Tuesday, 18 January 2011
Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Innovation DebatePage of 4
Chairman: I welcome the following: Mr. Tom Curran, Kerry county manager; Mr. Willie Moynihan, energy officer, Kerry local authorities; Mr. Tim McSwiney, senior executive engineer, Tralee Town Council; Mr. Eamonn O’Reilly, CEO, North-East Kerry Development Partnership; Mr. Ciarán Nugent, district inspector, forestry service, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Mr. Tom Houlihan, forestry adviser, Teagasc; and Mr. Donal Hunt, estates manager, Institute of Technology, Tralee. You are all very welcome and thank you for attending, and for being so prompt. It is a good start from Kerry.
I also acknowledge the presence of officials from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, some of whom we recognise, who are here to observe these proceedings and report back to the Minister on our findings today.
I draw the witnesses’ attention to fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name, or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I am speaking to an experienced mayor, Mayor Leahy, who will know all of that from previous runs. I call Mr. Leahy and Mr. Curran to address the committee. I know that succinctness will be the hallmark of the political contributions and I am sure that will be the case with the official contributions as well.
Mr. Pat Leahy: I am the mayor of Kerry. As mayor of Kerry it is an honour to lead this delegation. I thank the committee for the invitation to make our presentation to it on our Kerry proposal, Turning Green into Gold. We are delighted that our proposal has been selected from many such proposals submitted as one which warrants careful consideration and, I hope, support to realise its potential. I commend the committee members for their foresight and initiative to promote job creation through the use of renewable energy resources.
Kerry County Council was one of the first local authorities to develop a wind farm policy. In our county development plan, we give direction and encouragement to the developers of wind farms while being mindful that Kerry is a premier tourist destination. Kerry County Council was also one of the first local authorities to appoint a full-time and dedicated energy officer.
I will now introduce the other members of our delegation who come from a variety of organisations working together as a team to turn green into gold. They are: Mr. Tom Curran, Kerry county manager, who will make the formal presentation; Mr. Willie Moynihan, energy officer, Kerry local authorities; Mr. Tom Houlihan, forestry inspector, Teagasc; Mr. Ciarán Nugent, district inspector, forestry service, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Mr. Eamonn O’Reilly, CEO, North-East Kerry Development Partnership; Mr. Donal Hunt, estates manager, Institute of Technology, Tralee, and Mr. Tim McSwiney, senior executive engineer, Tralee Town Council.
Mr. Tom Curran: From a Kerry perspective, we are not just a local authority on its own. As the mayor has outlined, we are a group with representatives from the forestry division of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Meitheal; Foraois Chiarraí; the Irish Farmers Association; Teagasc, the Institute of Technology, Tralee; the partnership company, North-East Kerry Development; and Kerry local authorities. It was a team collectively that made this application.
From a Kerry perspective, we have set out a vision statement for the county which we would like to continue and bring to fruition, that is, establishing an energy efficient self-sustaining region with the development of energy centres meeting identified demand, transforming the local economy base through job creation, and achieving a high living standard and an excellent quality of life. Building a new future together is our aim.
We did not start with the application set out in 2009. We have been working on energy efficiency for many years. As the mayor has outlined, we started with a full-time energy officer who was appointed by Kerry Local Authorities in 1999 and through his expertise and good office we have developed a hydro-electric scheme from one of our major regional water supplies. That is saving €100,000 a year on energy costs. We have moved on from that and introduced high efficiency pumps with various speed controls in more than 40 other pump stations, again giving an annual saving of €600,000 a year.
All our new buildings are energy efficient incorporating renewable energy heating, mainly geothermal. Our existing buildings have been retrofitted with high efficiency lighting and controls, and we are now developing a landfill gas project that is generating 1 megawatt of electricity. Members can see it is not something we started only today.
On the housing end, one of our first schemes was to build 64 units to the Sustainable Energy Ireland, SEI, house of tomorrow programme standards, which was 40% above the 2000 building regulations. In that scheme we have an LPG condensing boiler system. We purchase the gas in bulk, and the residents can purchase the gas on a pay by use basis. These pre-payment schemes help to address fuel poverty. We also use solar panels and geothermal heating on those schemes. I will explain later the way the pay by use basis works.
Our second one was the Mitchels regeneration project in Tobar Naofa, which has been a catalyst for what we propose. We built 48 units with a BER rating of between B1 and A2. That is based on a district heating system powered by a 1 megawatt woodchip boiler, which I will explain in more detail later.
One of the main areas we want to cover today is biomass and the use of biomass in the county. There is a total of 55,000 hectares of forest plantation in County Kerry, which is 11.6%, but what is unique to Kerry is that 65% of that is in private ownership. Approximately 1,400 local farm families are involved in it and their average holding is nine hectares, which is quite small in terms of stand alone operations. Much of that planting was done in the 1980s and early 1990s as a long-term investment. With the help of our colleagues here 10% of the national planting target is being achieved in Kerry for the future. We have the resource, therefore, for the future.
On that aspect, because all these plantations were done in the 1980s and 1990s, now is the time to thin the plantations. If they are thinned now the farm families will achieve 25% more income on the quality of their final timber as a result of it but they cannot do it on their own and therefore we are looking at a co-operative approach that will allow the thinnings to be converted into woodchip and sold on the local market. If we had to haul those to the current markets, it would be economic from our point of view.
As part of that, we are working on a co-operative approach. There are two forest producer groups established in the country. There are three woodchip supply companies established and equipped and they have received forest service grant aid. All the operators have received extensive training in wood handling and quality assurance via Teagasc and COFORD and they are also trained in the procurement and tendering process.
With this co-operative approach, there is 50,000 cu. m. of woodchip available annually in the county which could generate 50 MW of heat and 12 MW of electricity. This is a saving, based on current figures, of €8 million on 10.6 million litres saved. Obviously, if the price of oil rises, it is heading in that direction, then the saving will increase. As a result, 112 jobs can be generated through woodchip products. If oil is used as a fuel, 80% of the money goes out of the country whereas with woodchip, 90% of the money stays in the country and county, which is an important issue to note.
We have phase 1 of the woodchip following on from the 1 MW woodchip boiler and by the end of 2011, we will have the first district heating system in place in Kerry. The system will serve 100 housing units, a day-care centre, a national school, a library and an integrated services building. Our aim is to take it forward to phase 2 to develop a 15 MW combined heat and power unit and we will be seeking a partner to bring that forward.
Our target, by 2013, is to have one third of Tralee town, with a population equivalent of 7,000 persons, covered. That would mean 2,000 houses, a hospital, a dairy processing unit, our own county buildings, an industrial estate, three hotels, a sports complex, an aquadome, a primary and secondary school, and the south campus of the college. Our aim then is to bring all of those houses up to a BER rating of C1. This will displace almost €2 million worth of oil and with 14 jobs per €1 million, that would result in another 27 permanent jobs being created. We also have a further long-term aim, on phases 3 and 4, to expand that to all of Tralee making it an entirely energy efficient town working off combined heat.
We are also looking at, and working with the private sector in, developing a similar system in Killarney. Killarney is an important area because it is a major tourist attraction with many large hotels, and we think it is a win-win situation also in Tralee to work on that basis. Briefly, that is where we see Tralee developed on a phased basis and that is our long-term plan.
In terms of retrofitting, as I may have mentioned, we need to get a C1 rating on all of the housing units to make it efficient. We have a pilot scheme of 45 houses complete and working with SEI, we created 30 jobs for the 14 weeks while that was in construction. We improved the rating in these houses from G to C, with a potential saving of between €1,000 and €1,500 on heating and hot water. The average cost of insulation in each house was over €9,500. If we propose, as we will do on phase 2, to retrofit 2,000 houses, that will be a creation of 60 jobs per annum over the period of the project.
Like all of these matters, one of the questions one asks is how one pays for it. The cost will be somewhere between €2,000 and €10,000 for the 2,000 houses, depending on where they are. There are grants and tax reliefs available that will help and the balance will be made up through the pay-as-you-save scheme. If the potential savings of between €1,000 and €1,500 a year are put back in, it will cover the capital costs in a three to five-year period. In many ways, much of that cost for the houses will be self-financing.
The pay-as-you-use pre-payment system is something that we have introduced in a housing scheme in Tralee that is working quite well. The benefit to the householder is that it addresses the issue of fuel poverty. The householders have control over their budget, not having to expend significant sums of money. There will be no bulk purchases of fuel. In itself, it is an energy awareness tool knowing that one is paying as one uses. It will generate hot water and heating on demand and there is an increased comfort level at reduced cost. As I stated, we already have it in 200 houses in Tralee and 60 houses in Killarney, and we are building from experience.
On the wind resource, as covered earlier by Kerry’s mayor, we have 14 wind farms producing 225 MW with 223 sustainable jobs in our county. As part of national policy, there is an additional 425 MW to be installed in Kerry by 2020, which will create 1,000 sustainable jobs by 2020. That, with the biomass, puts Kerry to the fore in terms of renewable energy proposals.
I acknowledge the committee’s recommendation that the Solarteur school should be located in Kerry. We feel it would ideally be located in the Institute of Technology, Tralee. The institute is close to and forms part of the Kerry Technology Park, sharing a campus with four renewable energy companies already on campus. The ITT itself, like the Kerry local authorities, has been active in energy conservation and has received rewards from SEAI and ESB in recognition for what it has done. Together with what we are doing, we believe that the location of the Solarteur school in Tralee makes eminent sense.
In summary, from an employment point of view, in biomass we can see 120 permanent jobs being created; wind will create 1,000 permanent jobs when we reach the national target; Kerry Technology Park, as a result of the Solarteur school, will generate 54 permanent jobs; college lecturing will create a further 12 permanent jobs; retrofitting of the dwellings will created 60 jobs per annum; and plant and pipeline construction, as part of the CHP, will generate a further 70 jobs per annum.
Our next steps, from a county point of view, is to develop a market plan and a branding exercise for Kerry to produce a clear and direct business plan in order to avail of funding opportunities and to develop a timescale and a project structure or framework plan, and to establish a co-operative system within the Kerry wood harvesting, which we have commenced. I suppose what we are saying is that we have the team and we have the commitment and what we are looking for here is national support to ensure that many of these projects will come to fruition. That is a brief overview. I hope I have not taken up too much time.
Chairman: There are three presentations today. As Chairman of the committee and the sub-committee, I want to make clear at the outset that the committee is not in a position to give any money to any project. That has been made clear to all of the delegations in the context of the correspondence they received. What we have done is advance something based upon the Güssing project model, which we examined on the ground and which the sub-committee took great care of. We heard independent consultants. Kerry County Council is one of the three that was successful, and I congratulate Mr. Curran at the outset for that. Mr. Curran hit upon a number of points about jobs that the committee is eager to see because the committee deals with jobs. He addressed an issue about which we were concerned.
Deputy Richard Bruton: I thank the delegation for the presentation. I have just one question. Apart from looking for money from the State, which is fairly threadbare on the money front, are there bottlenecks other than central decisions obstructing the development of this plan? What of the planning system? Travelling around the country, I hear criticisms of difficulties in the planning system, for example, for wind projects. Are there bottlenecks which are affecting the achievement of this, other than the obvious one of seeking either finance or selective support from central government in respect of individual projects?
Mr. Tom Curran: As regards wind energy, the answer to the Deputy’s question on bottlenecks is “No”. From the perspective of Kerry, due to the fact that we have a wind farm policy, we have clearly identified the areas in respect of which there are no issues with planning. There are areas open to consideration and then there are those areas which we consider to be no-go areas, from a tourism point of view. Again, from a Kerry perspective, I am of the view that the major issue which arises in the context of wind energy is obtaining grid connections rather than anything to do with planning.
On biomass projects, buy-in from the end consumer is going to be a challenge. We are using the pilot scheme in order to show that it can be achieved. On one hand, end users are asking whether quality woodchip will be available while, on the other, the producers are stating that they do not want to invest in putting capital infrastructure in place if there is no end use for the product. Through our pilot scheme, we are hoping to advance matters. I do not believe we will be completely dependent on central government. We are aware of the position with regard to finances. In many ways, we would like this project to be self-financing in nature. The way to do this is by bringing in external partners who will develop the technology and the plant. We will then, as has been the case with phase 1, work with consumers on the other end of the infrastructure.
Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: I welcome the delegation from Kerry County Council. I compliment Mr. Curran on his leadership. Under that leadership, Kerry County Council was the first local authority to adopt a wind energy policy. It was also the first authority to appoint an energy officer. The latter has been of obvious assistance in creating the circumstances which have facilitated our guests coming before us today with this extremely good proposal.
Will Mr. Curran indicate what connection the council has with the LNG project on the Shannon Estuary, which is going to have major implications not only for Kerry but also for Ireland? Has the council been working with Shannon LNG in respect of this project? Has it been working with Endesa, which bought the generating station on Tarbert Island? Does the council have close connections with the four companies that are operating out of Tralee technology park at present? I am aware that it has a close connection with the local institute of technology. Has the council considered other sources of funding, including those of a private nature, for the Solarteur project or is it relying on Government funding?
Mr. Tom Curran: We have been working very closely with the Irish agent and the American firm involved in the Shannon LNG project. We established a working group with them from the outset. We were able to offer the level of expertise they required to advise them in the context of bringing the project through the process relating to the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act. This was one of the first projects to negotiate that process in the shortest period. We have been working extremely closely with Shannon LNG. We are still working with it in the context of trying to put in place the basic infrastructure that will be required in order for operations to commence. Primarily, this will involve widening the access road. We have undergone a compulsory purchase order, CPO, process in that regard. The company is funding the project and we are in the process of acquiring the land to widen the road. We will then be carrying out some works on wastewater infrastructure. These works will, again, be based on the demands set out for us by the company.
We have also been working closely with Endesa in the context of its designation of a site and in assisting it in getting its proposal over the line. The issue with both companies is to get the gas connector to the grid in Foynes and we are working closely with them in the context of ensuring that this is brought to a successful conclusion.
Kerry County Council works closely with all the major job creation companies in the region. We have very strong links with the college and the Tom Crean business centre at the technology park and we work in partnership with both. A member of my staff is on the steering board of the latter, so we have strong connections with the companies to which the Deputy refers.
The first phase is being funded by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. That funding is much appreciated. We are in discussions with the end users and we are also working with the Deputy and his colleagues in the county to establish a fund for investment in Kerry. The latter is very much in its infancy. We have made a couple of joint presentations in respect of it and I hope that once we can prove that it can be a money-making or self-financing project, there will be a buy-in from those with the capacity to provide private funding.
Deputy John O’Donoghue: I thank the Chairman for affording me the opportunity to make a brief contribution. I warmly welcome the Kerry county manager, the chairperson of Kerry County Council and their officials. I take this opportunity to congratulate the manager, the staff and the council on this wonderful initiative. This is not the first initiative that has been undertaken since Mr. Curran became county manager. Mr. Curran deserves great credit and I am delighted to take the opportunity to state that in public.
Mr. Curran stated that between existing jobs and the creation of future positions there is potential for 1,000 sustainable jobs. Will those jobs be created over the four-year period to which reference has been made or is a longer timeframe envisaged? Is Mr. Curran in a position to indicate the number of people employed in the sector at present and can he estimate the number of additional jobs which will be created?
Mr. Tim McSwiney: There are approximately 250 people employed in the area of wind energy at present. The existing proposal is for 650 MW of wind energy to be produced in Kerry. At the end of 2020, therefore, there will be just over 1,000 permanent jobs in the wind energy sector in the county. In the context of biomass, there is potential for 112 jobs to be created by 2020.
Deputy Martin Ferris: I welcome Mr. Curran and the other members of the deputation. I applaud them on their vision and on the efforts they are making in trying to create 1,316 jobs. I am interested in tidal energy. Kerry has over 200 miles of coastline. Are our guests in a position to indicate whether any surveys or whatever have been carried out in respect of tidal energy? Is the carrying out of work in this regard dependent on outside expertise? I accept that tidal energy is in its infancy but will our guests provide an update on the position in respect of it?
Mr. Curran referred to the next steps to be taken. These include establishing a co-operative system within Kerry wood harvesting. Has any progress been made in respect of this matter? A co-operative system would be of major benefit, particularly if everyone who is prepared to make a contribution could be encouraged to become involved.
Mr. Curran also referred to the business plan. How much progress has been made in respect of this plan? Is there anything we, as elected representatives, can do in order to provide added impetus to what everyone is trying to achieve?
Mr. Tom Curran: Some pilot tests have been carried out in various areas in respect of tidal and wave energy. One of the areas in which we see major potential and in respect of which studies have been carried out, is the Shannon Estuary. We were hoping to attract the developers of the prototype units to carry out full-scale testing on the estuary. One of the major advantages attaching to the estuary is the strength of the tides therein. In addition, there are grid connections on both sides of the estuary, with 220 kV on the Clare side. As a result, there would not be a massive capital infrastructure requirement in the context of connecting back into the grid.
As the Deputy is well aware, there is major potential with regard to wave energy off the coast of Kerry. However, developments in this regard are at a very early stage. I will ask one of my colleagues from Teagasc to deal with the biomass issue but with regard to the business plan and the marketing exercise, we are only working on that now in the context of what we are learning from the scheme in Rath Oraig and Moyderwell. We have a committee set up, which is primarily the people the committee members are looking at there, who will drive the project forward.
With regard to support from Oireachtas Members, raising awareness is a huge issue for us, as I said in reply to Deputy Bruton’s question earlier, and to get buy-in locally so that people will invest in terms of buying the end product off us, particularly the hotels. It is a win win situation with the way the cost of oil is going. Mr. Houlihan will reply to the question regarding the co-operative.
Mr. Tom Houlihan: In regard to the forestry co-operative, we have worked on this aspect since 2007 and it is an essential component of a supply chain if we are to get wood from the forest harvested and supplied to the likes of the boilers we have discussed. In our initial work we made contact with owners in the county and we have 250 owners interested in a co-operative approach to harvesting and supply, which is essential. For example, a small plantation may not be economic on its own to harvest but if there is a cluster of owners in an area, we will use them as building blocks to work around the area. To date, there are two forestry groups or clusters in the county - north Kerry and mid-Kerry. Approximately 52 forest owners with their own resources are working co-operatively.
We have laid the basis and the foundation for more of this. We have had meetings throughout the county since 2007 bringing owners together, showing them the best approach to forest management as a group and showing them the end product in Tralee. There is much more work to build on from there but we have made a good start to this and we will progress it. The Forest Service and Teagasc working together are providing technical support. Through the initial part of the project we had a forestry supply co-ordinator on contract who was funded for a period to give a hand as well. Plenty of work has been done but we will build on that in the future.
Deputy Martin Ferris: With regard to the Shannon Estuary, I fully concur that an 8 knot tide comes and goes, and reversible turbines seem to be a mechanism whereby electricity could be generated if the infrastructure was put in place and the support was there for it. It is sticking out a mile and the council is going the right way.
Senator Paul Coghlan: I thank the Chairman for inviting non-members of the committee who are from County Kerry to the meeting. I compliment Mr. Curran, Councillor Leahy and all the team for a wonderful presentation. Their plans are hugely meritorious. We are all about job creation, particularly in rural areas. It is wonderful that the council’s submission was ranked No. 1 with a recommendation to the Minister that the project in Kerry be given careful consideration. However, money is scarce and the committee can do nothing directly. How can we help the council to advance this project? We are all in this together.
Mr. Tom Curran: The Senator is well familiar with Killarney. We are having difficulty getting the hoteliers in the town to see the benefits of a project like this. Political statements from Oireachtas Members would go a long way to supporting what we are trying to sell on the ground. Any help to confirm the win win situation would be most welcome.
Chairman: I will withdraw my invitation to the Senator if he starts talking about that. It is a constructive proposal and the three selected groups have done well. While we are not in a position to say we have the money or to disburse the necessary money, we will advocate to the Minister and departmental officials that they should find a pot of gold to help the three successful projects. All parties are represented on the committee and we are recommending three areas across the country to adopt what is going on elsewhere. It is a prototype and Kerry County Council has done well to get this far.
Deputy Tom Sheahan: I welcome the deputation. It is usually September when a Kerry teams comes up to storm Dublin. However, this Kerry team has taken Dublin by storm in the month of January. I have one query, which the county manager has touched on, regarding the initiative in Killarney. I understood there was significant buy-in by the hotel sector. I was speaking to representatives of the company involved recently and there is a blockage somewhere along the line that means the initiative is not up and running. I understand from that organisation that there is a good buy-in from the hotel sector. There is not a large industrial base in Killarney and, therefore, we are dependent on the hotel sector. Can progress be made on that in Mr. Curran’s view?
Mr. Tom Curran: We are quite confident that progress will be made. Ground work was done on that several years ago when we tried a different approach to try to get each one to be self-sustaining from a woodchip point of view. We did not get the buy-in there. This is a slightly different approach where we are supplying the heat to them and all they do is buy the units as it is delivered. The main blockage is in Killarney and we are working closely with them to identify the best site to locate the plant. We think we have agreement in principle on that site. The big difficulty is that the pipelines will be slightly longer than we would have liked to get into the town centre but we do not see a major blockage on that. I am quite confident that the project will go ahead over the next year or two.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: I concur with the Chairman’s comment about the committee seeking support for this project in any way it can. I commend the committee for taking this initiative, which clearly Kerry and other counties have responded to well. I thank the consultants for selecting Kerry County Council in the final three. I welcome my former colleague, Councillor Pat Leahy, Mayor of Kerry, Mr. Tom Curran, and the remaining members of a strong delegation from the Kerry, which shows how committed is the country. A full team is togged out here today.
The county manager referred to the LNG project. It is almost four years since Shannon LNG declared its intention to set up such a plan on the banks of the River Shannon. That is a long lead-in time. Is Mr. Curran satisfied that the sense of urgency is there? There is a perceived delay at this stage. Why? Will he elaborate on what is happening with the connector to the Foynes pipeline? He touched on it but I would like more specifics.
Mr. Tom Curran: My understanding from talking to the local promoter, Paddy Power, is that Shannon LNG is still on board. Unfortunately there were delays. While the planning went through the strategic infrastructure quite quickly, there were delays with regard to two issues, the foreshore licence and the CER regulator, in terms of further testing. The foreshore licence has now been cleared and I think the project has now got final clearance from the CER regulator. As the Senator is aware, that was related to a European issue also. As I understand it, we have lost investment for 2011 from the company perspective and the earliest we could see anything happening with the project now is 2012.
On the question of the Foynes pipeline, discussions are going on between Bord Gáis, Endesa and LNG. To some extent they are competing against each other. The question is whether to have one or two pipelines. Bord Gáis has a dilemma in that if Endesa wants to move first, it wants a smaller pipeline. There is a question then of who would carry the capital cost of the larger pipeline in the event of the Shannon LNG project not going ahead. That has still to be resolved. However, I do not see it as a showstopper. I believe that if they are all committed to the project, it will happen, but it will be 2012 before we see any work on the ground. They have committed to it, because they have paid us over €1.5 million towards road widening and have given us other money for other infrastructural developments. Therefore, they are committed in principle. Like the Senator, I am hopeful that we will see the project delivered by 2014 or 2015.
With regard to the funding of the Mitchells regeneration project, I will now call on Mr. Tim McSwiney, the senior executive engineer from Tralee Town Council, who has been leading that project, to deal with that.
Mr. Tim McSwiney: In 2006 we presented a plan to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the Mitchells regeneration project. The plan set out the expenditure of up to €80 million for the whole regeneration project. To date, some €20 million has been committed to the different projects. The Department encouraged us to go down the renewable energy route by asking us to create a sustainable energy zone and it was through that development that we worked with the wood suppliers and came up with the wood chip project for Tobar Naofa. That 1MW project is now in place and by the end of this year will be fully utilised to supply heat to 100 houses which we have upgraded to C1 standard. Also in the zone are the local county library and the convent which we are redeveloping. We are putting a day care centre and eight units over the convent. Some 48 units in Tobar Naofa and the local primary school are also included. Therefore, the €20 million will be spent by the end of this year. We have also received other moneys and support from the SEAI for the retrofitting of the pre-1930 houses originally built on Mitchells Avenue. This work has been a great success. SEAI provided support for a pilot scheme to do up 45 units, 35 of which were privately owned. That is where our expenditure has been to date. We are working with and have quarterly meetings with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and are making progress on our plans as we go along. Up to now, the Department has been providing us with the necessary resources.
Senator Brendan Ryan: The prepayment scheme, the retrofitting, seems attractive and could, possibly, be a scheme that is transferable to other areas of the country. How does that scheme work. There was tax relief and grants and then the remainder seems to have been paid through the “pay as you save” scheme. Does each household engage with the council and come to an agreement whereby the council prefunds the retrofitting and then the savings are returned? Can Mr. McSwiney explain how it works?
Mr. Tim McSwiney: Yes, the plan is that we engage and make arrangements and contracts with the private owners. The public housing is 100% covered under our own retrofit moneys, but private owners are not. We were lucky that the SEAI gave us a 100% grant for the first phase, but I am not sure that will happen again in the future, although we might get it in the Mitchells regeneration area. When it comes to housing stock outside of that area, I believe we must use the concept we have come up with, which means that because people are improving their houses from a grade C, D or E to a C1, they are making a potential saving in the energy used and improving the energy performance of their house. That saving can be from between €1,000 to €1,500 a year, depending on the size of the house and other factors. Basically, the way we operate is that an agreement is made with the owner to pay back 50% of the savings over X number of years to cover the capital cost.
The “pay as you use” scheme is a system we introduced in Tralee. We have no natural gas in Tralee so we made an arrangement with the gas companies to buy gas in bulk at a reduced rate. As a result, we could then sell to our customers at a cheaper rate than if they were buying directly from the companies. That is the system we use. The customers come to us at the town hall and pay for their €5 or €10 worth of gas and their metre is automatically adjusted to clock up that amount. That system has been working very successfully in over 200 housing units in the town.
Chairman: I thank the delegation for their assistance in our deliberations. I thank Mayor Leahy, Mr. Curran, Mr. Moynihan, Mr. McSwiney, Mr. O’Reilly, Mr. Nugent, Mr. Houlihan and Mr. Hunt for coming here in such numbers. That indicates their degree of commitment and the reason they are in the top three of the projects presented. We invited officials from the Department here today to hear the presentation. Hearing what the delegation has to say in person is important and backs up the original presentation. We are aware the group is working hard and is well advanced with its business plan, which our consultant indicated was an important aspect of this work. The group is well out of the traps in that regard. The project is something that can be done and every job created is significant in the current situation. The project also makes a huge contribution in the context of carbon emissions and environmental sustainability. Well done. We were delighted to give the council the opportunity to make its presentation here.
Chairman: We propose to consider proposals on job creation through the use of renewable energy resources with representatives from Mayo County Council. I welcome the delegates from Mayo County Council, Mr. Michael Burke, chairman, Mr. Peter Hynes, county manager, Mr. Paddy Mahon, director of service, Mr. Ciaran Loftus and Mr. David O’Malley from Crossmolina Community Council and Mr. Brendan Killion from Mayo Energy Agency. I thank them for their commitment and their attendance today. I also take this opportunity to welcome back to this committee the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Deputy Dara Calleary, who is a former member of the committee and was a member when this project was initiated some two years ago. I am sure he is pleased to see that his own county’s green and red is in the pot, so to speak. As in the previous session I acknowledge the presence of officials from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation who are here to observe the proceedings and to report back to the Minister. All the Kerry people wanted to talk to them directly but they are not for talking to but rather to observe. I say that to prevent them being approached by the Mayo delegation. The Wicklow delegation has also learned that this is the procedure.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee. If a witness is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and the witness continues to so do, the witness is entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of his or her evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and witnesses are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
The committee has already received the delegation’s opening statement and I ask speakers to present a synopsis of the submission. We have studied the submission and members will wish to have an interactive discussion as soon as possible.
Mr. Michael Burke: It is my pleasant duty to thank the Chairman on behalf of the delegation for inviting us here and for hearing our case. I thank the members of the committee and the departmental officials who are very important in this situation. My delegation comprises the county manager, Mr. Peter Hynes, a Galway man who boxes very hard for County Mayo; Mr. Paddy Mahon, director of service on Mayo County Council for the north-east region; Mr. Ciaran Loftus from the Crossmolina Community Council; Mr. Brendan Killion of the Mayo Energy Agency based in Ballina and which provides energy advice and consultancy and promotes renewable energy technology in County Mayo; and Mr. David O’Malley of the Crossmolina energy group with Crossmolina Community Council.
Mr. Peter Hynes: I thank members of the committee for the invitation to appear before it and we will make as good use of our time as we possibly can. I will make the presentation on behalf of the council and Mr. Ciaran Loftus will speak on behalf of Crossmolina Community Council. It is essentially a partnership presentation and a partnership project.
The economic crisis we face internationally and nationally does not need any elaboration in this chamber and so we will not dwell on it, but it is part of the context. What has sometimes been forgotten in the recent past is the energy crisis affecting us and that will affect us more into the future. The Crossmolina proposal fits into a vision for Mayo which Mayo County Council has been developing for years. We are not the biggest place in the world, but we are important. Our view of Mayo in the future is that of a place that is sustainable, inclusive, prosperous and proud. Those are the words we use to headline what we want to achieve in the next ten to 20 years. We face enormous challenges globally and locally, and the inevitable climatic changes, the results of which we have seen in recent winters, are becoming more real with every year that goes by.
We have some unique energy opportunities in Mayo and the slide I am now showing encapsulates these both from the past in terms of the Bellacorick peat power station, which forms part of this proposal, and the new gas opportunities with the gas pipeline from Bellanaboy to Galway, which was completed several years ago and which connects the terminal which is still to be commissioned back to the national grid. We have other opportunities, particularly in the wave area. The map I am showing puts things in perspective. It shows Bellacorick where the old peat power station is located, Bellanaboy with the new gas terminal, and Belmullet and Frenchport where the national wave energy test sites are located. All of north Mayo is an untapped resource for wind energy and biomass.
Completion of the gas pipeline has linked all the major towns in Mayo to the gas grid and has opened considerable opportunities in terms of the development of those towns, the potential for developing biomass in conjunction with gas and also as a vehicle for fibre optic network on which we are working with the Department to try to deliver.
The original wind farm in the country was based in Bellacorick in 1992. This slide shows an artist’s impression of the current proposal, which has a Gate 3 grid application offer in recent months. We hope to see some progress on that in the months ahead. The next slide shows the wave energy world map, with the red zones indicating the areas with the most potent sources of energy. As can be seen, one of the places where it comes closest to a centre of population is just off the west coast of Ireland, which represents an enormous national opportunity. There is an international wave energy competition between us as a test site, Scotland around the Orkney Islands and particularly around the Iberian Peninsula. While they do not have the kind of intensity we have in terms of energy resource, they are certainly making more progress than we are in terms of the development of their resource. There is real urgency in getting ahead in the development of wave energy. This is one of the projects that has been developed for the Belmullet site and is a collaboration between Tonn, an Irish company, and Vattenfall, the Swedish utility company. One of the devices has been tested in Galway Bay at one quarter scale and the next step is to get those devices up to full scale and into the water off the coast at Belmullet. That gives the context for the Crossmolina proposal.
It also needs to be viewed in the context of the European Union targets of a 20% reduction in CO2, a 20% increase in efficiency and to have 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020, as well as our national targets of a 30% reduction in CO2, a 20% increase in efficiency and to have 16% of energy from renewable sources by 2020. We have made some progress on wind energy at 14.1%, but biomass at 4.2% is lagging considerably. In Mayo we already have seven farms producing 40 MW, solid Gate 3 offers of 330 MW and another 400 MW going through the works which is approximately 25% of the total national Gate 3 grid connection offers. Grid is the key to unleashing the potential for the west coast and an area in which we need to concentrate many resources. Others come in at 4 MW.
The concept for the Crossmolina project is to develop by 2016 a demonstration town which will demonstrate energy efficiency, renewable systems and a carbon sink. We already have 50 ha of miscanthus - also known as elephant grass - and 8 ha of willow. Crossmolina represents an enormous opportunity because of the community involvement and the heritage in energy production. It can become a national demonstration town that can turn some of the concepts and targets into reality that people can understand. The key steps along the way are as follows: improve efficiencies in existing systems in the towns; move towards renewables at a scale that will work for a town and community of this size; move to education and training, in other words popularising it; move at a later stage to combined heat and power; and demonstrate some pilot projects. It will require leadership from the local authority, working in partnership with the local community and agencies. It will take investment - we have identified from where some of that will come - and it will take support. Today’s hearing represents the start of that support system and the publicity and exposure that will come as a result.
Crossmolina is just west of Ballina at the head of Lough Conn. The town is the main crossing point for the river Deel and has a population of approximately 3,000. It has heritage in power production going back to the Bellacorick peat plant in 1962 and the wind farm in 1992. The plant ceased production in 2003 and the tower came down in 2007. The action plan is: to move through an energy efficiency programme starting this year; to move to installation of renewable energy systems; to build on awareness and training - the original pitch was for a Solarteur school but we recognise that the recommendation is that it should go elsewhere and we will work around that; to move to a combined heat and power plant as a demonstration of how a community of this size could be self-sustaining in terms of its neighbourhood and available resources; and to develop pilot projects, including lighting.
The baseline audit to establish current energy consumption and CO2 emissions will be tackled in 2011 and 2012. It will identify energy savings and we will then move to deliver upgrades. The next step in terms of renewable energy will be to develop wood chip supply chain. We will learn from the other proposals that were the subject of some of the earlier presentations and some of the submissions to this committee. We will encourage the installation of biomass boilers and a move to thermal solar and geothermal heating systems. The resource graph on the slide was developed by the Western Development Commission which is involved in an international project, called RASLRES, in the biomass area. That indicated that Mayo could be a net exporter of biomass by 2020 and we are obviously working with the Western Development Commission in that regard.
In terms of education, we are aware that the recommendation is that the school should go elsewhere, but we will work on community awareness, promoting energy efficiency; reducing CO2 emissions, promoting renewable energy systems and encouraging community buy-in. Instead of establishing our own school we will seek to link to with existing institutions, including IT Sligo, GMIT, NUIG, and IT Tralee, which has been identified as the leader in this instance.
We have a business plan on which I will not dwell. The first step, the establishment of the lead group between the community and the local authority, is well advanced. After engagement with the agencies we will seek to develop future projects as partnerships - public and private with EU partners. At the end of the process we will look to the EIB fund to fund some of these developments.
On funding we have Leader companies and Fiontar Chomraic, an ESB fund we would be happy to discuss later. There are green funds from the banks and we will seek support from SEAI under established programmes. Other sources will be local enterprises, public private partnerships, and EU and EIB funding. The most important component in delivering this project is the energy coming from the community.
Mr. Ciaran Loftus: It is important to speak about the local background to the work of the Crossmolina community group. The formation and development of Crossmolina has been linked to energy. Crossmolina was a boom town in the 1960s, when the west in general was being forgotten. The ESB and Bord na Móna arrived on our doorstep. We ended up with four new housing estates. Through the ESB and Bord na Móna, a new vocational school was established in the town. Time moved on, and by 2000 it had dawned on everyone that the ESB and Bord na Móna were closing. Some 400 jobs were lost in the locality. When it was announced that a multinational company was interested in coming to the area, I was one of ten local people who raised money to build a factory. The company in question, which had promised to provide between 60 and 90 jobs in the area, never arrived. In addition, some 40 jobs were lost when a local mushroom farm closed. Although our secondary schools were thriving, our national schools halved in size. Everybody started to think about what could be done. There was a great deal of forward thinking at the time. Not all of the news was bad. An enterprise centre was purchased by the community council. The Chairman will be delighted to hear there was a victory for the maroon and white. We became all-Ireland champions. It showed that we could get there and be the best. It gave the community a huge sense of pride about what it could do. Our fantastic schools were continuing to develop. The development of a new council housing estate kept the Crossmolina area going at that time.
In 2005, the community council formed a development group to examine where the town was at. Having lost the proposed development by a multinational company, we were aware that we could not rely on anyone in the future. We had to rely on ourselves, become self-sufficient and work on our local resources. One of the positive things we discovered was that everyone considered Crossmolina to be a wonderful place in which to live. That is evident in one of the photographs in our documentation. Community spirit was probably the biggest asset we had. We wanted to keep it alive. We knew we had to draw up plans and make a significant effort to get the community going and to overcome the difficulties we had experienced. I was involved with a group of people who were willing to put in the work. We took a spider’s web approach, which involved moving out from there and getting other people on board. Organisation became very important. We identified specific groups with which we could work. We moved forward in partnership with the county council and the local Leader companies.
When we produced our development plan in 2006, the most important thing was to get the community to buy into it. We sent questionnaires to everyone as part of our efforts to lead the community through. Although Crossmolina is a small community, some 553 questionnaires were sent back to us. Groups and individuals got on board. We spoke to the various agencies to see what we could do. A 17-point action plan was produced as a result. I have a copy of the plan with me if anyone would like to read it. In the intervening four years, we have made progress with 14 of the 17 actions. Seven of them have been completed. We have had some success. There was no Tidy Towns committee in Crossmolina at one time. One of the goals set out in the action plan was the promotion of Crossmolina as an environmentally friendly area. The establishment of a Tidy Towns committee and the promotion of recycling were high on that agenda. We encouraged the children of the local schools to learn about the green campaign.
We have developed four industrial units. They are about to open in the next few weeks. We have to decide between six projects that are keen to use the units. At a time when there is a recession all over the place, Crossmolina is emerging from what we would have looked at as a recession ten years ago. We are beginning to move forward now. We have worked with the county council at all stages. We have become employers. We have put a community service programme in place. We have driven forward through local work and local initiatives, in partnership with the county council and other agencies.
I wish to speak about the funding we have secured. Over the last four years, we have received grants and supports worth €1.4 million. We have achieved bank borrowings of €165,000 in order to leverage those funds. We have generated an additional rental income of €9,000, over and above what we had. It is projected that we will receive a rental income of €16,000, after costs, from the new units. We also receive income and sponsorship from the local festival. People in Crossmolina always asked whether the festival was healthy. It now runs events throughout the year. Many people come back to the town for the festival week during the summer, which gives us a chance to market the town. It generates approximately €15,000 a year and brings life to the town. We have been involved in the rural social scheme, voluntary labour programmes and the warmer homes initiative. We have secured the future of the Leader partnership offices, which have helped the community to drive forward.
All of this hard work has been done by a community that has worked together in partnership. We have increased the number of community groups from 33 to 42. The first year we entered the Pride of Place awards, we came second in our category. It brought the whole community together. We hope we can do the same with this project. We thank the committee for giving us an opportunity to promote our efforts to find a niche in which Crossmolina can develop.
Mr. Peter Hynes: I am conscious of the time. I will conclude briefly. The benefits of our efforts for the community are evident from the pride that has been expressed at this meeting. The economic benefits of this approach are very obvious, as are the benefits to Mayo as a brand, which we are trying to build, and to Ireland as a brand. There are environmental benefits, such as the increase in renewables expertise. Another benefit is the avoidance of EU sanctions, which are a real concern.
I will not speak in detail about our partners, other than to say that all of the key agencies one would expect are involved in the partnership approach. I refer in particular to the Western Development Commission. We envisage that approximately 50 sustainable short-term jobs, by which I mean jobs that last between one and three years, can be generated and sustained. In the longer term, given a fair wind and a reasonable degree of success in the objectives we have set for ourselves, we believe between 150 and 200 jobs can be created. That would be an extremely important number of jobs in a small community.
We are grateful for the opportunity to make this presentation. I apologise for taking a little more of the committee’s time than had been scheduled. This important development represents the springboard for the start of the next phase of the project, which will go public from here on in. I thank members for their time.
Deputy Richard Bruton: I am very impressed with the presentation. In the current economic crisis, we have to look at our own ingenuity and capacity for innovation. The group before the committee has shown a willingness to find opportunities in their local communities. Funding gaps were mentioned. What do the witnesses see as the catalyst to get these endeavours off the ground? Are they confident that the group can set out its own implementation plan without reliance on external assistance? Assistance from the State will be increasingly curtailed due the scale of the cuts in capital budgets, etc. I am interested to hear more about the implementation dimension of this impressive strategy.
Mr. Peter Hynes: We see the first phase as being within our own grasp and our own control. The Leader programme, which covers the Crossmolina area, has already indicated its support for the initiatives we are looking to develop. We are lucky that a reasonable degree of funding is available to the Fiontar Chomhraic development fund, which is a legacy from the closure of the ESB facility. It will support the initiative. Mayo County Council will put some funds into the project. It is obvious that it will not provide major funding. Like everyone else, we are looking at every cent we are investing. This is an important development for the county. We feel we can get the implementation plan developed, and the first phase of it delivered, with assistance from those three funds, and with some private investment from the local community. During the second phase of the initiative - the move to small-scale micro-generation and the replacement of some existing heating systems with combined heat and power projects - we will seek support from established programmes, which are mainly operated under the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. In due course, we may develop a pilot project which could need similar assistance. We are probably looking three or four years down the line before we get to that stage.
Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation (Deputy Dara Calleary): When we in the committee identified this project in 2008, Crossmolina came to mind as a town with a history of energy since 1960 and before and, as Mr. Ciaran Loftus has outlined, a town with an infrastructure in place that would run with the project and ensure it had community support and community buy in. Any group that has managed to get that level of funding, which is in excess of €1.4 million in three years, as this group has done, is worthy of support. The Mayo county manager and the director of services have outlined the ambition in Mayo to be an energy capital for the country. This project will fit into that ambition. Mayo County Council has proved itself to be ahead of the curve and its officials and elected members are committed to renewable energy. If this project is to be successful, it must have community buy in and I do not see anywhere else, other than Crossmolina that will give us that level of community buy in and sustainability. I endorse the project. I am very familiar with it and I do not need to put questions.
Mr. Ciaran Loftus: We had three years of funding for the community service programme and we accessed this Fiontar Chomraic Teo funding and used that in addition to Enterprise Ireland funding for enterprise units. That project would have come to about €380,000. We have had to put €35,000 of our own money into the project to complement the €350,000 from the different bodies supporting the project. We have secured different Leader programme moneys for various projects. We put a major focus on inclusion of the elderly and all other groups in the community, and we source money from providing services such as security to homes and facilities to improve their lives.
Deputy Michael Ring: I thank the Chairman for giving me the opportunity to speak. I was at another meeting but I have come to this meeting out of respect for the witnesses. I welcome the chairman of Mayo County Council, Mr. Michael Burke, the county manager, Mr. Peter Hynes, Mr. Ciaran Loftus, Mr. Paddy Mahon and the other members of the delegation. I am glad to see that the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Calleary, is present.
I listened to Mr. Loftus speak about the issues. The one point that needs to be made is that without the community behind us, we cannot survive. If one has the ability to get the community working, they will support one and do whatever has to be done. I have always said that the county council has a great many strengths as well as weaknesses, but one of its strengths is working with community. If one gives a role to the county council, it is well capable of carrying out any role. This is something that reminds me of what happened in regard to radio. There would not be local radio if RTE did what it should have done and set up community radio. We would not need to have the local radio we have now had RTE done what the BBC did. The same applies to the county council. If the county council is given the resources, it will do the job.
There is no doubt that Crossmolina was a community that was dying and needed a lift. The people needed to get together and pull together to get up and running. Mr. Loftus outlined some of the achievements of Crossmolina. Not alone has it happened in Crossmolina, it has happened in other communities that were prepared to work with the council and were prepared to take the initiative and raise whatever funding needed to be raised. They did the work with the help and support of the county council.
When Fine Gael gets into government, many of the quangos will go and the local authorities will need to get in shape. When we give the local authorities the work and the resources, however, they will do the job. The county council is answerable to the elected representatives and the county manager is accountable on the night of the estimates. He is accountable to the elected members of the council. That is what accountability is about. The quangos are not accountable to anyone, not even to the Oireachtas. That is wrong. A Member may table questions but the Minister will tell that Member that he has no powers because the quangos are autonomous. We see this situation with the HSE and many other organisations.
Although I am critical of Mayo County Council on occasion, I give it credit for the job it does. Mayo County Council does a good job when it is given the resources. When there is a problem to be dealt with, the council will deal with it. Power must be taken from the quangos and returned to the elected representatives. Then the county councils in conjunction with the community it serves will respond and do what must be done.
Mr. Ciaran Loftus: I could not agree more with Deputy Ring’s comments. It is about partnership and getting a community that wants to do something working together itself first and then working with the local authority. When there is that level of partnership, a great deal can be achieved. There are other communities, such as the Deputy’s community in Westport, which have demonstrated that. The principle of partnership is what it is all about.
Senator John Carty: I thank the Chairman for inviting me to this very fine presentation. I, too, would like to endorse it. I have no doubt that the community of Crossmolina, with whom I have dealt in the past, will take on this challenge and do a good job. Mr. Ciaran Loftus outlined in his presentation that when the Bellacorick peat-fired power station closed, it was a major loss to Crossmolina, but the people did not lie down. They fought on.
I welcome the chairman of the county council, Mr. Michael Burke, the county manager, Mr. Peter Hynes, the director of services, Mr. Paddy Mahon, and the other members of the delegation. As Deputy Ring outlined, the county council has done a very good job down through the years and all I can say to Deputy Michael P. Kitt from the neighbouring county is that if Galway had been as progressive as Mayo in getting roads mapped out and so on, we would have a better network of roads in Connacht.
Deputy Michael P. Kitt: After Senator Carty’s contribution, I feel very poor in Galway, but we will do our best. I join in extending a welcome to the delegations. The words “community” and “partnership” have been emphasised and it is great to see the Galway influence of Mr. Hynes. That must be some help.
In the course of the presentation there was reference to fibre-optic technology for the main towns in Galway and Mayo and that is very welcome. There has been a great deal of discussion on biomass but we have not made sufficient progress, and this also applies to wave power. Will someone outline what is happening in these areas? While everyone is very keen to promote them, I do not see as much progress as I would like to see.
Mr. Peter Hynes: I will start with wave power and my colleague, Mr. Brendan Killion, might comment on biomass. As I said in the presentation, there is an ongoing international competition between the west of Ireland, Ireland in general, the Orkneys, Portugal and Spain. Two years ago we had a significant advantage because of our location. That advantage is being eroded and there is a need for an injection of energy and enthusiasm into the development of wave power if we are going to stay ahead of the game. The wave test centre site is going through the environmental appraisals and various licensing applications. There is a very minor planning application which has been dealt with. Incentivising the production of wave energy is a national policy issue. Accelerating the approval required in our system, which is complex in comparison with other systems, is not a local authority issue but another issue that will have to be examined at national level. Mayo County Council will do more than it can or should to assist the development of the wave test centre. I would expect any representative of a local authority to make a similar statement if he or she were sitting in this seat. Mr. Killion is better placed than me to address the issue of biomass.
Mr. Brendan Killion: As noted in our statement, there are 60,000 ha. of biomass within 30 km of Crossmolina. To take County Mayo as an example, 18% of the county is biomass plantation. One of the key issues with biomass is the lack of take-up in the market. As the representatives of Kerry County Council noted, we must try to get people to engage with biomass and create a market for the biomass product. The resource is available. The issue is that if one does not tackle the resource and get thinnings done, one may lose the window of opportunity. The local authority pool on biomass and wood pellets in Ballina is a programme to start the biomass and wood supply chain in the area.
We are doing a great deal of work with the Western Development Commission, which is responsible for biomass in the region. As Mr. Hynes indicated, the commission has commenced the RASLRES programme. The main issue is one of uptake. People are working with oil and gas at present. As prices are highly sensitive, it is challenging for biomass to enter the market. Biomass infrastructure is expensive to introduce. While a grant is available for boilers, funding is not available for the infrastructure required for the boiler. Further funding is needed to get the programme up and running.
Deputy John O’Mahony: I welcome the delegation and apologise for my late arrival which was due to being caught up in the business of the Dáil. I do not propose to make a detailed contribution as I need to be briefed on the issues. I am aware of the significant potential of alternative energy sources in County Mayo. Partnership was raised. It is important that all the relevant partners work together. In times of economic difficulty the question one must ask is not whether one can afford to invest in renewable energy but whether one can afford not to invest in these projects. Renewables will speed up economic recovery and secure the country’s future. It is great, therefore, that County Mayo has substantial energy resources.
Chairman: Vast tracts of County Mayo appear to be suitable for biomass production and wind energy. How many applications have been received from potential wind energy projects and how have they been facilitated?
Mr. Peter Hynes: As I outlined, we have approximately 330 MW of solid Gate 3 grid connection offers and a further 400 MW or more are at various stages and should be offered shortly. Combined, these figures amount to approximately 25% of the national offer on Gate 3 to date. County Mayo is well positioned, therefore, in terms of its potential and the projects that are ready to go and are in a position to be financed, having completed the planning process. The biggest issue we have with wind energy is the grid connection. Major investment in the grid is required in the north and west if the wind resource is to be harvested in a reasonable timescale.
County Managers tackled the policy issue in 2010. In May last, we introduced a new renewable energy strategy for the county. The policy has been approved by the council and is out for public discussion. I hope it will be before elected members by April with whatever amendments are due. I expect the policy to be positively received. That would be a further step. Wind energy is a major resource and the most important issue to be addressed is probably the grid.
Deputy Michael Ring: As Mr. Hynes is aware, investors from all over the world want to invest in County Mayo. They have had discussions with elected representatives and council officials on wind energy and the grid. The issue of the grid is a political one which must be addressed. I suggest the joint committee invite representatives of EirGrid to come before us to identify what can be done with regard to the national grid. The delay is holding back development in the west, which does not have the necessary road infrastructure. We have the energy resource and need the support of EirGrid. While I am not a member of the joint committee, I propose that the joint committee discuss with the company its plans, the up-to-date position and when it expects to have the national grid in County Mayo.
On the issue of applications to erect wind turbines in County Mayo, are the proposed sites well away from centres of population? Turbines, especially those of considerable height, generate a significant public reaction when planning permission is being sought. County Mayo is clearly in a better position than other areas. Turbines have created difficulties in the midlands, for instance, and one can understand the views people take on those of them that are located in rural areas with a significant population in the hinterland. What is the position in County Mayo? I assume the county has some advantages over the midlands.
Mr. Peter Hynes: There are some advantages. One of the benefits of having a sparsely populated county is that there are areas where development will not interfere with human habitation. On the other hand, there are a significant number of environmental designations in the county. As members will be aware, these are a sensitive matter. Visual impact and tourism are other issues. The new strategy seeks to pinpoint with reasonable accuracy areas where habitations will not be affected, designations do not come into play and the level of visual impact is acceptable. The issue of visual impact is clearly a judgment call. We hope the plan, when adopted, will streamline the process.
Chairman: Will Mr. Hynes supply a copy of Mayo County Council’s draft policy? Members would be pleased to have one as this issue arises across the country given our commitment to switching to renewable energies to reduce carbon emissions and our reliance on fossil fuels. Mr. Killion indicated that the capital grants available for biomass infrastructure are not significant.
Mr. Brendan Killion: A person who wishes to buy a biomass system may avail of a grant which will cover 30% of the costs of a boiler. However, grants are not available for infrastructure such as storage facilities and the equipment needed to bring the wood chip or wood product to the biomass. It would be preferable to provide a grant for the full package. In the United Kingdom, for instance, a 50% grant is available to get the whole project up and running. Incentives differ and one needs to encourage private investment. As we heard, people invest in biomass because it pays for itself. Ultimately, however, it must be a viable business proposal. It may need a financial injection to get it up and running.
Mr. Peter Hynes: Investment in the grid is the key issue in terms of releasing the potential for renewables, both wind and wave energy, in County Mayo and other areas. While there is good engagement and discussion with EirGrid and the Department, it would be useful, if we are to unleash the potential of renewables, if the investment process and the planning process associated with renewable energy infrastructure were accelerated significantly.
Chairman: Mr. Hynes has expressed his view in a constrained manner. The joint committee may invite in representatives of EirGrid to discuss this matter given that we have gone to the trouble of spending two years preparing and producing recommendations. We might chase that up with EirGrid given that it is not the first time we have heard it. If there is a logjam or difficulty it should be addressed. We will try to bring political pressure to bear to ensure the matter is addressed. There is no use having grandiose plans and aspirations if they cannot become a reality because of a logjam that has existed for years. That will not achieve anything for us.
Mr. Michael Burke: I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for hearing our case. As they are aware we are committed to the issue. We have made a good case and it should be heard so that matters can be taken forward. As the county manager said, the grid is vital. We should be a net exporter of power in our county. The only way that can happen is if the infrastructure is put in place in due course. As the country manager said, it should happen sooner rather than later. We appreciate the Chairman and members hearing our case.
Mr. Peter Hynes: I do not know how much of the country we would be able to supply but the estimate is that there is upwards of 9,000 MW of wind energy to be harvested. We reckon that somewhere of the order of 2,000 MW to 3,000 MW is harvestable in practical terms, which is three or perhaps four times as much as we have currently on offer in terms of the Gate 3 process. The potential is significant.
Chairman: I thank Mr. Hynes, Mr. Burke, the cathaoirleach of the council, Mr. Lofus, Mr. O’Malley, Mr. Killion and Mr. Mahon for attending today’s meeting and helping us in our deliberations. I thank them for taking time out. They should ensure they stop in the midlands on the way home. Everything is local.
We will suspend the meeting for five minutes. I invite the delegates to accompany the members into the hall for a photograph. The delegates from Wicklow County Council may take their seats at the table so that we can commence the third session immediately on our return.
Chairman: I welcome the representatives of Wicklow County Council: Mr. Thomas Murphy, director of services; Mr. Tomás O’Leary, founder of Passive House Academy; Mr. Padhraic McGinn, head of the department of the built environment, IT Carlow; Ms Martina Robinson, manager, Wicklow Community Enterprise Centre; and Mr. Phillip Duffy, senior executive officer, environmental and water services department. I thank them for attending. I also acknowledge the presence of the officials from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation who are here to observe the proceedings with a view to reporting their findings to the Minister.
I draw attention to fact that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they do not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name, or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I call on Mr. Murphy and Mr. O’Leary to address the committee. We have received their submissions. Therefore, I ask them to present a synopsised version rather than read the entire document which we have studied. Members would like to engage in an interactive discussion as soon as possible.
Mr. Thomas Murphy: I thank the Chairman for the invitation to address the joint committee on behalf of Wicklow County Council’s project. I apologise on behalf of the county manager, Mr. Eddie Sheehy, who, unfortunately, suffered an injury during the recent spell of cold weather and is currently incapacitated; otherwise he would be here today.
The four pillars of the project we will address as part of our presentation are education and training; renewable energy; community; and enterprise and job creation. The presentation team comprises Mr. Tomás O’Leary who runs a successful architecture practice in Wicklow town and is founder of the Passive House Academy; Mr. Padhraic McGinn, head of the department of the built environment, IT Carlow; Ms Martina Robinson, manager of Wicklow Community Enterprise Centre and former president of the Wicklow & District Chamber - she has put a lot of work into the job creation and enterprise element of the overall project; and Mr. Phillip Duffy, senior executive officer in the environmental and water services department of the council.
A slide shows an overhead image of the Wicklow and Rathnew area and it delineates Wicklow County Campus. Let me briefly outline the background to the project. The Wicklow County Development Board’s ten-year strategy identified a need for a third level college. During the years the IDA and Enterprise Ireland had advised that County Wicklow was at a disadvantage in not having a third level college to act as a catalyst for economic development. Fortunately, in late 2005, Clermont College in Rathnew came onto the market and was purchased by the council in conjunction with a private sector partner. The property consists of a college, country house and associated lands comprising approximately 27 ha. It is located in an area that has been designated as a primary development centre in the national spatial strategy. It is ideally located just off the N11 and well catered for with services and infrastructure.
The next slide shows a drawing that delineates the boundaries of Wicklow County Campus and indicates the zoning. In 2009 Wicklow County Council developed a five-year strategic plan for the campus, the main aims of which include the creation of a centre of excellence in innovation, enterprise and education, with the third level of college acting as a catalyst for economic development and, in conjunction with IT Carlow, the development of a wide range of third level lifelong learning programmes.
The next slide deals with the preparation of the Vision document following the request by this committee for submissions. It was prepared by a working group comprising many interests. It seeks to develop Wicklow County Campus as a centre of excellence in innovation, enterprise and education, placing renewable energy technologies and sustainable design at its core. The aims include the construction of a business enterprise in the business innovation park and renewable energy centre, the expansion of the existing relationship with IT Carlow, the establishment of a Passive House Academy, the establishment of associations with leading universities and other centres of excellence, and the retrofitting of the campus with low energy renewable systems.
One of the strong features of the project is the number of stakeholders that backed our proposal. The relevant slide gives a sample that includes IT Carlow, Coillte, Enterprise Ireland, FÁS, Sustainable Energy Ireland, etc. Wicklow County Council has invested €11 million in the project thus far. A significant amount of refurbishment work has taken place and there are more than 200 students enrolled. The Irish Passive House Academy has been established and Wicklow County Enterprise Board moved onto the campus in 2009.
Mr. Tomás O’Leary: We regard education and training as a central plank of the development of Wicklow County Campus. In that regard, we are very lucky to have a strong, excellent partnership with IT Carlow. As Mr. Murphy stated, there has been substantial investment to make Wicklow County Campus an excellent training facility. IT Carlow has a very good and proven track record in developing education programmes that focus on enterprise development. We do not want to set up an education facility alone, as we want people to move on towards enterprise development. IT Carlow has a number of internationally accredited programmes in this regard. As Mr. Murphy stated, approximately 200 people passed through the system last year.
IT Carlow has strong links with research and innovation. We want to try to move people through the system, from education to enterprise and innovation. One way of achieving this is to apply the very successful model IT Carlow has developed, whereby business ideas are taken from concept stage through to fledgeling stage, after which they take off as viable enterprises. We regard Wicklow County Campus as being a very dynamic centre in moving people from education to enterprise development.
I have been very involved in establishing the Passive House Academy. Passive House is the leading global energy standard. We launched in 2009 and many students have since passed through the system. A slide shows one of the first classes that graduated through the scheme.
Passive House Academy has written Government guidelines on the Passive House standard, including for new builds, retrofitting and non-domestic construction. We have had about 400 people through the programme so far and have been commissioned by FÁS to develop training programmes for craftspeople. It is significant that we are going to deliver training programmes in New York city in March this year. We have fantastic potential to export our knowledge around the globe.
The presentations on renewable energy by the two local authorities which have just appeared before the committee were very interesting. As with these local authorities, we consider we are very well resourced in terms of renewable energy resources. The first offshore wind farm in Ireland is up and running off Arklow Bank. We have considerable onshore wind resources, on which we intend to capitalise. Wicklow County Council recently published a wind energy strategy that gives developers a clear direction in this regard.
Coillte is regarded as a very strong partner in the process. County Wicklow is a home of forestry. We are fortunate Coillte’s headquarters are only a stone’s throw from the Wicklow County Campus. We see it as a strong part of this project proposal.
Apart from wind energy and biomass, work is being done in the county on other sources of renewable energy such as miscanthus and biodiesel production while the Turlough Hill and Pollaphuca hydroelectric plants have produced renewable energy for some time. Another recent development is the use of landfill gas at a local landfill project at Ballynagran.
One of the first objectives of the project is to develop a building innovation park, a showcase for the very best of building technology available in Ireland for new build and retrofit. There are up to 1.5 million houses across the country that need to be retrofitted but no one is clear as to how this can be achieved. Providing a central location where retrofitting techniques can be showcased would be a good step.
The Government has set its sights on carbon-neutral construction by 2013 which will require the passive house building standard and use of renewable energy sources in construction. The first ever passive house in the English-speaking world was built by the Passive House Academy. We believe it will become a major national and international tourism attraction. A similar innovation park in London draws many visitors.
It is also our intention to test technologies in the campus. The hub of the centre will be a renewable energy centre which will pull together research and development with production, incubation and high potential start-up units.
Wicklow County Council has a proven track record as a green local authority, winning the Green County Council award for the past two years. This has been largely due to several practical green projects dealing with wastewater treatment, social housing and retrofitting county council buildings. A project close to my heart, as I am its project manager, is the energy plus community. A community of 600 houses in Ballynagran will become the first rural zero carbon district under a plan to switch to green power, transport and production in ten years.
We aim to reach out to the architects, engineers and other building professionals to shorten the knowledge gap in green building techniques. The Government has set the most ambitious energy performance standard for anywhere on the planet. Due to its excellent communication skills and being English-speaking, we see Ireland as becoming a global focus for green construction. Enterprise Ireland this year had a green building initiative which was successful in bringing many interested parties in from the US. Likewise, we have had parties from Beijing and New York visiting us in Wicklow.
Mr. Thomas Murphy: Since Wicklow County Council originally made its submission in 1999, five and a half full-time equivalent jobs have been created at Wicklow County Campus, three at the Passive House Academy and two and a half at the Ballynagran energy plus community project.
As of 30 November 2010, 12,061 people were on the live register in the county, a rate of 14%, similar to the national average. The estimated timeframe for the delivery of this project is ten years. Over this time, it is anticipated that up to 700 jobs will be created. While this figure is conservative compared to Forfás’s prediction for the annual growth rate for the green economy, the main concentration of the jobs will be at the renewable energy centre which will comprise research and development, incubation units, high potential start-up units and production units. Our employment projections do not include the spin-off jobs in the local economy such as in shops, cafes or the construction area.
Over the ten-year timeframe, it is envisaged that approximately 85,000 sq. ft. of employment space will be created. The renewable energy centre will represent more than 50% of the overall space to be provided. It is envisaged the development sites will generate 35,000 sq. ft. of enterprise with a further 2,000 sq. ft. of workplace units being provided in the courtyard area of the main building.
Significant further expenditure will be required for the refurbishment of the courtyard, the retrofitting of the campus and the servicing of the lands. In addition, significant expenditure will be required for the building innovation park, the renewable energy centre and the development sites. The overall estimated cost of the project is €20 million. Wicklow County Council has to date invested €11.5 million in the project and is now seeking further investment of €9.1 million.
This is an ambitious but realistic and achievable project incorporating several elements including the construction of a renewable energy centre and the building innovation park. We have already established the Passive House Academy and commenced work on the Ballynagran energy plus community project which has resulted in the creation of five and a half full-time equivalent jobs. Wicklow County Council has already successfully demonstrated its capacity to foster enterprise and create jobs through its involvement in the Wicklow Community Enterprise Centre in Wicklow town which provides enterprise space for more than 61 businesses and employs 248 persons. It is our intention to use this structure as a model for the development of the vision for Wicklow County Campus.
Bringing this project to final fruition will require further investment of €9 million. We are committed to the creation of up to 700 jobs over the ten-year timeframe for the project. The vision for the Wicklow County Campus is realistic and achievable but will require further State funding.
Deputy Liz McManus: I welcome the presentation and thank the Chairman, Deputy Penrose, and the committee for its initiative in producing a report on job creation through the use of renewable energy. I note of the 17 projects submitted, Wicklow County Council’s small project was very successful. It is a great credit to everybody involved. I find this a very impressive project. It is ambitious. Sometimes we think of local authorities in particular as being ultra cautious. In this instance, however, an opportunity was taken in regard to an impressive property and we now have the capability growing in an area that is central to our future, not just in Wicklow but to the country as a whole.
There is an energy revolution and either we are part of it or we shall be left behind. In order to be able to take the opportunities in the area of renewables and sustainable development, the key is training and education. This is something that comes back to me - I am a member of the energy committee and I am very conscious of that. From that viewpoint what is being targeted now and what the delegates are working on makes sense.
In the area of energy certain themes keep recurring that create obstacles. Perhaps we could hear what the obstacles are to realising the full potential here. One of those that keeps coming up in terms of individual energy projects is bureaucracy, and the lengthy time it takes to secure a licensing regime. Is that an issue for the delegates, indirectly, because if innovation is to be encouraged is this not something that needs to be addressed?
A second question is technical in terms of the grid. Have there been any discussions with Eirgrid or the ESB? Is this something that is relevant at this stage or is it for further down the road? Another question is in regard to funding. The figure of €9 million was mentioned, and the county council has already spent €11 million. That seems like a realistic figure, certainly for such a big project. I wonder whether that is total public money or if there is a private sector element to it. Again, in the innovation area, considerable innovation seems to be coming from the private sector. A partnership model has been built up, perhaps not in the most effective or professional manner, but it seems that the private sector has a very central role in this.
My last question relates to Carlow Institute of Technology, which has facilitated very interesting opportunities for private people to innovate and develop projects, particularly on a smaller scale in terms of whether more needs to be done in respect of broad educational policy or if that type of linkage is sufficient in itself. I am very glad that Carlow IT is represented here because it is an indication of how effective that linkage is. I refer to a broader policy and whether opportunities need to be developed or doors opened. Is that no longer an issue we have to worry about?
I congratulate the entire delegation. This is something that can make a significant difference, not just for Wicklow – although it seems to be such an appropriate place in which to have such a centre and campus – but also as regards our future in terms of getting out of the hole we are in, and ensuring we make a recovery. It is in these types of areas that we are going to succeed.
Mr. Tomás O’Leary: I see four issues here, if I have been keeping track, the first one of which is bottlenecks. Before I come to that I should say that we are trying to approach this from the viewpoint of wanting to reduce energy consumption before embarking on a big renewable energy spree. Most houses and commercial businesses are wasteful of energy and we should upgrade and retrofit those projects as best we can before investing substantial money in renewable energy. That is to set the context.
In terms of bottlenecks, one of these up to very recently was the fact that County Wicklow did not have a wind energy strategy, which is now in place. That sets the scene for developers on the one hand and local authorities on the other. Everybody can see where the playing pitch is, where the no-go areas are, where matters are open for consideration and the preferred areas. One of the main bottleneck areas has been removed. Grid connection is a major issue and there was a very long discussion just a few moments ago on that. It will be no different in Wicklow. Interestingly, there is permission with the Arklow Bank project for 200 turbines, and 400 off Codling Bank, as well as 80 off Kish Bank. This could be the biggest concentration of renewable energy generation on the planet. People much cleverer than I am are looking at this whole issue, including the likes of Eddie O’Connor, so grid connection is definitely going to be an issue. We are not so naive as to believe that we are going to construct community wind farms in the morning and connect them up to the grid. It is there as a national issue, as dealt with very well by the previous speaker. Will Mr. Murphy say something in terms of funding and Carlow?
Mr. Thomas Murphy: In terms of funding, that is a challenge facing Wicklow County Council and other stakeholders in the project. Wicklow County Council has demonstrated its commitment to the project by investing €11 million in it to date. In the original submission we made to the joint committee, we identified a number of potential funding sources. These included the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the STRIVE programme and Science Foundation Ireland. In addition, the consultants engaged by the joint committee in their report reviewing Wicklow’s submission, identified a further range of possible funding sources. These included AIB and Bank of Ireland which have green funds, as well as ELENA funding, which is a European source. There are other potential funding partners, too, including Enterprise Ireland, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and the EPA. To use the terrible phrase, “going forward”, the consultants in their evaluation of our presentation or submission, identified the need for a clear business and marketing plan in order to enable us to go to these institutions and make a play for funding. They identified that as the next step in the process, so we intend that this will be the preparation of a business and marketing plan, feasibility study, blueprint, etc., that will enable us to seek funding.
Even if we do this, however, we are talking about loan arrangements as distinct from grant funding. In order to make this project work we will require State funding. There is a significant shortfall. We estimate that it will cost €20 million, we have invested €11 million, so we are looking for €9 million.
Mr. Padhraic McGinn: In regard to the question of Carlow IT and the wider policy on education, the strategy to develop life-time learning modules with an enterprise focus has been quite successful and has been in development since 2006. The national strategy for higher education, published last week, has a number of elements which align with what we are doing in Wicklow. We see Wicklow as a model of excellence in terms of flexible and innovative delivery of courses, using that part-time model. Part-time can mean daytime, evening time, weekend workshops, summer school-type delivery and this model we have developed is complemented with international developments since this is a global challenge and we believe there is an opportunity with our programmes to develop links with other educational institutions.
The national strategy mentions research and we need to continue to recognise the value of institutes of technology in industry and enterprise-focused research. We have established a considerable reputation over the last nine years in developing energy projects in our envirocore programme around biotechnology, biofuel and supports. That type of learning is valuable in this proposed model and I believe the institute of technology role in research needs to be valued for the future.
Deputy Andrew Doyle: I welcome the representatives from Wicklow County Council and Carlow Institute of Technology. The project as it has been presented shows great potential. We have always had the opinion that Ireland, when it was thriving, was ahead of the game in the area of technology, and this offers an opportunity to continue that innovation. I have not seen the two other projects but am sure they are also very good. This project, in the way it is presented and what it proposes to do, certainly seems to offer a model of best practice.
In regard to the business and marketing plan, the delegates indicated that funding of €9 million is required. They have indicated that this investment would yield 700 jobs, but have they quantified whether it would also attract foreign investment? Are those jobs sustainable and do they relate purely to research? The delegates mentioned incubation and start-up businesses. Are these areas that can stand on their own two feet in terms of profitability? What is the benefit to the taxpayer in investing €9 million at this point, with a total investment of €20 million which is nearly all taxpayers’ money in any case? Will it offer a good return on investment and put us ahead of the game? I am confident it can do so, from what I have heard, but when it comes to a business and marketing plan, there must be a costed projection if the Government is to see fit to invest in it. I have no doubt it will stand up, but those projections must be condensed into easily consumable figures.
The idea of prioritising what can be done easily, namely, the refitting, makes absolute sense for many reasons. One immediate advantage is that it will put people back to work in a sector where work is difficult to find. I was a member of the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security when it presented a foreshore licensing Bill which would have done what the wind energy plan does for Wicklow County Council in that it would have designated suitable offshore areas. There is an argument that some of the planning permissions that are granted, as outlined by Mr. O’Leary, are not going to take off in their current format. There are even question marks over Arklow. If we had a proper designation of offshore territory - much of that will concentrate on the east coast, in the case of tidal and wind in particular - that could be tied in to what this project is about. Perhaps the project should eventually look to the Marine Institute, for example, to devise another dimension to its programme of work. That is something that should be considered for the future.
I hope the business pitch for an investment from the State in this project will be seen as worthy and that it gets off the ground. The facility that is there is ideally placed for this type of venture. It will ultimately benefit the entire country but, if I may be parochial, it would be great if it benefited Wicklow in particular.
Ms Martina Robinson: The green economy provides Ireland, and particularly Wicklow, with a great opportunity to create sustainable, highly skilled jobs in this high growth sector. Forfás is predicting an increase in employment in this sector from 11,000 in 2010 to 80,000 by the end of the decade, with a value of €2.8 billion to the economy. Our estimate of 700 jobs is fairly conservative.
Regarding the return on investment, without doing a business plan we are all able to work out the costs of the jobs. We have taken a salary of €35,000, which we consider very conservative in respect of these high end, skilled jobs. Accounting for the tax take, which we estimate at €8,313 since the budget, we hope to be jobs positive within six years. Certainly we will have worked off the return on investment in six years and, within eight and a half years, we will be jobs positive to the tune of some €7.2 million.
What we need for the feasibility study to go to the next stage is to work out the concentration of those jobs. We know we will need engineers and workers with skills in new technologies such as geoterminal energy and so on. Mr. O’Leary has brought in more than 400 people who have now been trained, and there is an ecotourism element there as well. We are very conservative and very positive in our projections. What we envisage is achievable and is in line with what Forfás has identified in its predictions for the next ten years. Wicklow County Council has a history of driving job creation through the Wicklow community enterprise centre. There is a clustering effect and the facility is perfectly positioned in Clermont, offering great potential for sustainable jobs and a huge return on investment.
Mr. Thomas Murphy: Before my colleague, Mr. O’Leary, responds to Deputy Doyle’s query on the offshore issue, I take this opportunity to acknowledge the role played by Oireachtas Members from Wicklow in advancing this project. If I had to single out anybody it would be Deputy Doyle because as cathaoirleach of Wicklow County Council at the time the college came on the market, he was instrumental in encouraging the council to purchase it. There were concerns it would fall into the hands of a private developer and Deputy Doyle played a major role in ensuring that did not happen.
Mr. Tomás O’Leary: As Deputy Doyle said, we are trying to prioritise what can be done easily. In the case of the Ballynagran project, for example, we have people right now doing energy audits on the 600 houses there. People are told their current energy consumption and shown what can be done for less than €100, up to €500 and so on. We are not telling people they need to replace all their windows and install solar panels, because that is unrealistic. We want to take realistic steps forward.
We agree with the Deputy regarding the desirability of tying in to potential offshore projects. I mentioned all the turbines that are proposed. It is difficult to tell when and how many will be realised but what is certain is that there will have to be a base somewhere on land where they can be serviced, monitored and so on. Wicklow town has a fantastic harbour that would suit this purpose. With the designation, if that is what it is, from this competition, we now have the self-confidence to approach companies, as a national centre of excellence in renewable energy, and invite them to base their facilities at Clermont. We are ready now to put together a business plan and marketing strategy. To arrive at this point is a big deal for us.
Deputy Joe Behan: I thank the Chairman for inviting me to attend this meeting. I welcome the delegates, including those in the Visitors Gallery. I ask them to pass on our best wishes to the county manager, Mr. Eddie Sheehy, who I am sure would have been here were he not indisposed. I did not know a great deal about the project before today but what is most significant for me that it is visionary and a concept that is in tune with the times in which we live. It marries innovative ideas with existing facilities in Wicklow County Council’s ownership. As Mr. Murphy said, we must be thankful for the foresight of Deputy Doyle, as former chairman of the council, and of Mr. Sheehy as county manager.
Mr. Thomas Murphy: I thank Deputy Behan. In respect of vision, two documents are extant, the first of which was the five-year strategic plan. The vision in the five-year strategic plan was to develop a centre of excellence in enterprise education and innovation. At that time, there was no particular reference to renewable energy technologies or sustainable design. The competition that followed encouraged us to take another look at the use of Wicklow County Campus and consequently, almost two years ago we prepared the vision document that developed further the strategic plan by placing therein renewable energy technologies and sustainable design. In answer to the Chairman’s question, today’s presentation concentrated mainly on the renewable energy side of the campus. However, the campus has an area of 65 acres and we have received inquiries from other interested parties that do not have an interest in renewable energy and we have been liaising with the IDA and Enterprise Ireland. While we consider the renewable energy side to be part and parcel of the campus, we also envisage another element, namely, the general enterprise and job creation side. As I stated, we already have met the IDA and have shown the site to its representatives. Similarly, we have met Enterprise Ireland. It is a broad vision and we hope it will be a combination of both the strategic level and the vision document.
Deputy Billy Timmins: I apologise for not being able to attend the presentation. At the outset, I must state I am something of a rookie with respect to alternative energy. While I am not a flat earther on the issue and believe in research, education and innovation, I am highly conscious of the bio-fuels example. I recall having doubts when people began to push the concept of bio-fuels and note it went on to create world hunger and then took a back seat. Consequently, it is important to question such proposals. I wish to raise a couple of issues, particularly with the representative from the Institute of Technology, Carlow, some of which are specific and others of which are broad. While I realise the institute is constrained by its obligation to stick to national policy, should the creation of nuclear energy in Ireland be considered? Does it make economic sense to conduct research, pursue innovation, etc., on alternative means when it might be possible to have a cheaper and safer option through the development of nuclear energy, which would not necessitate reinventing the wheel?
As for the investment by Wicklow County Council of €11 million to date, was it specifically on the project? I seek a breakdown of that investment. I refer to the issue of wind energy, both offshore and onshore, and if the witnesses are unable to provide me with a response today, they might forward their views to me in this regard. Although I do not have the statistics to hand, I received correspondence of unknown accuracy in the last few months. From memory, the basic point was that the subsidy to be allocated to offshore energy over the coming years to reach our target is much greater than the equivalent subsidy to be allocated to onshore energy. Moreover, it was suggested that we have the facility to generate our energy requirements from onshore energy, which would require far less of a subsidy and that were we to concentrate on onshore energy instead of trying to mix it with offshore energy, we could reach our targets at a substantially lower cost than would otherwise be the case. If the witnesses are unable to answer this query today, they should provide me with an address and I will forward the material to them.
I refer to the other point raised by Deputy McManus about getting onto the national grid. I recall encountering a wind farm that was granted planning permission, albeit after much difficulty, and I acknowledge that many such installations experience difficulties in getting such planning permission. The facility was located in south Wicklow and had hoped to tap into the grid at Shillelagh at a cost of X. However, by the time the planning permission came through, the farm was obliged to tap into the grid at the economically unviable location of Ferns. Is it possible to have a viability band to establish whether, for example, it is practical to set up a wind farm down in Devlin? Is it possible to develop a national template outlining the viability of tapping into the grid, rather than of establishing a farm? I thank the Chairman for the invitation to the meeting.
Mr. Padhraic McGinn: On the first question directed at the Institute of Technology, Carlow, on nuclear energy, the initial focus of the institute’s strategy over the last couple of years when providing enterprise-focused education at the Wicklow County Campus has been on business, law and humanities. We recently have become involved in the provision of high-quality renewable energy education. We take our direction from the recent report published by Forfás on future skills requirements, which targets niche areas in which we can cut our cloth to get the best value from available resources. This does not include nuclear energy, as we will focus on the areas outlined pertaining to renewable aspects. However, from a teaching and learning perspective, the future development of education must include energy economics and the macro global picture, as students, researchers and those involved must be aware of the challenges posed by other sources of energy. Our strategy is highly defined because it is focused on creating high-value and enterprise-aligned education and this specifically is where we think we can generate jobs. Given that consideration, we have not considered the broader nuclear considerations.
Mr. Tomás O’Leary: I am unsure how publicly acceptable nuclear energy is. The last serious attempt at nuclear energy was to be located at Carnsore Point and ironically, the proposed site now hosts a very large wind farm. It seems to me that many people have concerns about the nuclear power plant in Wales, never mind one on our own doorstep. The other point about nuclear energy is that as the raw material that goes into it, be it uranium, plutonium or whatever, is a finite resource, it is not the Holy Grail either. It may be carbon neutral but it is not an infinite resource.
Before we turn to the investment, I wish to comment on offshore wind energy. The problem we now face in Ireland is that all the good sites have gone. For example, all the upland sites that have prime wind speeds already have been hand-picked by the developers. Consequently, new wind farm sites are being developed on lowland sites, rather than in the mountains, and people now seek to develop wind farms in rural communities. This results in the placing of very large turbines immediately adjacent to people living in rural areas. While I am greatly in favour of this, resources are limited in respect of onshore generation. The reason offshore generation is not viable at present is because the current global price of energy is quite low. Once oil becomes more depleted and reaches a stable level of approximately $200 a barrel, the offshore developers will come back on stream because it will be financially viable for them to produce energy. However, as the cost of conventional energy sources is at a reasonably low level, the Deputy is quite correct to state it is not viable.
Mr. Thomas Murphy: On Deputy Timmins’s question regarding Wicklow County Council’s investment, thus far we have invested €11 million. It comprises €8 million, which represents Wicklow’s share of the purchase price, and €3 million, which covers refurbishment work, including the provision of modern classrooms and lecture rooms, the development of a modern conference centre and boardroom, the provision of energy-efficient heating systems and the installation of a lift, as well as repairs to the general fabric of the building.
Chairman: I consider this to be an excellent project. It is one of the final three out of 17 and has done very well. I am glad the witnesses acknowledged that this committee engages in constructive work. Members embarked on this project on foot of a visit to Güssing. Although the media are quick to condemn some trips of that nature, it was a short trip that explored a useful concept and ways to adapt it to this country. While major differences obviously exist, we certainly thought it was worth exploring. There was a huge level of interest, including in my own county. However, in order to ensure it was fair, we asked an outside consultant to evaluate the matter. He worked on it for a number of months and eventually we got a result. It has been an independent, transparent and fair process, which I appreciate, and I congratulate the three groups concerned. However, we are not in a position to provide money.
The most important people present today are the departmental officials who have been listening for the last three hours. I know they will relay faithfully to the Minister and Department heads the nature of the presentations made to the committee by each of the three groups represented. Their presentations were comprehensive and their preparation of business plans is well advanced. They have the physical resources necessary. The Minister has a copy of the report we sent, which is substantial. I hope the officials will inform the Minister of the need to give an impetus by way of providing funding that will allow the groups to continue their work.
I thank the delegates for attending and assisting us in our deliberations. I also thanks the officials from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation who had to wait all day but it was probably worthwhile because they were able to listen to some of the other presentations made. Ideas can germinate in picking up from what others are doing and then be better developed. That is part of the process.
There will be a photographic session with members of the committee. I thank Members of the Oireachtas from the Wicklow constituency for attending the meeting. That shows their level of interest in the project.
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