It’s a steady climb upwards as you drive towards Clonmult, a sleepy village most famous for a bloody War of Independence battle in 1921 where 12 men from the East Cork flying column were shot dead and two more sent for execution.
For nearly two months, the village community centre has been holding biweekly meetings attended by over a dozen farmers and householders who had never gathered together in a room before. Many of the farming families have tended this land for generations, while some of the homeowners are living in one-off houses here for as little as a year.
What has united them is virulent opposition to the €500m Gridlink project which is planning to run over 211km-280km of pylons in a kilometre-wide corridor from East Cork to Wexford to Kildare.
One of the possible corridor routes is through Dungourney, Clonmult, Lisgoold and Leamlara, and they intend opposing it all the way.
“We are not anti the project or anti-prosperity, but we are anti the cables going overground,” says Wayne Halloran.
There is palpable distrust of Eirgrid here. The operators of the grid held meetings with Midleton Town Council in 2012 and 2013, but the town council does not cover this stretch of countryside. Strangely, it appears that not even opposition councillors sounded a warning bell to their county council counterparts as the four communities say they weren’t contacted by county councillors about the project.
Last week, a Cork County Council spokesman confirmed a meeting with councillors was requested by Eirgrid but it has not taken place
Local TDs made no great effort either to get the message out, though Sinn Féin’s Sandra McLellan has come on board recently.
Everyone at the table says they only heard about the project in November, just weeks before the initial planned closing date of the public consultation process. At that point, meetings were secured with Eirgrid but “information was vague”, they say, and written questions submitted were only answered 24 hours after the closure of the public consultation process, a delay that undermined the quality of their submission.
Eirgrid had established an information shop at Midleton’s Market Square shopping centre last year, but people pushed shopping trollies past it, blissfully unaware of how maps contained within could impact their lives.
Under the plans, Eirgrid say they will, “where possible ….avoid routing overhead transmission lines” close to residential areas and in the case of one-off houses, will “seek” to achieve a clearance of 50 metres.
But aspirations aren’t good enough say Clonmult-Lisgoold, and they point to Belgium where dwellings have to be 130 metres from a 380kV line due to cancer risks. They also hand me documentation showing how the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified the electromagnetic field in 2002 as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.
Liam O’Neill’s 10-year-old son, Connor, has autism and hypersensitivity to sound. It’s anticipated that the noise levels from the powerlines could range from 45-50 dB, a level that would “torment and terrify” a boy who clings to his parents if he hears an electric handryer in a public bathroom, and who routinely seeks refuge in his back garden when the hurly-burly of family life becomes too much for him.
If the project is routed by his Clonmult home, the back garden will also be off limits. There is acceptance among the group that the electricity network needs to be upgraded. However, like many other groups opposing the project, they are angry the underground option has not been considered further as “technology is moving so fast.”
In the past two months, they’ve researched Eirgrid’s east-west connector to Britain, Britain’s Western Link from Scotland to Wales and the planned Northern Pass in New Hampshire in the US. They point repeatedly to the Western Link, which will run underground for 420km and feed into the country’s wider AC grid. This 600kV project is being budgeted at €1.1bn, a sum they say bears no resemblance to the threatened, three-fold, budget increase that Eirgrid say an underground Gridlink would incur.
Liam O’Neill, a chemist who is a chief technology officer in a number of international start-ups, also points to the 43 microtesla magnetic flux density of this British project, a feature he says that would eradicate noise.
Eirgrid argues the underground HVDC option isn’t the preferred option due to increased cost, technical inferiority and difficulties connecting mid-route with other parts of the grid.
“But why wasn’t the notion of underground and overground lines thrashed out with the public? There is an arrogance and insensitivity in the way Eirgrid have treated local communities. In India, there is a huge HVDC line being built with five or six terminals being built off it. A VSC system is ideal as it allows multiple connections,” says Wayne Halloran.
Clonmult-Lisgoold would like an independent, international evaluation of the feasibility of an underground line. “There is nothing out there telling us it can’t be used,” said Sean Hennessey.
But Eirgrid doesn’t agree. “It is important to state underground cables are not the preferred solution internationally for technical and cost reasons,” a spokesman said.
Their engineers say underground lines are generally only used in densely populated areas, to cross large expanses of water, in congested areas of infrastructure or environmentally sensitives areas — and where no other alternative exists.
“While it is technically feasible to use DC underground technology for a project like Grid Link, there are substantial technical problems integrating DC power into Ireland’s electricity transmission system which, like almost every other system in the world, runs on AC power,” the spokesman said.
“There are no working examples in the world today of a DC circuit embedded in a small and isolated AC transmissions network such as that on the island of Ireland”.
Wayne emails me a copy of an Urban Studies Journal Report published in 2005 which states that a study of surveyors and estate agents found the value of a detached property in Britain within 100 metres of an overhead line was reduced by 38%.
Locals say in the past 10 years, up to 150 houses have been built in the four communities. “If there are pylons running through here, you won’t see too many more houses being built,” adds Sean.