Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald addressed the Solar Ireland Conference 2023 in Cork yesterday, where she outlined the need to seize the moment for Ireland’s renewable energy revolution and for energy independence.
The text of Teachta McDonald’s speech is below.
Mary Lou McDonald
Address to Solar Ireland Conference 2023
Wednesday, November 22nd, 2023
Introduction – Investing in Change and Opportunity
Friends, the world is rapidly changing. Ireland is changing too.
Despite the immense challenges we undoubtedly face, I believe that this can be Ireland’s decade of opportunity.
A decade in which we can make big things happen.
Where we realise the huge potential of Irish Unity, advance the all-Ireland economy, and achieve energy security and independence for our country.
This transformation must be planned, strategically focused, and properly resourced by the state.
We can create a new prosperity for Ireland by investing in change. Our vast natural resources can be translated into national wealth for all.
The climate crisis, the conflict in Ukraine, and the energy crunch in Europe coalesce to lay bare Ireland’s dependence on fossil fuel imports.
Our abundance of renewable energy resources has the capacity to utterly transform our economic model and help progress the goal of an energy independent Ireland.
There are immense opportunities in renewable energy, opportunities that require big ambition from the state and substantial investment.
Government must develop an era-defining collaboration between the state and renewable energy companies. Public and private investment is essential to seize this opportunity.
Solar Power must be a key component of this collaboration.
Along with our abundant wind resource, Solar Power must be at the centre of a renewable energy mix that drives our exciting energy transformation.
The unlimited potential of Solar Power
Friends, the possibilities for Solar Energy in Ireland are endless. The sun is the battery of the World.
The International Energy Agency states that over ninety minutes, enough sunlight strikes the Earth to provide the entire planet’s energy needs for an entire year.
Solar Power is affordable, clean, and abundant.
It’s the cheapest form of electricity production meaning significantly reduced bills for ordinary households, while technological advances in the area means its more deployable than ever before.
So, it’s an absolute no-brainer that government should seize on the incredible potential of Solar Power.
Minister McGrath has outlined developments under this government.
And I very much welcome that we now have the first utility scale solar farms connected to the system – but we need much more.
I am relieved by the progress made on removing restrictions on residential rooftops for Solar panels.
Despite this, ordinary workers and families continue to face significant barriers to Ireland’s participation in the solar revolution.
And I know that Cork Airport announced last week that it is to invest in a state-of-the-art solar farm.
Yet I remain concerned that the government does not adequately understand and grasp the scale of the opportunity that solar power presents.
Solar power in Ireland has emerged as Ireland’s fastest growing energy source.
With the right policies and the right plan, it has the capacity to outstrip all other fuel sources.
Solar Power is perfectly positioned to help Ireland reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, cut emissions and bring us ever closer to an energy independent Ireland.
I know that the organisations and businesses represented in this room are bursting with enthusiasm to make that happen.
So, the big question: is the state demonstrating the required level of ambition or moving fast enough to harness and capitalise on the huge potential of solar power? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
While there has been a noticeable increase in the installation of domestic Solar Power systems in the last eighteen months, we are still only hitting 25,000 homes a year out of a potential one million.
There is huge scope for change and improvement.
By the end of this year, one gigawatt of Solar Power will be connected to the system.
We need to build on this momentum with more ambition, pace, and urgency if we are to meet our five-gigawatt solar target for 2025 and our eight-gigawatt target for 2030.
We need the level of investment that matches the scale of the challenge and opportunity before us.
Investment that promotes and enables the rapid roll-out of Solar projects and provides for the modern upgrading of the national grid to increase connection capacity for solar power, including community-based micro-generation.
Tackling inertia and removing barriers
Clearly, a plan must be urgently brought forward for the state to advance the strategic importance of renewable energy.
We need action focused on tackling state inertia and barriers that impact the delivery of renewable projects.
That means sorting out the planning process for renewable energy projects. It’s not fit for purpose.
The system is slow, adversarial, and racked full of uncertainty. This frustrates and delays projects.
Currently, renewable energy projects are taking well over a year to get through the process. Many are timing out of their RESS contracts as a result.
A change in how projects are classified and assessed by An Bord Pleanála is required and crucially, the government must ramp-up staffing commitments for the planning system.
This is how we will see renewable energy projects take-off, providing opportunities for investment and employment in clean energy.
We also need significant investment in our grid infrastructure to ensure we fully realise the benefits of renewables.
Securing a grid connection is a real barrier to progressing renewable projects.
Decades of bad planning and inaction has created this problem. A major step change is needed.
Government must come forward with the now-overdue Regional Renewable Electricity Strategies.
We need Government to deliver ambitious industrial strategies across all renewable fuel sources, including solar.
The state must get serious about increasing grid connections and grid capacity at an accelerated pace.
We need a conclusion to the long-awaited private wires consultation.
Ireland cannot afford a continuation of the stop-start-delay approach to Grid development.
The cost of producing renewable energy in Ireland is far too high. This hamstrings progress and delivery.
We saw this when the results of the RESS 3 auction were published. It was the least successful to date, clearing the smallest volume of renewable energy at the highest price.
Instead of prices going down, they increased compared to previous auctions – and beyond even the most pessimistic estimates of most.
There are some reasons for this that are beyond the government’s control, but a lot of the increase is due to policy decisions in relation to planning, grid development and auction design.
We have called for a cross-Government, high level task force on cost of renewables to be established urgently.
This taskforce would work with industry and other stakeholders, to identify the contributory factors and to bring forward recommendations within six months on how we can cut the cost of producing renewable energy here.
A Whole-of-Society Solar Revolution
The goal of the state must be to lead, and invest in, a whole of society Solar revolution.
This week, Sinn Féin launched our proposals to maximise Ireland’s Solar potential.
We want to deliver even more ambitious solar programmes that prioritise new interventions, and that further increase the accessibility and affordability of Solar Power.
Our proposals are pragmatic, sensible, and achievable. Let me tell you about three.
Solar for the many, not just the few
Firstly, let’s make access to Solar Power for the many, not just the few.
Presently, too many low and middle income households are locked-out due the high initial cost of Solar PV installation, even with the Solar Scheme Grant.
Furthermore, Solar in currently excluded from the Government’s Warmer Homes Scheme, meaning those who would benefit most from reduced electricity are cut out of savings and microgeneration participation.
To open the potential of Solar to more people, we would double the funding for the Solar PV scheme, and restructure grant funding to increase the number of Solar installations in 2024.
We would do this by tiering supports, ranging from 100% to 10% of the cost depending on household income.
Ireland’s energy transformation and access to renewables must be for everyone, not just for those of means.
We would also unleash the capacity of Ireland’s Social Housing stock to drive, establishing a dedicated Solar PV scheme for local authority homes.
This is key to creating a cleaner, more equitable energy infrastructure so that low-and-middle income households can benefit.
Schools as Solar Pioneers
Secondly, with the support of government, our schools can lead the Solar power transition. There are 4,000 school buildings across the state.
They hold huge potential to become Solar Power pioneers and leaders in the microgeneration of renewable energy.
This would help to cut emissions and, of course, help reduce the huge energy bills that schools face.
Under pressure from Sinn Féin, the Government published revised regulations to remove restrictions on installing Solar PV panels on school buildings.
Government also adopted our proposals to fit solar panels on schools. I want to acknowledge this. Unfortunately, a year has passed, and no progress has been made.
Promises must be followed with actions. Delivery is essential. This is why we must invest ambitiously to install Solar Panels on every school over three years.
Our young people are amazing. The cornerstone of Ireland’s energy revolution is education and empowering young people to play their part.
Solar in schools can help promote everyday climate action, inspiring and driving the radical change that is so desperately needed.
Solar and the Community
Thirdly, the energy revolution must be built from the ground up.
We are enthusiastic and ambitious in our belief that Solar can deliver for communities.
The empowerment of communities is fundamental to achieving energy independence for Ireland, combatting climate change, and the realisation of a carbon-neutral society.
Grassroots action and support for sustainable energy communities will create the added momentum to take us forward.
Ireland’s sports clubhouses and community halls hold massive potential for Solar power microgeneration.
We welcome of the extension of the €2,400 grants for Solar PV to sporting organisations, but this still leaves the installation of solar panels out of the reach of many local voluntary organisations.
High costs of installation and grid connection represent a significant, and all too common barrier to the viability of local microgeneration projects.
We need to invest significantly to support sustainable energy communities properly and provide the funding they need to connect these projects to the grid.
Community has always been Ireland’s superpower and it should be harnessed now to progress our journey to a future of clean, affordable energy independence for all.
Friends our renewable energy revolution must be led by the state, with determination and ambition.
Renewable energy organisations, in partnership with local communities must be facilitated and supported in delivering projects at pace and at scale.
In a time of climate crisis, the urgent need to transform how we produce energy has never been clearer.
Government must embrace change; embrace innovation, creativity, outside the box thinking, and demonstrate genuine leadership.
We need action, we need a real plan, and we need pace. We must sort out the delays in our planning system, invest in our public infrastructure, and work in collaboration with business, semi-states, and international partners, to realise investment opportunities. There is no time to waste.
Our great revolutionary, James Connolly once said, “For our demands most moderate are, We only want the Earth.” That demand hasn’t changed. We seek to protect and renew the Earth, to reverse the damage done to our planet, to create a safe and prosperous future for our children and grandchildren, we must seize the moment for Ireland’s renewable energy revolution, the moment for Solar power transformation, the moment for energy independence.
So, let’s do this. Let’s do this now. Let’s do it together.