Tuesday, 17 December 2013
Topical Issue Debate
Wind Energy Guidelines
Members on the Government benches sometimes say that the Sinn Féin Deputies do not want to see Government policy succeed, but I know that is not true and I suspect that the Members opposite also know it is not true. I and the Sinn Féin Party fully support the maximum use of renewable energy, including wind-generated energy, in Ireland. We want wind energy projects in Ireland to succeed. We want to minimise our dependence on imported energy, to maximise our capacity for renewable energy and to ensure that the benefits arising from renewable energy are applied for the benefit of the people of Ireland. However, we contend that the Government must have a coherent and integrated strategy governing all aspects of renewable energy generation, including wind energy generation. That is a critical point. The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, argues that we have a strategy, but I contend that we do not have one and that what we have is a statement of objectives and some broad timescales. A strategy would have to include a study of the true potential and economics of renewable energy generation, including the impact on tourism in rural areas; measures for dealing with the impact on host communities, particularly where major wind farm developments are envisaged; proposals for a land and landscape management strategy to ensure that local authorities and the Government advise companies where such projects will be located, rather than the Government constantly responding to companies that decide where they will be located; and proposals to encourage micro-generation and small-area energy supplies, including bio-generation projects, which seem to have fallen off the radar and are only sometimes mentioned in ministerial speeches.
It must include a listed, costed statement of the financial benefits accruing to the host communities and the people of Ireland. If we do not have these things, we do not have a strategy and the Government is responding to companies.
The proposed revisions to the guidelines published last week pertain to noise and flicker shadow but avoid the issue most people have with wind turbines - their proximity to dwelling houses. There is one reference to distance on page 6 of the guidelines, which indicates that it is intended to retain 500 m as the distance between turbines and houses. It is something that requires to be revisited and which has been the subject of a number of Private Members' motions, not all of which were tabled by Sinn Féin. Given the likelihood of a major wind farm in the midlands as part of the energy export deal with Britain, it is vital that all of these issues are subject to consultation and that the views of local communities are taken into account. The guidelines which should be regulations rather than guidelines need to be in place before work commences. It is envisaged 1,700 turbines will be built by 2020 to meet the export requirements indicated in the memorandum of understanding signed by the Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte. It is a massive undertaking which has generated considerable debate and opposition in the midlands. Some respected economists argue that the economics do not stand up. We need to revisit this issue and we ask that there be a suspension of work until the regulations and proper strategy are in place.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and the support of his party for renewable energy projects which he emphasised at the beginning of his contribution. It is important that I clarify two things. First, what I issued last week were not new guidelines on wind energy developments but proposed draft revisions to the existing 2006 wind energy development guidelines. They run to over 100 pages and are significant. The revisions focus specifically on the issues of noise, setback and shadow flicker. I initiated a targeted review of these specific aspects of the guidelines earlier this year. The 2006 guidelines will remain in force and planning authorities will be required to continue to have regard to them in making decisions on wind energy planning applications until the draft guidelines are finalised in 2014.
Second, I emphasise that last week's announcement was only the commencement of a public consultation exercise on the draft revisions to the guidelines. I want to ensure everyone has an opportunity to contribute his or her views before the guidelines are finalised next year. There is major interest in the public consultation process and I look forward to receiving and considering evidence-based submissions on the draft revisions by 21 February 2014.
Following consideration of the submissions made during this public consultation period, the revisions to the guidelines will be finalised and issued to planning authorities under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended. The draft revisions to the wind energy development guidelines which I put out to public consultation last week propose three main changes. These include the setting of a more stringent absolute noise limit, day and night, of 40 dB for future wind energy developments. I emphasise that this is an outdoor limit and, in general, the reduction of noise levels between the outside of a dwelling and inside would be approximately 10 dB.
The second change is a mandatory setback of 500 m between a wind turbine and the nearest dwelling for amenity considerations. Under previous guidelines, that setback was not mandatory. The third is that a condition be attached to all future planning permissions for wind farms to ensure there will be no shadow flicker at any dwelling within 10 rotor diameters of a wind turbine. If shadow flicker does occur, the wind energy project developer or operator will be required to take necessary measures such as turbine shut down for the period necessary to eliminate the shadow flicker.
The purpose of the guidelines, when finalised, is to protect the interests of communities and to ensure the development of renewable energy infrastructure takes place appropriately, having regard to the relevant social and environmental factors. As the new requirements on noise levels, setback and shadow flicker will apply to all future planning applications for wind energy developments, both supplying electricity to the national grid and for export, it is important that they strike the appropriate balance.
Regarding export projects, the Minister has not completed the intergovernmental agreement. There was an initial signing, but the agreement has not been completed. There must be a strategic environmental assessment in the context of an overall policy and planning framework to underpin any arrangement that may be made with the United Kingdom. There will be a strategic environmental assessment of the export proposals. These are under consideration by the Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte. This is a draft proposal which has been put out to public consultation. There is huge interest in it and I expect to receive many submissions, to which I will give careful consideration before adopting the guidelines. I will need a period of time to consider them.
The reply clearly outlines what will be covered in the public consultation process. I am unclear whether the potential devaluation of property will be the subject of consultation. I am unclear whether the consultation fits into the wider aspects of a strategy for renewable energy generation about which I spoke.
With regard to the export of energy to Britain, the Government will sometimes state I want to see nothing exported to Britain. That is not true; I would like to see us export to Britain, but I would like to see us achieve self-sufficiency before we do so. This nation has great potential in the area of renewable energy generation. We could reach self-sufficiency faster than planned and be a net exporter of energy to Britain and elsewhere, which I would welcome, but we need to look after our own market first.
Will the public consultation process be open to the economic analysis that must be undertaken, bearing in mind that some respected economists have called into question the economic benefits of wind energy generation in the current market? Will it enable the community to specify the financial benefits they would like to see accruing from renewable energy generation in Ireland?
I want to separate what I am doing as Minister of State with responsibility for planning and what Deputy Pat Rabbitte is doing as Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. These are planning guidelines and the economic side is not a matter for me or my Department. My first responsibility is to ensure we have sustainable planning guidelines and balance the needs of the economy with those of the community and the environment and other factors that must be considered in spatial planning. The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is examining the strategy, of which I am sure an economic analysis will be part. I agree that our first priority is to reach our targets and that is the intention of the Government. I also agree that the issue of community gain must be considered. There must be consideration of the needs of the broader community rather than individual land holders. That matter can be considered across the two Departments. It is a live political issue, in which there is great interest. We have time for consultation on the matters within my area of responsibility - planning.