A debate on the use of wind power in Ireland

Kenneth Matthews and Paula Byrne outline their opinions on the use of wind energy in Ireland

FOR: Taking control of our own energy destiny

by Kenneth Matthews

Last year was another strong year for wind energy in Ireland, with the sector delivering €350m of vital investment, while helping us reduce our dependency on foreign fossil fuels and securing our clean energy future by meeting 19% of our overall electricity demand in 2014.

Ireland is in a uniquely fortunate position. We have one of the most reliable sources of renewable energy in wind energy, currently supplying enough electricity to power more than 1.4m homes and routinely producing enough power to meet 50% of domestic electricity demand.

Wind energy is a new, indigenous, and growing sector that’s already supplying 3,400 people with jobs that support Irish families. Having a secure and dependable energy supply is vital. The first thing I do every evening when I open my front door is to flick the light switch. But in the flicking of the switch we are also becoming increasingly empowered as citizens about where our energy is sourced from and how. This discussion is one which is taking place across all strands of society, not just among politicians in the Dáil.

As a small island nation, our challenge is to deliver a secure supply of energy to meet our growing needs and drive economic prosperity, while making sure cost is at the forefront of decision-making, alongside reducing CO2 emissions to protect the environment and limit the impact of climate change for our children and their children.

Anyone living here knows we have a huge resource in our wind power, which is one of the best globally and the envy of our European neighbours. This resource presents us with an unrivalled opportunity to deliver sustainable energy for future generations, while delivering significant economic benefits to our fragile but recovering economy.

Wind energy is working for us, and for Ireland to build the required additional wind-energy capacity to meet our European 2020 targets. The most conservative estimate shows that this will deliver a further investment of more than €3.5bn into the economy, significantly reduce Ireland’s CO2 emissions and reduce our costly dependency on foreign energy, saving the country €282m in 2020 in fossil-fuel imports.

We can also be proud that wind energy is a guaranteed Irish product, particularly for a country which ranks as one of the worst in Europe, with an 89% dependency on costly foreign imports of energy. The cost of all energy imports to Ireland was approximately €6.7bn for 2013, making it clear that we need to ensure that we have greater control over our future energy destiny.

Ireland is not alone in favouring wind power as our leading and preferred renewable energy source.

US president Barack Obama used his recent State of the Union address to highlight his country’s achievements in terms of wind energy development.

Here in Ireland, we broke our record for peak wind generation in January, while Canada and Germany broke records for the amount of wind energy installed in 2014. Denmark broke the world record for having 39% of its national electricity coming from wind in 2014. Wind is being widely used and is accepted as a proven, safe and efficient technology the world over.

In Ireland, our first commercial wind farm opened in Mayo more than 20 years ago in 1992 and is still operating. Today, communities across the country live in harmony with wind power, seeing its benefits both locally and nationally.

Yes, there are some people who have questions — questions which the people working on wind farms are happy to work to assuage.

Experience has shown us that often the queries raised are not necessarily from those living near windfarms but those yet to experience wind energy in action.

June 2014 saw wind farms across the country open their doors to the public, welcoming over 1,000 people in, answering questions and showing young and old wind energy in action. We’re encouraging everybody to visit a wind farm open day in 2015.

We have an energy choice to make. Ireland, under the leadership of Energy Minister Alex White, is deciding this year on our future energy policy through the Government’s upcoming white paper. There have been consultations and well attended events across the country, lively and engaged debates and discussions, but as a society the choices are clear.

Potential alternatives to wind energy include nuclear energy, fracking or large-scale biomass. Apart from the potential risks posed by some of these solutions, they are simply inferior, either extremely costly or unviable.

December will also see global leaders, including those from Ireland, gather in Paris to negotiate a global climate deal.

Europe, with Ireland’s backing, has already committed to a clear target to increase the share of renewable energy “by at least 27%” to 2030, but we must also show our own Irish leadership to achieve these goals by backing renewable energy and especially wind power.

Today, as each of us arrives home and turns on the light switch, we have a choice to make. Our energy system needs to be fit for our modern lives, secure, clean and efficient. Wind energy is already delivering this for Irish families but can, if we make the right choices and show the right leadership, deliver so much more.

Kenneth Matthews is CEO of Irish Wind Energy Association

 

AGAINST: We can afford to press the pause button

by Paula Byrne

Wind energy is incapable of reducing CO2 emissions in any meaningful way.

According to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), in 2012 our carbon emissions dropped by an abysmal 2.6% as a result of the 1,200 turbines erected in Ireland. This drop is optimistic compared to other more independent peer reviewed reports, which put the savings at closer to 1%.

Despite this, and warnings from Eirgrid themselves that more wind on our grid will save incrementally less and less CO2, our Government is intent on doubling the number of wind turbines and their associated grid structures — pylons — on the Irish landscape.

Wind Aware Ireland, an alliance of community groups, has consistently called on the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (DCENR) to commission a full, independent cost-benefit analysis of these plans. So far, none has been forthcoming.

It is estimated the grid upgrade required would cost €3.6bn and the subsidisation of wind energy is already increasing electricity bills for consumers and businesses.

All of these costs would be justified were the environmental benefits evident and indeed, responsible citizens would be far more likely to accept the imposition of these industrial-scale developments on the landscape. It is an entirely different matter, however, when we know how ineffective turbines are at helping the environmental crisis we face.

Wind energy must be constantly backed up by conventional power sources. Turbines produce electricity less than 30% of the time and this must be used as it is produced because of the huge difficulty in storing electricity. Often, wind energy is produced when it is not needed, in which case it is ‘constrained off’ or dumped while producers still get their guaranteed price. Therefore, wind cannot be considered a reliable source and conventional plants such as gas, coal, and peat must continue to run. To balance the Irish grid, gas plants are turned up and down to match intermittent wind, hence the disappointing CO2 reductions.

The key question is: is it worth it? Are these minimal (and reducing) CO2 savings worth it when compared to the many negative impacts? The social and environmental impacts include destruction of our landscape, environmental damage, and health impacts from noise.

The economic issues include loss of property value, effects on businesses such as tourism and the thoroughbred industry, loss of competitiveness, and expensive electricity contributing to fuel poverty for some.

Indeed, many commentators, including Colm McCarthy, the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association, the Irish Academy of Engineering, the National Competitiveness Council, and the ESB themselves have criticised the current unsustainable plans.

For some families, the impacts are far more dramatic. Several families have been forced to leave their homes due to the health effects of noise and infrasound. These include families currently taking their case to the High Court, and others who fear coming forward.

Our own deputy chief medical officer, Colette Bonner, has recognised a cluster of symptoms associated with wind turbine syndrome, while stating turbines do not represent a threat to public health.

There are now over 20 peer-reviewed studies analysing the effects of low frequency noise on humans.

Environment Minister Alan Kelly is reviewing the wind energy planning guidelines. These guidelines currently suggest a setback of 500m between a turbine and a dwelling. The guidelines allow a nighttime noise limit which greatly exceeds that set by the WHO as being safe for human health.

Where best practice is employed, the setback distance ends up at between 1.5km and 2km for modern turbines, not 500m. This Government, by failing to adequately protect its citizens from wind developers, may leave this State liable to multiple class actions.

We need to act responsibly. The current incoherent energy plan by DCENR contributes neither to greenhouse gas reduction nor security of supply. We have the ridiculous situation whereby the PSO levy in our electricity bills, which supposedly supports ‘green’ wind energy, also props up electricity provided by peat generation.

Peat, supplying only 8% of our electricity, produces a disproportionate 19% of CO2 emissions. Thispolicy makes no sense environmentally, economically and socially.

The lobby group representing wind developers, The Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA) with a budget of almost €1m a year, has been remarkably successful in convincing policy makers and senior department officials to pursue an all-wind renewable strategy. This, with no analysis on the costs to and impacts on Ireland and its people.

Furthermore, the industry has little regard over the rights of communities to participate in decision making, as laid out under the Aarhus Convention while most of our politicians have accepted the industry spin.

According to the ESB, we have an enormous excess of electricity available to our grid for the next 10 years; with almost double our peak demand available, so we do not need any more electricity for some time. We can afford to press the pause button and make rational decisions.

These decisions need to be in the best interests of the Irish people and not merely big business.

If we are serious about reducing CO2 emissions, we need a complete overhaul of this energy policy. The Government is making 20-year commitments to wind developers right now, so we need an immediate moratorium on all wind projects and wind-related grid projects until we have a proper cost benefit analysis.

We need to question the objectivity of the SEAI and the senior officials in the DECNR whose seemingly unwavering support for wind above all other renewables has led to this mess.

We need our politicians to provide leadership and not allow us be led by the IWEA down this path of pure folly.

Paula Byrne is PRO for Wind Aware Ireland

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