Is the wind starting to change direction a little when it comes to our determination to meet policy targets on renewable energy? Three developments in recent weeks suggest so.
1. Environment minister Alan Kelly is preparing new planning guidelines for wind farms in which it is speculated that he will push the allowable distance from a turbine to a dwelling to around 700 metres. He is also considering a height to distance matrix as turbines can now reach blade heights of 169m.
2. Kildare County Council recently voted to impose a 1.7km distance from bigger turbines to a dwelling, equal to 10 times the blade height of the largest ones. Curiously, Westmeath County Council did the same thing last year only to have Junior minister Jan O’Sullivan intervene and block the measure saying it was inconsistent with national targets. Kildare might get the same response.
Offaly County Council wanted to do something similar but revised its plan.
3. Last week An Bord Pleannala shot down a 48-turbine Coillte wind farm plan for Co Mayo on the grounds that it could lead to peat slippage and the flows of nearby rivers.
It also questioned its scale, proximity to protected habitats and a “landscape characterised by blanket bog, lakes, ponds and water sources.”
This ruling could have implications for a second, even larger, proposed wind farm nearby where ESB and Bord NaMona plan to erect 112 turbines.
Up to now Ireland has done reasonably well in growing its renewable energy contribution through wind farms.
We have barely made progress with any other alternatives, such as offshore wind, solar or wave power.
Pretty much all of our efforts have gone into onshore wind, so far, in meeting ambitious targets of generating 40pc of our electricity needs from renewable energy.
But getting this far has come at a price. The wind energy sector is heavily subsidised and many of those who live close to turbines are very unhappy about it.
The debate about the visual attractiveness, efficiency, subsidies and impact on tourism around wind farms continues to rage. Pioneers of wind energy, such as Germany and Denmark, are practically halting further development. This is partially because of cost and partially because they have already reached very high levels of wind energy generation.
A backlash in the UK prompted David Cameron’s government to cut subsidies. Austerity in Spain saw the government not only cut payments but claw back subsidies retrospectively from companies that had already received them. Legal actions in Spain are ongoing.
In Scotland, wind power generated the equivalent of 98pc of its electricity needs last year.
It has come at a cost. In 2014 the industry received over £53m in compensation payments for when their power was not needed. Denmark has the highest density of turbines in the world, but Scotland has nine regions with a higher density than Denmark. The Scots now have around 2,683 turbines with a generating capacity of around 5,110MWs although there are 282 more under construction and a further 2,202 with planning consent.
If all operational, Scotland would have an installed wind power capacity of 12,769MW – the sixth highest in the world behind China, the USA, Germany, Spain and India.
In the Republic of Ireland we have capacity of 2,200MWs from around 1,500 turbines. We need nearly the same again to get to our 40pc target. We continue to pay sizeable subsidies every year to the industry.
Are they good value for taxpayer money? Homeware giant Ikea, which makes billions in profit per year has acquired a wind farm in Leitrim and will benefit from subsidies. The farm was bought by Mainstream Renewable Energy, then sold to Ikea 18 months later and it will generate about three full time jobs while in operation.
However, the subsidies are there for a reason. Companies have to be incentivised to build an expensive but useful and renewable energy source. Wind farms may not be the solution to our energy needs but they are definitely part of it.
It is a myth to say the energy is free, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t develop it.
Equally, it is a myth to talk about large scale rural jobs from wind farms. A study commissioned by the industry and conducted by the ESRI and Trinity College found that every megawatt of wind power creates just 0.09 jobs in repair, operation and maintenance. That means our current capacity has created 198 maintenance jobs in local areas.
They do also create investment jobs, in accountancy firms and banks. The figure here is 0.07 investor jobs per megawatt. Many of these are not local to the area. Construction jobs are real but temporary.
These are not good reasons to abandon wind energy but should encourage deeper cost/benefit analysis.
The industry rightly points out that wind power helps to reduce the wholesale cost of electricity which in turn brings about savings in costs of tens of millions of euro, including €75m in 2011 alone.
So, if they are still worth having, the battleground is now firmly about where they should be. Strong guidelines on turbine distance from houses, towns and villages, are important. However, they could rule out large swathes of more populated rural counties from having any turbines at all.
Go with less densely populated mountain and bogland areas, and you run into concerns about natural environment, habitats and even tourism. Firstly, we don’t have too many turbines in Ireland – yet. With 32 wind farms, Co Donegal has the most. Cork is second with 26 but it generates more power.
There are 191 wind turbines in Co Kerry or 4.2 per 100 sq kilometres. In Denmark the figures is 11 per 100 sq kilometres. Denmark is not a tourist country, you might say.
Yet, at over eight million visitors per year, it gets more tourists than Ireland does. It depends on what you are selling.
Longford, Westmeath and Meath don’t have any wind farms. Kildare generates just 0.02MWs.
Spreading them too thinly nationally adds to cost. Concentrating too many in certain areas, and they can dominate.
Some 1,500 turbines later, and things are going to get a little bit more tricky for the wind industry.
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