A WIND energy company that includes a former head of EirGrid on its board is promoting plans to lay more than 200 kilometres of high-voltage electricity cables underground across five midland counties, undermining the Government's insistence that burying power lines is "unfeasible".
Element Power is behind plans to develop wind farms across the Midlands through its subsidiary Greenwire. According to a confidential draft map seen by the Sunday Independent, Greenwire plans to run a high voltage 400kv power line from Devlin in Co Westmeath, across the middle of Meath and onwards to Dublin. A second high-voltage power line is shown running underground from Devlin past Kells and onwards to a substation at Carlinstown.
The draft map was leaked anonymously to anti-pylon protest groups in recent weeks as government ministers rallied behind EirGrid's plan to build 750 pylons to carry new overhead power lines in 10 counties, despite massive local opposition. The Sunday Independent has learnt that Greenwire, which is working on proposals to export wind energy to the UK, offered Eirgrid the option of sharing its underground trenches.
The company driving the €8bn wind farm project, Element Power, has appointed EirGrid's former chief executive, Dermot Byrne, to its board, even though he was a vigorous opponent of undergrounding cables as "unfeasible" and too expensive when he headed the semi-State.
Anti-pylon campaigners said this weekend that the leaked documents raise serious questions for EirGrid and the Government.
"Why does a semi-State continue claiming that undergrounding power lines is not possible when the commercial world is moving ahead with it," said Padraig O'Reilly of North East Pylon Pressure.
He added that the plans – if approved – could see EirGrid's overhead power lines criss-crossing with underground lines which the state company said were not feasible.
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"We will have the ludicrous situation where local parishes and communities will have both underground and overhead power lines passing within 20 metres of each other."
EirGrid insists that overhead power lines supported on large pylons is the only feasible option for upgrading Ireland's electricity infrastructure. Pat Rabbitte, the energy minister, said even if it was feasible, burying cables would prove so expensive it would add three per cent to household electricity bills for the next 50 years.
In response to questions from the Sunday Independent, Greenwire said the cost of undergrounding 200 kilometres of cables was three to five times more expensive than running them overhead. However, it hoped to absorb the extra cost by "using the most efficient, modern wind turbines" to harvest more wind energy.
"We elected to use underground cables having taken into account the balance of planning, environmental, public acceptance, land acquisition, engineering and economic considerations," a spokesman said.
Greenwire said the underground trenches are capable of carrying more than one high voltage power line and has offered that option to Eigrid.
"It would be possible to share trench routes, for example by laying two sets of ducts, and we've offered that option to EirGrid."
Meanwhile, Fine Gael TDs are continuing to pile pressure on Mr Rabbitte ahead of the anticipated publication next week of a report on EirGrid's overview of the the 35,000 submissions it has received from the public.
Pressure is also coming from TDs and senators across both government parties for EirGrid to be included in the Government's proposals to make Irish Water subject to Freedom of Information requests.
Labour TD Kevin Humphreys told the Sunday Independent: "My consistent position has been that all semi-state monopolies should be open to Dail Questions and to Freedom of Information requests and this is as applicable to EirGrid as anyone else."
The leading figures in the energy sector
Dermot Byrne: Chief executive of EirGrid until September 2012, he said that running cables underground was not technically feasible, horrendously expensive and unreliable. Last October, he agreed to become a non-executive director of Element Power, the company behind proposals to export wind energy to the UK with the help of 200km of. . . underground powerlines.
Brendan Halligan: A former Labour party senator, he is chairman of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, a job which means regular briefings with Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte. He's also an investor and director of a private wind farm company, Mainstream Renewable Energy Ltd.
John O'Connor: As chairman of An Bord Pleanala, he presided over bitter planning hearings between communities opposed to pylons and EirGrid. After he left, he was been snapped up by EigGrid as its new chairman. When questioned by politicians about a possible conflict of interest, he admitted that he wouldn't like to live beside a pylon. "Who would?" he asked.