Annual Conference: Opening Address by Minister Denis Naughten, T.D.

Annual Conference: Opening Address by Minister Denis Naughten, T.D.

05 May 2017 at 11:09

Engineers Ireland Annual Conference

Thursday 4th May 2017

Tullamore Court Hotel

Dermot Byrne, President; Caroline Spillane, Director General; Anna Marie Delaney, Chief Executive, Offaly County Council, members of the Council, Executive and delegates.

Welcome to the Lakelands.

It is a great pleasure to address Engineers Ireland. You are thought leaders, educators and advocates for a vitally important profession. What you do, underpins practically everything this country aspires to deliver in the built environment, in technological development, and in terms of the cutting edge economy we need to be.

But we are more than our machines. We are a community and a society. The quality, the inventiveness and the functionality which superb engineering brings to our lives, is facilitation of how we live now, and it is a driver of what we will become. There is a symbiosis, at its best, between science and society.

Regrettably, at its worst, there is disruption, dislocation and in the case of climate change potentially even annihilation.

As engineers you individually have a body of knowledge that is essential to us surviving and to thriving. As a professional body, you have a powerful platform, and I suggest a powerful responsibility.

There is a pressing need not just for more educated professions, but for authoritative, credible opinion formers in our public debate, to lead our conversation online, on-air and in our newspapers.

The Theme of your conference focuses on two key areas flooding and renewable energy. This region has seen both the opportunities for renewable energy as well as some of the greatest challenges in implementation.

And those of us who live in the region are very aware of the devastation inflicted by flooding, as well as some of the very resourceful work done by many people, not least by engineers, in order to address the consequences of it.

You will be hearing from Mark Adamson of the OPW on what progress is currently being made in this afternoon’s session, so I will not cover the same ground here however I must touch on the current three year research project that my Department is undertaking through the Geological Survey of Ireland on groundwater flooding related to turloughs. The combination of engineering/geology/surveying and modelling, using the latest in research and remote sensing is unique. There are now 40 temporary gauges deployed across all the significant turloughs and a further 20 will be instrumented as soon as equipment is received.

Data from these stations will be assessed to monitor, understand and delineate groundwater flooding in Ireland.

Aerial surveys such as LIDAR and UAV imagery will also be used to improve current groundwater flood mapping in hazard zones. Furthermore, satellite remote sensing data will used to provide up-to-date flood mapping for unmonitored turlough systems. This is unique and world class research.

Adaptation to climate change cannot ignore rural communities. I addressed the Council of the European Union Environment Ministers in Malta last week and I told colleagues that not only must we address the impact of climate on our towns and cities but also how such actions will interact with the measures to be taken in rural areas. For example, there is no point pushing flood waters out of towns, unless we address the impact of those waters on rural areas as well.

Ireland relies on high emission, and imported fossil fuels to meet over 88% of our energy needs. This costs half a million euro every hour. That’s a cost we cannot afford in cash, and which our planet cannot afford at all. The word ‘global’ in global warming, accurately summarises the incontrovertible science underlying that imminent threat.

It is also in its vastness, potentially daunting, even discouraging. How can any one country, especially a small one, make a difference? How can any one of us, meaningfully contribute?

It is the task of politics, to bridge the chasm between global challenge and national responsibility, and between Ireland’s obligation and every single citizen’s responsibility.

Energy and Climate Action are inextricably linked. Using less energy, and using it more efficiently, is the most cost effective and accessible way for us all to take action on climate change.

Everyone deserves a home they can afford to heat and to light. But, regrettably some cannot. Many struggle to make ends meet. And among those who struggle hardest, too many live in homes that are sink holes for fuel poverty.

Ending this inequality is a priority for me. Energy poverty is an environmental issue. It is an economic issue that blights lives and Energy efficiency is the most important means of tackling it.

That is why I secured additional funding for energy efficiency upgrades in this year’s Budget.

Over 350,000 people across Ireland have improved the energy efficiency in their homes through Government grants and specifically 300 community energy projects have received funding and support over the past five years, resulting in 15,000 homes and hundreds of community, private and public buildings improving their energy efficiency.

The total investment in energy efficiency is almost €67 million which is also supporting more than 1,000 jobs in the construction sector right across the country.

Insulation isn’t a single issue panacea for poverty. But it ensures a person can live in a home that is warmer, more comfortable and costs less to heat. It also ensures that people are less vulnerable to changes in energy prices or unexpected falls in their income.

Ireland has a target of meeting 40% of electricity demand from renewable sources by 2020. Provisional data for 2016 shows that over 26% of electricity demand was met from renewable sources and we are well placed to meet our 40% target by 2020.

To date, the focus of sustainable energy investment has predominantly been on onshore wind. In that respect, work on developing appropriate Wind Energy Guidelines, is being finalized and my colleague Simon Coveney and I and we will be bringing a Memorandum for Government soon to Cabinet. Real community engagement and long term economic dividend will be the cornerstone of the guidelines we produce.

However, the transition to a low carbon economy will not be delivered by any one single event or technology – it will be a process. While onshore wind will continue to have a major role to play, other technologies, such as biomass and offshore renewable energy, can play a critical role in helping us move to a low carbon economy by 2050.

Ireland is open for business and is actively committed to harnessing our abundant wave, tidal and offshore wind energy resources in an environmentally sustainable manner. The allocation this year for the Government’s Ocean Energy Programme is €4.75 million. Funding is provided by my Department and it supports the development of the test sites in counties Mayo, Galway and Cork, the Integrated Maritime Energy Resource Cluster at Ringaskiddy, and the Prototype Development Fund operated by the SEAI. The primary rationale for this programme is to develop and maximise the employment and wealth-generating industry activities that could potentially be associated with ocean energy as it evolves into a fully commercially viable sector.

Energy from biomass has, for some time, been making a significant contribution to several policy objectives, particularly here in the Midlands.

I see the Renewable Heat Incentive for Ireland as a viable measure to stimulate growth in the domestic biomass sector. It will bring new markets. As these convert it will create a demand for more biomass supply and fresh opportunities for local farmers. This financial support scheme is aimed at incentivising a switch from fossil fuel based heating systems to renewable heating solutions that will create new commercial opportunities for biomass and potentially biogas producers.

To accelerate the development of our emerging domestic biomass industry, I will soon bring a memo to Cabinet on the establishment of BioEnergy Ireland. This entity will drive efficiencies of scale by making biomass available to the entire market and procuring from all sources.

In the near term, these sources will include some from abroad. This is to meet the projected shortfall in domestic supply, however, as more Irish forestry matures over the coming decade, domestic product will gradually displace imports. BioEnergy Ireland will work to build on progress with a range of initiatives designed to further promote afforestation, to improve private forest efficiencies and to develop the demand for biomass fuel itself.

While I see market opportunities expanding for indigenous biomass producers, the issue of environmental sustainability and air quality will be high priorities as the schemes is designed. The use of biomass in the energy mix can lead to an increase in emissions of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides.

As Minister for the Environment, I realise that measures will be needed to minimise the risk of exacerbating poor air quality. Asthma and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulminary Disease) are among the most serious issues for the Irish health service and both are heavily influenced by air quality and other environmental factors. In Ireland alone four deaths per day are attributed to air pollution with a cost estimated to be around €2 billion per year so therefore the use of appropriate technology standards and fuel quality will be introduced as part of the RHI scheme.

Conclusion

The job of turning the tables on climate change, and of tacking fuel poverty effectively, does not come with a silver bullet. These are densely integrated agendas, requiring discipline and persistence.

On climate change, the science is clear. What is less clear, is the human will to change.

As minister for climate change, I cannot sit on the seashore, and order the tide to go out. I must persuade. I must enable people to make change themselves. I believe in the power and capacity of government to give leadership, and to lead change effectively. There is no Gantt chart able to encompass the complexity and the volatility of the multitude of moving parts that are politics at any moment. It is the synergy and symbiosis of fact and emotion, of IQ and EQ, of self-interest and idealism.

Today, I ask for your help. I ask you to be champions of idealism over self-interest. I ask you to bring the clarity of science and the authority of your profession to complex and sometimes emotional debate.

Engineering at its best translates extraordinary complexity into stunning simplicity. For all its moving parts, for all its complexity the debate on climate change come down to a single question of stunning simplicity.

Today, I have given you some sense of the challenge in-hand. Speaking over two hundred years ago Edmund Burke famously said “nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little”.

The challenge of climate change dwarfs, every issue that ever confronted humankind. If we fail to do the little we can, the consequence of our mistake will be tragedy. But, it need not be.

It requires that as common humanity we pool our resources of talent and treasure, and pull together one with another, for the preservation of all.

Thank you.