It is not too late to change our misguided policy on wind energy

We need wind energy — just not so much hot air, writes Labour senator John Whelan.

It is not too late to change our misguided policy on wind energy

LET’S cut to the chase. We need renewable energy, including wind farms — just not to the extreme extent and enormity as is currently being proposed.

In a week in which a compelling new UN report warns of the imminent danger of climate change, we cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend anymore that we can solely rely on fossil fuels.

In a nutshell, we use about 5,000MW of power in Ireland at peak. We need to build a range of renewables including wind into our energy generation portfolio, perhaps to a maximum of 3,500MW.

The problem is that under the present government policy proposals driven by the likes of the Irish Wind Energy Association and SEAI for anything between 23,000MW and 33,000MW of wind alone.

This is 10 times our own maximum capacity and there is no UK or EU outlet, demand or market for the excess. That is the simple economics of it before you even consider the significant environmental and social accepts which must also be taken into consideration.

Even if the Government adopted Senator John Kelly’s Wind Turbine Bill of two years ago, initiating proportionate setback distances of 1.5km, this would be a welcome first step in resolving many concerns. But even this reasonable and responsible measure is being vehemently opposed by the wind industry and their allies.

As I had predicted, the British government have pulled the plug on developer-led plans to erect thousands of industrial wind turbines across the midlands.

I am delighted with this news and commend the decision of the UK Climate and Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, not to proceed with an inter-governmental agreement, which would have led to the catastrophic erection of thousands of giant wind farms throughout the country.

However, we won’t be celebrating just yet as the Taoiseach himself has intervened in a last gasp effort to breathe life into this dead-duck project.

Unfortunately, the wind industry seems well connected in more ways than one and have the ear of Government and policy makers in pushing their perspective and it seems to hell with communities and their legitimate and well founded concerns.

At first, they promised over 66,000 jobs; that is now down to 6,000. It seems to me that they get their figures in the same place as the Anglo bankers.

It is also astonishing as to how we are supposed to be convinced that filling the bogs of Mayo and the midlands with mass concrete to hold up thousands of giant 185m turbines is either carbon or climate friendly. Each turbine takes about the same amount of cement as 150 houses.

It has always been my view these far-fetched proposals for fantasy wind farms would have eventually ended up like our ghost estates, as they are entirely unsustainable from an economic, environmental and social basis. Think of the legacy and the generational impact and blight on our landscape and visual amenity.

The dramatic U-turn in UK energy strategy has profound implications for our own flawed energy policy. It is now more vital than ever that our entire energy policy is revisited as it requires a root-and-branch review as it is now irreparably undermined. Community concerns as much as industry interests must form the bedrock of any new policy formation.

The inexorable move towards shale gas and nuclear power in the UK, the US, and the EU, combined with the imminent removal by the European Commission of binding renewable targets from 2020 is a game changer. When it comes to energy policy and prices we are not an island and cannot operate in isolation.

Fracking may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and in the past I have been wrongly accused of being pro-fracking which is untrue, but we cannot ignore that it is well underway in the UK and strongly advocated by their energy minister, Michael Fallon, who last week espoused: “It could be the answer to our security of supply for energy as easily as has been done in the US. We now know we are sitting on a lot more shale gas than previously thought.”

Both the government and Labour opposition in the UK have pledged energy price freezes in a bid win over consumers and manufacturers.

As recently as 2006, US business leaders were worried the country was running out of energy. By 2013, however, the US was producing 7.5m barrels of crude oil every day, up from 5m in 2005. The projections are even more staggering and by 2020, the US forecasts to be producing 11m barrels a day, more than Saudi Arabia currently produces.

That is totally aside from the fracking boom, which whether we like it or not, the US has embraced, with significant and far reaching impacts on world energy prices.

The giant windfarms proposed for the midlands have had devastating and deeply divisive consequences on dozens of rural communities.

They have also served to damage the reputation of the renewable energy sector and compromised constructive and viable projects. And this is far from just a midland problem.

It is a hot topic of anxiety in from Glenties to Listowel and hundreds of parishes in between that have woken up to the direct link between the €4bn Eirgrid grid expansion and windfarms. If you like wind, you have to love pylons.

These latest developments also have significant and far reaching consequences for policies and investment plans being pursued by State bodies such as Eirgrid, Bord na Mona, Coillte and the SEAI and this too now must be addressed by Government.

In my opinion the wind export project was always a dubious proposal, a pyramid scheme worthy of The Wolf of Wall Street. While families have been unnecessarily tormented and communities torn apart, hundreds of farmers advised to sign lease contracts for turbines will be left high and dry.

Electricity costs in Ireland are already among the highest in Europe — significantly more costly than France, Germany and the UK. In brief, the EU average cost of electricity to industry (in cents per kilowatt hour) is 9.43, whereas in Ireland it is 13.31; the household comparison is 13.73 for the EU, 19.51 in Ireland.

The excessive development of windfarms here will only make that worse, with devastating consequences for the competitiveness of Irish businesses, manufacturing industry and agri-production.

It is now time to pull back, before it is too late and re-assess our entire energy policy, perhaps as I have previously suggested through an energy forum, modelled on the constitutional convention.

We can do it and we must do it right.

* A request was made to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to provide an opinion piece on the benefits of wind energy to taxpayers and business.

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