Energy minister Eamon Ryan has found himself caught up in a bitter row, as pressure grows to put pylons underground, writes Niamh Connolly, Political Reporter.
A ‘blitz’ of ten underage teams organised by Meath County GAA will gather today at an all-weather pitch in Dunganny to protest against national grid operator, EirGrid’s high power electric lines in the region.
A growing campaign against the power lines and pylons running from the Republic to the North was boosted last week when the Meath County Board of the GAA joined a chorus of opinion pitted against the state company.
At least 19 clubs in county Meath have playing facilities directly under one of the proposed pylon routes, according to the campaign group North East Pylon Pressure.
Few politicians would risk crossing the all-powerful GAA. But councillors across all parties on Meath County Council were pushing to have the power lines put underground, even before the GAA joined the protest.
The dispute has arisen because EirGrid must carry out a critical grid reinforcement from the Republic to the North to shore up the country’s transmission infrastructure for the all-island trading market, and to allow more renewable energy onto the system.
Eamon Ryan, green energy minister, now finds himself in a tricky position, caught up in an increasingly bitter row between EirGrid and local communities who are concerned about the health and environmental effects of electromagnetic fields.
There are just two high power lines from Moneypoint in the west to the North East which were installed back in 1985 but this is all set to change.
The Green’s vision of more renewable energy will mean far more high power lines spanning the west coast – where the bulk of wind farms will be located – to the east coast to link up with a planned interconnector between Ireland and Britain.
Ryan is pushing for an ambitious 42 per cent of the country’s electricity to come from wind energy in the next 12 years and for this a national upgrade is required. Plans for the North East could prove a landmark test case that will set the terms of debate for how EirGrid goes about its work.
The North East upgrade involves a 400 kV powerline running overhead for 58 kilometres from Woodland, Co Meath to Kingscourt in Cavan. A second 400 kV line which is 80 kilometres in length will run from Cavan to Tyrone.
The North East Pylon Pressure group points to the ‘Draper report’ in Britain which found electromagnetic fields from high power lines was associated with cancer and childhood leukaemia.
Radiation experts, such as Professor Denis Henshaw of Bristol University, have linked these fields to birth defects and miscarriages and believe the current World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, used as a standard by grid companies throughout Europe, should be changed.
But the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the WHO, subsequently decided that Henshaw’s evidence was ‘‘inadequate’’.
EirGrid’s information meetings in Meath and Cavan have been tense and at times acrimonious as farmers, teachers and householders insist that the three route options advanced by EirGrid should be moved from populated areas – and if possible, go underground.
But the cost of going underground in the North East would put the cost up by between six and 10 times the current €180 million price tag, according to EirGrid, which insists that the overhead lines are standard in 97 per cent of cases all over Europe.
If forced to go underground, the national grid reinforcement would jump from €650 million to €6 billion for the state energy companies, EirGrid and ESB – with taxpayers and electricity consumers to pick up the bill.
‘‘I’m not going to impose a €6 billion cost on the Irish taxpayer to end up with a less reliable power system,” Dermot Byrne, EirGrid chief executive told The Sunday Business Post this weekend.
He said his remit was to deliver a project that is ‘‘safe, reliable and affordable”. Furthermore, industry strongly favours overhead cables that can be fixed for faults in a matter of hours, compared to days for underground cables.
‘‘We know a potential €650 million is coming down the tracks in terms of transmission development. Even if it were technically feasible to develop all of that underground, the incremental cost would be in the order of €6 billion and even then we have a far less reliable system,” said Byrne.
‘‘It is really important that what we do in this particular project does not set a precedence for the future development of the grid that would put us totally offside in relation to competitiveness.”
Byrne said hundreds of studies on high power lines were examined by WHO which found no conclusive causative link with childhood leukaemia and cancer. However, WHO advised regulatory bodies to take a precautionary approach which EirGrid is adopting in the North East.
‘‘WHO said the overwhelming body of evidence found no risk to human health and no requirement to change the guidelines. W e are taking a precautionary approach and are not seeking to go closer than 50metres from any dwelling, in most cases we will be in excess of that,” said Byrne.
He said there was no evidence of any AC transmission line of a similar length being put underground anywhere. In one case in Britain, an AC line went underground in a visually sensitive area for almost six kilometres. “We’re proposing 100 per cent overhead in this case.”
Locally, however, feelings are running high. Up to 2,500 people gathered at Bective Abbey, near Navan, last month in a protest at the spectre of 140 foot high pylons being strung close to the site of the Cistercian Abbey. The site was built in 1150 and used as the location for the Mel Gibson film Braveheart.
The campaign has been running for months in the regional papers of the North East. But this week it will go national after the minister referred the matter to the Oireachtas energy committee, chaired by Fianna Fail TD John Cregan.
Ryan said: ‘‘While this is an operational matter for EirGrid itself, we all need accurate information on the type and effects of such development in the wider public domain.”
EirGrid will set out its case on Wednesday, while internationally renowned experts will also be invited to present their findings at a later date. The North East Pylon Pressure group is likely to make its presentation in two weeks’ time.
Simon Coveney, Fine Gael energy spokesman and his Labour counterpart Liz McManus want an ‘independent’ review on the costs of going underground. Fine Gael’s Cavan senator Liam O’Reilly, Meath deputy Shane McEntee and Monaghan TD Seymour Crawford also joined in this call.
According to Coveney, Ryan, as minister with responsibility for EirGrid, can influence the outcome of this dispute and the company’s future policy.
Ryan has so far fended off the call for an independent review of the costs, noting that EirGrid has the relevant expertise in this area.
The state company had a duty to act in the wider public interest as well as protect taxpayers money and EirGrid should not be ‘‘undermined’’, he said.
O’Reilly warned there was a ‘‘potential rush of litigation’’ from potential health risks that should be factored into the overall costs of not going underground.” Where the jury was out on the health issue, it is best to opt for the precautionary principle – when I was young it was considered perfectly acceptable to smoke cigarettes,” O’Reilly told last weeks’ Oireachtas committee on energy.
The North East Pylon Pressure campaign scored an early victory last week in the High Court which ordered EirGrid to give a local Meath resident reports and documents it used in selecting three route options for the power lines. The case is up for mention in the High Court on February 13.
Tom Madden, a local resident of Kilmessan used an EU regulation, the European Community Access to Information on the Environment Regulation 2007, to support his case.
‘‘It’s been seen as a shot across the bough of EirGrid as it’s the first time the company has had to stop and consider how it is going about things,” said Liam Cahill, spokesman for the North East Pylon Pressure group.
Cahill said that Ireland is one of the few countries that has not complied with an EU regulation that would greatly restrict where such power lines are allowed.
However Byrne said he will be stressing the country’s need for cost-efficient power lines to boost Ireland’s competitiveness.
The upgrade will increase the country’s security of supply which is so important for industry, and the North East as a location for high tech companies.
If Monaghan TDs’ opinions of EirGrid’s information campaign reflects the prevailing wind in Meath, a solution to this row is not expected in the short-term. Crawford said Eirgrid ‘‘has failed dismally’’ in how it went about informing the public of the upgrade.
Despite Fine Gael’s calls for Ryan to intervene, EirGrid’s view is that a decision on planning will be a matter for An Bord Pleanala, under the Strategic Infrastructure Act.
‘‘There is a process and we are allowing this to take its course and see the outcome – then we will know what we have to do.I f we have approval then we go ahead, if conditions are attached then we have to assess those conditions,” said Byrne.
3 January 2008
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