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The green energy conundrum: Can developers and communities see eye to eye as Ireland tries to cut carbon?

Community suspicion creates obstacle to wind turbine construction: ‘It is putting profit and market before community and the environment’

Thirteen years after a development of eight wind turbines on a mountain slope in Co Leitrim was blocked by planning authorities, the community finds itself embroiled in a similar fight. Some locals cast it as a corporate giant squeezing the value from a mountainside with little in return for those living nearby.

“What’s being proposed for the mountain is completely counterintuitive,” says John O’Hagan, a designer who lives near Manorhamilton, a town not far from Dough Mountain where the giant 600ft turbines may one day appear. “All we see it as is putting profit and market before community and the environment.”

However, FuturEnergy Ireland, an amalgamation of Coillte and the ESB, sees its plans for the Lissinagroagh Wind Farm in an entirely different light. Highlighting economic benefits for the locality, it says the project is environmentally sound and an essential part of Ireland’s shift toward green energy as the country seeks to meet carbon reduction plans.

“We regard ourselves as leaders on community engagement,” a spokeswoman says.


Such polarised views of the appropriateness and relative value of green energy infrastructure are echoed across Ireland where turbines have been proposed.

The Government wants 80 per cent of electricity generated from renewables by 2030. As of May 2022, according to FuturEnergy, onshore wind generated 4,332MW (megawatts) of power but the Climate Action Plan wants this to more than double to 9,000 by the end of the decade.

The standoff in Co Leitrim is indicative of the national challenge ahead. The Save Dough Mountain group, of which O’Hagan is an articulate spokesman, is determined to win the second battle against large turbines in the area.

He views the plans as symptomatic of corporate reach and holds up Ireland’s increasingly controversial data centre industry as beneficiaries of the power that would be created by the turbines. Their size is another bugbear. According to FuturEnergy’s plans, they would rise up to 185m in height – measured to the tip of the skyward-pointing blade.

“It’s [about] building a country that’s facilitating energy-sucking industry and keep on going in that direction and to hell with the environment and to hell with local communities. I see what’s being planned for Dough Mountain as a prime example of this,” says O’Hagan, who claims the developer has had scant contact with the community.

“Because we’re so early in this as a society, this is still new ground. We haven’t reached adolescence in the development of how this transition is going. What we want is a just transition that benefits the environment truly and genuinely and also communities.”

Rejecting the suggestion that it is standoffish, FuturEnergy lists newsletters, an updated website, the appointment of liaison officers, house-to-house calls and school education programmes as some of the measures it has rolled out.

All we see it as is putting profit and market before community and the environment

—  John O'Hagan, Save Dough Mountain group

Under green energy development obligations, FuturEnergy will establish a community development fund, a cash pot controlled by the local community should the turbines ever start turning and feeding the grid. The company estimates this could be worth more than €12 million over a 35-year period (based on a 12-turbine scheme).

Tensions between communities and developers will likely continue but the ambitions of the Government are clear, making it questionable such a development, in its entirety, will be ruled out in the long run.

In its zeal for a net-zero electricity system, the 2023 Climate Action Plan states a “major acceleration” of onshore wind turbines, transformation of land use from activities such as agriculture to solar photovoltaic (PV), and major network upgrades will be required “as a minimum”.

“Inclusive community engagement and amenities for recreational access such as walking, running and cycling routes around wind farms are changing the public’s relationship with renewable energy infrastructure,” it argues. .

Whatever about local disputes, there is evidence to suggest people are becoming more positive about the idea of wind infrastructure.

Two decades ago, the then Sustainable Energy Ireland commissioned a survey that found two-thirds of Irish adults were in favour of having a wind farm near their area, mainly because of the clean energy they produce. Any negative views were strongly related to the aesthetics of turbines and their impact on the landscape.

In 2007, Fáilte Ireland research found most tourists felt wind farms had either no impact (49 per cent) or a positive impact (32 per cent) on the landscape. Follow-up research in 2012 showed an increase in the polarisation of opinions, with positive at 47 per cent and negative at 30 per cent.

Recent Wind Energy Ireland (WEI) sampling found that, among rural residents, 85 per cent registered favourable attitudes, the highest positive level recorded since tracking commenced in 2017. Nationally, 58 per cent said they would be in favour of a wind farm in their area, another high point.

The Climate Action Plan itself notes “evidence of increasingly positive public attitudes” to infrastructure.

Notwithstanding such goodwill, developments often stagnate in Ireland’s troubled planning system.

A KPMG report commissioned by WEI last year found 95 per cent of industry experts believed planning delays and insufficient electricity grid capacity would stop Ireland reaching its target of 80 per cent renewable electricity by 2030.

Separate data provided by WEI shows that, as of last March, there was slightly under 2,000MW worth of projects “somewhere” in the planning system, some for more than 18-24 months.

While it expected 2023 to be a record year for planning applications, it said not a single onshore wind energy project had been approved by An Bord Pleanála since the end of September 2022.

Even when a wind energy project receives planning, it must then apply for a grid connection. The window during which to do that opens at the start of October and closes at the end of November.

I sense a lot less objection to them now than when they were initially discussed four or five years ago

—  Wicklow Green Party TD Steven Matthews

WEI says a key priority is to get the planning done in time so this slot is not missed, potentially stalling wind projects for another full year.

Justin Moran, WEI’s director of external affairs, said planned projects typically adapt to local concerns and that community funds are now an integral part of that engagement.

“You might reduce the number of turbines. You might move the substations. You might move the turbines. You might move the grid connection point,” he says.

“You’re constantly trying to find ways to do this in a way that meets people not just half-way but more than half-way.”

There is also an awareness, he says, that communities were there first and have a right to expect sensitive development and a benefit from the energy transition.

Falling levels of public opposition identified in polling are “a consequence of the level of engagement that projects do these days”, he says. “But I also think it’s the penny beginning to drop with people that we actually do need to decarbonise. Very, very literally, the world is on fire.”

And yet, as with all infrastructural planning, opposition will continue at some level, particularly with the relatively new addition of offshore plans.

In May, a €2 billion project of about 30 turbines, was provisionally approved by the Government at Sceirde Rocks off the coast of Mweenish Island, one of the most picturesque areas in southwest Connemara – each turbine would reach 300m or the equivalent height of the Eiffel Tower.

It was one of four offshore energy projects provisionally awarded government contracts. The other three – North Sea Irish Array, Dublin Array and Codling Wind Park – are on the east coast of Ireland.

The foreshore licence application for Sceirde Rocks received numerous objections on the grounds of visual impact and the potential disturbance to marine life and fishing communities.

Hugh Ryan who lives in nearby Carna, in a letter to Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan, argued for a review of the impact of “proposed mega turbines”.

“There has been much success in developing the Wild Atlantic Way,” he said. “Carna and its neighbouring villages are trying to bring tourism into the area. A project of [this] scale… will desecrate such a wild and beautiful area.”

The developer countered with arguments the wind farm would “contribute significantly” to local development, job opportunities and economic benefits, including a community fund.

On the other side of the country, plans for what would be the country’s biggest offshore wind farm have been made for the Codling site off the Dublin and Wicklow coastline, another €2 billion behemoth capable of powering 1.2 million homes.

At the beginning of 2023, its developers, EDF Renewables and Fred Olsen Seawind, said initial expectations of 140 turbines in its first phase of the wind park would be reduced to 100 but it has still prompted concerns during the application for an exploratory licence.

“I acknowledge that offshore wind will play a critical role in this [energy] transition, however, this cannot come at the cost of our coastal biodiversity, which will never recover,” a member of the Wicklow Wildlife Welfare group said in a submission. Everything from reef habitats and birds, to porpoises, dolphins, sharks and whales would, to some extent, suffer, the group argued.

The Adela-Hare Centenary Commemoration Committee, established to honour the separate sinkings of the SS Hare and SS Adela in 1917 said that while it acknowledged there was no intention to interfere with such wrecks, survey work and eventual turbine development would, nevertheless, be of concern.

“There are numerous shipwrecks lying at the bottom of the Irish Sea spanning several centuries, and in most cases contain the remains of crew members lost and never recovered. For many Irish, British and other international families, these shipwreck sites represent the final resting place of their family’s ‘loved ones’.”

Two separate legal firms acting for members of the east coast fishing community submitted various concerns including an end to the whelk, lobster and crab industry, reduced commercial viability and consequent over-fishing and stock depletion.

In Donegal, however, a pragmatic workaround for such expected rivalry was developed by the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation (KFO) which devised a set of agreeable development principles, including that a developer would ensure the involvement of the fishing industry from the start.

In late 2022, it signed a memorandum of understanding with developers Hexicon for a wind farm costing up to €3 billion off the Donegal coast. “We call this a new approach, and probably a first in the world,” KFO chief executive Seán O’Donoghue said at the time. “The fishing industry here joined forces mainly because we were aware of all the issues on the east and south coast and the fishermen and the wind developers were at loggerheads.”

Wicklow Green Party TD Steven Matthews believes much of the fishing concerns with the Codling project will be addressed in the Marine Protected Areas Bill and says the developers have been engaging locally.

“Every show or event that I go to across Wicklow, somebody’s there – Codling is there or SSE is there. I think they actually do quite a good job,” he says, adding he expects much of the environmental concerns to be resolved during planning.

“I sense a lot less objection to them now than when they were initially discussed four or five years ago,” he continues.

“To my mind, I look at them and I say we are embracing clean technology and clean fuel and I would much prefer to be looking at turbines than looking at a smokestack. I think a lot of people feel the same way.”

Communities may have a sense they are not being heard

—  Dr Patrick Bresnihan, Maynooth University

An Bord Pleanála, the planning authority under immense strain in recent years, does not compile data on objections specifically to energy infrastructure and so the proportional rate is difficult to ascertain. But opposition continues and has become organised. The Coastal Concern Alliance group is wary of “huge near-shore developments with hundreds of turbines up to 320m high” planned for the east coast “from Dundalk Bay to Carnsore Point”.

Its members believe the protection of biodiversity must sit “alongside or ahead of” climate action, including in the rollout of offshore wind projects.

“In Ireland this has not happened… all current plans for offshore wind development are in conflict with nature conservation and are not being advanced ‘in the public interest’,” it said.

The alliance has recently joined forces with Blue Ireland, an “association of citizens’ groups” concerned with protecting the seas “in light of government plans for vast offshore wind development”. Both groups have expressed their support for sustainably planned wind farms.

Dr Patrick Bresnihan, associate professor at the department of geography in Maynooth University, says communities may have a sense they are not being heard.

“Ultimately if you’re pitting private developers against local residents and local communities, and you’re trying to get that resolved through the planning process, it’s going to lead to bottlenecks and it’s going to lead to problems,” he says.

Bresnihan believes community ownership, in which they have an actual stake in green energy infrastructure, would help ease suspicions. Community funds, an alternative direct benefit, have proven problematic in the past, he says, particularly around access.

He understands the suspicions and questions, and dismisses the notion that “getting on board” with climate action will suffice to carry everyone along as giant windmills are built by giant companies.

“This idea of a green agenda, which is a term that you see a lot, is being used to benefit those who are already benefiting and it’s kind of a Trojan horse-type thing,” he says.

“And what that means is that people are going to be sceptical of the need for environmental action even if it’s done in a way that might benefit them.”

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Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times