Turbines are key to the Government’s climate-change policy, but rural dwellers contend that they are injurious and noisy, a claim the High Court will soon consider says Michael Clifford
Now that we can do nothing to curb cows passing wind, wherefore the harnessing of wind?
That question takes on great relevance, following this week’s climate change conference in Paris. Enda Kenny spoke there and purported to be a leader of efforts to arrest climate change. And then he made special pleading for Ireland’s agriculture sector, which ramps up carbon emissions, principally through cows passing wind. If it wasn’t so serious, it would be hilarious.
Mr Kenny and the Government — and most opposition parties — are not for turning on agriculture. The emission problem won’t go away, so it will just have to be accommodated.
Instead, the country will have to look hard at other means of reining in carbon emissions. And a cursory glance at how that is progressing in one sector offers little confidence of success.
Wind energy is the great white hope of eliminating, or at least reducing, fossil-fuel use. Last year, 23% of electricity in the State was produced using renewable energy, of which four fifths came from on-shore wind.
There are other options, such as biofuels and offshore wind, both of which are underdeveloped, so far, and more expensive than on-shore wind.
So what are the prospects for wind taking off? Not very good, if we look at the current state of play.
Last weekend, a group called Wind Aware Ireland picketed the office of Alex White, the minister for communications and natural resources. The group, which grew out of protests against wind farms in the midlands, has adopted the tactic of picketing individual TDs in the government parties.
This is to get the Government to change national policy on wind. WAI has come to oppose not just specific developments, but the concept of wind power.
The principle oppositions to wind farms are concerns about noise nuisance, property prices and health. The last of these is highly contested by the wind-energy industry and the Government. For every study showing ill-health effects from turbine activity, another shows no effects at all.
Other community groups, while not resorting to the extreme tactics of WAI, have adopted a similar position on wind energy, and it has grown into a major political issue in rural Ireland.
Nobody has yet come up with a serious, viable alternative to on-shore wind. As of now, opposition politicians are nodding in agreement with opponents, mainly because saving the planet is all very well, but an election is the most immediate concern.
There are other dark clouds for wind energy. A High Court case on noise nuisance is due for a trial date in the new year. Seven families from the North Cork village of Banteer are suing the operator of a windfarm in their area, which the families claim has adversely affected their quality of life, principally through noise nuisance.
The case will be closely observed. Other parties in Roscommon and Wexford, who claim to have been subjected to similar intrusions, are waiting in the wings.
There is no precedent for this kind of case in this country.
Elsewhere, local authorities have voted for provisions restricting wind energy, contrary to national policy. Donegal and Roscommon county councils have done so in response to campaigns opposing specific developments.
Nearly all the opposition is predicated on the proximity of wind turbines to homes. With a highly dispersed population — one third of the housing stock is one-off houses — it is difficult to find suitable locations for farms that are far enough away from where people live.
A disregard for proper planning, which goes back decades, is at fault here, and that will haunt rural Ireland in the coming decades, as it attempts to consolidate against long-term decline. But what’s done is done.
Homes are where they are, and the battle against climate change and fossils fuels simply has to make provision.
The Government has followed a well-worn track, in terms of leadership. National policy was laid out, and, where possible, farmed-out to private interests. Thereafter, it’s a question of keeping the head down.
This approach is best exemplified by the most contentious element of wind farms — the distance between turbines and homes.
Planning for windfarms is still governed by guidelines introduced in 2006, which stipulate that the separation distance should be 500m.
In terms of the evolution of wind energy, 2006 is back in the industrial age. Since then, turbines have been developed such that they are three times the standard size that pertained a decade ago. Yet, there has been no revision of separation distance.
After years of prevarication, the Department of the Environment initiated a review that produced draft proposals in December, 2013. This proposed making the 500m set-back mandatory, rather than the subject of guidelines.
Those opposed to the turbines were outraged. They wanted a set-back distance of 1km, to bring dwellers beyond the scope of any ill-effects.
Following the publication of the draft revision, the department received 7,500 submissions. Two years later, all concerned are still waiting for a final decision, and you can be full sure that one will not be produced this side of an election.
There is reported to be conflict between the ministers involved, Alan Kelly, in environment, and Alex White in energy and natural resources, over the separation distance. Too close and there will be blue murder. Too far and it won’t be worthwhile building any turbines.
That is where things stand. Last Sunday, in a radio interview, Mr White spoke passionately of the importance of wind energy as part of the strategy on climate change.
“This is not just a rural issue, it’s for everybody in the country,” he told Richard Crowley, on RTÉ’s This Week.
“How do we move to renewable energy, so that people can feel part of the energy policy, rather than the victim of it?”
On Tuesday, Fine Gael TD for Meath, Helen McEntee, issued her own statement, in the wake of Enda Kenny’s address in Paris.
“I agree with Minister Alex White, when he says that people must feel a part of energy policy and not a victim of it,” her statement read.
“However, as things stand, our approach to pylons and wind turbines is leaving people feeling like victims, because of the proximity of the structures to their homes. People in my constituency of Meath East have direct, first-hand experience of this and this cannot continue to be the norm.”
One way or the other, the norm will no longer suffice. Ducking out of the country’s responsibilities to the planet is not an option.
And if agriculture is to be left to its own devices, some serious adjustments are required elsewhere.
In such a scenario, it is impossible to envisage a future policy that does not have on-shore wind as a major component. Getting to that point is going to involve a lot of unheaval.
Arguments for wind blowing hot and cold