The Government cannot give an “absolute guarantee” that power blackouts will be avoided this winter, Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath has said.
Mr McGrath was speaking on his way into a Cabinet meeting where the energy crisis and how the public sector can conserve power is on the agenda for discussion by Ministers.
The Fianna Fáil TD said: “We’re going to do everything possible to ensure continuity of supply and we’re working very closely with the regulator, with the grid operator, on all of the options available to Government.
He said steps are being taken to address the risk over the medium to long term but added: “in the very short term in relation to this winter, it is tight”.
Mr McGrath said: “Everything possible that can be done will be done by the Government and the stakeholders involved.”
Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan has signalled that a second electricity bill credit for all households will be paid in the autumn to help with soaring utility bills. All households got a €200 credit earlier this year.
Asked if a second credit could be paid before Christmas Mr Ryan replied: “yes”. He added: “We held back. A lot of people were arguing we should have done a mini-budget in the summer, and we said at the time ‘no’ because the time this is going to hit is in the late autumn, early next year.
“So I think it was absolutely right for us to hold our fire to wait to see what the real situation was in the autumn, and that’s when we need to provide supports. That’s the right time to do it,” the Minister said.
Mr Ryan also highlighted this week’s emergency meeting of European Union ministers at which proposals to hit the revenues of energy companies and decouple the cost of electricity from the price of gas will be considered.
On how the proposals could benefit Ireland Mr Ryan said: “Half our electricity is made from gas, and the price there is set by what the Russians are doing so we can’t change that. But the other half, the real cost of producing the electricity, is way below what that market price set by gas is.
“So by taking that difference and giving it back to the householders that helps reduce the bills. It doesn’t cut all the cost but it can make a significant difference,” Mr Ryan said.
He said Ireland is very supportive of the proposals and added: “we hope we can get the European Council to agree them and if so we’ll very quickly apply them.” He said the effect on the market would be the same as a windfall tax.
Mr McGrath said that less than three weeks out from the budget, work is at an advanced stage and that another electricity credit is an “option on the table”.
He said: “We are deeply concerned at the very significant escalation in energy prices. We know it’s going to present a very real problem for many thousands of households and indeed businesses.
“So at the moment we’re calibrating our approach,” Mr McGrath said. We will take account what is decided at an EU level later this week, and then we will make final decisions as we approach budget day.”
On the prospect of an electricity credit he said: “it is an option on the table so we will be looking at what supports we can extend to people quickly that make a real difference for them.
“Some of those measures will be targeted in nature through the social welfare code and the different payments schemes that are there, but we will also be looking at measures that have a broader application because we know that many people who are above the income eligibility thresholds for anySstate benefits are really feeling the pressure too and they will also need help.”
He added: “we recognise it will need to be a significant intervention by Government on budget day. We want to administer supports to people as quickly as possible. It is going to be a difficult autumn and winter period.”
Mr Ryan was expected to bring a memo to Cabinet on how the public sector can save energy by setting temperature limits at 19 degrees in offices as well as avoiding the unnecessary heating of low occupancy spaces.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Prime Time, Mr Ryan said households and businesses would need to cut energy use between peak times of 5pm and 7pm.
“That’s the time when actually the last generator goes on. So if we can use some of our devices, in large industry or at home, those washing machines, dishwashers which can be done on a time basis, that actually is one of the best ways of getting through the winter without having to turn on to those last generators at the peak period,” he added.
A senior researcher in clean energy futures has warned the energy crisis “will deepen” and there will be further price increases before Christmas.
Ireland was one of the most fossil fuel-reliant countries in Europe, and there was a need to reduce this reliance as much as possible, Dr Paul Deane of Science Foundation Ireland’s MaREI Centre in University College Cork told RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland.
Householders should be given information on how to analyse energy loads, so they would know when the best times to use the dishwasher, the tumble dryer or when it would be best to defer use of the electric shower, he said.
“This is not about stopping everybody using energy; it is about smarter use at different times.”
If one million households did this it would make a difference, and large industry and manufacturing could also change their use loads, Dr Dean said.
The situation was very serious, and not everybody could be shielded from the crisis, but the most vulnerable must be protected, he said.
Retail Excellence, the group representing thousands of Irish retailers, has warned “major intervention” will be needed from the Government on energy costs “to keep businesses’ lights on this Christmas”.
The organisation’s managing director, Duncan Graham, said “unprecedented energy bills [are] threatening thousands of livelihoods around the country. It is critically important that we see a major intervention from the Government in the forthcoming budget.”
He called on the Government to cap energy costs. “Our members don’t like uncertainty, and a cap on energy costs would ensure that retailers could at least plan for the coming months with the sure knowledge that they won’t be facing even more price hikes.
“If we don’t see an energy price cap, then we will certainly experience a poor trading season for the third Christmas in a row. Many of our members will not be able to sustain that pressure,” Mr Graham said.