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An excessive density of inter-visible wind farms?

Residents in the Mealagh Valley area of West Cork are ‘incensed’ at the decision by Cork County Council to grant planning permission for five wind turbines and ancillary works at Ardrah, Kealkil and Bantry.

At a time of acute sensitivity regarding the environment, the central point of the residents’ argument deserves to be repeated, although already reported in this newspaper. It’s this: ‘Taken together with existing wind farms at Milane Hill, Currabwee, Lahanaght, Colomane and Cappaboy, and permitted wind farms at Goulacullin and Derrynacrinig in the Mealagh Valley, the proposed wind farm would create an excessive density of inter-visible wind farms in the highly scenic West Cork uplands.’

In other words, the wind turbines are set to become another horrendous blot on the West Cork landscape. Difficult, indeed, to quibble with that!

Locals complain that the protection of scenic areas in West Cork has been eroded in recent years by planning grants for wind farm projects that had been previously refused.

They also assert that no other form of industrial development is so favoured by Council officials than wind farms.

There are 146 wind installations in Ireland, a figure that will double over the next nine years. Cork, Kerry and Donegal have more wind factories than the rest of the country put together. Cork has 18. Many more are planned, and opposition has been growing in response.

Benign noise?

It seems that the Council’s enthusiasm to implement the government’s renewable energy plan, and to facilitate the wind farm companies, has blown the concerns of local people off the map (if you’ll excuse the pun).

The result is that questions now are being raised about the Council’s interpretation of the guidelines relating to turbine installations, particularly the destructive impact they have on people living in the vicinity.

The damage done to places of considerable ecological importance is worrying people. Tree clearing (generally four to six acres of clearance per tower) affects wildlife. Vegetation is kept down with herbicides, which in turn can lead to the poisoning of soil and water, while access roads, power lines, transformers and tower sites ruin the natural beauty of mountain ridges.

But it is the noise factor that clinches the argument against wind turbines. Noise travels, and whereas if one stands directly under a wind turbine the sound is relatively benign, 3,000 yards downhill it’s a different story.

That’s when you get the low-frequency hum that, further away, becomes as loud as a helicopter continuously flying overhead. It has been described as the relentless rumble of someone mixing cement in the sky.

Burdensome Bill

Wind turbines don’t make good neighbours and, indeed, a EU report found noise complaints to be not only valid, but that noise levels could not be predicted before developing a site.

So, all hail to Senator John Kelly’s sensible Private Members’ Bill that would place mandatory restrictions on the distances of wind turbines from homes. Currently, for planning purposes, a distance of 500m is taken as a reasonable space between a wind turbine and a residence.

But, under Senator Kelly’s Bill, the distance-strip of 500m between turbine and residence would apply only to small installations. Wind turbines with tip heights of 100m to 150m or more would have to be located a minimum of 1.5km to 2km from people’s homes.

If one stands directly under a wind turbine the sound is relatively benign. 3,000 yards downhill it’s a different story

It’s a proposal that’s sending shivers up the spine of the powerful lobby group for the wind turbine industry, the Irish Wind Energy Association – an outfit totally opposed to any mandatory separation distances. They argue that because of the scattered nature of housing in the countryside, the measures in the Bill would ‘sterilise development sites in Ireland’ for wind energy.

Legislation, they state, that would set minimum distances for wind farms in relation to housing would be ‘repressive, unnecessary and burdensome’ and, to muddy the waters, the lobby group intimates that the jobs created in the construction of wind farms, and in their maintenance, would compensate for the inconvenience caused to a rural area.

Such an argument has to be taken with a grain of salt because wind turbine installations don’t lead to much employment. After a few months of construction –usually with imported labour – a wind farm requires just one or two maintenance workers to keep them ticking over. Their job includes ensuring the motor oil isn’t leaking or that lightning hasn’t caused the blade coatings to peel off, rendering them useless or subject to collapse.

County Hall split

Ironically, although one group of officials within County Hall sees fit to inflict on West Cork a limitless number of turbine installations, another is acutely conscious of the threat the things pose in Cork Harbour.

Stranger still is the fact that when senior planner Paul Murphy recommended that permission be refused to several pharmaceutical companies who wanted to build six monstrous turbines in the Ringaskiddy area, the assistant county manager, Declan Daly, approved the applications.

The wind turbines will be 150 metres high – more than double the 18-storey Elysian Tower, which is 72m tall. They will dwarf Cobh Cathedral.

And, whereas the senior planner warns that the wind turbines will be ‘excessively visually obtrusive’ and ‘impact adversely’ on one of the finest natural harbours in the world, and on the homes of 1,200 people, the assistant county manager is of the opinion that it is important to support the multinational companies based in Ringaskiddy.

‘Shocking damage’

Also rowing in against the project is a former senior planning officer with the Council, Tricia Treacy, who is appealing to An Bord Pleanala on the grounds that the visual character of the harbour will be badly scarred by these huge structures. She says they will be out of scale with the existing buildings, landscape and topography.

She cites the ‘shocking damage’ to the character of the harbour and the precedent that would be set for a ‘free-for-all that would be utterly disastrous visually.’ She also refers to public safety issues, such as the horrific possibility of a rotor blade falling off and slicing children at Shanbally National School, just 750 metres away.

Interestingly, Ms Treacy asks a very important question in her appeal: although the purpose of the project is to reduce energy costs and reduce the carbon footprint of the four companies seeking to build the wind turbines, ‘no attempt has been made to explain how and why on-site turbines would be the most effective means of achieving this.’

It is a question that has relevance not only for the people living in the Cork Harbour area, but also for West Cork residents who have very good reasons to fear the looming threat to their countryside, and to their quality of life.