Midlands wind-farm bubble is foolishly ignored by officialdom
Thanks to the Greens, we are facing a glut of landscape-blighting windfarms that may soon be unviable, writes Sarah Carey
Published 17/05/2015 | 02:30
I thought I had forgiven the Greens. It's hard to stay mad at those guys. They're so wholesome, earnest, noble, decent. But anyone could have told them putting Fianna Fail back into power was a bad idea. I definitely did.
However, they paid a price. I've other grudges to hold. And I'm ready to move on. Then I discovered that the Greens left us a peculiar legacy, which has only just come to my attention. In Sarah-Land, the penny droppeth slowly like the gentle rain from heaven. Or the gentle breeze, to be more precise.
It's to do with wind energy, which is a bit like the Greens: wholesome and good, in theory. Former Green Party Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan committed Ireland to producing 40pc of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. That's not a binding target, thank the Lord, but it is national strategy and it contributes to other EU climate change targets that are binding. Right now about 20pc of electricity comes from renewables, but "renewables" in Ireland equals wind. So by 2020 we're supposed to double the amount of electricity being generated from wind farms - and that means doubling the number of wind turbines.
Personally, I think turbines aren't the worst piece of modern infrastructure. Pylons, motorways and relentless ribbon developments are greater eyesores. I wasn't too hot on putting them into old bogs, but philosophically I could appreciate the symmetry of using the site of a previous energy source for a new one. And let's face it: if we're exiting the oil age and entering the renewables revolution, it is a bonus that we've got plenty of the resource in question - wind. In all the talk about the importance of jobs, the wind industry employs over 3,000 people and could employ 12,000. You can't ignore that.
But where should these wind farms go?
We're - rightly - marketing the hell out of the Atlantic coast, so that's off limits. The shades of County Dublin, home to a large number of politicians and an even larger number of their constituents could hardly be thus polluted. Got it! The Midlands! That boring patch of land between the M50 and the Shannon. The do-gooders could tolerate the novelty of gazing upon wind farms for a few minutes as they drive by. Planning applications for wind farms are being hopped into An Bord Pleanala every five minutes and the media has reacted with benign indifference. If you neither reside nor holiday there, what's the problem? Sure, it's only Offaly for heaven's sake.
I'll confess, I didn't take much heed myself until I read a planning notice in the paper. It was for a wind farm in North Kildare listing 100 townlands. You'll never have heard of these townlands, but I know some of them as they're not too far away from me. They're not on lonely mountainsides or in disused bogs. People live in these places. It's rural farmland and there are houses everywhere. Even if half of them shouldn't have been granted planning permission in the first place, that ship has sailed.
And we're not talking about graceful windmills. These babies are 169m high. I used to deal with planning for mobile phone masts in a previous life. They were just 35m high and people used to go mad about those. The Spire in Dublin's O'Connell Street is 120m high. These monsters are nearly half as big again and would be much bulkier in design.
This is major industrial infrastructure. So I think the mass protest movement in Kildare and Offaly is legitimate. I really wouldn't judge anyone for objecting to these.
An Bord Pleanala will not be swayed by pleas concerning house valuations and views. Instead, they'll take into account outdated guidelines suggesting a 500m set-back distance from houses, developed when standard turbines were just 50m high. And, most of all, they'll have regard to national strategy and the bloody 40pc. My advice to protesters is to focus on that. It's the target that needs to change, otherwise their objections will be fragile.
The question is: do we really need to meet this 40pc target? I think not. First, it's not binding. It might have a knock-on effect on other climate change targets that are binding, but not necessarily in a significant way. And second, that's a target to generate electricity from renewable sources of any kind - not just wind. Why the big focus on wind?
It's hardly a panacea. The economics are dodgy. Wind farmers are guaranteed a price for their power regardless of the market price at the time. And no matter how many turbines you have, some days, there's no wind at all. So you need full electricity generation capacity from other more reliable sources for the days when the wind doesn't blow. Which is cracked, really. Some wind is good in the mix, but 40pc is daft.
We've got to open our minds both to other forms of renewable energy and new technologies for non-renewables. My fear is that the country is sleep-walking into a disastrous wind bubble because it doesn't affect decision makers in Dublin who don't have to think about it.
In fact, such is the pace of new technology that journalist Tom McGurk, a passionate objector to wind farms, says that Ireland could end up becoming a wind farm museum because the economics will simply render the entire industry unviable. Like him, I think we need to open our minds to nuclear energy, which is carbon free and reliable.
Green Party energy spokesman Ossian Smyth was on my Newstalk show last week and he said maybe we had the balance wrong. "We could find other ways to generate renewable energy such as tidal, biogas, geothermal, offshore wind, solar, biomass or heat pumps. The EU doesn't mind so long as we get there," he said.
Brilliant. So let's get there. I know we're only culchies, but we'd like to save the planet and our landscape.