Planning, pylons and the price of power

Wed, Jan 8, 2014, 01:00

Everyone whose power supply was cut as a result of recent storms will appreciate the value of having a reliable supply of electricity – and the heroic work of ESB crews in restoring damaged lines. There is no consensus, however, on plans by network operator EirGrid to install some 800km of new power lines running north, south and west with a view to securing the national grid in the longer term. In all, as Labour Senator John Whelan has complained, the €3.2 billion Grid 25 project could involve installing 1,500 more pylons across the countryside – at least partly to connect some 2,500 wind turbines, each up to 185 metres high, to the grid.

Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte has conceded that EirGrid’s public consultation programme – which ended yesterday – had not been adequate and its plans needed to gain as much “community acceptance” as possible. But he also said there had “always been a trade-off between the comforts of modern civilisation and some element of intrusion into the way we live.” He also made it clear this week that power lines could be put underground (the principal demand by campaigners), but only if consumers were “prepared to take the hit for the next 50 years on their bill” – absorbing an increase of 3 per cent.

No doubt, those who fear pylons marching across sensitive rural landscapes such as the Blackwater Valley in Co Waterford would regard this as a price worth paying to avoid damaging visual and other impacts. But Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation Richard Bruton have both emphasised this week that grid extensions are needed to promote more balanced regional development – although Mr Kenny probably went too far in suggesting many young people in rural Ireland might “have to emigrate” if the projects planned under Grid 25 did not proceed, as this would hinder inward investment .

There is a wider picture. The Irish Planning Institute, which represents most of the State’s planners, has urged the Government to devise both a national strategy for renewable energy and a national landscape strategy as key elements of any policy framework. This call has been echoed by the statutory Heritage Council, which stressed the need to protect “non-renewable heritage assets” and said that “public involvement in environmental decision-making” would be crucial.

Certainly, the imposition of easy engineering solutions on a recalcitrant public must be avoided at all costs – otherwise, it would almost certainly be open to judicial review in the High Court. In this regard, the recent appointment of John O’Connor, who formerly headed An Bord Pleanála, as chairman of EirGrid should help in broadening its planning perspective.