Friday, April 12, 2013

Trying to catch the wind

As a country that relies on imports of oil, gas and coal to meet 90 per cent of its energy needs, Ireland must seek to achieve a modicum of independence in this vital area. That was the impetus for Ardnacrusha and for decades of peat harvesting in the midlands by Bord na Móna to provide fuel for electricity generation. And now, ironically, cutaway bogs are being eyed by renewable energy companies for wind farms of incomparable scale, with a view to exporting all the electricity they produce across the Irish Sea to Britain.
Wind may not be the most reliable source of energy, given its intermittent nature, but Ireland has lots of it and the Government is confident that we will be able to meet European Union targets on renewables by 2020 – with a great deal to spare. But the trading will not all be one-way. Indeed, the advantage of installing high-capacity interconnectors between the Irish and British national grids is that it will allow us to import electricity as well as export it. And if that comes to pass, some of the electricity Ireland would be buying would come from nuclear power stations in Britain – perhaps making us less vocal about the dangers of Sellafield.
Climate change trends demand much greater buy-in to a variety of renewables. Nonetheless, there is a need for greater sensitivity in the development of alternatives. If we really are going to have a new export industry based on more than 2,000 large wind turbines in the midlands, the concerns of many people about noise and visual impact must be addressed. Planning guidelines for wind energy development are currently being reviewed, and the Department of the Environment should consider adopting as a rule of thumb the new Danish standards that require a minimum separation distance from people’s homes equivalent to four times the total height of any turbine.
The fast-developing wind industry is not well served by the curt dismissal of ordinary people’s fears surrounding it or by claims that visual impact and noise should not be planning considerations. Ireland’s belated ratification last year of the UN’s Aarhus Convention – adopted as long ago as 1998 – guarantees public participation in decisions affecting the environment and must be applied to the development of renewable energy resources. Thus, developers need to demonstrate their bona fides by engaging with the public in an open-handed way and showing more consideration for people who live in relatively close proximity to proposed wind farms.
The Government should also be giving a higher priority to offshore wind projects, which do not present noise or visual impact issues while making a potentially major contribution to development of a European renewables “supergrid” that would reduce the EU’s precarious dependence on imported Russian gas.