A low growl underpinned the hum of conversation in the function room of the Bloomfield House Hotel. The room was packed with bodies, awaiting the start of a meeting.
To the right of the stage, there stood a model of a wind turbine hard at work, its blades rotating at a fair clip, like a giant fan. A large screen over the stage was projecting a documentary made in Australia, but through it all, the growl could be heard, as if it was operating at a subterranean level, or maybe burrowing around under the 600 or so chairs taking up the floor.
After a while, it became obvious that the noise was not a malfunction of the PA system, or any other mishap. It was a demonstration, organised by those who had convened the meeting, a little example of how it might feel to live in the shadow of a large wind turbine.
They’re mobilising in the Midlands. The meeting at the hotel outside Mullingar is the latest to be called to voice opposition to plans for a major wind farm, stretching across five counties, and designed to export wind energy to Britain.
The plan involves about 40 wind farms housing more than 2,000 turbines in total, spread across Laois, Offaly, Westmeath, Kildare, and Meath. The two companies involved claim the project will generate up to 5,000 construction jobs, and 500 jobs over the long term. It’s unclear whether the job projection includes the construction of turbines, which may take place abroad.
Tax revenues of €12bn over 25 years are also projected, and over €30m annually in council rates. There will also be major windfalls for hundreds of farmers and landowners on sites where the turbines will be built. Figures quoted for annual rent per turbine start at around €18,000. For some farmers, renting out a few sites would mean pulling in a multiple of their existing annual stipend, if data for farm income is to be believed.
That’s the positive stuff. On the other side of the ledger, hundreds of homeowners are worried about the effect the plan will have on their properties and to their health. As locals mobilise in opposition, a divide is opening up in rural Ireland between those who will benefit from the plan and those who feel they are being victimised by it.
The meeting in the Bloomfield House Hotel got under way soon after 8pm, with the information that the low growl was recorded in a house in Scotland near a turbine.
“Is there anybody here from the companies? They were both invited,” the meeting is told. The companies are Mainstream and Element Power, the two developers of the wind farm. A silence resounded from the floor. No company rep was willing to risk this gathering.
The meeting was organised by the Lakelands Wind Information Group. It was formed last year by concerned residents in the greater Mullingar area after word spread about the plan. By then, dozens of farmers had already been contacted by the developers with offers to site the turbines.
LWIG has been hard at work since, researching the effects of the turbines and mobilising local interest. The recent meeting was the biggest yet, and the extent of concern was reflected in the packed attendance on a night of such inclement elements that you wouldn’t put a cat out in it.
Local opposition to energy projects in nothing new in this country. For the last decade, a campaign has been undertaken in north Mayo against Shell’s plans to exploit oil reserves and refine the oil at an onshore facility. The campaign has attracted many strands, including anti-capitalists, and environmental interests.
This is different. Here, the opposition is concerned mainly with more earthy matters — house prices and health.
The spokesman for LWIG is Andrew Duncan, a local auctioneer. He told the meeting that a survey in Britain of chartered surveyors found that 60% believed that wind farms had a negative impact of the prices of homes in the immediate vicinity.
Quantifying the impact, if any, on house prices is difficult at such an early stage of the industry’s development. A case in the UK of a homeowner, one Jane Davis, was brought up at the meeting. This involved a homeowner in Lincolnshire bringing the operator of a wind turbine to court on the basis that her house had been devalued. Unfortunately the case was settled, and, as is habitually the way in these matters, the outcome included a confidentiality clause.
The health issue is even more pressing. Last week, it emerged that a couple living near Roscommon, Michael and Catherine Keane, have left their home because of the effect a nearby turbine was having on their health, and particularly their sleep. A letter from the couple was read out at the Bloomfield House meeting.
“There were three levels of sound,” the couple wrote. “Roaring, middling, and hardly moving... both of us were on sleeping tablets. Our GP and a psychiatrist advised us to move out.”
The guest speaker at Bloomfield House was Alun Evans, a scientist who has been a vocal critic of the ill effects of wind farms. He spoke in some detail of the harmful repercussions of sleep interruption through noise, including references to torture undertaken by the British forces in the North during the Troubles.
“There can be no doubt that wind turbines disturb sleep and impair health,” said Prof Evans.
He referenced the problems with low frequency sound or infrasound which are associated with the turbines. “Infrasound will come through the roof, the walls, it will shake the organs in your body,” he said.
The Keane couple would certainly agree with him, but there is scant empirical evidence concerning the disturbance of sleep from these turbines. Various studies about sleep interruption had been conducted which indicate there may be a connection. Last year, an industrial journal, Noise and Health, published results from a survey on Maine in the US, which compared sleeping patterns between a group living within a mile of a wind farm, and another beyond that reach.
The study suggests that the former group’s sleeping was directly impacted by the operation of the turbines. It is believed to be the first study to show a relationship between the wind farms and what the journal calls the “important clinical indicators of health, including sleep quality, daytime sleepiness, and mental health”.
While the study is an addition to research, it is not, of itself, conclusive. In Australia, the Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the effects of a wind farm which locals claim has driven them from their homes.
The wind energy industry claims there are few ill effects from the operation of the turbines. Tim Cowhig, chief executive of Element Power, told the Irish Examiner that his company would not be involved in anything that would have a negative impact on health.
“Let’s have a rational debate around this,” he said. “Under no circumstances can there be any health issues. We have to deal with the fear. People are entitled to get as much information as possible but there are absolutely no scientific studies to show a link between wind turbines and health effects.”
The real battleground between developers and residents, and their respective positions on the science and evidence, will be over separation distances. What is the appropriate separation distance between a dwelling and the siting of one or more turbines?
The Department of the Environment is currently updating guidelines on planning for wind turbines. The original guidelines — which are not rooted in legislation — date from 2006, but are based on technological data from nearly a decade before that.
The guidelines suggest a distance of 500m between a turbine and home, but residents point out that these guidelines were drafted for turbines with an average span of 54m. The farms proposed for the midlands will include a number of units with spans of up to 150m, making them taller than the Spire on Dublin’s O’Connell St, which reaches 122m.
In a submission on planning guidelines last year, the Irish Wind Energy Association said that the current guidelines are, if anything, too stringent.
“The current guidelines also state that noise is unlikely to be a significant problem where the distance from the nearest property to any noise sensitive property is more than 500m, and IWEA would suggest this is removed as the appropriate limits would offer sufficient protection,” the submission stated.
Catroina Diviney, IWEA chief executive, said that flexibility is required in siting the farms. “We say that there shouldn’t be a set distance.
“No two places are the same. Noise conditions need to be attached and that will dictate the site layout.”
Westmeath TD Willie Penrose has pledged to push his Government colleagues to legislate for separation distances, extrapolating from the original guidelines. This would in effect place turbines a distance of over 1.5km from any dwelling. According to IWEA, such a law would leave only 3% of the country available for wind farming, effectively closing down the industry.
Like much else it would appear that the matter of noise impact will probably only be sorted out after individuals test the matter in law.
Back at Bloomfield House, the discussion moved to another element of the plan — the export of the energy. “This is an English wind farm you’re looking at,” Duncan told the meeting. “It will have [more energy] than in all of Britain to supply them over there.”
The export of the energy comes under an agreement signed between the respective governments last January. From Ireland’s point of view, it opens up an export market. Currently, the UK has a capacity of wind energy of 3,500MW. The Midlands operation could at least double that capacity.
In Britain, wind farming has generated considerable controversy. More than 100 Tory MPs have petitioned the government to tighten up planning laws. All EU countries are obliged to meet targets on renewable energy by 2020, and the import of the wind energy from this country will be included in the UK’s targets. Whether this is a good deal economically, environmentally, and socially for this country is a question that will dominate debate on the project over the coming year.
Once the discussion was opened up to the floor at Bloomfield House, opinion oscillated between cautious and outright dismissal. County councillor Fintan Cooney offered one of the more measured contributions.
“I feel that this wind development thing will divide farmers up and down the Midlands,” he said. It’s a prediction that bears some examination. With over €18m up for grabs in rents for landowners and farmers, there will be no shortage of those signing up. The two development firms, Mainstream and Element Power, are claiming that up to half of the required landowners have already signed up.