A push has come from a number of quarters to have Westmeath County Council broaden its policy on wind energy in the new County Development plan.
A number of submissions made during the public consultation on the plan are critical of the Westmeath policy objective, CPO 10.132, which requires that there be minimum setback of 500 metres to 2000 metres – depending on turbine height – between turbines and homes.
The council is also being asked to explain why out of the 11 zones into which the county is divided for wind energy purposes, the only two areas that had been designated as having ‘high capacity’ potential have been downgraded to ‘low capacity’.
The Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) is demanding that the authority remove entirely the policy objective CPO 10.132, which provides a graded series of setback distances.
The OPR says that the inclusion of such mandatory separation distances would restrict the potential for windfarm development in the county and be contrary to national policy and ministerial guidance on windfarm development.
The OPR is also surprised that the council has included a definition for industrial scale/large scale wind energy production projects, without there being any accepted national definition of such category of development. It wants this removed.
The Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA), in its submission, is accusing the council of having “without any justification being provided” designated just one area of Westmeath as having ‘medium capacity’ for wind energy production – and of rating the rest of the county as ‘low capacity’ or ‘no capacity’.
Formerly, based on a 2008 landscape character assessment, there were two medium capacity and two high capacity areas, and the IWEA says the original windfarm capacity map for the county, as developed in 2008, should be used as the standard, but that a priority could be made of having it upgraded.
The IWEA also takes serious issue with the setback distances proposed in policy CPO 10.132 and states that using the national Wind Energy Development Guidelines of a setback distance of four times tip height, and assuming a tip height of 150m, leaves approximately 14% of Westmeath available for potential wind energy development.
However, only 1.3% of this area is currently designated as ‘medium capacity’, which is the most positive of the wind energy development designations.
“It is clear to IWEA that Westmeath County Council have not attempted to fully zone all lands for potential wind energy development in Westmeath in line with our national climate action targets.”
The IWEA says it is important that the Westmeath County Development Plan is aligned with regional and national policy, which requires that Ireland’s current on-shore wind generation double from its current 4 GW to 4.2 GW by 2030.
Urging Westmeath County Council to include an “evidence-based” renewable energy strategy in the plan, the association states bluntly: “It is Westmeath County Council’s responsibility to contribute towards our national climate action plans.”
Bord na Mona, in its submission, points out that the setback distances in the draft plan are in conflict with the Wind Energy Development Guidelines 2006 and the Draft Revised Wind Energy Development Guidelines 2019, and wants the landscape character assessments reviewed.
Statkraft Ireland of Cork, part of the Statkraft Group which describes itself as being Europe’s largest generator of renewable energy, says in its submission that it has serious concerns about some of the measures set out in the draft plan and asks that the council reconsider some of the proposals, especially in relation to setback guidance and landscape characterisation.
The Statkraft submission also alleges that there is no reference or commitment to producing a renewable or wind energy strategy for the country within the traffic plan.
Galetech Energy Services welcomed the recognition within the Draft CDP that wind energy can make a significant contribution toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but submitted that “all objectives and policies, particularly in relation to Policy CPO 10.132, must be fully in accordance with the Wind Energy Development Guidelines”.
Innogy Renewables Ireland Limited of Kilkenny, which owns and operates renewable energy projects independently and in partnership with other Irish businesses, reiterated the concerns over the landscape character assessments used to classify wind capacity.
The North Westmeath Turbine Action Group (NWTAG), in its submission, drew attention to a conflict between two clauses dealing with setback distances between wind turbines and houses.
They point out that clause CPO 10.132 clause (formerly known as P-WIN 6), which it supports, provides for setback distances of between 500 and 2000 metres, while clause CPO 10.137 states that to avoid visual disturbance, setback distances, where relevant, should comply with ministerial guidelines.
They also point out that while the draft plan states that “consent has been granted for a windfarm of 13 turbines at Coole with potential to generate 50MW of renewable energy”, the issue is currently before the Commercial High Court awaiting judgement.
The group argues that as a “generally flat, low lying county”, Westmeath does not generate the type of consistent high wind speeds needed to justify the erection of commercial wind turbines.
“This is why in order to produce wind energy on a large scale across most of the midlands, it is necessary to build massively high industrial wind turbines that are among the largest in Europe. Their scale and setting in generally very flat countryside will result in significant planning blight and untold ecological damage.”
Labour councillors Denis Leonard and Cllr Johnnie Penrose, together with Fine Gael Cllrs Emily Wallace and Andrew Duncan, have taken issue with a number of points relating to wind energy infrastructure.
The four are concerned over the redesignation of the western lowlands area – area 7 – to an area deemed to be of ‘medium capacity’ for wind energy and they are concerned about an apparent dilution of the council’s policy of strictly directing industrial scale windfarms to areas of cut away bog land.
They want greater clarity on the questions of noise pollution, setback distances and on landscape policies.