Is it just a lot of wind?
That was what Laois farmers discussed last week when the IFA held a meeting regarding two proposed wind farm projects in the county.
A packed venue at Abbeyleix Manor Hotel was testament to the interest in wind farm proposals and it’s easy to see why.
Landowners are being offered in the region of €20,000 a year per turbine and option agreements on their land are highly sought after. One farmer had been approached six times in as many weeks for an option agreement on his land.
However, serious doubt has been cast on the feasibility of the proposed projects, with it being described “at best a 50% chance of success” of it coming to fruition. There is still clarification to be sought in key areas. Element Power and Mainstream are the two main companies vying for rights for farmers.
At the meeting last Tuesday, Laois IFA chairperson Pat Hennessy said it has yet to be determined whether the proposal was “a lot of wind,” but, he added: “I think a lot of effort has been put in by companies and their focus to lock in land.”
Thomas Ryan, IFA environmental executive, gave a brief rundown of the proposals so far, which would stretch across Meath, Kildare Westmeath, Wicklow, Laois and Offaly.
Mainstream’s 5000mw project would affect 900 landowners and create 500 long-term jobs.
Element Power’s 3000mw scheme would include 40 wind farms and create 2,000 jobs.
Mr Ryan said that the proposals had been spurred by UK requirements that 15% of its energy would come from renewable sources by 2020. Currently, they will not meet the targets.
This is where Ireland comes into play and both companies believe that their proposals will be fast-tracked to An Bord Pleanála through strategic infrastructure developments (SID) to export power across the Irish Sea.
“It’s not settled yet whether they have the entitlement (for SID), but it looks extremely likely,” said Mr Ryan. He added that there were still “a lot of vagaries” around the project.
At the moment, the two companies are trying to sign up as many farmers into option agreements in what is, effectively, a “land grab”.
Mr Ryan said that the option agreement is the “most serious document you will sign” and urged caution.
The document allows the developer the option to require the farmer’s land and enter into an agreed lease, in the instance that the farmer’s land is required, which would mean obtaining planning permission for wind turbines and a connection to the national grid.
Once planning permission is obtained, the developer is entitled to insist the farmer execute the lease. Mr Ryan said that wind developers had, historically, a very bad attitude to farmers.
“The wind development record in this country is extremely poor They have talked to farmers one-on-one and said to farmers in their kitchens that ‘this is a private deal, do not tell your neighbours’,” he said.
The IFA had met with the companies looking for a set of minimum conditions which would be applied to all farmers and those who have already made agreements retroactively.
These include payments if option agreements are extended and planning permission is obtained. If the turbines are replaced with new, more efficient turbines, a further payment should be made. Farmers should also be indemnified against lost refusing payment of clawing back REPS or single farm payments.
Mr Ryan said that a condition should also be agreed that the land be reinstated to what it was once the wind farm becomes unviable.
“I’m not saying we are going to get changes but it will not be for the want of trying,” he said.
Mr Ryan also urged caution when he outlined a recent article by economist Colm McCarthy, who wrote that it would be easier and cheaper for the UK to secure its wind energy from Scotland rather than Ireland.
In summary, Mr Ryan said there was “undoubted potential” but also put a “health warning” on the proposals.
Gavin Blake of Beauchamps Solicitors, who specialise in wind farms, said that farmers should be aware of the conditions imposed by the developer on the lease option on the use of land.
“After five years of a lease agreement, you may then have a wind farm for 25 years. You are locking up your field for 30 years. You really have to look closely at it,” he said.
IFA regional vice-president and chairperson of the climate change project team, Ger Bergin, described the two firms as “reputable companies with a track record with dealing with wind farms”.
Mr Bergin said that there were other speculators also in the field trying to sign up farmers.
“It’s come to our attention that, besides the two other companies, there are some others knocking around and you see what they’re trying to do is build a land bank as much as possible,” he said.
Mr Bergin said that it looked like they were attempting to “flip” the land and sell on the option agreements to third parties for profit.
He warned: “Do not do anything until you are sure what you sign. If they get your name on the end of a piece of paper, you are not going to get that option back”. In his opinion, the current offers by companies “do not reflect the risk we are taking; the encumbrance we are taking on”.
Companies were offering to pay €500 towards solicitors’ fees, along with €1,000 to the farmer to get the option agreement signed. It was reiterated several times that experienced legal advice should be sought and this could cost in excess of €500.
Mr Bergin said that no matter what conditions were imposed by the developer, landowners should not be left out of pocket and associated in.
The meeting was opened to the floor for questions and views.
A delegation from Ratheniska, Spink, Timahoe Substation Action Group attended the meeting and outlined its concerns about the project.
PRO Colm Fingleton said that the proposals put forward by both companies were “kind of mad” and cast doubt on whether they’d come to fruition.
“I do not think that it will get strategic infrastructure development. It’s not strategic; it’s a private venture,” he said. Mr Fingleton said that the projects would face a “phenomenal” amount of objections in the planning stage and would likely be turned down.
He also queried whether the wind farms would be connected to the proposed EirGrid substation in Coolnabackna and, if so, the group would, too, lodge an objection.
Mr Ryan accepted the doubts around the project, but added: “We just can’t take a risk that it will not be going ahead.” He said that the projects “at best had a 50% chance of success”.
Mr Bergin added that the companies would also secure “two to three” times as many agreement options as they would ever actually use.
It’s also proposed that lines for the wind farm project would be placed underground, which would have ramifications.
“They made a big thing that it’s going to be underground. They made a virtue out if it. I don’t know whether they will or not. It’ll be interesting. It will set a precedent,” said Mr Bergin.
Stradbally farmer Pat Farrell said that when he was contacted by one of the companies’ engineers, he did not get an answer of how the money he would receive was to be calculated and there was lack of clarity on the project.
A Portarlington man said that during a conversation with a representative of Element Power, he rubbished Mainstream’s proposal stating it “would not get planning permission”.
Jim Fleming from the Swan asked whether Bord na Mona and Coillte, who both have large landholdings in the county, were in discussion with the companies.
There was no information from the top table about the issue, but the suggestion was clear that the state bodies’ leverage may significantly affect offers made to farmers.
The meeting concluded when Mr Bergin said that the IFA would come back to farmers within three weeks with more information.
“The best thing is not to sign anything until we come back to you,” said Mr Bergin.
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