News Ireland daily BLOG by donie

Tuesday 14th June 2016

€200m fund will help build 20,000 homes, says Coveney

But the building fund will not be available until 2017 and the scheme will apply over three years.

     

The Minister for Housing Simon Coveney claims the building fund would allow developers “bring forward their plans for timetabling” developments and bring about “real movement” in the construction industry.

A fund established by the Government to help to build small infrastructural projects will speed up the construction of some homes by two years, Minister for Housing Simon Coveney has said.

Mr Coveney and Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe said the new €200 million “local infrastructure fund” would help build between 15,000 and 20,000 new houses or apartments.

Councils will be able to avail of the fund to build small infrastructural projects, such as access roads, bridges, amenities, and surface water management facilities. This would help speed up the development of sites for houses and apartments by removing the financial burden of such projects from developers.

Mr Coveney claimed it would allow developers “bring forward their plans for timetabling” developments and bring about “real movement” in the construction industry.

Not available until next year?

The move was welcomed by organisations including Engineers Ireland and the Construction Industry Federation.

The funding will not come into effect until next year, however, and the scheme will apply over three years. The Ministers said the money available, which will be awarded on a competitive basis, will be frontloaded.

“We are trying to ensure that projects that otherwise would be going ahead in 2019 or 2020, when local authorities find a way of affording infrastructure, that actually those projects can go ahead in 2017 or 2018,” Mr Coveney said.

“When Paschal talks about this fund being spread over three years, the vast majority of it will be spent over the first two years. Only €30 million of the €200 million is earmarked for the third year.”

Mr Donohoe said the fund could be used for infrastructure such as “a road . . . a connection to an ESB station, it could be a connection to a gas mains”.

It will help with urban housing shortages in Dublin and Cork in particular, Mr Coveney said. He said the average cost of building a house in Dublin is €330,000, with €57,000 linked to construction costs.

More than 7,000 Irish jobs could come from solar power “says a new report”

A new study shows huge potential for job creation from renewable energy?

     

Solar power could create up to 7,300 jobs while meeting 7% of electricity demand, according to report published by the industry on Tuesday.

The Irish Solar Energy Association is lobbying the Government for supports similar those given to wind and other renewables, which will cost consumers and businesses €181 million this year.

On Tuesday, the body said that a report it commissioned from accountants KPMG shows that solar has the potential to create 7,300 jobs in building and operating generating plants.

The association added that results from commercial rooftop solar panels installed in the south east over the first two weeks of June indicate that an established industry could meet 7 per cent of Irish electricity demand.

Chairman David Maguire said on Tuesday that solar is the only form of renewable energy that does not receive some form of subsidy to aid its development.

He explained that the group favours an auction system rather the system of guarranteed prices given to wind farms, which are funded through a levy on electricity bills known as the public service obligation.

Using the auction approach, the Single Electricity Market Operator could decide in advance that solar generators should supply a set amount of the country’s total electricity demand.

It would then invite the industry to bid for that and award contracts to the cheapest suppliers. “They would have to have land, planning permission and grid connections to qualify, and they would have to pay a deposit to take part,”Mr Magure said.

He added that any operator who fails to fulfill their contract could be sanctioned. “We believe that this would give the industry and consumers the best value ,” Mr Maguire said.

The Government is to decide on a replacement for the current round of supports, dubbed Renewable Energy Feed in Taruiff (Refit), this year. Householders and businesses pay for this through the public service charge on their bills.

Over the 12 months to next October, they will have paid €181 million to the renewable energy industry, which is largely made up wind generators.

The cash collected from consumers and businesses bridges the gap between the wholesale market price of electricity and prices guaranteed to the wind farm owners under the Refit scheme.

Despite the supports, Mr Maguire warned that the Republic is likely to fall short on renewable energy targets agreed with the EU, which require 40 per cent of all electricity to be generated from green sources by 2020.

This could result in the State paying fines of more than €300 million a-year to Brussels for failing to keep to this committment.

“It is clear the country is facing a real challenge to meet these targets and avoid significant fines,” Mr Maguire said.

“Despite the successful deployment of wind energy in Ireland, which enjoyed considerable state support, wind alone will not ensure that we reach that goal.”

He argued that solar, which contributes significantly to power generation in other European countries, but is still undeveloped here, could aid the Republic in meeting its targets with the right level of support.

He also pointed out that Germany, which is on a similar latitude to Ireland, gets 7% of its power from solar.

Mr Maguire’s association has more than 100 members, including his own company, BNRG.

Confused messages from Ireland’s banks on mortgage rates

Central Bank’s monthly mortgage figures confusingly based on a mix of loan types

     

Amid the persistent heightened attention in recent weeks on mortgage rates that Irish banks are charging their customers, there is one curious anomaly which continues to persist: the Central Bank’s publication of mortgage interest rates.

Last week, the bank indicated the rate on new variable rate mortgages was just 3.08% as of end-April. But how can this be when the lowest rate available to a property purchaser today is actually greater than this, at 3.1% from KBC Bank? And that rate is only available to people who have a deposit of at least 50% of the purchase price.

The reason apparently is that the 3.08% rate mentioned in the Central Bank’s report is drawn from the ECB’s Monetary Financial Institution Interest Rate (MIR) framework. So, despite the name of the data, “Interest Rates on new floating rate loan agreements to households for house purchase”, the figure published in the Central Bank’s monthly statistics is actually based on a mix of fixed and variable contracts – and in addition to mortgages also includes home improvement loans.

It’s a metric that allows the ECB to compare rates on a level footing in the euro zone, which is fair enough. But for those looking for a “fix” on Irish mortgage rates, the data can be confusing. Indeed in April the Central Bank itself published an article which acknowledged the MIR figure “is often mistaken to represent new mortgages with a standard variable rate”.

So why does the Central Bank persist in using this data in its monthly bulletins and not in conjunction with its own data on mortgage rates, which it publishes on a quarterly basis, and which it says itself, are “more suited to domestic analysis”?

The Central Bank says it is bound by an ECB regulation to continue publishing the MIR data, but to avoid confusion it would be useful if it could publish its new business rates each time it publishes the MIR data – or at least explain the difference between the two.

Experts now suggest a diet of whole-grains could be the secret to a longer life

     

A large bowl of porridge every day could protect against cancer and keep the doctor away?

A large bowl of porridge every day could protect against death from cancer, the biggest analysis of the benefits of whole grains has shown.

Oats have long been considered a superfood, staving off illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.

But now a review by Harvard University has found that whole grains also appear to prevent early death and lower the chance of dying from cancer.

A meta-analysis of 12 studies involving nearly 800,000 people found that eating 70 grams of whole grains a day – the equivalent of a large bowl of porridge – lowers the risk of all-cause death by 22pc and death from cancer by 20%. It also reduces the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 20%.

Scientists believe that whole grains help lower cholesterol and help regulate blood sugar, as well as making people feel full for longer, preventing them from snacking on unhealthy foods. The same effect could be gained from eating bran, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta, or a mix of grains.

Whole grains, where the bran and germ remain, contain 25% more protein than refined grains, such as those used to make white flour, pasta and white rice.

Previous studies have shown that whole grains can boost bone mineral density, lower blood pressure, promote healthy gut bacteria and reduce the risk of diabetes.

One particular fibre found only in oats – called beta-glucan – has been found to lower cholesterol which can help to protect against heart disease.

Whole grains are recommended in many dietary guidelines because they contain high levels of nutrients such as zinc, copper, manganese, iron and thiamine. They are also believed to boost levels of antioxidants, which combat free-radicals linked to cancer.

Victoria Taylor, senior dietitian at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Eating more whole grains is a simple change we can make to improve our diet and help lower our risk of heart and circulatory disease. Choosing brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, wholemeal or granary bread instead of white and swapping to whole-grain breakfast cereals such as porridge are all simple ways to help us up our fibre and whole-grain intake.”

The researchers said a 16-gram serving of whole grains lowered the risk of total death by 7%, and cancer by 5%.

Jack Conway shows a 2000-year-old edible lump of butter pulled from Irish bog

   

A huge lump of ‘bog’ butter discovered by an Irish turf cutter.

Finding buried treasure is a dream as old as stories themselves. Treasure chests overflowing with gold doubloons, shiny lamps containing genies, gargantuan lumps of thousand-year-old butter.

OK, maybe most don’t dream of unearthing enormous chunks of butter, but that’s exactly what Jack Conway discovered in the Emlagh bog in County Meath, Ireland, at the beginning of June, Atlas Obscura reported.

Conway is a turf cutter, meaning he harvests “turf” or peat – it’s similar to moss – from a bog to later burn for warmth during the cold winter months. He was chopping turf at the bog when he came across a 9.97kg chunk of butter, The Irish Times reported.

Researchers at the Cavan Museum estimated it to be more than 2000 years old.

Bog butter is just that: butter made from cow’s milk that’s been buried in a bog, though, after thousands of years, it often has the consistency of cheese.

It’s actually not that uncommon of a find for turf cutters in Ireland, either. As Smithsonian magazine noted, a 3000-year-old, one-metre wide barrel stuffed with 35kg of bog butter was found in 2009. Even more shocking, turf cutters found a 5000-year-old wooden “keg” containing 45kg of the butter in 2013.

People have actually been stumbling upon bog butter for at least two centuries. In the 1892 edition of The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Reverend James O’Laverty recounts finding a lump “which still retains the marks of the hand and fingers of the ancient dame who pressed it into its present shape,” and which he noted “tastes somewhat like cheese.”

In her article “Bog Butter: A Two Thousand Year History” in The Journal of Irish Archaeology, Caroline Earwood wrote, “It is usually found as a whitish, solid mass of fatty material with a distinctive, pungent and slightly offensive smell. It is found either as a lump, or in containers which are most often made of wood but include baskets and skins.”

The earliest discoveries of bog butter date back to the Iron Age, but she wrote that it may have existed earlier.

No one is sure exactly why the butter was buried in bogs – some think it was sometimes an offering to the gods – but evidence strongly suggests it was a method of preservation.

Most bog butter doesn’t contain salt, which was often used as a means of preserving food before modern refrigeration. The bogs, which are essentially cold-water swamps, and their native peat do a fine job keeping food fresh.

A University of Michigan researcher found that meat left in a bog for two years was just as preserved as meat kept in his freezer, the University Record reported in 1995.

Peat is compressed plant matter, which Nature reported is both cool and contains little oxygen while remaining highly acidic, allowing it can act as a sort of refrigerator. It seems to work – Savina Donohoe, Curator of Cavan County Museum who sent Conway’s butter lump to the National Museum of Ireland, said it smelled just like, well, butter.

“It did smell like butter, after I had held it in my hands, my hands really did smell of butter,” Mr Donohoe said recently. “There was even a smell of butter in the room it was in.”

In fact, peat bogs are such wonderful environments for preserving organic matter, they’ve been known to almost perfectly mummify corpses.

Hundreds of “bog bodies” have been found during the past two centuries, according to USA Today. The oldest one ever unearthed is a preserved skeleton that’s been named the Koelbjerg Woman, which dates back more than 10,000 years to around 8000 BC.

Other bodies, though, retain their skin and internal organs. The Tollund Man, for example, still had his leathery skin intact when he was found in the Bjaeldskovdal bog in Denmark and is considered by some to be the most well-preserved body ever found from prehistoric times. He was so well-persevered that the men who found him thought they had stumbled upon a modern murder scene, PBS reported. He was actually about 2400 years old.

Given that level of preservation, most of the butter is actually edible.

Irish celebrity chef Kevin Thornton, who owns the Michelin-starred Thornton’s Restaurant in Dublin, claimed to have tasted a 4000-year-old sample of bog butter.

“I was really excited about it. We tasted it,” he told the Irish Independent in 2014. “There’s fermentation but it’s not fermentation because it’s gone way beyond that. Then you get this taste coming down or right up through your nose.”

Andy Halpin, assistant keeper in the Cavan Museum’s Irish Antiquities Division, said one could probably eat the butter, though he’s not sure why one would.

“Theoretically the stuff is still edible, but we wouldn’t say it’s advisable,” Halpin told the Irish Times.

Curious what it might taste like, Ben Reade, head of Culinary Research and Development at Nordic Food Lab created his own bog butter, albeit one aged for a bit less time than the aforementioned.

Echoing the lines from James Farewell’s 1689 poem The Irish Hudibras – “butter to eat with their hog, was seven years buried in a bog” – they buried one large birch barrel of butter in the ground, where it will remain for seven years. The other only remained in the ground for three months, before it was tasted at the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen and the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2012 in Oxford, England.

He wrote of the flavours:

“In its time underground the butter did not go rancid, as one would expect butter of the same quality to do in a fridge over the same time. The organoleptic qualities of this product were too many surprising, causing disgust in some and enjoyment in others. The fat absorbs a considerable amount of flavour from its surroundings, gaining flavour notes which were described primarily as “animal” or “gamey,” “moss,” “funky,” “pungent,” and “salami.” These characteristics are certainly far-flung from the creamy acidity of a freshly made cultured butter, but have been found useful in the kitchen especially with strong and pungent dishes, in a similar manner to aged ghee.”

Even so, if you happen to find a lump of butter buried in the back yard, it might be best to forgo it for the store-bought variety.

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