Speech at Energy Action Conference 2014

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry that I cannot be with you there today in person, unfortunately pressing European business means that I am unavoidably detained elsewhere.

I firmly believe that the challenge of energy affordability is one of the most pressing we face as a society. Energy is not a luxury, it is a fundamental requirement of modern life and we have a shared responsibility as a society to ensure that everyone can afford to heat and power their homes.

This is a daunting challenge and there are no quick fix solutions. Addressing energy poverty requires holistic solutions. Industry, Government and consumer groups all need to work together to develop the type of solutions that can make a real difference for those in energy poverty. Today’s conference is a tangible example of the kind of collaborative approach we need to further develop and I would like to commend Energy Action for its organisation.

The case for addressing energy poverty is clear. Studies in the UK and further afield have demonstrated that allowing people to live in homes that are comfortable and warm has an enormous impact upon the quality of their lives, which is reflected in lower costs for our health system.

I believe that it is important that more field research is carried out in this area and indeed that the current body of research is brought together. This evidence-based approach will help to inform policy-makers to identify the most effective solutions to fuel poverty.

Unfortunately it is often the case that the customers experiencing the greatest difficulty with their energy bills are those families living in sub-standard accommodation. In effect, they end up having to spend more money to achieve the same or a lower level of comfort than a family in a home with better insulation. This can turn into a vicious cycle of rising health and energy bills and invariably the point comes when something snaps.

We need to break this cycle and we have the means to do so. Improving the thermal efficiency of our homes replaces imported fossil fuel with domestic jobs, lowers our emissions and lets people heat their homes with less energy and lower bills. Already, working with organisations like Energy Action, the Government’s Warmer Homes programme has upgraded over 105,000 homes, with a further 12,000 homes to be upgraded in 2014 and I will fight to ensure that Budget 2015 protects programmes like the Warmer Homes scheme.

These retrofitting programmes also support the economy by substituting our dependence on imported fossil fuels with local employment throughout the country. I remain committed to the Community based organisations playing a vital role in the in the scheme as we move towards a new tendering system in the new year, alongside private contractors

We also must ensure that the competitive energy market is working on behalf of all consumers, not just the most sophisticated consumers. We need to educate and engage consumers. Through new initiatives like the energy engage code, which protects a customer who engages with their energy supplier from disconnection and the series of workshops my Department is embarking on to seek input on the Energy Green Paper, I hope that more and more people will become engaged energy citizens.

We cannot forget that around seven hundred thousand households in Ireland are using oil to heat their homes. That’s nearly half of the homes in the country. Many of those households are in rural areas and areas without access to the gas grid. The economic downturn has left some of these households struggling to save the funds required to fill their oil tanks for the winter months, particularly as the price of oil can vary making it difficult for them to budget adequately. We need to consider practical and innovative solutions that could be implemented to give these customers some of the protections that other energy consumers already enjoy. For example, working with Saint Vincent de Paul, my Department is about to embark upon an oil stamps saving scheme, that if successfully piloted, we will roll out nationally.

It is a core commitment of the Programme for Government to help people at risk of energy poverty. We will continue to upgrade people’s homes through retrofit measures. We will continue to support the most vulnerable in our society through the social protection system and we will continue to promote the development of healthy competition in the energy market and ensure that the market delivers for consumers. We will also work closely with the organisations represented at the energy action conference.

To this end I would like to inform you all that my Department is currently working on a review of the Government’s Affordability Strategy and I aim to publish a consultation paper on what should form the basis of the Government’s next affordability strategy in the coming weeks. I look forward to your input into this process.

I wish you a productive conference and I look forward to hearing your views in the forthcoming energy affordability consultation and through the Energy Policy Paper process.

Thank you very much.