HUNDREDS of families will be paid up to €30,000 each for living close to controversial high-voltage power lines.
But electricity customers will be hit in their pockets as the estimated €50m cost of the compensation fund will be added to domestic and business bills.
National grid operator EirGrid insisted it was not an attempt to buy off local communities.
However, it is sure to divide homeowners who are bitterly opposed to 45-metre pylons being built to carry high-voltage lines as part of a €3.2bn grid upgrade.
The fund was announced by EirGrid as Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte said an independent expert body would examine if nearly 400km of lines can be built underground.
The moves follow months of protests by communities across 10 counties directly affected by the planned upgrades, with opposition expected to have a major bearing on the outcome of this summer's local and European elections.
The move follows a backlash by local communities against EirGrid’s plan to build almost 500km of power lines, involving 1,500 pylons.
The five-strong expert group, chaired by former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness, will decide terms of reference to examine if two projects – the 260km Grid Link line and 130km Grid West project – can be built underground.
Environment Minister Phil Hogan will also commission experts to review and report on international developments on the potential health effects of electro-magnetic fields (EMF) from transmission grid infrastructure.
Other members of the expert group include ESRI Professor John FitzGerald, Professor Keith Bell from the University of Strathclyde, Dr Karen Foley from UCD and economist Colm McCarthy.
However, the future of a third project, the North-South Inter-connector pylon project, running through Meath, Monaghan and Cavan, was cast into doubt last night.
The project was not included in the independent commission carrying out an investigation into the options of running underground.
A planning application is expected on the North-South plan within the next three weeks. But if it is to be investigated, the planning application will have to be delayed.
Fine Gael TDs claimed the North-South line was to be part of the investigation on running pylon lines underground.
Although there was no evidence this was the case, party backbenchers Sean Conlon, Ray Butler, Helen McEntee and Heather Humphreys met with Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Mr Conlon said Mr Kenny had agreed to extend the remit of the commission.
The Taoiseach is believed to have told the backbenchers he will look into having the North-South line examined – but gave no guarantee.
Launched in 2008, Grid25 is a €3.2bn project to upgrade the national grid by 2025. Some 800km of new power lines are planned, along with upgrades of 2,000km of existing lines.
Mr Rabbitte said the Government decided to commission the reviews amid concerns from the public that there had not been a “complete analysis of undergrounding as compared to overhead power lines”.
Some 35,000 made submissions on the largest of the upgrade projects, Grid Link. “I agree that such a comparable analysis should be carried out at the direction of the independent expert panel,” he said.
Each study is expected to cost some €300,000, and the costs will be borne by EirGrid, which will commission the reports. The studies will not be carried out until a final route for each line is chosen by the company.
Separately, EirGrid announced details of a fund to compensate affected landowners but insisted it was not designed to buy off local communities.
The scheme will have two strands; first, a Local Community Fund to which EirGrid will contribute €40,000 per kilometre of line built for communities in proximity to the new, 400 kV lines. Based on a total distance of 490km, this will cost €19.6m.
The second is the “proximity allowance” payment, which will be a once-off payment to homeowners living within 200 metres of the high-voltage line.
Residences 50 metres from the line will receive €30,000, with payments decreasing on a sliding scale to €5,000 for homes within 200 metres.
EirGrid chief executive Fintan Slye said the proximity allowance was expected to cost €8m for the North-South and Grid West project.
The number of homeowners affected by Grid Link was not known because the final route had not been chosen.
He said the fund was government policy, and that customers would pay the costs on their electricity bills.
By Paul Melia and Fionnan Sheahan