue the old approach of bulldozing ahead and telling people we are going to do this, that or the other.
This will not happen on my watch. Let us start working together towards our objectives.
The reality is that we are on a journey seeking a carbon free impact from human activity and the only way this will succeed is through social acceptance and engagement.
This needs to be at the heart of your deliberations today and for the future.