Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Alex White, TD talks to Owen McQuade about how delivering on energy and broadband policy opens up real opportunities and has the potential for involving citizens in changing Ireland for the better.
Few briefs in government are as varied as that of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (DCENR). Alex White recognises the challenging nature of his post but is also keen to point out its strategic importance for the State and its future prospects.
Reflecting on his first impressions of his portfolio, White points to the breadth and “sheer size of the agenda that the department has to deal with from telecoms across to energy policy and natural resources.” Indeed, he recognises the case for “at least two” departments to cover such a wide brief.
“That having been said, it includes some of the most critical policy areas for the country as we look to the medium and long term,” he adds. While the decisions of many other government departments have consequences on a daily or weekly level, DCENR has “the luxury of looking to the somewhat longer term,” particularly in energy policy. This represents a “very demanding” but ultimately rewarding responsibility for its staff.
The role of Minister in this portfolio was traditionally “sitting on top” of a system that continued to operate from one week to the next. However, it increasingly involves looking to the future and assessing Ireland’s energy needs, the right sources for the system, and how to combine those in a policy statement in the best way for the country.
He continues: “One aspect of my role that’s really come home to me in more recent months is the really close connection that there is actually between the communications side and the energy side. If you look at the potential for change in the energy sector, a huge amount of it is going to be driven by ICT.” Energy demand measurement is “bursting” into the ICT sector with an exponential increase in opportunities for Irish companies, large and small, via the smart grid.
“The older model of big companies generating, supplying us with the energy, and determining what the energy landscape should be has the potential to be changed now,” he remarks, “by putting the consumer and the citizen at the very centre of the consumption of energy rather than it being something which is ‘take it or leave it’ from the big companies or utilities.”
That element of “personal agency” in energy use interlinks with energy efficiency where Ireland has a good record but can go further. He notes that in other countries, this shift is raising questions about the traditional utility model. “All of the players, big and small, will have to recognise that this is a period of immense change,” the Minister adds, predicting that in five years’ time, the landscape will look very different.
The State’s last white paper was published in 2007 and a revised version is to follow later this year. “It gives us a great opportunity as a country,” White comments, “to assess what our needs are for the future but also to look at how we can integrate, into our policy and into our energy regime, all of the new technologies which are available.”
He has just returned from spending two days at the Low Carbon Scotland conference in Edinburgh. “We’ve done extremely well here and we’ve great potential on the renewables side,” he adds but Scotland is “a beacon” for the sector. Both jurisdictions, in his view, can learn a lot from each other due to their geographic peripherality, similar population sizes and strong rural economies.
Scotland, in his view, is the leader in onshore wind development. White was joined by six innovative Irish firms, mostly with ICT expertise. Dundalk-based Climote, for example, has developed a mobile technology which allows the user to turn their home heating on or off. “Traditionally you would see the peaks in energy consumption,” he notes, with the highest being at Tuesday tea-time. “We’ll have a chance in the future to change those traditional givens in energy and people will be able to do that themselves.”
Another significant change is coming in energy storage for which compelling ICT solutions are being developed e.g. electric vehicles and heat storage in hot water boilers: “The potential really is transformative.”
The first step in the white paper process was the publication of the green paper in May last year, followed by an extensive public consultation. “We have naturally enough – and perfectly legitimately – a strong industry and they want to progress their interest,” White explains. People who object to energy infrastructure are also participating in the policy process but he characterises around 95 per cent of the population as “too often passive consumers.”
White wants to see people becoming ‘energy citizens’ i.e. willing to discuss energy and recognise how they can influence its use through their choices. Denmark and Germany are “real trailblazers” in this area but the policy context is different. There is a “robust tradition” of consultation in Denmark “where every issue is thrashed out, every conceivable element of a new proposal is fully assessed publically and people have an input into it.”
Ireland’s discourse on energy – and indeed water – needs to be “more mature” and White hopes that the white paper will advance this change. He sees the status quo as reflecting the State’s political traditions whereby people react against policies when they don’t feel that they have been engaged with. “Too often, people see new proposals or new technologies or new installations – like wind farms or the grid – as an imposition on them,” he comments, “rather than something that is in the better interests of the country.” The Minister was recently asked by a TD: “What’s in it for my county?”
White notes that objections to mobile phone masts have “almost completely disappeared because people make the connection, of course, between the mast and the quality of reception on their phones.” If a similar connection can made between electricity pylons and a better quality of life, the same shift can take place in energy.
“None of us is in the business of trying to locate large structures right on top of people and right on top of communities,” he affirms. White is satisfied with the planning guidelines for energy projects but he wants the related planning decisions to be settled “collectively” by communities rather than being perceived as imposed from Dublin.
“The facts tell us that onshore wind has been the most cost-effective of the renewables in this country,” White states, adding that policy-makers are sometimes “too reticent” in explaining that value to the public because of the contentious nature of the debate: “We do need to be more forthright in that regard.”
Climate change is a very real problem for the State but, even if it did not exist, Ireland would still need to overcome its heavy reliance on imported fossil fuels. Our overall import dependency was 89 per cent in 2013. Renewables are efficient “and renewable in every sense of the word” once they are up and running. White also sees “massive potential” in solar, biomass and offshore wind – although an enormous level of investment will be needed to release the latter source. €26 million has been allocated for research into ocean energy between 2013 and 2016.
Ireland’s pooled Single Electricity Market differs markedly from the BETTA system in Great Britain, which centres on direct contracts between generators and suppliers. The regulators, he acknowledges, are working on the future design of the Irish market but he highlights the all-island nature of the market as an example of what can be achieved through policy.
“With all of the drawbacks that go with being peripheral, if we can maximise what we can achieve and deliver on the island of Ireland, I think that can only be good for North and South,” he comments.
In discussions with EU counterparts in the Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council, White has been emphasising the need for Ireland’s connectivity with continental European networks. “We don’t know which way political developments are going to go in the UK, in relation to the possibility of Britain leaving the European Union,” he surmises. “We hope they don’t leave and we think they should stay and we’ve made that very, very clear.” In any event, Ireland needs to look at all the available options and he is giving an Ireland-France interconnector “very serious attention.”
For White, the case for universal access to high quality broadband is “unanswerable” and its roll-out will also empower citizens by giving them more control over their health through telemonitoring and more educational opportunities for their children.
“That’s before we even talk about the enormous advantage that is going to be there when everybody has access to high speed broadband,” he adds, “keeping small businesses in rural Ireland in particular, having that full connectivity that we expect to have in the cities.”
The private sector has already spent €2.5 billion in expanding broadband coverage but, in 30 per cent of the country, the investment will not be profitable and the State will intervene. By this summer, DCENR will have produced a detailed implementation plan for the network’s ownership, and its funding sources and governance structures.
This will be followed by an application for EU state aid in the autumn with a view to going out to tender by the end of 2015. Based on that timetable, a successful bidder should be in place by early-to-mid 2016 “and there’s no reason to believe at the moment why there should be any slippage in that.” Rolling out the cable will take three to five years and his intention is that the last customer should receive broadband by the end of 2020.
With “pretty much exactly a year” to the next election, he identifies the energy white paper as the most important priority, followed closely by ensuring that the exacting timetable for broadband is complied with. On a final note, he quips: “I’d like to be part of the recovery in my party’s fortunes as well.”
With a family background in the Labour Party, he was always interested in politics and is disappointed that – as a profession – it is currently held in such a low regard. White explains: “If you see things in your country, whether it’s on your street or more broadly in the society or your country, that you’d like to see [becoming] different, one pretty good way of trying to achieve change is to get into politics.”
Profile: Alex White TD
Originally from Dublin’s North Side, Alex White had a successful career as a barrister for 20 years – in employment law – and as a current affairs producer in RTÉ before entering politics. Educated at Chanel College, Coolock, he graduated in economic and social studies from Trinity College Dublin. Married to NUI Maynooth sociologist Mary Corcoran, they have one daughter and one son.
He was initially a councillor on South Dublin County Council and then a Senator (2007-2011) and TD for Dublin South since 2011. He joined the Cabinet last July after serving as Minister of State for Primary Care. In terms of interests outside politics, he’s a “pretty wide reader” and his last book was ‘The Man Who Loved Dogs’ by Leonardo Padura.