Communities will be encouraged to invest in wind farms under government plans aimed at increasing support for the controversial projects.
The Coalition plans to make it easier for local communities to invest and take a stake of the projects to help the State meet ambitious and legally binding renewable-energy targets, the Irish Independent has learned.
Energy Minister Alex White plans to introduce the measures next month, which would also allow rural communities to form co-operatives to erect turbines.
He said “strong policies” would be unveiled as the use of renewable energy “intensified” over the coming years, despite opposition.
Community wind farms are commonplace across Canada and some EU countries and the model is backed by the Taoiseach’s advisory group, the National Economic and Social Council.
In an interview with the Irish Independent, Mr White said existing structures around community payback were “weak” and would be addressed in the forthcoming White Paper on Energy, due next month.
His comments were made in advance of an international summit in Paris, to take place from late November, which is aimed at striking a global deal to avert catastrophic climate change.
Ireland must produce more power from renewable forms of energy, including wind, to meet EU targets, but Mr White said there were a number of concerns which had to be addressed.
He warned that plans to introduce setback limits – where a turbine could be no closer to communities than 1km – would “close down” the industry, but that measures to address noise and shadow-flicker concerns could reduce fears.
His position is in stark contrast to his cabinet colleague, Environment Minister Alan Kelly, who wants a setback distance between 550 metres and 1km.
“We’re in the final stages of preparation (for the White Paper) and expect to go to Government in the coming weeks,” Mr White said.
“Everybody knows we have to change and change radically. The push to renewable energy has to continue and intensify.
“Onshore wind has proven to be very successful. I haven’t seen any persuasive case that onshore wind isn’t effective and cost-efficient. We have to continue with it.”
There are currently some 195 wind farms across the country, capable of producing almost 2,380MW of power – enough for around two million homes.
But data from the national grid operator EirGrid, which connects larger projects to the national grid, and ESB Networks, which connects smaller farms to the distribution system, show that the number of farms is expected to double over the coming years.
However, opposition to the projects remains pronounced in some communities, amid fears that the projects are a blight on the landscape and will impact on health.
There is also concern that taller turbines will have a negative effect on the tourist industry and affect livestock, including Ireland’s world- renowned bloodstock industry.
Mr White said that while people had “bought into the reality” that climate change was real, difficult issues remained to be addressed.
“I think it’s problematic. We’re not hiding the fact there’s a tension here. The level of consultation and debate in the early years was poor. Some in the private sector were relatively aggressive.
“We’re weak on the community payback and will be addressing this. There’s potential for community involvement in terms of equity and buy-in so they (people) have, literally, a stake in it. Unless people feel they own or have a stake in them (wind farms), they will be seen as an issue.
“There’s a job of work to be done in reconciling these concerns with what we need to do on energy policy.”
Mr White added that there would a “strong policy direction” in the White Paper.
“I have responsibility for the energy policy of the Government. It is to extend our renewable-energy portfolio and principally it will be through onshore wind until 2020.
“Wind farms have to be located somewhere. We should have new guidelines and I think we could do something on noise and on shadow flicker.
“There is a proposal to have setback distances, which would close down onshore wind. Even a relatively marginal increase on setback would impact on the onshore wind plan.”
The White Paper will also focus on energy efficiency, use of technologies to store renewable energy and smart meters, the minister added.