Rabbitte insists he is a good fit for his department and is excited about future
Interview:If a headhunting team began a trawl to find the most suitable person to be minister for communications, energy and natural resources, it is likely they would choose a technocrat.
On the face of it it is a portfolio for someone who likes details, especially abstruse technical details, and for whom a spreadsheet on the latest oil and gas test flows is far more alluring than the final episode of Love/Hate.
In other words, somebody who is not Pat Rabbitte. A perception has grown that the department is not a natural fit for him, outside the communications and media part of the portfolio.
It is probably based on Rabbitte’s reputation – a former Labour leader, authoritative and comfortable on the economy, the Dáil’s most naturally gifted communicator. Tilting quixotically after the latest windmill project just doesn’t seem him.
He rejects the perception and says there is no basis to it.
He also says he is enthusiastic about all the responsibilities in the Government’s most diverse ministry – one that straddles projects as different as post codes, protecting and selling State assets, renewable energy, home insulation, digital switchover, oil and gas exploration, broadband, spectrum auctions and the digital hub.
Asked about the perception, he says: “It’s not true. I don’t know who is responsible for that. It’s a tremendously exciting department, [one] for the future.
“The things that are happening here in terms of the digital economy; interconnectivity; broadcasting; postal services [where electronic substitution is eating into the core business]; and offshore exploration which is tremendously exciting.”
Rabbitte describes the department as an enabling one, but one than needs critical investment in infrastructure for energy and telecoms.
On broadband, he believes fierce competition will bring high speed very quickly in urban areas but accepts State intervention will be needed to provide quality bandwidth in rural areas.
He believes the Government’s targets of 100 per cent high-quality broadband penetration will be met, pointing to one early success, lightning-quick broadband in schools.
“I am very proud of the plan to deliver 100Mbps broadband to all second-level schools [all 736 schools will be connected by 2014].
“You have to visit the schools to appreciate the difference it makes,” he says.
On energy, he points out that the big building projects take a decade or more to complete. There’s an argument you can long-finger those projects in an economic downturn but he doesn’t agree.
He argues for continuity and points to the development of the national grid, under the €3.2 billion Grid 25 project (a major upgrade of the grid, that will enable extensive use of renewable energy among other things).
The North-South and east-west interconnectors are also vital for energy security.
“The possibility to build up renewable capacity is dependent on the grid being up to par . . .
“The other big project I hope we can finalise is the capacity of this island to trade energy with the neighbouring island. We have a capacity to generate twice our need.”
The British government needs energy and needs to meet its renewable targets. He said that kind of arrangement would be a “win-win” for both islands. Rabbitte says the perception is that the west coast is best for wind but he says it can be “especially capricious”. Referring to the recent launch of the 126 megawatt Mount Lucas wind farm on a Bord na Móna bog in Offaly, he pointed out that the midlands was also very suitable and that there were thousands of acres of cutaway bog available.
Ireland’s ration of renewable energy is 18 per cent, slightly under half the 40 per cent target for 2020. He believes that this is achievable, mainly through wind and biofuels.
However, some other big ticket projects appear to have stuttered in recent years. Constraints on finances had limited progress on the development of wave and ocean energy, he accepted.
“We are attempting to keep it alive but that’s the only thing that we are doing.” He also accepts the take-up for electric cars is slow but puts that down to the premium price still being charged. Until that drops, consumer uptake will be slow, he says, indicating that there will be no State incentives or grants in the short term.
The original target was for 230,000 electric vehicles by 2020 but that figure is clearly not realisable. Only a handful of electric vehicles were sold in Ireland last year.
His department has been criticised for not being active enough in pushing the massive project to retrofit one million Irish homes by 2020. The policy seems in limbo at present. The last government’s grant scheme for insulation is continuing, albeit with more modest grants. This Government’s Pay as You Save (where households pay the cost of retrofitting over a number of years as part of the scheme) will not come in until next year but in a recent report, the National Economic and Social Council expressed concern that the department did not have the resources, personnel, or expertise to oversee the retrofitting of 100,000 homes a year. It also pointed to a fall-off in uptake.
Rabbitte concedes that point. “There were 5,500 employed in the retrofit programme according to the 2011 figures. It could be as much as 1,000 fewer in 2012.”
He said the Opposition claimed it was because he moderated the grant. But, he argued, there were other factors. He said the continuing recession was the biggest factor.
“Even though you get a grant you put your hand in your pocket. You need €8,000 to come up with a job that’s improved.” He said that the second factor was the mild winter last year compared to the two previous years. The third factor was that those with the most interest in it were the early adaptors.
Rabbitte said plans were well under way to design a product that was attractive to householders and talks were being advanced with utility companies, the two main banks and others. He added that the aim remained to retrofit one million homes.
“The energy efficiency message is a huge one in my view.”