Thursday, 25 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Wind Energy Guidelines
I want to raise issues relating to the siting of wind farms, particularly on mountainsides and largely on peaty soil. I will begin with some general points about wind farms, their siting and how we do business in this regard. In addition, I will focus on two proposed wind farms, one at Dough Mountain near Lissinagroagh, Manorhamilton, County Leitrim, and the other close to the top of Corry Mountain, which is near Dromahair.
The first point to make is that we are still awaiting the publication of the new wind energy guidelines, which were signed off by the then Ministers, Deputies Coveney and Naughten, in 2017. We were told, although we have not seen them, that they give due regard to the concerns of local communities and individual families within the vicinity of turbines. The new standards were opposed by vested interests. The guidelines would mean, in effect, that, in line with the WHO standard, a turbine louder than a bird would be shut down. Four and a half years later, the standards have not been implemented. We are now told the noise aspect is once again under review. It seems to me this is being done simply to allow vested interests to submit planning applications under the 2006 guidelines, which are hopelessly out of date, without having to adhere to the WHO standards. How often do Ministers, quite rightly, come into this House and tell us we must follow the science? In this matter, we need to follow the science from the WHO.
Why are we not following those guidelines when it comes to wind turbines?
I am also referring to turbines that are 185 m high. Given that many will be placed on mountain sides, they will be among the highest in Europe, with some of them at 300 m above sea level. These are monsters. They are twice the size of the Statue of Liberty and 50% taller than the Dublin Spire. No matter how far I put back my head, I could not see the top of them. In answer to a question from the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, the Minister of State said we need wind energy onshore and offshore, and he is right. In truth, would he or I be happy with a 185 m monster towering over our homes on the side of a mountain less than 1 km away?
In respect of Corry Mountain, Coillte said in its environmental impact study that the site is predominantly blanket peat overlying glacial subsoil, with depths of somewhere between 0 m and 6 m of peat, averaging over 2 m. Some 30% of the site is very steep, with streams entering the River Bonet. Last weekend, we were in Drumkeeran with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, at the site of the Shass Mountain landslide. Everybody agreed that there will be more landslides because of heavy rains and forestry plantations. We can add to that the siting of wind turbines on peatland sites. If we do that, we are looking for trouble. Will the Government publish the guidelines and re-examine how we are dealing with the siting of wind turbines?
I thank Deputy Harkin for raising this issue. Under the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, all forms of development, unless specifically exempt under the Act or associated regulations, require planning permission. This includes wind farm developments which are also subject to dedicated detailed planning guidance, that is, the 2006 wind farm development guidelines, which developers are required to have regard to in drawing up their proposals in the first instance, and the development of their proposals at construction stage after the granting of planning permission. Furthermore, all wind farm development comprising more than five turbines having a total energy output greater than 5 MW are subject to a detailed environmental impact assessment and appropriate assessment requirements, as mandated by the EU, EIA and habitats directives, as transposed into national legislation under the planning and heritage legislative codes.
These obligations are required to be adhered to as part of the planning consent process. The 2006 wind energy development guidelines are particularly important in offering advice to planning authorities on planning for wind energy through the development plan process, for instance, in determining appropriate areas or locations in the local development plan where wind farm development may be considered, as well as in subsequently determining applications for planning permissions.
It is acknowledged that peatlands, in particular, can be damaged by the inappropriate siting of wind energy developments on associated infrastructure, including the construction of new or improved access roads. Accordingly, in considering applications for wind energy developments, planning authorities should ensure that an assessment is made as to whether proposed works are liable to have significant effects on the environment, including peatlands, and, accordingly, should consider requiring developments to undertake peat stability assessments when developing project proposals for wind energy development on peatlands.
With regard to the construction phase of wind energy developments, the guidelines outline a number of measures to minimise the impact on peatlands, including minimising habitat disturbance and hydrological disruption. These measures generally include: undertaking a thorough ground investigation, including hydrogeological investigations, where appropriate, and a detailed evaluation of the nature of the peat and associated risk of instability during the construction or operation of wind farms; avoiding construction in wet areas or easily eroded soils; avoiding the excavation or blocking of drains, where possible; constructing roads to take the required vehicular loadings having regard to overall stability; undertaking a geotechnical analysis to identify the optimum location for each turbine; and the placing and storing of excavated material to ensure it does not give rise to slope or site instability.
The guidelines further advise that the project supervisors for design and construction phases should be appointed to be responsible for co-ordinating the design of the project, designing out risks at source so as to minimise risks to the construction of operational phases, undertaking peat stability risk assessments to identify zones of high risk on the site to help ensure the site remains stable during construction, safeguarding the risk of peat slides and co-ordinating the work of all of the contractors engaged on the site.
Notwithstanding the detailed advice outlined in the guidelines, there have, unfortunately, been a number of well publicised peat slides over the past number of years so, including Derrybrien in County Galway and Meenbog in Donegal in late 2020. The Derrybrien case, for which Ireland has been subject to fines by the European Court of Justice, has been well documented. It is fair to say lessons have been and should be learned from that particular experience.
The more recent Meenbog case is still the subject of detailed investigation for the purposes of asserting the actual cause of the slide, be it construction works on the site, extreme and sustained weather events over a short period of time or other factors, or a combination of factors. An interagency investigation into the slippage involving the Loughs Agency, Donegal County Council, the EPA, Irish Water, NPWS and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency is ongoing.
As the Deputy said, we were on Shass Mountain last week. The report of the interagency group will probably be available to us in March or April next year and will give us an account of different peat slide events. The one in Shass Mountain was most likely caused by forestry but also different weather events. It is critically important that we learn from these events, whether it be forestry or wind farms in the wrong places.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. He said peatlands can be damaged. He and I know that peatlands will be damaged by wind turbines. The Minister of State saw peat stability and the side of Shass Mountain. We built homes on floodplains in this country, thinking that we had ways and means of directing the movement of water. We cannot. The same is true of peat on the sides of mountains. The Minister of State knows it and I know it. People who say otherwise are lying through their teeth. I am not referring to the Minister of State, but rather anyone who says that.
I am also concerned about the developer-led approach to supplying wind energy. Why not have a community-led approach where we can generate goodwill and buy in and people feel part of the solution? All we have is people objecting. People do not want to object. They know that we need renewable energy, but when faced with the possibility of a monster of 185 m just 850 m from their homes, what can they do but object?
It is also worth noting that this is not just about scale. Leitrim already produces 64% of its electricity through wind energy. It already has lots of wind turbines. As a Green Party Minister of State, I ask Deputy Noonan to get involved and engage with communities as happens in Denmark and Germany. They have wind farmers. People feel part of the process and that they are contributing to mitigating the worst effects of climate change. Pitting the Government against communities and driving communities to the High Court for judicial reviews will simply stall the process and stop what the Government wants to achieve in the first place.
I agree wholeheartedly with Deputy Harkin. Our Department is currently undertaking a targeted review of the 2006 wind energy development guidelines. In line with the programme for Government, it is committed to concluding the review of the guidelines as soon as possible with a view to striking a better balance between matters of importance to local communities and the need to invest in indigenous renewable energy projects, having regard to our challenging renewable energy targets in the context of our EU commitments on climate change objectives.
The review is addressing a number of key aspects, including visual amenities, setback distances, sound or noise, shadow flicker, community obligations and dividends and grid connections. However, having regard to the peat slide incidents mentioned, consideration will be given to the possibility of further strengthening the provisions and guidelines relating to peatlands, with a view to ensuring, insofar as is possible, that these types of incidents will not be repeated in the future. We said last week on Shass Mountain that incidents like this will happen again.
Our report will inform a lot of our land use planning regarding this. There is no point in putting wind farms in the wrong place and then having a bog slide incident that will release far more carbon than will be gained in the short term. I would say the same for forestry. It is critically important, as the Deputy quite rightly said, that communities have a say and are part of this story.
That is why we have the public participation directive and why we are signatories to the Aarhus Convention. The public participation element of it must happen at pre-planning, well before any of these projects are put forward. I say that for any proposers of a project, be it a wind farm or whatever the development is. Communities must be engaged with in a meaningful way, not in a token, box-ticking consultation process. I hope that answers the Deputy's questions.