EirGrid’s ambitious €3.2 billion plan to upgrade Ireland’s electricity network has been contentious since it was announced several years ago but opposition has peaked in recent weeks. Its proposal is to bring high-voltage lines across the countryside on hundreds of pylons, each rising to some 40 metres.
The argument for the scheme is the country’s network is in bad need of modernisation to meet the needs of new industry; to tap into new sources of alternative energy (particularly wind) in areas where the network does not have sufficient capacity (the western seaboard); and for security of supply. EirGrid and Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte have argued it will reduce our dependence on imported fossil fuels.
Few have difficulty with the overall concept. Where the problem lies is in the means to the end. With few exceptions, EirGrid has proposed to carry the lines overground via pylons rather than underground. The argument is that bringing the cables underground would be three times as costly.
In a Dáil speech last month, Rabbitte argued that it was the norm in Europe to carry high-voltage lines overhead, with only a small fraction being put underground. Figures produced by EirGrid yesterday show that over 95 per cent of cabling in the EU is overground, rising to 98 and 99 per cent in France, Britain, Switzerland and Spain.
Underground cables were less reliable and could introduce technical difficulties, said Rabbitte. However, he did not rule out specific solutions for particular areas (opening the possibility of going underground in dense residential areas or where the scenery was spectacular).
In fact there are already 6,500km of high voltage overhead lines in Ireland, 440km of which are similar 400kv lines to the ones now being planned.
Yesterday was the final day for public submissions on the Grid Link project, a key part of the overall Grid25 scheme. This €500 million project will link the networks in Leinster and Munster along a route that will take in the east, southeast and south of the country.
By close of business yesterday, submissions to EirGrid had run into the thousands. Over 1,500 had come from a single website, rethinkpylons.org, which represents some 65 local groups across the country from Waterford, to south Tipperary, to the midlands, to north Mayo, opposed to the routing and location of pylons in their area.
The group has become increasingly professional in its organisation. A technology expert Albert Wasenaar living in Lismore, Co Waterford, set up its website and the group has taken out full-page advertisements in the national press. Wasenaar said it has relied on voluntary contributions until now and would be registering with the Standards in Public Office Commission as a third party under electoral legislation.
He said one of its main focuses between now and the local elections in May would be to “praise politicians who are against the pylons and to punish politicians who are for them”. It is clear this will become a local election issue, with the possibility of anti-pylon Independent candidates emerging.
There are few backbenchers in either of the Coalition parties who back the pylons. The subject dominated two meetings of the Fine Gael parliamentary party before Christmas.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Enterprise Richard Bruton have dismissed criticism of the project as insignificant in comparison to its strategic importance.
Of course, there is an element of not-in-my-backyard to the protests. But concerns have also been raised about health issues (the assertion that electromagnetic waves from high-voltage cable can lead to cancers and leukaemia) as well as the visual impact on areas of scenic beauty, intrusion and the impact on tourism.
For their part, Rabbitte and EirGrid have pointed to studies from the World Health Organisation and others suggesting no health issues.
What happens now? EirGrid itself will evaluate the feedback and decide on a “least constrained corridor” by the middle of this year. That is an internal decision and will not be open to public scrutiny until after it is made.
The single corridor chosen from three options put out for consultation will be a 1km wide strip and the decision will be taken on three specific grounds: cost, technical considerations and environment (including social factors).
Once that decision is made, there will be a further public consultation and negotiations with landowners along the route. EirGrid will then undertake an environmental impact assessment and that will form the basis of the planning application made under the strategic infrastructure legislation of 2006.
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