How the battle lines became drawn on pylons
Opposition centres on health and landscape concerns
IT seems surprising that national grid operator EirGrid's plan to erect some 800km of new high-voltage power lines across the country has only sparked national controversy in recent months.
The €3.2bn project, called Grid25, was launched in October 2008 and remained largely under the radar until politicians realised it could have a very real bearing on their electoral prospects come next summer.
The plan aims to double electricity transmission capacity, allowing homes and businesses access to a reliable supply in all regions, and to facilitate the transportation of renewable energy across the country and into Northern Ireland.
There are a number of reasons why the upgrades are needed. Security of supply, where power blackouts will be avoided due to unreliable infrastructure, is the primary driver. As EirGrid is an all-island operator, the upgrade will benefit all 32 counties.
The existing high-voltage network, or bulk transmission system where lines carry 220Kv (220,000 volts) of power or more, has been largely untouched in more than two decades, during a period where electricity demand has grown by 150pc.
The extent of the upgrades needed is based on demand growing by about 60pc over the following 17 years, a figure critics say should be revisited.
With among the best wind resources in the world, it is also recognised that Ireland is well-placed to produce cheaper, greener power and move away from expensive and polluting fossil fuels. But a reinforced grid is needed to deliver the energy to all regions and other markets.
Access to a reliable supply will also aid regional development and encourage multi-nationals to relocate here, bringing investment to every part of the country.
The works are to be completed by 2025, and the costs repaid over time through a levy on all electricity customer bills, both domestic and commercial.
The 2008 launch document set out in broad terms what was proposed. Some 1,150km of new line, an increase of about 20pc, of which 800kms would be high-voltage. Another 2,000kms of line needed to be upgraded.
It referred to specific projects including the €570m East-West interconnector, a marine link with the UK that was delivered in September 2012, but it also alluded to projects currently embroiled in controversy.
In the north-west, it referenced a "major infrastructural development from Mayo to the main bulk transmission system in the eastern part of the region", which became the 130km Grid West project expected to cost €240m and due to go for planning in 2015.
The €288m North South Interconnector between Meath and Tyrone, 100km of which is in the Republic, was also referenced. And in the south-east, it said additional investment of €830m was needed to upgrade 490km of the existing network and build new infrastructure. This became the €500m Grid Link project between Cork and Kildare, via Wexford, and running for 260km.
Planning permission was sought in December 2009 for North South, but withdrawn the following June due to technical reasons. Opposition had been stiff from local communities who objected to pylons up to 45 metres high being erected every 300 to 350 metres along the line corridor.
More than 6,000 objections were made for the Northern section of North-South, with another 900 at the southern end. A new planning application is expected to be made in the coming weeks.
While a compensation scheme has been announced – some €40,000 will be provided to communities for every kilometre of line built, coupled with payments ranging from €5,000 to €30,000 per householder – many objectors are not interested in money.
Opposition to the lines centres on a number of concerns – health, impact on the landscape, animal welfare and agriculture, biodiversity including sites and native species protected by EU law, and property values.
The health concerns are well-flagged, but the evidence to date suggests that transmission lines do not have a discernable impact. That said, the Government will undertake a new study to investigate concerns.
There is also concern that these projects are being imposed on local communities without adequate consultation.
EirGrid has said its public consultation process was as comprehensive as possible, but admits more could have been done. The Government has now ordered its chairman, John O'Connor, to conduct a review to learn how improvements can be made.
The scale of the opposition is unprecedented to any infrastructure project in planning. Some 35,000 submissions have been made on the Grid Link project alone, and the three projects affect communities in more than 10 counties.
The solution proposed by objectors is to place the lines underground. Two studies have been completed on undergrounding North-South, with both broadly reaching the same conclusions – it is possible, but there are two major considerations: cost and technical issues.
Underground lines are typically between three and 10 times more expensive to install, the group representing cable manufacturers (Europacable) says, and the final bill largely depends on the terrain being tackled.
It's easier to lay cable in sandy soil than in a rocky surface, and soil conditions are crucially important when choosing the appropriate solution.
Spokesman Dr Volker Wendt, pictured, told the Irish Independent that partial undergrounding, where stretches of up to 20km could be laid underground, was a preferred solution, particularly in areas of outstanding natural beauty or near affected homeowners.
Europacable and Entso-E, the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity, carried out a joint study in 2011 for the European Commission on undergrounding and concluded that it was technically feasible, and needed to be looked at.
"400Kv (the lines proposed for the grid upgrade) is 400,000 volts. They need to be dealt with a lot of caution and on a case-by-case basis," he said.
"The fundamental point is we believe it's fine to go overhead for the vast majority of the 51,500km of line we need across Europe, but in sensitive areas the concept of partial undergrounding should be considered."
The big concern for EirGrid and other operators is the reliability of the system. Fixing a fault on an overhead line, once identified, can be accomplished relatively quickly. Underground, trenches have to be dug to find the fault, which can result in repairs taking weeks and not hours or days.
While opposition to the overhead lines has been mounting, not until just prior to Christmas did it really erupt, after incoming EirGrid chairman John O'Connor told the Dail Environment Committee that he wouldn't like to live beside a pylon, adding "who would?"
Facing the very real prospect of losing seats in this summer's local and European elections, the Government came up with a solution.
A group of independent experts would undertake detailed studies of the underground options for Grid Link and Grid West, allowing the public to compare the over and underground solutions prior to planning permission being sought. Not until the expert group has reported will the next stage of public consultation begin.
A review of existing reports on North South was announced the following day after TDs in the north east expressed disquiet that their communities were being ignored.
This is despite the project going for planning permission shortly.
Predictably, the Government has denied that including North South is an election stunt to protect vulnerable party members.
Not until polls close on May 23 and results are counted will we know how successful its damage-limitation exercise has been.