Eddie O’Connor of Mainstream Renewable Power, writing (Irish Times, December 19th) about economic stagnation, suggests that “building a new green economy” based on “an economic model that will enrich ordinary people and protect the planet” is the way forward. I would agree with him that “we cannot tolerate a business as usual scenario” in respect of economic development dependent on “cheap energy, no environmental constraints and constant population growth”.
I believe Ireland can play an effective and sustainable part in securing its energy needs and earning badly needed export revenue. After all, as Dr O’Connor’s company says on its website, “the cost of the fuel is free”. It is blowing around us and, as the wind-energy companies know, the higher one goes the stronger it is. Therefore it would be fair to say it is a community resource, and one that I think should benefit the community.
I support renewable energy: my electricity comes from Airtricity and I have solar panels. So why am I so concerned about wind development plans for the midlands?
In a recent speech to the Irish Wind Energy Association, Minister for Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte said “misinformation abounds” and there is “gross distortion and mischievous exaggeration” in relation to wind development. The situation is much more serious than that, as people in the midlands, already struggling, have been stressed and alarmed by a lack of clear communication about proposed large-scale wind-energy development in their area. Energy companies whose motivation is profit seem to be driving the project. The process has been shrouded in secrecy, with landowners gagged by non-disclosure clauses. Dr O’Connor has said his project will generate revenue by 2017, and yet we have no clear Government policy on the issue.
Local anger and dismay
Even more alarming is that Bord Na Móna, which already owns 70,000 acres in Offaly alone, has advertised locally for farmers to lease land to it for wind-energy development. It was widely believed, from statements from public representatives, that the ultra-large turbines were destined for the cutaway bogs. This development, along with private firms such as Dr O’Connor’s announcing that they have signed up hundreds of landowners, has angered many people. They do not know what is going on and do not trust the State to protect their quality of life. It is a pity that the communications element of Mr Rabbitte’s department is not more active.
Much of Dr O’Connor’s vision is worthy. However, he, his company and others have patronised and disrespected us. His website claims that depressed property prices will rise because of the jobs generated. Sustainable Energy Authority Ireland, which is chaired by Brendan Halligan, one of Mainstream’s board members (could there be a conflict of interest?) states on its website that there will be one longer-term job per 10 to 20 turbines. So, no jobs bonanza then. His website further asserts that property prices will not be depressed. Yet Denmark, which has highly-developed wind energy, 80 per cent of which according to a London School of Economics June 2012 study, “were characterised by a community ownership model” sees it otherwise. Recognising that turbines near homes depress home prices, they have an impartial statutory process which accesses any loss of value. Compensation kicks in at a 1 per cent devaluation.
Stripmining the midlands
Without widespread community acceptance this project will not proceed. Prior to recent developments there was reasonable acceptance that this could be good for the midlands if it were sensitively planned, if it acknowledg
ed the thousands of people living in the area and if it was accompanied by appropriate local investment. It is ironic that after 60 years of BNM in effect stripmining the midlands for peat the area remains at the bottom of the economic ladder in Ireland, but near the top in relation to bad health and suicide.
Large-scale wind turbines are unlike any other development: the turbines planned for the midlands will tower 200m (650ft) above our heads, (that is the equivalent of the Dublin spire with Liberty Hall on top.) The department recently announced setback distance from homes of 500m. How come in all the publicity shots of turbines there are never any houses close by? Development on this scale will alter the character the area.
Our local authority, Offaly County Council, no doubt excited by the development levies and rates, is seeking to ride two horses. The introduction to the development plan states “that all people in Offaly will enjoy equal opportunity and a good quality of life – that they will look forward to the future with confidence while cherishing the past”.This is very laudable.
As legally required, the council carried out a detailed environmental study (mainly ignoring people) identifying areas as suitable for wind development. Then for reasons I and others cannot ascertain, it ignored the results and proposes to zone entire areas east and west of the county which the study had excluded.
The wind development plan is becoming a case study of how not to do it; it involves foisting on a community a project with huge negative implications and with little direct upside for them. Those who will benefit most will not have any turbines near them.
I admire the people in the south of England who have kept their “green and pleasant land”. The citizens of the midlands of Ireland must, it seems, be content with less. Perhaps if we had ourselves designated an endangered species (the Biffo?)the EU would ride to our rescue and protect us and our environment.
Tom Dolan jointly runs the Belmont Mills artists’ studios in west Offaly.
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