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Turbine law ‘would rule out wind farms’

Introducing a mandatory minimum distance between houses and wind farms would mean “the entire country will be ruled out for wind development”, it was suggested at a government meeting last year.

After the conference involving the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and An Bord Pleanala last November, Una Dixon, an assistant principal officer, told colleagues that Phil Hogan’s ministry wanted to “limit the scope of the revision” of current guidelines. These merely suggest leaving 500 metres between wind turbines and homes.

In correspondence released under the Freedom of Information Act, Dixon, who worked for the communications department, said that environment officials believed the guidelines were “working well and were the result of careful consideration of numerous issues”.

Jan O’Sullivan, the Labour minister of state in the environment department, is reviewing the wind-energy guidelines with the Department of Communications.

Senator John Kelly and Willie Penrose, a Labour TD, have proposed replacing them with legislation setting down a mandatory minimum distance between turbines and houses of at least 500 metres, and possibly more depending on the size of the devices.

After the inter-departmental meeting to discuss the proposed guidelines last November, Dixon sent another email to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), saying it was the view of the “two ministers and departments that these matters are best dealt with through a limited revision of the wind energy guidelines”.

Dixon told the SEAI the review was “very sensitive – if the proposals in this were to go ahead, for example, wind development in Ireland would effectively cease and we would not be in a position to reach our 2020 [renewable energy] targets”.

The civil servant asked the SEAI to “be aware of the significant sensitivities around these issues and only undertake initiatives that relate to this area following discussion with the department”. She warned that “titles of workshops such as ‘social acceptance of wind in Ireland’ are highly sensitive given the anti-wind momentum stoked up in the last few months”.

This weekend the Department of the Environment distanced itself from Dixon’s comments, denying it had ever said the suggested legislation would “shut down” the wind industry in Ireland.

“It must be clear that no officials in this department have ever said that this would be an end to the sector,” it said. “Nor was it expressed in any documents that we exchanged. That wording is from a person in another department and that is their take on it.”

However, briefing documents prepared for Pat Rabbitte, the communications and energy minister, before a meeting to discuss the guidelines with O’Sullivan last December also state that “the proposed bill would have significant implications for the future development of wind energy, given the dispersed nature of our housing in Ireland”.

The briefing documents refer to a study by NUI Maynooth, which mapped the potential impact of the distances proposed. It found the legislation “could mean that no further wind, or only a tiny amount, could be developed going forward in Ireland, meaning our 2020 target would not be achieved”.

The material also included notes marked “confidential” from someone who attended the inaugural meeting of Communities for Responsible Engagement with Wind Energy (Crewe), a lobby group. Senator Kelly told the meeting he was not happy with the way business was being done by wind developers, and accused some of making secret deals with farmers.

Yvonne Cronin, of Crewe, said she was aware there was “a plant” at the meeting. “It was open to the public, so we have no issue with the department or anyone else knowing what went on,” she said.

Cronin said she was disappointed the government seemed to have concluded that mandatory minimum distances be ruled out.

The Department of Communications said the review of guidelines was continuing and would “address key issues of community concern to ensure wind energy does not have negative impacts”.