Energy deal collapse surprising in wake of State visit bonhomie

Opinion: Irish wind turbine objections mirror English ones

‘The British were not prepared to pay anything extra for Irish wind energy than they would pay for the same on their own doorstep.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

‘The British were not prepared to pay anything extra for Irish wind energy than they would pay for the same on their own doorstep.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


It seemed like a “win-win” scenario when Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte and his British counterpart Ed Davey signed a “memorandum of understanding” in January of last year on the principle of exporting wind energy from Ireland to Britain.

There was something for everyone. Two wind energy companies, Element Power and Mainstream Renewables, were champing at the bit to go ahead with plans to build hundreds of tall wind turbines in the midlands with an eye to exporting the electricity they generated.

For the Government there was the prospect of raising revenue from these ventures as well as creating jobs – many in the construction phase, fewer in maintaining the turbines.

And for Britain, importing up to eight gigawatts of Irish wind energy would help it to meet the EU’s 2020 targets for renewables.

The deal would also avert visceral opposition to wind turbines in the largely Tory shire counties of England by, in effect, hiving them off to the Irish midlands. But what nobody seems to have anticipated was that many people who live there were equally concerned about the potential impact.

It is ironic that Rabbitte’s first official function since he announced that the deal had collapsed was to open a new European sales office in Santry, Dublin, for Enercon, a leading supplier of onshore wind turbines – hailing it as “tangible evidence of the economic and jobs benefits” of renewables.

The announcement on Sunday also coincided with the release in Berlin of the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which emphasised the need for a rapid transition from burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil to generating energy from renewables such as wind and solar.

It was also somewhat surprising after all the bonhomie of President Michael D Higgins’s state visit to Britain, an ironic coincidence highlighted by the National Offshore Wind Association, which said the proposed deal “would have demonstrated the real benefits of partnership in both economies”.

The association claimed that its members had €7.5 billion worth of offshore wind projects “shovel-ready” to go ahead over the next seven years. All they needed was a “route to market” in the form of a sub-sea cable that would directly connect wind farms in the Irish Sea to Britain’s national electricity grid.

Rabbitte’s initial statement referred to the “economic, policy and regulatory complexities” of the wind export deal, saying that “key decisions [had] yet to be taken by the UK”. As a result, the window of opportunity to get projects up and running in time for the EU’s 2020 deadline had effectively closed.

At their mid-March meeting in London, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and British prime minister David Cameron discussed the impasse and gave officials three months to see if they could salvage the project. But just four weeks later, negotiations abruptly terminated because Irish sources say “there was nothing left to discuss”.

Rabbitte was in a more expansive mood on RTÉ radio yesterday, blaming a “ferocious debate about energy policy” in Britain for the waning of its initial enthusiasm about the idea of importing Irish wind energy. Indeed, with Cameron’s explicit endorsement, fracking shale now seems to be flavour of the month there.

It turned out that much more work was done on the Irish side to reach an intergovernmental agreement that would provide the framework for renewable energy trading between the two countries. An analysis showed that it would deliver “significant economic benefits . . . under agreed policy and regulatory conditions”.

But even in the aftermath of Kenny’s mid-March visit to Downing Street, no flexibility was being shown by the British side on one of the crunch issues; who would pay for the grid connection. The British were not prepared to pay anything extra for Irish wind energy than they would pay for the same on their own doorstep.

To allay the fears of a growing number of objectors to the midlands being taken over by giant turbines, Rabbitte had promised a national planning framework for the export project that would “prescribe where wind farms can be built and where they can’t be built”. Large areas of cutaway bog were the most likely locations.

The collapse of the deal has been welcomed by campaigners, who are due to march to Leinster House today.

Senator John Whelan, Labour’s Seanad spokesman on energy, said he was delighted the British government had “pulled the plug on developer-led plans to erect thousands of industrial wind turbines in the midlands”.

But both Rabbitte and his party leader, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, still believe that energy trading between Ireland and Britain is bound to grow in the future, and that it should be possible to reactivate the export project for the post-2020 period when EU states will be able to set their own targets for renewable energy.

Certainly, the latest IPCC report is unequivocal about the need for a rapid switch to renewables such as wind, solar and biomass. Unless we make swift progress on the path to a low-carbon economy, it warns that there is no chance of meeting the internationally-agreed target of containing global warming at two degrees.

So it’s more likely than not that wind turbines in the midlands will form a small part of that global response to climate change at some stage.

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