When Fiona Keane got word that there were solid plans for a windfarm in her area of Co Waterford last November, she set off on foot.
She knocked on her neighbours’ doors. She went house to house all the way into the village of Stradbally three miles away, alerting all to what was coming down the line.
The project was being billed as a “community” venture, but as far as Fiona was concerned, somebody had neglected to tell the community about it.
This wasn’t the usual case of outsiders descending with plans to change the landscape and, as Fiona believed, the whole way of life, of local people. Instead, it was an assault from within.
Fiona had got word of the windfarm from her friend, Breda Kiely, who was on the committee of Stadbally GAA club. At their regular meeting on November 16, the committee was informed that a local company building a windfarm was offering to invest €80,000 in the club.
For some, this was proposing community investment. Others sniffed an inducement to mortgage their health and welfare to intrusive turbines. Breda was shocked, and set about awakening the community to what was going on.
By the following Monday, an ad hoc committee had been formed and a public meeting arranged for the Rainbow Hall in Kilmacthomas. At least 600 people showed up. More were turned away. There was traffic chaos in the sleepy tourist town at the foot of Comeragh mountains.
The verdict at the meeting was emphatic. No wind turbines here, according to an angry show of hands. There was at the meeting a complete rejection of the notion that this was something for the community, by the community, of the community.
So began a battle that has driven a wedge right down through the close knit villages of Ballylannan, Stadbally, and Bunmahon, which straddle east and west Waterford.
The prospect of a windfarm in the area is being championed by local business people and landowners acting, as they see it, on behalf of the community at large, and opposed by those who see only the few benefiting at the cost to the many.
Ned Lannon, whose family have been in the area for centuries, is aligned with the latter group.
“It just feels as if something was being done behind our backs for years,” says Ned. “Then we’re just landed with these detailed plans. They want to change the whole area and for what?”
Ned was shocked a few months ago when he spotted a brochure for the venture in the back seat of his brother’s car. Breda’s husband was friendly with one of the main investors. They used to go walking together. Not any more.
“At Sunday Mass, one of the them goes around with the collection basket,” says Fiona.
“That puts the parish priest in a difficult position, not to mind the rest of us.”
Passions are running high. The project has not yet been submitted for planning permission, but if and when it does, the division is set to widen, possibly destroying the spirit that is a much- heralded feature of rural Ireland.
The development of windfarms is one of the most contentious issues in rural Ireland. Nationally, wind is the great white hope of renewable energy.
Topographically and meteorologically, this country is well-suited to exploiting wind in a time of climate change. Yet there is one major problem. Wind farms are haunted by the ghost of planning policy over the last three of four decades, where one-off housing was treated not as the exception, but an entitlement. Hence, wherever wind is there to be exploited, there are inevitably homes not too far away.
BSB Community Energy was set up in 2010 by two local landowners, Paddy Power and Harry Grey. BSB is an acronym for Ballylaneen, Stradbally, Bunmahon, the three villages which triangulate the proposed farm.
Paddy and Harry say they came up with the idea after attending seminars on wind energy. Following that, they approached a German developer, but abandoned plans when they saw that there would be no local benefit in going down that route.
Instead, they set up a local “community” enterprise, which offered shares to local people. This was done through approaching selected individuals. The investment required was €7,500 a head, which could be paid in instalments ranging from €25 per week upwards.
Fifty shares were on offer, which brought in the €300,000 initial investment required to bring the venture from the plans through to full planning permission.
The big winners will be the landowners on whose holdings the 11 proposed turbines will be sited. Leases to the value of up to €30,000 per annum per turbine can be acquired for siting turbines on agricultural land. In 2012, BSB applied for planning permission for wind monitoring masts in the area. Leader funding provided a grant towards the masts.
Fiona says she and most others knew nothing about this.
“I woke up one morning and looked out and that mast was out there up on a hill,” she says. “I didn’t even know what it was for at first.”
After that, there was little activity above the public radar for around four years. Investors were acquired, but none of this was done through public consultation.
Paddy, who heads up BSB, says the idea that there was no information given out is “right up to a point, but not entirely right”.
“We had a meeting where people were invited to come seven years ago,” he says. “There was no advertising or anything like that, it went around by word of mouth.”
Once the plans were put in train, he says, he wasn’t in a position to provide information until recently because the information had not been assembled and verified through surveys and studies.
An information meeting was scheduled for last November, but was overtaken by events after the approach to Stradbally GAA club. After the meeting in Kilmacthomas called by those opposed, BSB cancelled its meeting scheduled for two days later.
Since then, the plans has been steadily moving forward, but still no consultation with the community.
A public information meeting was scheduled for May but had to be cancelled because of a death in the area. It is now intended that it go ahead in mid-July.
Those opposed organised into a group called Mahon Valley Against Turbines. They brought out newsletters and produced a questionnaire that was handed out to around 2,000 homes, asking simply whether or not the householders were in favour of a wind farm.
The results, unsurprisingly as the questionnaire was without context, came back overwhelmingly in the negative.
As has been seen elsewhere, those opposed are adamant in their view that there must be no turbines. Their fears include health and quality of life primarily, but also there is widespread belief that house values will be affected. As elsewhere, there is dispute over the grounds on which these fears are based.
Paddy makes no bones about what he thinks of the objectors.
“There are people there who will object to whatever you do,” he says.
“Some of them definitely have fears, but they have been indoctrinated by propaganda. We always knew there would be objections but we didn’t think it would be on the scale that we now have here.”
He claims the landowners will not be the big winners.
“If you have figures for the earnings of turbines and the amount of money that will be put back into the community, the landowner is the poorest [beneficiary] of the lot of them,” says Paddy. “He will get good value for his piece of land but there are no big winners.”
Whether such a claim will stand up in the event of the farm going ahead remains to be seen.
Paddy has a long record of involvement in groups such as the IFA, GAA, and the Co-op. He says he is motivated primarily in bettering life for his community.
Yet the objections to BSB’s windfarm are not unusual, nor can fears be summarily dismissed.
The science around windfarms is highly contentious. No court in this or the neighbouring jurisdiction has ruled on a specific case.
Noise is a major worry for those who find themselves in the vicinity of turbines.
Last month, the High Court was told that a group of seven families in Banteer, Co Cork, had settled an action against a wind farm developer who had admitted liability.
The settlement ensured that evidence of noise pollution would not be heard or adjudicated on.
Shadow flicker, which involves long shadows being thrown when the sun is low, is another issue. And the big one is separation distance between turbines and homes.
New draft guidelines, issued on Enda Kenny’s last day as taoiseach, take account of shadow flicker and noise, though the separation distance is still unresolved.
The last guidelines were issued in 2006 when turbines were smaller and development was relatively sparse. The BSB turbines’ reach is just short of 150m, the average height in wind farms these days.
In reality, every case has its own merits and liabilities, which in theory are dealt with at the planning stage. Quite often in recent years, local authorities have turned down planning, only for An Bord Pleanala to grant it on the basis that wind energy has been national policy for successive governments.
Catriona Kiely lives right in the heart of the area for which the farm is proposed. She and her husband Paul have three children, the older two attending the local national school, Seafield, a short distance away. From her house, you can see the Waterford coast.
“There’s going to be four turbines between us and the coast,” she says. The nearest will be around 800m from her home. “We want to live here, my husband is from the area, and our children go to the local school. I’d hate the idea of leaving but we might have to.
“The worst thing is it’s our neighbours who’re involved in this. I don’t understand how they’re not worried for their own children.”
She accepts that the science on the impact of the turbines is inconclusive.
“I have spoken to people in Ring [Co Waterford, where there is a wind farm] and they’ve warned me about the infrasound,” Catriona says. “The whole thing is upsetting.”
In response to the opposition, BSB has taken on a consultant, Gearoid Fitzgibbon, who has a background in working in communities and with renewable energy. He says that mistakes have been made in the development of wind farms, and in the BSB project.
“Corporate projects have given wind a bad name,” says Gearoid. “This is a community project and if BSB can gain back the middle ground you will have investment in the community. They [the people in BSB] have been painted unfairly and that’s regrettable.”
He accepts that the investors were slow to engage.
“I’d say that was inexperience, they were focused on raising finance. I’m working with them now and I’d said to them they have to go properly to the community.”
Whether there is a middle ground to be gained remains to be seen. The Mahon Valley Against Turbines group are adamant that the project must not go ahead. Paddy and his colleagues are equally resolute in seeing it through, planning permission allowing.
Both sides are en route to a collision course on one of the most contentious issues facing rural Ireland.
BSB project ‘new horizon’ for energy
Gearoid Fitzgibbons believes that the BSB project in mid Waterford is unique, and could herald a new form of energy generation in the country.
There already is a community based windfarm at Templederry in Co Tipperary, but Fitzgibbon says that BSB can be a leader in the field.
“This is going wider than Templederry,” says Mr Fitzgibbons. “I would say that community energy hasn’t really developed in Ireland to any extent.”
The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) is making a big drive to help community energy projects. There are around 80 small groups in the country trying to do projects, but we have a lot of catching up to do with the likes of Germany and Demark, which have been using this model since the 1970s.
The big issue is buy-in from communities where projects, and particularly relatively intrusive projects are developed. The community must see and believe that it will benefit directly from what is being done.
“That is done in a wide range of ways in other countries,” he says.
“You could have a local fund run by a separate body to the energy company, a local body, you could have ownership of one of the turbines. I want that to be a phase of the engagement with the community in Waterford. I’m not saying that 100% of people will be on board but we want to get a fair hearing.”
At a time of greater awareness of energy security and climate change, the push for community-based renewables is really on. Last year, the ESRI presented a study which looked at community reaction to the imposition of large-scale community projects. Among the findings were that:
- Policymakers and planners frequently met with resistance from local communities to proposed infrastructure development;
- Offering a form of compensation to affected communities may reduce objections and minimise project delay;
- There are numerous methods of compensating and involving local communities in infrastructure development.
- Crucially though, the study which surveyed 1,400 people, found that “evidence on which methods are most effective at increasing acceptance is scant”.
The study also found that there was little evidence to back up a claim that communities prefer to have deeper levels of involvement in these projects. Instead, it found “a preference for mechanisms with financial compensation without sharing in the ownership and risks.”
The most telling finding, however, was that 40% of people’s “acceptance levels do not change when compensation is offered”.
This would suggest that for a large minority, the offer of financial compensation simply does not work.
Placement guidelines put on the long finger
Widespread controversy around the siting of windfarms is best reflected in Government policy, which lacks any basic coherence.
Successive governments have sat on their hands for fear of discommoding competing interests.
Communities up and down the country have been lobbying for major change to the guidelines – dating from 2006 – to reflect both the proliferation of farms and the increased size of turbines.
The industry is adamant that the current guidelines are, for the most part, sufficient. And the science as to the impact of turbines has been hotly disputed.
As a result successive governments in recent years have done their best to do nothing at all. The guidelines published in 2006 amounted to a separation distance of 500m between turbines and a residence.
Issues around noise and shadow flicker – which is a phenomenon involving turbines casting long shadows into houses when the sun is low – were largely left up to individual local authorities. This was at a time when average height was around 50m. Advances have now ensured that the average span is around 150m.For at least five years, governments have been promising to update the guidelines.
The matter is further confused as it is deemed the responsibility of both the Department of Housing – as it is a planning matter – and the Department of Communication Climate Action and Environment as it involves energy.
The current government promised new guidelines within six months of coming to office in April 2016. Six months came and went, and then another six months.
In the meantime, there was a development in Europe, where the European Court of Justice ordered a Strategic Environmental Assessment in relation to energy guidelines in Belgium.
As a result, Simon Coveney told the Dáil last March, when he was Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government, that an SEA would have to be completed here before the guidelines could be established.
As it was to turn out, “draft guidelines” were published without completing the SEA. The whiff of political expediency could be detected from this move as it occurred on Mr Coveney’s last day in his brief.
The guidelines include:
- The application of a more stringent noise limit, consistent with World Health Organisation standards, in tandem with a new robust noise monitoring regime, to ensure compliance with noise standards;
- A visual amenity setback of four times the turbine height between a wind turbine and the nearest residential property, subject to a mandatory minimum distance of 500m;
- The elimination of shadow flicker;
- The introduction of obligations in relation to engagement with local communities by wind farm developers along with provision of community benefit measures.
- These draft guidelines make provision for shadow flicker and excessive noise, but the separation distance is still a problem for many. The draft suggests that the distance should be four times the height of the turbine. Thus, for a 150m turbine, the distance is 600m, much less than that advocated by campaigners.
For instance, the 2006 distance of 500m was 10 times the average height at that time. The same multiplier now would put the separation distance at 1.5km. The industry claims that such guidelines would make wind farms unviable in a country of such dispersed housing.Apart from that, there are other issues with the new draft guidelines.
Local authorities will have to enforce the noise level rules, but so far enforcement is, at best, patchy, mainly due to a lack of resources.
The new draft also makes provision to draw in the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor sound levels, but the Irish Examiner understands the agency was given little forewarning of this proposal, and that legislation will be required.
The Government’s move to issue new guidelines have all the appearance of a rushed job designed to consign to the long finger a proper regulation regime for wind farms.
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