LARGE-scale wind farms planned to export power to the UK will not go ahead unless it can be proved that jobs and economic benefits accrue to Ireland, Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte has said.
He said such turbines would not be erected until there was a cost-benefit analysis, an environmental impact investigation, and an agreement reached with the UK to export the power. He told the Irish Independent it was likely that a large number of turbines would be erected on land owned by commercial semi-state company, Bord na Mona, in the midlands, if the plans go ahead.
The company has been in talks with private developers about using 20,000 hectares of cutaway bog to erect turbines, and has asked commercial developers to register their interest to build the projects.
"Discussions (with the UK government) have been going on for a number of months," Mr Rabbitte said.
"We've done a great deal of work, including a cost-benefit analysis to establish what value rebounds to Ireland. We're not interested unless there are benefits to Ireland, including jobs and a supply sector.
"The cost-benefit analysis, and it's not quite concluded, is telling us within a range that there are significant economic benefits for both jurisdictions.
"We simply have to have national controls in place to guide An Bord Pleanala, with which developers must comply. The notion that the midlands skies will be blighted is an utter and sometimes deliberate exaggeration."
Currently, large-scale wind projects must be granted permission by An Bord Pleanala under the Strategic Infrastructure Act. Smaller wind farms can be decided by local authorities, with the decisions appealed to the board. The Department of Energy is drafting a new national renewable energy export policy and planning framework, which will be used by An Bord Pleanala when considering proposals for export projects.
It will be underpinned by a Strategic Environmental Assessment, which will help identify the impact that thousands of turbines will have on the environment, taking into account the scale of the project.
Mr Rabbitte said the work would put in place "as much protection" for communities as was "reasonable". The new guidelines are expected to be completed by the end of the summer.
"The Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is to apply good planning principles," he said. "You don't unnecessarily intrude into the lives of individuals, you put in place as much protection for local communities as is reasonable in the circumstances.
"It's not for me to canvass the cause of any particular developer, but I find it difficult to envisage the realisation of such an undertaking without a preponderance of the turbines being on Bord na Mona land. It's unclear if Bord na Mona would be a landlord or equity partner."
Not until an inter-governmental agreement is signed with the British government will any of the export projects go ahead, he added. This is expected to be finalised before the summer.
Separately, the Department of the Environment is also updating its wind energy development guidelines – which include a requirement that turbines are at least 500m from people's homes. However, there are concerns from some groups that the setback is not sufficient to protect homeowners, given that some of the new turbines are 150m tall.
More than 1,000 submissions have been made on the guidelines, with 362 from Westmeath alone.