Thursday, 23 April 2015
Wind Energy Generation
I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White, as the line Minister dealing with this matter. He has been very receptive at all times on the issues and concerns I have raised with him about the development of wind farms across the country. He has met groups directly and listened to them. More recently while in Edenderry and Mount Lucas, County Offaly he stopped and engaged with people who were protesting. I share their concerns. We are not altogether convinced that the submissions and representations they have made have managed to penetrate the policy perspective.
I do not wish to be presumptuous, but it is my understanding that the Department may not have been represented at the wind turbine noise conference this week in Glasgow. I await the Minister's reply in that regard. I had hoped a representative of the Department, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government which also has a role in the matter or the Department of Health would attend the conference to take on board the latest scientific research and data in this sector because they are constantly evolving. It is a relatively new phenomenon as we have never had industrial wind farms of this size. It is my view and that of communities throughout the country that we should take a cautious and precautionary approach.
It is important to indicate that it is unhelpful that the State does not use the LAeq system for measuring decibel and noise levels, as happens in Canada, and Australia and recommended by the World Health Organization. There is an emerging body of scientific evidence - it is not hearsay - underpinning the view that increased noise levels for families living within a range of 2 km from industrial wind farms are at least a nuisance and can have a detrimental effect on their quality of life.
It is argued that the noise is not loud. However, just because we cannot hear it with the naked ear does not mean that there is no infrasound, a constant invasive and persistent vibration with which people have to live. There is no escape from it. It is not even wise to compare it to traffic and other background noises because there is no escape from a wind farm once it is established near one's home. The noise is most intrusive, invasive and potentially damaging at night time when all other background noises fall away. We were told in the past that cigarettes and asbestos were not harmful and we did not always know about the harmful effects of exposure to X-rays and other forms of radiation. I want to ensure that the concerns about decibel levels experienced by those who live in the proximity of wind farms are fully taken into account when the new regulations are introduced. It is more than two and a half years since Senator Kelly and I introduced wind farm set-back legislation and we have been awaiting publication of the new guidelines for more than one year. I would like to hear the Minister's opinion on the extent to which noise pollution and the potential health impacts will be factored into the guidelines.
Neither I nor my Department was represented at the conference to which the Senator referred. I did not receive an invitation to the event. I examined the organisers' publicity materials after receiving notice of this matter and I now understand that the objective of the conference was to discuss problems and solutions associated with wind turbine noise. The House will be aware that the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, in conjunction with my Department and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, is currently reviewing the 2006 wind energy guidelines. These revisions will be finalised as soon as possible and will be brought forward by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. Wind farm developments are subject to the Planning Acts, including their requirements for public consultation. Consequently, a proposal to build a wind farm is a matter for the developer and the relevant planning authority.
It is also important to note that the 2009 EU renewable energy directive gave Ireland a legally binding target of meeting 16% of our energy requirements from renewable sources by 2020. In order to meet this target, Ireland is committed to producing 40% of electricity from renewable sources. The 2030 EU climate and energy framework will require significant further reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and increases in renewable energy production. My Department is working with other Departments to develop a technically feasible, cost effective and fair contribution to the overall EU ambition. I intend at an early opportunity to publish a draft renewable electricity policy and development framework to facilitate opportunities for renewable electricity generation. My officials are also well advanced in the drafting of an energy White Paper for publication in September. The challenge of tackling global warming will be at the heart of our energy policy for the next generation, along with the issues of affordability and security of supply.
Concerns about energy infrastructure development were raised during the extensive consultation that has informed the drafting of the White Paper. While the debate must always be properly informed, the Government, local authorities and industry have a responsibility to develop better ways of involving and listening to the communities affected by infrastructure development. With this in mind, ongoing citizen engagement will also be a central component of the White Paper.
As the Senator will appreciate, while my Department and SEAI have an input into planning guidelines they are in the first instance a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government.
I accept that and thank the Minister for his reply. However, he has not addressed the core issues raised in my questions. I am familiar with our responsibilities in regard to renewable energy. The wind industry has the leg, arm and ear of this Government, as it did with the previous Government. It is the favoured child, to the extent of neglecting the potential of the bio-energy sector. However, the question I raised this morning was whether policy is sufficiently informed by the latest scientific research from Australia, Canada and the World Health Organisation in regard to the intrusive and potentially damaging chronic nuisance and health impacts of noise from wind turbines for those who live in close proximity to large scale wind developments. The Minister made no reference to that issue in his reply. While I accept that it is primarily a matter for the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, it would be absurd to suggest that the Department of Health or the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources should not also be involved in the preparation of these guidelines.
I was asked who represented my Department or the Government at a certain conference in Glasgow which we first learned about when the Senator raised this issue. My answer to that question was that nobody represented the Department and, therefore, I was unable to answer the Senator's other question on the extent to which it would inform public policy. I answered the question I was asked.
I respectfully reject any suggestion that this Government is in the grip of any particularly industry or interest. Wind energy, whether on-shore and, hopefully, off-shore, will continue to feature in our energy policy. I am in close consultation with people who have interests in biomass and bio-energy generally. We published a draft bio-energy policy paper last year.
Finally, I assure the Senator that international research will inform all of our decisions. The best technical research and scientific evidence will inform my decisions and, I sure, the decisions of my colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.