Barry Cowen: Sell the ESB and invest in our future energy

Ireland can be a renewable energy exporter and the backbone of a new green Europe

‘The idea that we could have a brand new industry the current size of the Irish economy off our shores in three decades time is exciting and challenging.’ Picture: Getty

Our focus for the past number of years has understandably been on Covid-19 and Brexit but hopefully now as we come to an easing of the pandemic, it is time to put the focus back on the economy.

After two years of little hope, our younger generation, who have suffered greatly in the pandemic, need to see our ideas for the future so they can have hope and faith in us as politicians.

In my own view, the public expects its government to do good on housing, on childcare costs, on health and education, on climate change, on energy, on a just transition to new ways of living and working and on unification of the island.

But the current energy crisis for our island requires other achievements too. Rather than be a passenger in an international energy crisis, we need to put our stake in the ground globally on energy. The opportunity of record tax returns needs to be invested to give a green future — socially, financially and environmentally — to our next generations. We need to plan our energy future and our energy system.

Along with record tax funds, I believe we should also use the proceeds from the sale of the ESB to invest into the future.

As I have said before in the Dáil and in media commentary, I have some deep concerns about the ESB. In the first half of 2021, while businesses throughout the country struggled and hundreds of thousands of people fought to survive on the PUP, the ESB announced an increase in operating profits by €114 million. Before exceptional items, its operating profit was €363 million.

I have challenged ESB on several fronts, questioning its role in energy costs, questioning how public service obligations benefit the ESB, questioning the regulation of the ESB, as well as seeking an investigation on manipulation of the energy market. Most of all I cannot understand how we have arrived in this situation of a lack of energy security — in a country brimming with energy sources.

I have decided to take these ESB and regulatory issues to the European Union for a State aid investigation, plus to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission for an investigation of the ESB’s price hikes for householders.

The European Commission will now ensure that ESB is properly overseen and regulated. At this point in time, as EU regulation will ensure a functioning company and market for the consumer, I do not believe it is in the state’s interest to continue to own the ESB. It has served a useful purpose over the decades and has been an asset for the state. But the time has come to have a debate on its ownership.

The state has often been a pointless owner of assets and a terrible shareholder. It also has not been able to supervise the companies it owns, either lacking the technical people to see what its businesses were doing or unwilling to use the powers to curb them. Ownership is no longer the key determinant of how dominant companies operate, it is proper regulation that the EU will now insist on. In my view, we need to review the regulation of the ESB with the EU.

But I also think we should sell the company off and use the money to power our move into offshore wind and other industries for a green future. Staff and other interested parties should be allowed to participate in the sale proceeds but the bulk must be used to invest in the future and ensuring we have a functioning energy market.

We cannot allow ourselves again to be in this situation where we lack energy security. There is enormous potential to be gained from offshore wind development in Irish coastal waters. One gigawatt (GW) will power 750,000 homes. There is 15GW of wind power off the south and east coasts, mainly for fixed-bottom turbine projects. Off the west coast, there is at least 30GWs available and over time 100GWs could be achieved mainly through floating turbine projects.

Ireland needs to grasp these opportunities. We can be a renewable energy exporter and the backbone to a new green Europe, creating well-paid jobs here in service and supply chain.

IDA Ireland and other state agencies need to be directed to this opportunity immediately and Ireland needs to take a leadership role in it. Our ports need to be focused on this opportunity too and upgraded or developed to be able to take part. Up to €3 billion of investment will be chasing each GW of power into the future. The Scottish have already started auctions of its sea bed to make itself at the forefront of this offshore wind opportunity. Ireland needs to leapfrog Scotland and others and become the global leader of an industry that could be worth €300 billion by 2050. That’s more or less the current size of most of the Irish economy as it stands now.

The idea that we could have a brand new industry the current size of the Irish economy off our shores in three decades time is exciting and challenging. The employment from these energy opportunities here can be enormous. For every GW of power, the direct employment will be several thousand, many in the remotest parts of Ireland. The indirect opportunities at ports, in industries that locate needing power will be limitless. The availability of a rich supply of sustainable green energy will be the commodity of the future. Ireland has the potential in abundance and needs to maximise its geography for its advantage in the world.

To achieve this, a stand-alone Department of Energy needs to be established. At the moment, six government departments and as many government agencies hold different parts of the energy jigsaw.

One point of government, with an economic and environmental energy focus, needs to hold all the relevant powers instead of the current warren of the Departments of Environment, Housing, Transport, Enterprise, Agriculture, Finance, Public Expenditure, CRU, Eirgrid, ESB, An Bord Pleanala, IDA, Enterprise and many more.

Barry Cowen is a Fianna Fáil TD and former party spokesman on the environment