Renewables sector feels it's left twisting in the wind as EU fines and Brexit loom
Dr Gary Healy, CEO, Irish Wind Energy Association
It was perhaps symptomatic of the increasing problems facing the renewable sector in Ireland that one of the country's most important bodies for renewables -the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA) - turned to Dr Gary Healy to lead the organisation
Healy left communications giant Vodafone in September of last year having served as the company's Irish head of external relations and regulation. He had previously served as the head of public policy for Telefonica Ireland.
Having worked in the labyrinthine world of telecoms regulation, one might have expected Healy to have an easier ride in his new post.
After all, what could be more popular with policymakers than projects that reduce dependence on both carbon and imports?
With Ireland struggling to meet its renewable energy targets before 2020, it might have been expected that the IWEA's new boss would have the ear of the Government. Not so.
During a conversation with the Irish Independent recently, Healy did his best to be diplomatic, but the sense of exasperation was clear.
Ireland stands to be on the receiving end of hundreds of millions of euro in EU fines over the coming years if it does not derive 40pc of its gross electricity needs from renewables by 2020.
Currently, the figure stands at under 30pc.
Healy is resigned to the reality of fines being imposed and is clearly frustrated at that prospect, especially since the money could be used to further develop infrastructure.
"We will struggle to get to 40pc because of the number of planning appeals and because of the lack of leadership around the guidelines," he said at a morning briefing with the Irish Independent earlier this month. The issue of leadership - or lack of - from the Government is a theme he returns to frequently throughout our discussion.
A source close to the IWEA revealed that an invite sent to Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten to attend the IWEA conference this year went unanswered. It seems indicative of a wider sense of indifference from the Government.
At present, the minister - along with the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government - is in the process of drawing a new set of guidelines for wind farms in Ireland.
The new guidelines will be subjected to an environmental review as part of a European Court of Justice ruling that forces governments to adequately inform the public about the location and impact of wind farms.
There are no specific guidelines for the setback distance between a wind farm and a private dwelling, although there is an advisory distance of 500m which Healy says is adhered to by developers.
"Because the guidelines haven't gotten out sooner, it has created a lot of uncertainty. We have a lot of challenges to wind farms and if you change those guidelines then that will create legal uncertainty."
Currently there a slew of cases before the courts with local residents either vehemently opposed to wind farms or seeking compensation for noise nuisance.
Healy believes that much of the opposition to wind farms stems from a fear of the unknown. "What we found with the anti-wind farm protests was that 90pc of the complaints came from areas where there were no wind farms," he says. "We find that in the first year of operation people are still asking questions, but if they are dealt with properly the issues can be dealt with. After that, we don't see a lot of complaints."
While critical about the Government's leadership role in the process, he says IWEA members also need to do more
"I think we need to do a better job and our members need to do a better job at explaining locally what's going to happen.
"We have to earn that social acceptance. Because we believe we are bringing a benefit to the community, we don't necessarily make sure that the community comes along with us all the time," he says.
To address the problem, Healy suggests a complaints process that can be overseen by local authorities that would allow objectors to engage with the developer and an impartial arbiter.
He gives the impression the parish pump is getting in the way.
"When people encounter problems with existing wind farms, they tend to go their local politician, whereas really there should be a body there like the local authority that can address the issue.
"We are trying to solve the problem based on the noise from the people that are protesting about it. We haven't got to the root of the problem." He says it is down to a lack of understanding and dialogue between developers and worried members of the public.
"People are fearful of what a wind farm would look like; how big is it going to be? How many turbines are there going to be? A lot of the opposition is driven by that uncertainty," he says.
He highlights Northern Ireland and Scotland as jurisdictions which have legislation that allow for a more open consultation between the parties which provides much more clarity for all concerned.
"If we had that model, then if someone complained about noise, they could complain to the local authority and that would be a key process. We don't have that process here. The guidelines were never developed to do that."
He repeatedly cites public awareness as the key to resolving the issues which have lead to a backlog in the number of wind farms awaiting planning approval.
But he believes the ultimate blame lies with the Government, whose local concerns appear to have superceded the need to develop vital national infrastructure.
Brexit has also brought problems for the sector, with the single renewable energy market on the island of Ireland now under threat.
A report published by business representative body Ibec earlier this week highlighted the importance of the north-south interconnector which has been placed in doubt now that Britain has voted to leave the EU. "The major competitive challenges created by Brexit make construction of the north/south interconnector more relevant than ever before," Ibec CEO Danny McCoy said.
Healy concurs. "Brexit has caused an uncertainty. The Irish Single Market (ISM) was seen as being effective because of the way Europe was going. You now have Northern Ireland coming out of the EU," he said.
"There is commitment from both governments to look at the energy sector.
"It is unfortunate that we now have delays on the north-south interconnector because it would help to consolidate the all-Ireland energy market."
He says the sector is beginning to repay the initial funding support it received from the Government.
"In 2015, we saved around €250m of fuel imports because we used our own generated wind. You need to have the initial support.
"But where the industry is today, we are contributing back by reducing our dependency on fuel imports and with reducing the C02 emissions."
While he is optimistic the sector can continue to perform well in the medium term, he again emphasises the need for strong policy action from Government.
"There is no policy on renewables. If you look at Scotland, they have a clear policy and they say what they are going to be doing until 2030," he says.
"We had a white paper in 2014 and there was a lot of focus on community engagement and having an energy forum, but we need to look at where we are going to be with renewables.
"We need to have 27pc of all our energy coming from renewables by 2030. Today we don't have a policy that says how we can get from 2017 up to 2030."
The Government says it will imminently publish the guidelines that will provide the clarity that Mr Healy says is so desperately needed. For now though, it feels as though he is whistling in the wind.