Special report: Contentious Eirgrid €500m Gridlink pylon plan

THERE is a reason the current controversy on the planned erection of pylons has got people worked up.

These are not ordinary pylons.

Whatever route is selected, these structures will dominate the landscape and tower above existing poles, homes and features.

Eirgrid has said the development is necessary. The power connections between the Dublin region and Cork are too old and prone to disruption. And reports have said that if wind turbines are developed on the scale proposed, the existing power lines will be inadequate.

So the €500m Gridlink project will effectively secure the supply of electricity between the country’s two main cities and, in doing so, provide similar benefits to the south-east region. But a key decision has been made in advance of the current consultation process which has helped create the current controversy.

Eirgrid opted to go the direct route rather than creating a web of transmission cables crisscrossing the region. This means the proposal on the table is for a single string of pylons running from Knockraha in Cork to Dunstown in Kildare. The route will effectively take a straight line to Great Island in Wexford from Cork and then turn north to Kildare.

This choice was favoured ahead of other possibilities that would have seen the line split at Cork to take two routes to Kilkenny, the first would go across Waterford and the second would head towards Limerick and Nenagh in Tipperary.

There could have been a number of cross-connections to split the load. Picking one route means that the capacity of the power lines needs to be greater. So this will see a 400kV operation.

This was considered by the consultants to be more economical, easier to maintain and would satisfy the technical requirements of the project and future industrial development. But to do this Eirgrid will need to build a pretty ugly artery running through the countryside.

This will be punctuated by 150ft high structures rising off a 30ft wide base. The consultants hired by Eirgrid, RPS, considered alternatives to this but their report did not favour proposals to bury the cables rather than erecting the pylons.

RPS said this was because their research suggested underground cables were more prone to problems and it took longer to fix them when glitches arise.

They also cost more to put in place and require a lot more disturbance of the ground during construction, because channels need to be dug.

Another option would have been to only bury the cables in sensitive areas. This would require the construction of transformer stations to transfer the power lines from pylons to wires capable of being run underground.

All of these were set aside in favour of over-ground cables supported by pylons.

This has put Eirgrid on a collision course with local communities who have in recent months woken up to the reality that one of their neighbourhoods is going to be transformed forever.

Shane Fitzgerald is a dairy farmer from Conna, Cork. He is part of the Bride and Blackwater Conservation group. The group has spent much of the last month alerting people who are likely to be affected by the pylons to what could be coming down the line.

They, and other communities, have until tomorrow to lodge their objections to the route. Each proposed route has been given a code. So between Cork and Dungarvan the pylons could follow four initial tracks between Fermoy and Midleton.

On a map they look far apart but in reality the choice lies between neighbouring parishes, none of whom are keen on having pylons cut through their countryside.

For example, the first choice of direction into and out of the Cork substation will plot one of four courses. The K8 choice is almost a direct run north towards Fermoy, the K4 would skirt the other side of Castlelyons, the K20 ploughs through Conna and the K17 would lie south of Dungourney.

Each choice will have a knock-on effect for other parishes along the route. For instance, if Eirgrid pick the K17 (Dungourney) option, it would take all of the northern neighbourhoods off the cards until after Lismore.

This has left neighbouring communities in east Cork wondering if it will be them or the parish next door.

“It is about divide and conquer as far as I can see. All the routes mean it is one community against the other.

“The real solution would have been to put these underground. Sure it will cost more but it has come down a lot in the last 10 years and will come down again before they start building,” Mr Fitzgerald said.

He said people accept that infrastructure needs to be improved and nobody batted an eyelid when the gas line was recently buried along almost the same route.

But this went under ground and, despite the disruption, people got on with it. Pylons create a different problem. Once they are in place grass will not grow back over them.

Regardless of the international studies cited by experts, there are concerns about the long-term health impact for those living in close proximity to high tension cables.

People have stud farms, with broodmares, along the route and they fear the new installations would lead to increased numbers of slipped foals.

Farmers will be compensated if pylons are plonked on their land. But for homeowners who will have to look out on a spoiled vista, or live under their shadows, it will be tough luck. This is despite an inevitable drop in the value of their homes.

A fall in value will have knock on effects. Some are not immediately obvious. East Cork is a region that is at the forefront of the country’s dairy sector and it will be experiencing a lot of change in the near future.

With the abolition of milk quotas in 2015, some farmers will be looking to expand their herds and their milking capacity.

But to access credit many will look to put their homes up as security and if the value falls so will their ability to borrow.

There is also the tourism sector. The Blackwater valley, for instance, is a very popular fishing destination in the midst of a relatively untouched landscape.

And there is a longer term concern that once the pylons are erected, other industries will seek to exploit it. In particular, there are likely to be demands from wind farm operators to build new complexes in close proximity to the new infrastructure.

Mr Fitzgerald recognises that every rural parish will consider itself picturesque but he cannot bring himself to consider a run of 150ft pylons bisecting his farm.

He said Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte is right that other countries also have similar pylons, but that does not mean the landscape they were erected on has not been scarred.

He points to the connections running south of Lake Garda in Italy which bisect tourist hot spots in order to service that country’s industrial heartland.

Mr Fitzgerald said it would spare all of the neighbourhoods and allow for universal support for the project if Eirgrid would reconsider its decision not to bury cables.

There are two ways of laying cables underground. You can run them through a duct or, using different materials, dig out a channel and lay them directly in the ground.

According to the RPS report both cause problems because they are harder to service and when breakdowns arise the lockdowns last longer.

RPS also said that the investment required is greater for what is viewed to be a substandard product.

It said developers only consider such options in areas of outstanding natural beauty, where they have to cross open water or where they could impact on high pressure gas lines.

But what areas can be classed as being of outstanding natural beauty is a highly subjective, and perhaps political, a question. This is particularly the case in the lead up to the local elections, where aspiring councillors will be facing competing cries from neighbouring communities.

Despite this, Eirgrid chief executive Fintan Slye has said while there were legitimate concerns the network would have to be upgraded.

“If we, as a people, are serious about modernising our economy and succeeding on the long road back to full employment, and banishing the renewed spectre of emigration, then we must deliver Grid 25.

“Of course, major infrastructural development of this kind is a legitimate interest and concern for people, especially communities in the path of the proposed new power lines. But it is important to remember, this is not new technology we are introducing to Ireland.

“We already have over 6,000 kilometres of overhead power lines, running on double wood poles and steel pylons, across many parts the country, so these structures are not new or unconventional,” Mr Slye said.

Case study 1

By Conor Kane

Looking out from Kieran Hartley’s house in Mahonbridge, all you can see are the Comeragh Mountains.

But, he says, if Eirgrid’s pylon project gets the go-ahead, he and his wife and children will be caught in the middle of the K10, K9, and K18 corridors.

For that reason, he went on WLR FM to highlight the issue and within minutes, had set up the Comeragh Against Pylons with four other people he met in Dungarvan.

“Since then we’ve been at meetings every night, some of them with up to 500 people, It’s huge. I’ve two young children and when I put my kids to bed at night, if it goes to the front of my house it’s near my daughter’s bedroom and if it goes to the back, it’s near my son’s bedroom. I can see for 50 square miles and the [power] network will be seen for 50 square miles.”

He denied that his and others’ opposition to the Eirgrid plan is NIMBYism (not in my back yard) and accused the company of attempting to set communities throughout the country against each other.

Eirgrid have not reassured the population regarding health concerns, he claims, and many are worried about possible links between the electro-magnetic field generated by the power cables with childhood cancers, among other conditions.

“Eirgrid don’t have any medical people on board and are just dismissing all concerns out of hand.”

He called on the company to release full costing for the pylon network and costings for placing the power grid underground, before making a decision.

In the meantime, in order to keep the country’s protest groups united, he favours each making a pledge: “We hope to get three representatives from every group to come to a hotel somewhere and make an agreement that if they’re not the chosen route, not to walk away from the people who are on the chosen route. That would be the greatest hypocrisy ever. We won’t walk away from this until this project is stopped and while there’s breath in my body, I won’t stop.”

Tale of the tape

Length of existing 440kV power lines in Ireland

Of high voltage underground cables in the country

The investment earmarked for the Gridlink project between Kildare and Cork

The number of counties which could be affected by the route selection

The average height of the proposed pylons

Case study 2

Wearing two hats, Catherine Flynn is worried about the prospect of a network of electricity pylons on her doorstep.

Married to racehorse trainer Pat Flynn, she says a clean, natural environment is key to keeping horses healthy and also impressing owners and potential owners of the equine flesh they breed and train.

Meanwhile, as a prominent member of the community in Rathgormack she fears the effect that having pylons nearby will have on the local amenities such as the community centre and the voluntarily-developed hostel, popular with walkers from near and far.

“What we have built up over the years and what has really been successful would be really affected,” she says. “People want to come and walk here but if they decide to put the pylons on the K9 route, in front of the Comeragh mountains?”

A pylon corridor would spoil the “feel-good” factor in the area which has been generated by the development of such facilities as the hostel and a children’s playground, according to Ms Flynn. The suggested route would be less than half-a-mile from the training centre which has sent out Cheltenham festival winners as well as many successful flat horses and this is also a fear, she says.

“We would have a lot of people coming from abroad and we would be breeding horses and racing them and it’s known that they [electricity pylons] have an adverse affect on thoroughbreds. We have a lot of staff employed here and have invested a lot of money in the place over the past 30 years. Our gallops look onto the Comeragh Mountains and people are coming from America and Hong Kong and like their horses to be in an unspoiled area.”

As a member of the Rathgormack K9 Pylon Prevention Group, she is also highlighting health and safety concerns surrounding the project.

“Eirgrid are saying there’s nothing proven but there’s a definite link to dementia from the electro-magnetic field and if you have the cancer genes, it accelerates their development by 70%.”


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