A new planning application for a solar farm — typically 30 acres of solar panels — is being lodged every two-and-a-half days but the Government has not put in place guidance to oversee their development.
Now public representatives and developers are warning of a backlash by communities against the projects which could be vital in helping Ireland avoid massive fines if we fail to meet our 2020 targets for electricity production from clean energy sources.
Almost 150 planning applications were lodged in the 12 months to last October, mainly in the south and east, with the highest concentrations in Cork and Wexford, and Bord Pleanála has more than a dozen appeals to be decided in the first few months of the new year.
However, the number of applications by energy companies to connect to the national electricity grid if and when they install panels suggests at least 600 sites around the country are earmarked for solar farms.
Energy Minister Denis Naughten warned at an industry seminar recently against imposing plans on communities.
“We need to start bringing people with us,” he said. “We could continue the old approach of bulldozing ahead and telling people we are going to do this, that or the other. This will not happen on my watch/”
However, Planning Minister Simon Coveney says regular planning laws are good enough for assessing solar projects despite the fact that they pre-date any solar proposals.
Kevin Murphy, a member of Cork County Council where 22 solar planning applications were lodged in the 12 months to October, said communities were already feeling bulldozed.
“There is no restriction on how near you can go to houses, no guidance on how to prevent them interfering with flood plains, no standard measurement of glare and glint and no way of assessing the impact in terms of devaluation of neighbouring properties,” said Mr Murphy.
Cork councillors voted unanimously last month to demand that the Government suspend consideration of all solar applications until guidelines are in place.
“These are major proposals coming in from all directions and it’s crazy not to have guidelines for them,” said Mr Murphy. “I am pro- solar energy but if you can’t point to a document and say this is best practice, we will lose the trust of the people locally.”
David Maguire, chair of the Irish Solar Energy Association, which will publish its own planning guidelines within weeks, said he sympathised with public concerns.
“What we’re seeking to do as an industry in the absence of any national guidelines is to produce our own recommendations for best practice in planning based on the very good practices in other countries,” he said.
Government advisory body, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, recently funded consultants, Future Analytics, to draw up planning recommendations.
Consultant Stephen Walsh said it might not be necessary to draw up a full set of statutory guidelines, as departmental circulars might suffice.
“Issues like screening and having agreed technical standards could be cleared up by way of circular,” he said. “Having something in place that would address and allay concerns would be a positive thing.”
Mr Coveney said, however: “I have no proposals to bring forward such guidelines at the present time.”
He said the matter would be kept under review in consultation with Mr Naughten.