A necessary public debate on electricity powerlines

Tue, Jun 24, 2014, 01:00

The centralisation of power stifles discourse so that public consultation can be seen as an unwelcome irritant. Distant paternalism frowned on active, informed citizenship and local anger, rather than critical analysis, was the reaction. That may change as EirGrid, one of the State’s most important commercial companies, opens a dialogue with local communities on how to deliver a future electricity supply: by overhead pylons or through underground cables.

EirGrid did not embrace this change of its own volition. An offshoot of the ESB, it had absorbed a public service culture along with a reluctance to discuss its decisions or alternative approaches. That reluctance caused the company serious problems as it sought to fulfil its legal obligation to develop, operate and maintain a safe, efficient and economic transmission system, while having due regard to the environment. It embarked on a huge modernisation programme without the active involvement of local communities; its behaviour reflecting a traditional, patronising approach: stand back, EirGrid knows best.

Protests against the installation of high-power transmission pylons multiplied last year as a combination of interests quoted lack of consultation, health issues, visual amenities and damage to tourism as reasons for doing nothing at all or for placing the cables underground. The prospect of higher electricity costs for consumers and the impact this might have on social and economic development were lost in the furore. Threats to nominate anti-pylon candidates for the local elections were made and the Government instructed EirGrid to back off.

This week, the company will publish details of an alternative underground route for Grid West, which links Mayo and Roscommon, alongside an existing overhead pylons route. A similar approach will be offered for the planned Kildare/Wexford/Cork route. Cost comparisons between the two approaches will have to wait until an independent commission, involving former high court judge Catherine McGuinness along with economists and other experts, produce their findings. The possible health effects of electromagnetic fields will be considered separately.

The process now under way will result in additional costs and delay the necessary overhaul of a creaking delivery system. Lessons can, however, be learned by EirGrid and by protesting citizens. Presenting change as a fait accompli is unacceptable. So is a knee-jerk rejection of modernisation. The longterm costs and benefits of both systems require careful consideration because, while disturbances may be local, the effects of the eventual choice will be felt nationally. A report from Mrs McGuinness and her colleagues concerning estimated costs, landscape impact and technical problems will help to inform a necessary public debate.