I am very pleased to be with you this morning for the opening of the 2016 Energy Ireland Conference.
This conference has traditionally been the key annual event in the energy calendar and, judging by the extensive programme, I think this is set to continue.
As Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, I have an expanded responsibility which, I believe, is a progressive step that recognises the priority this Government places on these policy areas. I would stress that the replacement of the word 'energy' in my title does not in any way diminish the importance with which this sector continues to be held.
The Paris Agreement was signed by Ireland and over 170 other countries in April of this year. It sets out a goal of limiting global average temperature to well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
Ireland is committed to playing its part and we will make our contribution to meeting the commitments under the Paris Agreement as part of a combined effort by all European Union Member States. A key element of this commitment will be our 2030 emissions reduction target.
Consistent with this, in my meetings with Commissioner Cañete both last month here in Dublin and last week in Luxembourg, I emphasised the need for Ireland's 2030 target to be technically feasible, cost-effective and fair.
Together with Government colleagues and officials, I continue to engage with the Commission in order to ensure that Ireland's target reflects our special circumstances – in particular the relative size of our agriculture sector.
At a National policy level, the Programme for Government sets out the immediate priorities for me as Minister. It does this in the context of the Energy White Paper which provides the long-term policy framework out to 2030.
I realise that you are well aware of existing policies and measures; the need to strike a balance between sustainability, security of supply and competitiveness; and the importance of the energy sector to economic growth and job creation. So please forgive me if I do not preach to the converted.
Instead, I would like to use this opportunity to outline some of the key priorities for me and my Department.
Working with People
As Minister, my core driving principle will be to work with people.
In the new parliamentary situation, I must engage with my colleagues in Dáil and Seanad Éireann to ensure there is broad agreement on polices in order for them to progress. Similarly, in the energy sector, we need to work towards achieving a broad consensus on policy across society.
In order to do this, we not only have to include more people in the discussion, but we have to actively engage with them, as well as communicating in a manner that brings people with us and not attempt to bulldoze through genuinely held concerns.
In simple terms, I believe we need to understand what people want and how we can build the climate change agenda around those 'wants'.
A great example of this is SEAI's Better Energy Warmer Homes scheme which provides funds to increase the energy efficiency of homes of the elderly and vulnerable. These measures mean people can use less energy to attain the level of comfort they need, and are less vulnerable to increases in energy prices whilst contributing to our climate change targets.
Another example of this is the Warmth and Wellbeing pilot scheme, which is providing energy efficiency improvements to homes of older people suffering with chronic respiratory conditions. It aims to improve living conditions and reduce the need to attend hospital – especially during the winter months when the weather is coldest. This takes the pressure off accident and emergency departments. This scheme is now underway in two areas in Dublin 12 and 24. The initial objective is to upgrade 1000 homes in the next 30 months.
We also need greater engagement with the public. The National Dialogue on Climate Change – within which I plan to encompass the proposed National Energy Forum – will be a key tool to providing public input into policy formation.
In addition, I believe all of us in this room have a role to play. You have the knowledge to explain to people what practical impact they can have – be it by changing their behaviour or changing a light bulb. In order to connect with people, I would urge you – in fact I would challenge each and every person in this room – to engage with the public through your local media outlets.
I think it is fair to say that there is no silver bullet to meet our climate change obligations. Of course, the simplest solution to many of our challenges in the energy sector is to reduce the amount of energy we use. It is often said that the cheapest barrel of oil is the one not burned.
I believe energy efficiency measures provide the most cost effective method of reducing emissions while providing tangible benefits to people.
A recent paper by the EU noted that over half of the boilers across Europe were installed over 20 years ago. Work undertaken by the SEAI estimates there could be as many as 1 million inefficient boilers still in use in Ireland. Actions like replacing inefficient boilers can reduce energy bills for people and help decarbonise our energy system.
The public sector can lead the way in energy efficiency and I will soon be publishing a strategy for the continued improvement of energy efficiency in the public sector.
Local authorities are among the largest energy users in the public sector, and public lighting accounts for the largest part of electricity use. I understand that there is the potential to halve our public lighting bill – freeing up much needed funds for other Local Authority activities. My Department is actively working with all 31 Local Authorities through the Public Lighting Steering Group to deliver this. This is the type of flagship project that can demonstrate, on the ground, the difference that the low carbon transition can make for communities.
The Government will also continue to support Local Authorities to upgrade housing through the housing capital programme and through my Department's Better Energy Communities scheme, which is operated by SEAI. Many Local Authorities have already taken advantage of the scheme, some 260 community projects funded to date. This has seen community buildings, homes, charities, sports clubs and businesses – right across Ireland – benefit from energy efficiency upgrades.
More than 320,000 homes in Ireland have received a Government-supported energy efficiency upgrade. That's nearly one in every five homes in the country. While this represents enormous progress, the next step is to support householders to undertake deeper energy upgrades to their homes. In order to kick start this, my Department is preparing a pilot project to commence next year.
In recent years the electricity sector has seen significant investment both in generation capacity and networks. My role as Minister is to set out National policy which establishes the need for infrastructure projects – for instance the need for increased interconnection with Northern Ireland. I would like to take this opportunity to confirm my support for this policy.
In the case of the North-South interconnector, a proposal has been made to meet this National policy need and it is currently being assessed by An Bord Pleanála. Given this is an independent statutory process, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further at this time.
A priority action for me – a Minister from rural Ireland – and as set out in the programme for Government, is the need to update the wind farm planning guidelines. In order to do this, we need to strike a pragmatic balance between the need to cost effectively meet our 2020 renewable electricity target and meet the needs and wishes of the people in whose communities the energy infrastructure is developed.
Together with my colleague Minister Coveney, we will ensure updated wind energy guidelines are in place by November of this year.
My Department is also working to develop a new support scheme for renewable electricity. Analysis is ongoing on the types of technologies to be included such as biomass, wind, waste, solar and combined heat and power.
There will be many decisions to be made on this scheme with regard to scale, technologies and – in particular – how communities will have a greater involvement than in previous schemes.
These are complex issues and will take time necessitating the extension of the target for delivery from year end for this support scheme. In order to deliver this as quickly as possible, I intend to combine the two remaining planned consultations into a single consultation later this year. I will outline the broad details of the new scheme early next year – with finalisation of the scheme subject to State aid approval from the European Commission.
Supports for renewable electricity impact every person's electricity bill via the Public Service Obligation. Recent reports of increases in the PSO levy has seen some negative coverage. Once again, I think all of us in this room need to better communicate the positive benefits brought about by the PSO – in particular the increase in domestically produced renewable electricity. It should also be noted that this is happening at a time when there are significant falls in the price of electricity for consumers.
A further example is the single electricity market across the island of Ireland – which many electricity customers are not even aware of. It brings benefits to consumers North and South through greater competition and the new integrated single electricity market will further enhance the benefits to consumers and ensure compliance with European law.
The priority given by Dáil Éireann to the Energy Bill reflects the commitment to the single electricity market and our partnership with Northern Ireland in this regard.
In this context, I would like to restate the Government's position on the upcoming UK referendum with voting day only one week away. We respect this is a matter for the UK people and want the UK, as our closest neighbour and EU partner, to remain within a reformed EU.
Heat & Transport Sectors
Discussions on energy policy in Ireland tend to have a significant focus on electricity. However, electricity only equates to around one in every five units of energy consumed in Ireland. The majority of energy is used in providing us heat and transport.
I see a real future for biomass produced in Ireland helping generate the low-carbon heat we need while also benefiting local farmers who produce the crops.
In this regard, my Department will be launching the final phase of consultation on a Renewable Heat Incentive support scheme in the autumn.
I see this support scheme as a catalyst to grow the bioenergy industry in Ireland. To further aid this growth, I look forward to working with my colleague Minister Creed and finalising and publishing a National Bioenergy Plan before the end of this year.
In the transport sector, the increase in sustainability has principally been via the Biofuel Obligation which is placed on fuel suppliers. The obligation level will increase from 6% to 8% at the start of 2017. Further increases up to 2020 are currently being examined.
In addition, the Programme for Government sets a goal for Ireland to become a leader in the take-up of electric vehicles. The use of compressed natural gas in heavy goods vehicles and public transport vehicles also has a role to play. I look forward to working closely with my colleague Minister Ross in examining the potential for deployment of alternative fuels in Ireland.
In conclusion, there is a great challenge ahead and my speech here today cannot cover every element of the energy sector. If I could leave you with one key point, it is this. We will not achieve the necessary transition to a low carbon energy future unless we travel that path together with the people and communities throughout the country.
I look forward to your support in this regard.