The most senior politician in the Midlands is to ask his Government colleagues to launch an environmental assessment of the nation’s onshore wind energy potential, in line with a similar assessment already carried out for its offshore equivalent in 2011.
“In 2011, a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA ) was undertaken of the likely significant environmental effects of implementing Ireland’s offshore wind energy plans, and quite rightly too, but we have yet to undertake a similar assessment of our onshore wind energy plans, despite the fact that we are almost half way toward reaching our targets,” he said this week.
Deputy Willie Penrose engaged in the wind power debate formally in November when he published the Environment and Public Health (Wind Turbines ) Bill 2012, following up on work done by Senator John Kelly on this issue.
In this he hopes to cement into legislation the distance with which a wind turbine may be located in relation to the nearest house.
“At the moment we’re operating on 2006 guidelines, not statutory requirements, and these are based on 1997 UK guidelines,” he explained.
This “guideline” figure is presently 500 metres, and Deputy Penrose wants to legislate for this distance to be 10 times the height of the turbine.
“The 500-metre setback rule was established at a time when, according to the European Wind Energy Association, average wind turbine heights were 54 metres. Current planning applications in Ireland are for turbines more than twice that size, with an average height of 125-146 metres, and the plans for the proposed Midlands wind farms are suggesting turbines with an average height of 180 metres,” said Deputy Penrose.
This would require Greenwire, and Element Power - the companies behind the plan to build 600 180-metre high turbines across five midland counties in a €1.2bn project - site their turbines almost two kilometres away from the nearest dwelling.
However, this setback distance proposal has brought Deputy Penrose into conflict with the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA ) because it proposes an evidence-based setback distance from family homes instead of the one-size-fits-all setback of 500 metres in the current guidelines.
“The previous government committed Ireland to a target of achieving 86 per cent of our renewable energy production through the installation of onshore wind turbines,” he pointed out.
“As the recent AIRO [from NUI Maynooth] study highlighted, given the spatial distribution of housing in Ireland, this target cannot be achieved unless we retain the current wind farm planning guidelines, which allow wind turbines to be sited 500 metres from a family home,” he explained.
According to the IWEA, if Deputy Penrose’s Bill is passed, it will leave just 3 per cent of the State available for onshore wind development, a figure far too small to achieve Ireland’s targets.
Deputy Penrose declared himself to be a “firm supporter” of the Government’s renewable energy target of 20 per cent.
“We have to achieve the target. I mean, we’re not naysayers, or NIMBYs, but there’s 200,000 acres of cutaway bog [across the Midlands]. That’s the best place for them,’ he said.
“We should stop the charge [towards progress]. We should stand still on this for a while, and have a period of examining and auditing,” he said.
“Individually any of these developments have impacts on the landscape and environment which need to be assessed. Cumulatively, they have the potential to profoundly change the face of our scenic landscape and the lives of thousands of families who will live close to these developments,” he concluded.