Ill wind blows on energy prospect

Wind energy has huge potential, but the fears of communities need to be heeded, writes Michael Clifford

THEY made for a hardy sight walking in the snow. More than a dozen men and women of all ages, protesting outside Dublin’s Four Seasons Hotel at the opening day of the annual conference of the Irish Wind Energy Association.

The protesters, from the Laois Wind Energy Awareness Group, bore leaflets with the stamp and photo of Laois Labour Senator John Whelan.

Inside, his party colleague Pat Rabbitte, addressing the conference in his capacity as Energy and Resources Minister, was very supportive of the industry, in sharp contrast to the material on Mr Whelan’s leaflet.

Their contrasting positions sums up the problems with wind. On a national level, wind is a good, clean, and economically beneficial source of renewable energy. This is an industry with huge potential, the Government claims. The problems arise at local level, where the turbines wheel into action. A growing constituency of homeowners living near wind farms are emerging with claims of a severe impact on the quality of their lives, their health, and the asset that is the home. Noise is a major bone of contention. The industry is acutely aware of what is happening. A policy document, entitled Good Neighbour, was launched at the conference. It outlines how developers should engage with, and contribute to the communities in which they operate. In reality, the document is thin on commitments.

“Significant employment opportunities will arise if we can properly exploit this opportunity,” said Mr Rabbitte in his speech. “As an example, employment creation arising from a 3gigawatt project would be expected to be in the order of 3,000 to 6,000 job years in the construction phase, with the actual number dependent on the construction schedule to 2020.

“There would be of the order of €1bn of construction cost spending on Irish civil engineering works over two to three years. There would also be additional jobs created in the ongoing maintenance of turbines over a 20-year operating life. Further employment opportunities would arise if turbines or components were manufactured in Ireland.”

The final point is particularly noteworthy. Full benefit from wind energy will only be reaped if manufacturing of turbines is done in the country. The main sponsor of the event was Siemens, a manufacturer that makes a pretty penny from the Irish industry, while building the turbines abroad.

Export potential was a recurring theme. The first major attempt to export the energy is already under way in a development of 2,000 turbines across the Midlands to export electricity to Wales. It’s a huge project, and that’s where our friends at the gate come in. Over the last six months, protest groups have begun popping up in the five host counties. In their midst, farmers have been quietly signing up to rent land for the project. With each turbine accruing rent of €18,000 per annum, it’s easy to see the attraction. The project is due to move to planning applications at the back end of this year.

Ray Conroy of the Laois awareness group said: “We need every opportunity to confront the IWEA. They are in bed with the Government and big business, but the 995 of us who’re going to be affected are not consulted at all.”

Separately, seven families in Banteer, Co Cork, are suing the operator and manufacturer of turbines in their vicinity. Health issues and the impact of “shadow flicker” have, the families claim, greatly impacted on their lives.

Planning is the big issue. All of the complaints centre around the turbines being located too close to homes. Planning for turbines is based on 2006 guidelines that have no statutory basis.

The Department of Environment is drafting new guidelines. The most anticipated aspect will be the limits on “separation distance” between turbines and homes. If the separation distance is too short, homeowners who feel afflicted will up the ante. If it’s too long, the viability of developments will be called into question.

The authorities will need to advance with caution. Energy exploitation, has, in recent years, attracted all manner of protests, from the Shell To Sea campaign in Mayo, to anti-fracking groups in Longford.

This is different. The energy source is environmentally positive and has major potential. Objections and fears are rooted deep in the communities affected, although how representative they are remains to be seen. At the very least, serious engagement is required, and there’s no sign of that happening yet.

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