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Waterford residents push back against the breeze as windfarms loom ahead

One fine day last August Paddy Massey, his wife Annabelle and their three children made it to the summit of the Galtymore. Blue skies afforded them a panoramic view of south Munster, stretching across four counties, including the competing peak of Carrauntoohil, Co Kerry. And down towards the Lee Valley in West Cork, Paddy could even make out the white lines of rows of wind turbines.

“They have them up all over the place down there, but we don’t want a repeat of it over where we are,” he says. “If everything that goes ahead is planned, we in rural Ireland are just going to be used to power data centres and ship energy offshore.”

West Waterford is where he is, displaced from his native Cork. He lives in an idyllic rural heartland a few miles outside Lismore. The drive to his home from the Dungarvan to Youghal road is through thicket forests and the flowing tide of the Blackwater. There are signs pinned to tree trunks serving notice of ‘game preserve’. And there are also the signs that are becoming commonplace across rural Ireland.

“No to windfarms”; “windfarms divide communities”.

For west Waterford right now is at the frontline of the battle to site or reject the generation of wind as a renewable energy.

Planning permission has been lodged for a 17 turbine windfarm, which will straddle the Cork-Waterford border. Lyrenacarriga Wind Farm will take up 733 hectares. The site will be around 5km southeast of Tallow, Co Waterford and 9km from the east Cork town of Youghal. Part of the lands are owned by Coillte.

Eleven of the turbines will be sited on the Waterford side, which has been designated in the county development plan as a ‘preferred’ location for wind energy.

On the Cork side, the local designation is “open for consideration” under the 2014 development plan. Crucially, the application is to be considered under legislation allowing for strategic infrastructure development, which permits planning to be granted directly by Bord Pleanála rather than through a local authority.

The facility is being developed by a partnership between Irish energy company Highfield Energy, and German conglomerate RWE Renewables.

The planning application has swung local opposition into action, or, more accurately, reawakened opposition that had lain dormant since there was an initial flurry about a possible development nearly three years’ ago. Local people claim that the farm will impact on 300 homes in the area.

Paddy Massey and his family live in one of those homes, a rambling farmhouse which they purchased and did up a few years back. He arrived in the area in 2012, a refugee, as he saw it, from an energy facility of a different order in Cornwall, where he had been working on restoration projects.

“I lived in England for 10 years and came back here in late 2012,” he says. “We were in St Denis in Cornwall and then an application was put in for an incinerator so we got out. Eight months after moving back to Ireland I hear the gridlink project was going to go in front of our home here.” Gridlink was the major electricity interconnector that planned a chain of very large pylons across parts of Munster and Leinster. It was eventually abandoned following political and public pressure and the advent of new technology.

“After that there was five years of quiet,” Massey says. “And then in 2018, a mast went up and we knew there were plans for a windfarm.” Opposition was quickly mobilised. Meetings were called in the local towns and as far away as Youghal, where up to 300 people turned up.

A committee of 13 was set up under the title Blackwater Windaware and social media sites activated.

In late May 2018 the developer’s representatives conducted an information meeting. Since that early stage of the project the number of turbines was reduced from 25 to 17.

Cathal Hennessy, the managing director for RWE Renewables Irish arm confirmed to the Irish Examiner that local sentiment fed into the decision to reduce the size of the farm.

Thereafter the process went into the planning phase. Any development applying to qualify under the Strategic Infrastructure Development Act must apply to Bord Pleanála.

The application was lodged in May 2018. Two years later Lyrenacarriga was given the go ahead for a strategic infrastructure development.

“I spent two years ringing the board every so often asking what is happening with it,” Massey says. “Some in there would talk to me, others wouldn’t really. The only reason we knew that a decision was made on this last May was because I rang practically every week.” In January 2021 the planning application was lodged. Blackwater Wind Aware has three main objections to the proposed windfarm.

“This area here in west Waterford is rural, untamed, unspoilt,” Mr Massey says. “And if all these plans go ahead there is going to be a proliferation of these massive turbines. It just should not be allowed.” There is an existing eight- turbine farm, Woodhouse, at Glenbeg outside Dungarvan, with planning permission for another eight. An application was made last year to have the heights of the blades on these turbines extended from 126m to 150m.

There are three turbines in Ring, the well known Gaelteacht area in west Waterford. Three years’ ago, the planning board rejected an application to build a windfarm in Ballynona on the Cork side of the border. Among the reasons for turning down the application was “the pattern of development in the vicinity.” Another contentious windfarm is located in Ballyduff, just over the Waterford side of the border. The Barnafaddock Wind Farm in Ballyduff has been the subject of a High Court action following a discovery that the blade spans were bigger than what was allowed in the planning permission. There have also been issues there over noise.

David Walsh has lived in Dunmoon South, 7km from Tallow, all his life. By his reckoning, the nearest turbine in the proposed farm will be sited a kilometre from his front door. The farm is designed such that no home will be less than 700m from a turbine.

“I have an engineering background and always was in favour of the idea of converting wind into energy,” David Walsh says.

“But when I began to look into the industrial side, it’s a completely different beast. Small-scale turbines for domestic houses are advantageous, a great investment in may ways mainly because there are no repercussions health-wise. But this industrial development is out of all proportion. It’s all about financial gain.” He has a particular fear about possible health ill-effects. He and his wife Linda have five-week old twins.

“It really struck home with me the more I looked into it. The negative impact with infrasound and shadowflicker. You see people who are unbiased towards wind turbines citing evidence of the damage done by infrasound.” The wind energy sector has repeatedly stated that there are no proven health ill effects from turbines. This is greatly disputed, but on a number of occasions in recent years when a case citing ill-effects has come before courts, a settlement has been made with the plaintiffs/ residents.

RWE Renewables’ man, Cathal Hennessy says he accepts that fears are real even if he disputes the science.

“Numerous reputable bodies have stated that there are no negative impacts on humans or animal health,” he says. “We have incorporated the new draft guidelines for noise into our design and in terms of shadowflicker we have technology which will eliminate that completely.” (shadowflicker is the effect of the sun shining through rotating blades of a turbine).

The residents’ group’s second objection concerns the use of the strategic infrastructure development route to build the thing. This is set to be thrashed out in a High Court case which Mr Massey launched last June to challenge the use of the act in this instance.

The third objection is that the planning is being processed now in the midst of a pandemic. They say it puts them at a severe disadvantage.

“I’ve been at this till all hours of the morning day after day since we found out about it,” Mr Massey says.

“We can’t go door to door to inform people and we can’t call meetings in local halls. It all makes the process a lot more difficult and maybe that’s convenient for the developer.” Cathal Hennessy says that the developer did conduct one-to-one meetings with residents in the area two years’ ago but they were restricted by Covid in that type of engagement ahead of the planning application.

“We haven’t been able to do that but we did develop an online portal about the project and sent letters out to everyone,” he says.

The developer is committed to contributing €360,000 per annum to a community fund for the area as part of its planning and grid connection obligations.

“We facilitate the setting up of an independent chairperson and members of the community are appointed and the fund is controlled by the committee. They set the terms of reference of where the money can go,” Mr Hennessy says.

“A percentage of that fund also has to be ringfenced to go to people who are living within 2km of the windfarm.”

He hopes that if the project can get through the planning and grid connection processes without hitches that the farm will be operational by 2025.

The conflict between development and conservation, landowners and residents, is one that is being replicated across rural Ireland. The state has made a commitment to increase its electricity generated from renewable energy to 70% by 2030. This will require a doubling of the output from renewables, principally wind. Official policy is to promote wind energy.

Yet the reality is that windfarms are unpopular in large tracts of rural Ireland, mainly due to the contentious issues of noise pollution and visual obstruction. Adding fuel to the fire is a highly dispersed population and a political system that is sensitive to the smallest number of floating votes.

The outcome has been a protracted planning process, abandoned projects and divided communities. Guidelines for the appropriate distance between turbines and homes and noise pollution have been put on the long finger for more than a decade. The last official guidelines were published in 2006, a different era in terms of wind energy technology. (Cathal Hennessy refers above to draft guidelines which are highly disputed and may well be revised).

Paddy Massey believes that it is communities like his that are being asked to do more than their fair share to contribute to tackling climate change through wind energy.

“For people who don’t have to live with the consequence of these things, which is the vast majority, the notion of wind energy is attractive. But we’re sold this myth that covering the country in windfarms is going to salve our conscience and ease our CO2 emissions which is shite. And there is no other way of saying it.”