National strategy for renewable energy is needed
Developing onshore renewable energy in the State requires planning at national level
“Any national renewable energy planning strategy cannot just consider wind energy alone and must also take into account other technologies and issues.” Photograph: Reuters/Brian Snyder
The efficient production and use of energy is a central consideration for planning. Ireland has a number of strategic advantages in the area of renewable energy, including high wind speeds, a long coastline with significant potential for wave energy and good climate and soil conditions for biofuel production. It needs an indigenous, resilient and diverse energy system and this can be achieved only through the provision of integrated planning and energy policy.
The Irish Planning Institute advocates a plan-led approach to addressing energy issues and harnessing Ireland’s energy opportunity. This approach must facilitate and guide the development of commercial, industrial and community renewable energy projects at regional and national level.
It must maximise the renewable energy resource with minimal environmental impacts. It must also address the social acceptance challenge and address ordinary people’s fears surrounding adverse local environmental impacts through extensive public engagement and consultation to ensure transparency, accountability and ultimately public ownership of the planning process. This is essential in order to build confidence in the planning process at both the local and strategic level.
National planning strategy
Energy is a national consideration, with project impact transcending county boundaries. Ireland has a draft offshore renewable development plan but yet does not have a national onshore renewable development plan. A national renewable energy planning strategy is essential if we are to strategically plan for the country and avoid ad-hoc and reactive planning.
Any national renewable energy planning strategy cannot just consider wind energy alone and must also take into account other technologies and issues: where will the grid need additional strengthening to accommodate renewables? How much land can be used for biofuels without compromising food supply or other land uses? These questions and many more must be considered and debated openly.
While calling for a national renewable energy planning strategy the Irish Planning Institute recognises the extent of work already undertaken at national level to support renewable energy development in Ireland. In 1995 the institute published the first planning guidelines for wind energy. These were followed in 1996 by ministerial guidelines on wind energy development that were updated in 2006.
The institute welcomes the current review of the 2006 ministerial guidelines on wind energy (focusing on noise, proximity and shadow flicker) but has documented the requirement for a complete review. Technically focused, the current guidelines lack a national or regional context and say little about how the decision-making process could be improved, or about the role of community engagement.
Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte has emphasised recently the need for transparency regarding the wind export project in the midlands, while criticising “unthinking communication by some developers”. As part of this his department is preparing a national renewable energy export policy and planning framework and the first public consultation on the framework opened on October 23rd. Any proposed large-scale wind farms intending to export must await the putting in place of this framework. Mr Rabbitte has indicated this framework may impose additional requirements on export projects.
With its appeal mechanism and statutory consultation requirements the planning system is already possibly the most participatory arm of public policy but it is essential that any perceived barriers to public participation during the planning process for any project are removed (such as uncertainty regarding whether submissions can be made; time periods for making submissions; access to information; and the cost of purchasing copies of that information).
Developing positive renewable energy solutions is vital to the long-term social and economic wellbeing of our society but greater co-ordination, better integration, enhanced community engagement and further understanding is required.
Achieving Ireland’s full potential as a leader in renewable energy and perhaps a profitable exporter of energy requires a robust, plan-led, evidence-based approach that ensures that the common good, sustainability, public participation and planning gain are central tenets of the plan-making process.
Planning serves the community and therefore there must be proper engagement and dialogue between all parties at a wide level as early as possible. This cannot be done in a vacuum: it must be done in the context of a national strategy.
Seán O’Leary is executive director of the Irish Planning Institute