Private Members Business North-South Interconnector
14th February 2017, Dáil Éireann
Opening remarks by Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten TD
I move amendment No. 1 to delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:
the benefits that the North-South Interconnector will bring to electricity consumers across the island of Ireland through lower prices as a result of more efficient operation of the Single Electricity Market and increased security of electricity supply; and
the importance of Ireland's close relationship in the energy sector with Northern Ireland and the UK, and the European Union and UK Government's continued support for the Single Electricity Market against the backdrop of the UK decision to exit the EU; and
calls on the Government:
to take account of the concerns of the communities of Cavan, Meath and Monaghan; and
to publish an independent analysis of international developments in relation to the relative cost differences, technologies and engineering solutions of overhead and underground technologies fully integrated in an all-island electricity system and be cognisant of same."
This proposed North-South interconnector is a new 138 kilometre, high-capacity electricity interconnector along overhead lines between the transmission networks of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
On 21 December 2016 An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission for the interconnector in Ireland, with a number of conditions attached. The decision concluded a lengthy process which included an Oral Hearing completed over 11 weeks from March to May last year. The planning process in Northern Ireland is still ongoing, with a planning inquiry due to commence on 22 February of this year.
The proposed interconnector is a vital piece of infrastructure for ensuring a safe and sustainable source of energy for both Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is expected it will deliver significant benefits to electricity consumers across the island of Ireland through lower prices as a result of more efficient operation of the Single Electricity Market.
Any further delays to the development of the project will increase security of supply risk to Northern Ireland in the first instance but also to both Ireland and Northern Ireland as the benefits of mutual reinforcement of the Single Electricity Market would be delayed.
In the context of Northern Ireland's security of electricity supply challenges post-2020, it is vital in terms of maintaining solid North-South relations in the area of energy that Ireland provides certainty in relation to developing the North-South Interconnector.
I must stress here in the House the crucial need to continue Ireland's close relationship in the energy sector with both Northern Ireland and the UK in the context of Brexit.
As a nation we are facing the most significant economic and social challenge of the past 50 years and energy is one of the critical sectors that we must protect in our Brexit negotiations.
In 2015 Ireland had an energy import dependency of 88% and the UK is the source of much of this energy. 97% of the natural gas used in Ireland in 2015 was imported from the UK. Maintaining secure trade in energy with the UK and the continued effective functioning of the Single Electricity Market are key Brexit priorities for Ireland.
I remind this House of the UK Government's continued support for the Single Electricity Market as set out in the UK White Paper on exiting the EU and the letter of 14 October last by Prime Minister Theresa May to the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland.
Given the importance placed on the Single Electricity Market and the key role of the North South Interconnector in this market, the uncertainty created by accepting the proposed Fianna Fail motion would be of significant concern.
The bilateral relationship we have with the UK in energy cannot be viewed in isolation. It is a matter for all of us here to consider the implications of any potential impacts a change in our energy relationship, perceived or otherwise, could have on other sectors. It is critical, in the context of Brexit, that we maintain a close and positive relationship with the UK across all sectors.
In a wider European context the North South Interconnector was designated a Project of Common Interest by the European Commission in October 2013 and again in November 2015. Projects of Common Interest are energy projects deemed by the European Commission to be of strategic cross-border importance.
Any development of national infrastructure must strike a balance between the overall benefits of the project and the local impact on people, landscape, tourism, farming and homes. I am well aware of concerns that have been raised by communities across Cavan, Meath and Monaghan about the proposals for the North-South Interconnector.
I am also aware that there is a long-held and passionately-argued belief, from within some local communities along the route of the interconnector, that the transmission lines should be laid underground, rather than built overhead.
However, all evidence available to me by my Chief Technical Advisor indicates that this would cost substantially more and deliver less.
In short, the interconnector is proposed as a high voltage alternating current overhead line because various studies, many of them independent, deem it to be both the best overall technical solution as well as the most cost-effective option for this project.
This proposal is fully in keeping with EirGrid's statutory obligation to develop a fit-for-purpose electricity transmission system as cost effectively as possible.
The studies include the International Expert Commission Report in 2012 which found the construction of an underground option to be approximately three times the cost of the overhead option. The July 2014 statement of the Independent Expert Panel, chaired by Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness, which found that in all material respects, the methodologies employed on the North-South Interconnector were compatible with the methodologies on other grid development projects such as the Grid Link and Grid West projects.
From a technical perspective it should be pointed out that direct current lines would need to be used if the lines were laid underground over this distance and these do not efficiently integrate the electricity systems of Ireland and Northern Ireland into a single meshed grid system. This is a key technical disadvantage that an underground option would have when compared to the proposed overhead project.
All studies and information pertaining to undergrounding were available to An Bord Pleanála as part of the recent planning process.
In the oral hearing the Inspector heard testimony both in favour of and against the overground and underground solutions. The Inspector examined those issues thoroughly and concluded that a high voltage alternating current overhead line is the best technical and economic solution for the North-South Interconnector to achieve national energy objectives.
I would stress therefore that the statutorily independent planning process has determined that the proposed North-South Interconnector should be developed and I fully accept the outcome of that planning process.
Of course I also understand the concerns of the communities of Cavan, Meath and Monaghan in relation to the project and I met with their representative groups last week here in Leinster House. But the reason the Government does not support the motion as proposed is due to the uncertainty it would create in relation to our energy relationship with Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole. To do so would put our country at a distinct disadvantage in our Brexit negotiations and would serve only to jeopardise investment - impacting jobs, economic survival and our credibility.
The proper functioning of our economy and society is reliant on energy and it is therefore imperative for me as Energy Minister to ensure the continued secure trade in energy between the UK and other EU countries.
An issue that has been raised by the community representative groups and others is the need to carry out a further independent analysis of international developments in relation to the relative cost differences, technologies and engineering solutions of overhead and underground technologies. This is what the proposed amendment I have proposed seeks to do and it does so without introducing undue uncertainty to our energy relationship on an all-island basis and with the UK.
I urge Deputies to support the proposed amendment which is both fair and balanced.