Seanad debates

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Adjournment Matters

National Wind Energy Strategy

2:40 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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The issue I am raising today is one that is close to Senator Kelly's heart, namely, wind farms and windmills. However, I am not requesting him to stay for this issue. I know his part of the country well and many of the windmills currently in the Roscommon-Sligo area are much smaller than what is being proposed for the midlands, which apparently include large parts of County Meath.

This issue has come to a head lately because of a number of projects that seem to have full Government approval. This is the perception with regard to massive windmills that will be erected in the midlands to provide power for the United Kingdom. Overall, one can see there are benefits for the country if it can generate electricity and make money from selling it to another country. In principle, this should be beneficial. However, in reality many of these projects are being undertaken by multinational companies with little connection to this country and very little of the benefit seems to come to the country. There is also very little consultation with residents. The situation regarding consultation is so bad that many residents in the areas where wind farms are proposed currently have no idea of what is going on.

I support the development of wind power and renewable energy, but we must take into account the genuine concerns of residents who have been asked to put up with gigantic wind turbines. One company has told me the turbine will reach 185 m, which is at least twice the height of many of the existing windmills. When Fianna Fáil was in power, it laid the foundations for using clean, renewable, sustainable power sources and that work continues. It is important we continue that work and that we recognise the reality of climate change. The main issue for people is the inexcusable lack of correspondence and consultation with local residents. This is coupled with the perception that the Government is pushing and endorsing wind farms at an early stage. I hope the Minister can contradict that perception. At least, he should set out the Government position on the existing projects.

Another issue is that planning guidelines regarding wind turbines are hopelessly out of date and date from a time when the technology in use now was not available. The technology proposed for these high turbines does not even exist here currently. Residents in the areas of Carlanstown, Oristown, Moynalty, Nobber and Kilbeg parish area have contacted me about their serious concerns, particularly concerns about the Greenwire project. First, there is a lack of information. They are also concerned at the proximity of many of the proposed sites to their homes. Although the proposed sites have not been officially revealed, everybody on the ground seems to know the exact locations.

Another issue the Greenwire and Element Power company must deal with is that this is creating a lack of public confidence in the process. People are also concerned about noise pollution. They want to know what is going on and want to see whether there is a better way of doing this. I understand some counties have, on their own initiative, set out certain areas which are suitable for wind power and I understand those areas are far from population centres and are generally non-controversial. However, in County Meath it is proposed to put many of these wind turbines close to centres of population. I attended a public information meeting hosted by Greenwire in Carlanstown recently and it was clear that most of the people in the area did not even know the meeting was taking place and knew nothing at all about the proposed project.

We must have more consultation. Yesterday, the Fianna Fáil leader, Deputy Martin, raised this issue in the Dáil, but the Taoiseach did not seem to be aware of the lack of consultation. I have written to An Bord Pleanála to ask it to get Element Power to reopen and restart the consultation process so as to inform the public of what is going on. I suggested that a turbine of 185 m be constructed or laid out on the ground to show people what is involved and give them some idea of what is proposed.

I understand it is proposed to locate approximately 50 wind turbines in the general Kilbeg area of County Meath. Pylons are also being routed through the this tiny rural parish, which will become a hub for electricity export and import. That two major projects in one small rural area are going through the strategic infrastructure process should give pause for thought. The current strategy must be reconsidered because the area is not suitable for this purpose. I am aware the process is still at an early stage but the Government must set out its position on the issue. I look forward to the Minister's contribution.

2:50 pm

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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There has been significant development in the wind energy sector in Ireland in recent years. Since 2003, approximately 1,250 turbines in 150 wind farms across 22 counties have been commissioned, with a total capacity of 1,738 MW. Wind energy has been the largest driver of growth in renewable electricity, contributing most towards the achievement of the target for 2020 to deliver 40% of electricity demand from renewable sources. Estimates for 2012 indicate the current level is approaching 20%.

The 2020 target will not be achieved without an increase in wind energy development from an historical average of 180 MW per annum to at least 250 MW per annum. The timely development of a healthy pipeline of potential wind projects is essential if Ireland's 2020 renewable electricity targets are to be achieved. Non-achievement will result in compliance costs and the purchase of emissions permits. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland has estimated that compliance costs could amount to between €100 million and €150 million per annum for each percentage point shortfall in renewable energy, with a further €250 million in emissions permit purchases. This could also undermine Ireland's opportunity to potentially export renewable energy to the United Kingdom to assist in meeting its 2020 renewable electricity targets.

Development in the wind energy sector is underpinned by a clear policy framework. The national renewable energy action plan sets out the Government's approach and concrete measures to deliver on Ireland's overall 16% renewables target under Directive 2009/28/EC, to which the 40% renewable electricity target makes an important contribution. My Department's Strategy for Renewable Energy 2012-2020 has the strategic goal of having progressively more renewable electricity from onshore and offshore wind power for domestic and export markets.

With regard to export markets, the Deputy will be aware that in January of this year the United Kingdom Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Mr. Edward Davey, and I signed a memorandum of understanding on energy co-operation. This will result in completion of consideration of how Irish renewable energy resources, onshore and offshore, could be developed to the mutual benefit of Ireland and the United Kingdom, and will determine whether it is beneficial for both countries to enter into an intergovernmental agreement under the renewable energy directive to provide for renewable energy trading. An agreed programme of work is already under way to prepare for the intergovernmental agreement. This work programme includes economic analysis, addressing policy and regulatory questions and dealing with grid issues. While highly complex engineering and market issues need to be teased out, the ambition is to settle on an intergovernmental agreement in early 2014. If such an agreement is entered into, the potential employment opportunities will be significant.

New wind farms, whether for the domestic or export market, will be subject to the Planning and Development Acts, including the requirements for public consultation, irrespective of the source of funding for their construction. Best practice wind energy guidelines were published in 2006. Currently, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, in conjunction with my Department and other stakeholders, is undertaking a targeted review of certain aspects of the 2006 guidelines. This review will examine the manner in which the guidelines address key issues of community concern such as noise, separation distance and shadow flicker, to ensure Ireland continues to meet its renewable energy targets and exploits potential export opportunities while ensuring wind energy does not have a negative impact on local communities. In addition, the 2012 Government policy statement on the strategic importance of transmission and other energy infrastructure emphasises the importance of public and local community acceptance; adherence to national and international standards in designing and constructing energy networks and infrastructure; early consultation and engagement with local communities; and building community gain considerations into energy infrastructure planning and budgeting.

I intend to establish an overarching strategic policy framework, with a spatial dimension, for wind development in Ireland. This will be underpinned by a strategic environmental assessment. Work on this framework will begin in the near future with a view to completion in 2014. There is a clear framework for the development of wind energy, which is to be supplemented in the coming year. This will assist in realising the various goals I have outlined.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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To be fair to the Minister, his reply has been helpful. However, he should have a public consultation on the review of the planning guidelines. This is especially important given the significant changes in technology that have taken place in recent years. I ask that the companies in question withdraw their projects from the planning process until the guidelines have been reviewed. It appears they are seeking to have the planning process concluded as quickly as possible using guidelines that have become obsolete. I ask the Minister to take this into account. In County Meath, the area between Kells and Navan to the east of the old N3 is to become a hub for the export of energy. Pylons for a major EirGrid project and wind farms will all be located in one area. It is madness that at a time when the Conservative Party, the dominant partner in the UK's coalition government, is trying to ban the construction of wind farms, we are planning to build wind farms to export energy to Britain.

I ask the Minister to consider the issues I have raised. While his statement is reasonable, much work remains to be done. The companies involved should withdraw their planning applications until the Government has completed this work.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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There is a good deal of dúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean léi about this issue, which is surrounded by myths. It is not true, for example, that England - Scotland is a leading player in renewable energy, especially wind - has banned wind farms, although it is true that some Tory backbench MPs representing the shires make a great deal of noise about the issue. Last year alone, more wind turbines were erected in England than have been erected in this country since 2003.

As to the Deputy's request that the planning guidelines be offered for public consultation, the guidelines went out to advertised public consultation and an extensive response was received. My colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for this matter, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, is teasing through the responses with the co-operation of officials in my Department. While I do not know how quickly she believes she will complete this work and promulgate the new guidelines, I do not suppose she will hang about on the issue.

The Senator has a point about local communities being surprised by planning applications. There is nothing the Government, and probably the political parties in the House, would want to do about the situation. If someone is minded to visit Moynalty or some other area and make a local farmer or landowner a bid in respect of options to erect a mobile telephone mast or wind turbine, the resulting transaction will be private. It is somewhat unfortunate that people may learn of it only after the event. However, all applications arising from such transactions must go through the planning process.

In respect of the discussions that have grown up around the development of an export sector in this country, I have been engaged with my opposite number in Westminster in putting in place the basis of a framework that can facilitate trade between the two countries. The relevant European directive requires there be an intergovernmental agreement in place. We have signed a memorandum of understanding and our respective officials are hammering away at the nuts and bolts of changing that into an intergovernmental agreement. The economics of it must stack up but it would appear that because we have a wealth of such resources, we have a capacity to generate more electricity than we need. We can only generate more electricity than we need if we can export it because broadly speaking it cannot be stored. We are in the fortuitous situation that we have the capacity to generate more than we need and Britain has a need for green energy to help it to meet its renewable targets and its appetite for energy. It is a win-win situation for both countries.

There is a lot of work to do with the nitty gritty of striking a bargain and Senators have been more moderate in their criticisms than some of the noise I heard in the other House, including one party that deplores my giving away natural resources, especially, as one Deputy put it at the last Question Time, "to the Brits". If I was in London selling beef, no one would complain in Meath. Similarly this is a commodity that it would be economic to trade. If it is, it will create jobs and wealth on this island and meet a demand on the other island. In the meantime, all projects must go through the planning process.

3:00 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I am moderate about this because we only found out about it about three weeks ago in County Meath so we are still getting to grips with it. That is the position for the public and I would be grateful if the Government would consider that when thinking about the issue.