The grand narrative about energy supply, which insists that we in countries like Ireland have to come to terms with a post-oil world, is a narrative that is hard to resist. However, the seemingly irreproachable “clean and renewable” mantra of the wind energy industry is beginning to run out of steam.
As a rural dweller directly affected by the establishment of 120-metre wind turbines, I insist that the heretofore, and rather primitive, debate in Ireland be taken to a higher plane.
Ostensibly, when set alongside the “angry mob”characterisation of rural residents, who watch helplessly as their property values decline and their communities become blighted by towers as tall as Dublin’s Spire, the wind industry holds the high moral ground, and pun intended, the literal high ground.
In fact, there is nothing the wind industry and its highly paid PR people like more than to see people with hand-painted placards appearing like Father Ted extras, declaring “down with this sort of thing”. But perhaps what this industry fears most is fact-based argumentation.
At present, the energy industry is advancing its own research, which unsurprisingly concludes that turbine placement does not affect the value of proximate properties. The UK’s department of energy and its department of agriculture will soon publish a joint and major study addressing the issue of the impact of onshore wind energy on house prices. This study should give us a real idea of trends.
The UK’s valuation office, a division of its revenue service, has for some time routinely accepted appeals from residents to place them in a lower council tax band where they live within one mile of a turbine; a de facto acknowledgement that property prices are affected by the presence of turbines. Is it any wonder that many UK energy firms are seeking to import wind-generated energy from Ireland, where such inconvenient truths have yet to take root.
The relative sophistication of the UK approach is further enhanced by the policy guidance issued earlier this month by energy minister Ed Davey, who has placed an obligation on all new developments to provide £5,000 per megawatt of power generated to local residents in free electricity, up to a total of £100,000 per annum per average-sized wind farm. The British are also to have a much stronger say at the planning stage of any wind farm proposal.
Meanwhile, back in Ireland, we are left to flail about in a policy and legislative vacuum. The Government’s most relevant agencies, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) and the Department of Energy, Communication and Natural Resources, provide absolutely no information or support to rural residents affected by inshore wind development. In the case of the SEAI, it appears to act as nothing more than a cheerleader for a multibillion-euro industry, providing as it does guidance for any landowner seeking to enter the wind generation business.
Perhaps there is a mid-way solution to the growing gap between the wind energy industry and the local residents it wishes to impose itself upon. One proposal is that all developers undertake to meet the difference between a relevant property value, post-turbine, and its pre-turbine price, to be decided by an independent panel of property experts. Anyone that purchases a property post-turbine knows what they are buying. It seems the benefit-sharing system operating in the UK, whereby all residents within a certain radius are provided with an electricity subsidy, is eminently wise and should be immediately adopted here.
These are just two solutions that might generate more tolerance of an industry that appears arrogant, and one that is seen as riding roughshod over rural Ireland with a self-assured belief that they are latter-day green crusaders, overcoming redneck troglodytes opposed to everything.
The truth, of course, is that the wind energy industry should be welcomed and sensitively developed, and that we country dwellers are far from ignorant Luddites. It is no longer acceptable for the inshore wind industry to issue blandishments such as “our children’s children deserve clear air” etc. No one party to this debate has a greater hold on virtue. The undeniable truth is that this is a hard-nosed business matter, so let’s all move away from the unhelpful rhetoric. Only by sitting down and working out serious and creative solutions, as our neighbours in the UK have done and continue to do, will this potentially explosive and divisive issue be properly ameliorated.
It’s time to start a mature engagement on inshore wind exploitation, one that only exploits the common resource, and not the hapless citizens who happen to live in the wrong place. The wind industry has had its way for too long.
Declan Doyle lives with his family in rural north Kilkenny
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