Pylons controversy - Figures offer a ray of hope to opponents

Last month’s establishment of a commission to consider if the grim prospect of super-sized pylons strung across our attractive countryside might be averted by burying 440kV power lines seemed as good a kick to touch as anything contrived by the splendid Johnny Sexton at the Aviva stadium on Saturday.

Pylons  controversy - Figures offer a ray of hope to opponents

It seemed an all too predicable Irish solution to an Irish disagreement and appeared as if another inquiry might stand in the way in the way of development and economic progress. It was another reminder that we don’t always deliver large scale public projects — a children’s hospital, the Poolbeg incinerator, Dublin’s disconnected light rail system, water systems that don’t leak, or flood barriers nearly anywhere you care to mention — with the kind of efficiency to which we should aspire.

The commission was also established to counteract the corporate hubris that characterises some organisations — the semi-state EirGrid in this instance — that assume they are free to relegate the concerns of affected communities to a secondary position.

However, the commission was established primarily because the Government grievously underestimated opposition to the pylons from those living along proposed routes and others, State tourism agencies included, who recognised how the pylons would permanently devalue the character of our countryside. This miscalculation became a serious threat because of imminent elections. Overlapping electoral cycles mean this, and any other significant project, is susceptible to this kind of leverage. This may frustrate gung ho business interests but how else can it be under our system, one so discredited by the planning failures of the last decade?

However, it seems the most challenging task for the commission will be to sift through all of the conflicting statements about the cost of burying the cables so a rational decision, one that can be easily explained to our children, can be reached.

There are myriad and conflicting suggestions about what it might cost to bury the cables. The minister responsible, Pat Rabbitte, said at one point that it would treble the cost of the project; elsewhere, he said it would add 3% to annual energy costs. Taoiseach Enda Kenny offered a figure of €600m. The suggestion today from Prof Denis Henshaw, who has worked in this area for 20 years, that suggests burying cables would cost everyone in the country just €4 a year over the lifetime of the pylons seems a game changer. That the idea of underground cables is supported by the European Commission, and that Prof Henshaw points to evidence from other European countries that sharply conflicts with some official claims about what proportion ofEuropean cabling is buried, adds to that feeling.

At this point, it is impossible to say how much it might cost to bury the wretched cables, but it is not so hard to envisage the cost of not burying them. The issue may have been kicked to touch at least until after the May elections, but the intervention of Prof Henshaw and the European Commission’s position must offer considerable encouragement to those who oppose EirGrid’s pylons proposal.

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