The Government is facing a backlash from rural communities over its plan to relax some of the rules around the location of wind turbines.
ind energy has generally been a very positive story in Ireland in the last number of years, with around one third of our electricity coming from this renewable source in 2022.
Everybody wants more renewables, especially the Government which has ambitious EU climate change targets to meet. But successive governments have taken the easy option when it came to developing new energy sources.
We had our first offshore wind farm nearly 20 years ago and we are still waiting for the second, as government policy scrambles to play catch up.
We have completely under-invested in solar energy and its potential. Instead the push to renewables has been dominated by onshore wind farms.
Local authorities are pushing back, and not for the first time. They are devising their own development plans which involve tighter regulations around where wind farms can be built.
The Government is pushing ahead with a review that will draw considerable fire from some rural communities.
Kerry has 364 turbines. Cork has around 305
Ireland is currently the third most difficult country in which to develop wind energy due to issues with planning red tape, according to a European think tank.
The current set of rules were devised in 2006 and then new draft guidelines were put together but not implemented. Environment minister Eamon Ryan believes a new review is necessary to ensure they are compatible with carbon reduction targets.
The draft guidelines included tighter restrictions on noise reduction and distance from housing. A review may well see these relaxed.
Renewable energy production is pushing forward on three fronts – offshore wind, solar and onshore wind, with continued research and development into wave energy.
But most of the spotlight in recent years has been on the enormous potential of offshore wind farms. Several huge investments are planned around the country with major international backers and some Irish firms like ESB.
You have to look at the Government’s renewable energy targets to get a sense of how much has to be done. The government is aiming to deliver at least 7GW of offshore wind energy by 2030, along with 5GW of solar.
But the plan is to double onshore wind energy production which would see it go from 4.3GW to 9GW by 2030. Wind turbines are bigger now and more efficient so it wouldn’t involve doubling the number of turbines, but it does still involve a significant expansion of existing wind farms as well as new ones.
The most recent government intervention occurred with Kerry County Council, where the minister gave a draft direction to the council to revise its new county development plan.
Kerry councillors had opted to restrict any future wind turbines to a narrow corridor along the Cork/Kerry border as part of its development plan.
Kerry has 364 turbines. Cork has around 305. Some counties don’t appear to have any at all.
The minister directed the council to amend its plan and replace “open to consideration” with “permitted in principle” for turbines, and he took issue with the methodology in the new plan’s provision for a 1km set back from settlements.
A new review at central government in Dublin could see set-back distances getting closer.
Having community buy-in to wind farms should be a priority. It may also be quite unrealistic especially where some people feel, as Kerry councillors said, their county had “done enough for wind”.
Community investment is one option but it is unlikely to deliver wind energy on a large scale.
Another is to have community participation. New rules from Eamon Ryan’s department around offshore wind auctions said that power generators must contribute €2 for every MW of power generated over the lifetime of the project.
This would roughly equate to a local community fund of €4m per year on a 500MW offshore wind farm. This would see a local community fund of €8m per year for every GW of power generated.
Similar rules for onshore wind projects were only developed in 2021. Prior to that many wind farm operators did distribute money through local funds, but the amounts were relatively small given the profits and impact on the landscape in parts of the country.
For example, ESB has been a major wind farms operator and it operates a very effective community fund scheme. But given that it has developed 1GW of wind energy, its community fund payments are only about €1m annually.
If they were to be developed now, the figure would be closer to €8m.
Distribution rules around the funds are not optimum either. Forty percent of the money goes on projects that promote or develop sustainability. A further 50pc is for general applications from clubs, societies or organisations.
Perhaps the rule should say that local communities should be able to spend the money in ways that benefit that community the most. Why have 40pc of the money going on sustainability projects when a new playground for kids or better sports facilities might be needed more.
Equally, each of these communities has already done something for sustainability by having a set of massive wind turbines in its midst, which benefit the whole country and the wider battle against climate change.
Communities in Co Cork received €437,000 in direct community benefit funding in 2020
Communities in Co Cork received €437,000 in direct community benefit funding in 2020, which is good. But the county has over 300 turbines. That is not proportionate.
The very positive progress made in building up onshore wind capacity in Ireland over the last 20 years will be devalued by over-dependence and the policies of successive governments not to progress offshore and solar.
A doubling of onshore capacity in the next seven years will not be easy, yet it may be necessary because the country has been a laggard with alternatives. We are starting late.
If it has to happen, there needs to be a fairer distribution of turbines around the country, and mechanisms which deliver meaningful benefits to local communities.
Otherwise, there is going to be trouble.
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