Wind turbines are beautiful, right? On its website, Greenpeace says that “while some people express concern about the effect wind turbines have on the beauty of our landscape, others see them as elegant and beautiful”. It would be safe to assume that the authors of that statement do not live within sight of a wind farm.
When you fly over Ireland, you can see the vast expanse of the Bog of Allen. It is a stunning sight – 958 square kilometres of brown mass, like a country within a country. That is where I come from, in the middle of that mass. Less than five miles from home, in a place called Mount Lucas, a process is under way to erect 28 wind turbines.
A year or so ago, the company behind the project, or a sub-contractor, resurfaced many of the roads in the area, to the welcome surprise of locals, but that was before anybody really knew what was involved. The Bog of Allen has done a job for the country before: it provided a livelihood for tens of thousands of families primarily in Offaly, Meath, Kildare, Laois and Westmeath, since Bord na Mona was established in 1946 for the mechanised harvesting of peat.
My father and his late brother were among those first teenagers on the bogs to swing a navvy shovel for a week’s wage; truth be told, I have swung a fair few shovels there myself in my day.
Last week, the Daily Telegraph reported that the 1,100 turbines planned for the entire Bog of Allen will be three times the height of Nelson’s column in London, and taller even than the Great Pyramid of Giza that stood as the loftiest man-made structure on the planet for 3,800 years.
The intention is that there will be 28 such turbines beating a beat less than five miles from a place I hope my great grandchildren will come to know and also love. From the air, I imagine, they will seem an elegant and most beautiful sight. But on the ground, that is a different matter. . .
In all, 176 wind farms, or another 1,100 turbines, have already been put up around the country, to varying heights and noise levels. This more than doubling of the number of turbines comes at a time when morale has begun to lift from as low a point as it has ever been.
Unemployment fell to 12.4 per cent in December, still 0.3 per cent above the European average, but the lowest level since June 2009.
It is against this appalling, but improving statistic that the Taoiseach last week chose to evoke the sentiment, after Christmas, of those who have been forced to emigrate and those who still may have to emigrate in years to come.
The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding that will lead to a full agreement which will allow Ireland export wind-generated electricity to Britain.
Under the 2008 Climate Change Act, and subsequent carbon budgets, the UK is committed to cutting its annual greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2025. This cannot be done without a power sector that is virtually carbon-free by the middle to late 2020s.
Last week Pat Rabbitte came to the Taoiseach’s defence when Enda Kenny was
criticised for evoking the spectre of emigration. Also last week it was reported Eirgrid is to conduct a survey with a view to having an interconnector with France, to mainland Europe, to export electricity generated from wind.
Eirgrid is the semi-State company behind a €500m project that involves the installation of 750 pylons, carrying 200km of high-voltage cables, across almost half the country: Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford, Kilkenny, Carlow, Laois, Wicklow and Kildare.
In defence of the Taoiseach, Pat Rabbitte said: “I think the point the Taoiseach was making was that if you want progress, you need to have a good system.”
The minister will understand if I say I was put in mind of Lenin’s definition of communism: “Soviet power plus electrification.”
So this is the future then – the mass-production of renewable power for export to a UK and then a European market.
The question is this: are we being asked to buy a pig in a poke? For example, it has been reported that the government in Britain “appears to be delighted that the Irish people seem less aware of the noise and the visual pollution associated with wind turbines [and] don’t actually understand the scale of them”.
Not only that, but the case for wind energy is also inconclusive. There is a persuasive view that such energy can not generate enough to reduce global CO2 levels in a meaningful way; that wind power is by nature intermittent and can not generate a steady output, which will necessitate back-up coal and gas power plants that will negate minimal savings of greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition to the inefficiency of wind power, there are ecological drawbacks, such as the damage to habitats and, the aesthetic drawback of the assault upon natural beauty which turbines entail.
In his book, The Wind Farm Scam, Dr John Etherington argues that wind power has been, and is being, excessively financed at the cost to consumers who have not been consulted; nor have they been informed that an effective subsidy is being paid from their bills to support an industry that cannot be cost-efficient or, ultimately, favour the cause it purports to support.
But that’s the creation of energy for you. It has always been a messy business, not least to the environment: wind farming, despite the image, will generate significant damage too. The truth is, the search for clean energy has been discredited by such controversial solutions.
The erection of 24 wind turbines in Mount Lucas is part of a wider debate, a conclusion to which must be that energy needs cannot be met by renewables alone; that people must reduce demand, electrify transport systems, explore the options of nuclear power and examine methods to capture and sequester carbon dioxide from non-renewable resources.
When he signed the Memorandum of Understanding with the UK, Pat Rabbitte said he expected 30,000 jobs “could be created countrywide”, along with investments of more than €18bn by 2020 if the “required enablers” with the agreement were put in place.
Eventually when Eirgrid is privatised, as many fear and several anticipate, further billions could be generated for the State. So that is what we stand to lose or gain. The country is only now fully awake to what is a dilemma.
In essence, the question the Taoiseach raised last week is how much more do we want to give away in order that we may bring back, or keep at home, what is referred to as our greatest resource – young people.
Agriculture minister Simon Coveney thinks he knows the answer: he has gone so far to say that pylon protesters down the spine of the country, and those in the cattle-fattening midlands who oppose wind turbines, will damage Ireland’s international reputation and turn major investors away.
It is pretty crude stuff, essentially a bogus argument in what passes for constructive debate. But then, nobody ever said it was going to be easy, the reconstruction of the country.
We know what side Kenny, Rabbitte and Coveney are on – jobs, jobs, jobs into the medium term, perhaps. They may be right. Throw in a guarantee of cheaper electricity bills and they may even be re-elected.
Governments will never hesitate to claim that new jobs, from the time of a subsidy or tax break took effect, are the consequence of such policies.
A further issue is that big business has become less, not more, enlightened – and they never waste a good crisis.
The cold face of such a reality is that jobs in the private sector are a fortuitous by-product of successful business pursuits that have nothing to do with job creation.
From the perspective of today’s employers, jobs are a necessary cost of the pursuit of other objectives, costs that will continue to be incurred only so long as the business is successful.
A business plan that calls for job creation without explaining how the business will eventually be profitable, while paying for those jobs, will not attract finance from any intelligent investor.
You should be aware that the vendor of the 28 wind turbines in Mount Lucas is Siemens, a German engineering and electronics conglomerate headquartered in Munich and Berlin.
The point is that job creation is never the mission of private enterprise because there is no market for job creation. There is no economic return on jobs unless those employed are producing products and services that yield sufficient revenue to cover all expenses, including compensation for employees.
But make no mistake, in this new age, employees are just an expense, along with capital investment, debt service, regulatory compliance and a host of other costs.
So maybe the Bog of Allen will come to life again, that is, if anybody wants to live close to wind turbines; and the spine of rural ireland too, if anybody wants to live close to 45-metre high pylons.
It is a moot point: there is scientific research too – but it is also inconclusive. The bottom line seems to be that if you live within 50 metres from a pylon, the prospect of death from cancer is significant; but as you go beyond that, the prospect lessens significantly to arguably negligible five miles away.
Currently, we are being asked to be reassured that the European Commission is close to the publication of a definitive report on the many health issues concerned.
On this, as in all else, in a drive towards what Pat Rabbitte calls “progress”, the Government seems to be edging closer to a certain position.
Regulations have been introduced to the effect that there must be a “minimum separation” of a kilometre between a wind turbine and a private home, “unless the homeowner agrees to it being closer”. The regulations also propose a noise limit of 40 decibels in areas around wind farms, equivalent to that found in a residential area with no traffic.
Notwithstanding events last week, it all points in a certain direction.
Last Thursday, An Bord Pleanala overturned planning permission for 10 wind turbines in Cloghan, Co Offaly. The plan is bound to be tweaked and resubmitted. There is too much at stake now.
With that in mind, here is what will likely happen: the Bog of Allen will go to work again and the battle for the heart and soul, not to mention future, of the country will be won or lost in the Comeragh Mountains.
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