Turbines are not built on whim of developers
WIND energy is playing an increasingly important part in Ireland's energy mix. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) says that between 2004 and 2013, some 2,000 megawatts (MW) of wind energy was installed on the system, enough power for 1.3 million homes.
But Ireland still remains dependent on fuel imports. In 2012, we had the fourth-highest energy dependence in the EU, with 85pc of our energy imported. Price volatility and security of supply are major issues for the country.
Ireland's energy mix needs to include alternatives to imported fossil fuels. With its abundant resource, installed wind energy capacity is set to double between now and 2020. More renewable energy also means we will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the driver of climate change.
However, more wind energy means more wind farms, which poses a challenge from a planning and public acceptance perspective.
Wind farms aren't erected at the whim of a developer. Local authorities have a key role in deciding where they are located, and how many are allowed in a particular area.
The process begins in city and county councils, which prepare renewable energy strategies and carry out a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). This in-depth study requires that environmental and human health considerations, including cumulative impacts and the effect multiple wind farms would have on an area, are taken into account at the highest level.
The SEA also facilitates public participation at the earliest stage in the planning process, and prior to individual projects being proposed.
New guidelines on wind farm development are also being drafted by the Department of the Environment, which will address potential noise and shadow flicker impacts. The draft guidelines also propose a minimum set-back of 500m between turbines and homes.
All wind farms must secure planning permission, either from the local authority or from An Bord Pleanala in respect of wind farms with more than 25 turbines or generating 50MW or more of electricity. Individual wind farm projects comprising five or more turbines, or generating 5MW or more of electricity, are also subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
EIA involves a scientific approach to the assessment of potential impacts on factors such as landscape, human beings, flora and fauna, soils and geology.
Wind farms of any size must also be assessed under the Birds and Habitats Directives to ensure that they will not have an adverse effect on the integrity of protected habitats and species. Bird strikes are a particular concern.
Two private companies, Element Power and Mainstream Renewable Power, have proposed large-scale wind projects to export power to the UK. Because of the scale and significance of these projects, the Department of Energy is adopting a plan-led approach, with SEA, and negotiations on an Intergovernmental Agreement with the UK are also under way.
The European Commission has recently abandoned binding renewable energy targets in its 2030 EU Climate and Energy Policy Framework. Instead, it is seeking binding reductions in greenhouse emissions.
This apparent U-turn is partly attributable to the economic impacts of US shale gas, or fracking, which has resulted in the US slashing energy costs and reducing its reliance on imported gas by half in the past five years.
Some EU countries, including the UK, have lobbied the EU to drop binding targets for renewables to allow them to pursue fracking and nuclear energy.
While there may be concerns about wind turbines in the landscape, consideration also needs to be given to the potential alternatives in our energy mix.
ALICE WHITTAKER IS HEAD OF ENVIRONMENT AND CLIMATE AT PHILIP LEE SOLICITORS. HER CLIENTS INCLUDE THE SEAI, MAINSTREAM RENEWABLE POWER, SCOTTISHPOWER RENEWABLES AND MEMBERS OF THE IRISH WIND FARMERS' ASSOCIATION, WHICH REPRESENTS 'SMALL WIND' COMPANIES.