Pylon expert group characterised by independence

It became clear to Pat Rabbitte the public consultation programme initiated by EirGrid had run into the buffers

The expert panel will have the power to decide terms of reference and commission its own experts if EirGrid’s proposals are deficient. Photograph: David Sleator/THE IRISH TIMES

The expert panel will have the power to decide terms of reference and commission its own experts if EirGrid’s proposals are deficient. Photograph: David Sleator/THE IRISH TIMES

Wed, Jan 29, 2014, 01:00

EirGrid’s plans to criss-cross rural Ireland with new overhead power lines provoked such widespread public opposition that Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte had to intervene by establishing an expert panel to examine “fully undergrounded options” for these lines.

The fact that a former High Court judge, Catherine McGuinness, will chair the panel is seen as a mark of its independence – as is the appointment of two outspoken economists, John FitzGerald and Colm McCarthy, to advise on and weigh the economic implications.

Significantly, the panel – referred to as an “independent commission” by Minister of State for Research and Innovation Seán Sherlock – will have the power to decide the terms of reference and to commission its own experts if EirGrid’s proposals are deficient.

The initiative applies only to its Grid Link project – which would link Cork with Dublin, via Waterford and Wexford – and to Grid West, which is confined to some of the western counties.

It does not apply to the North-South interconnector, which has also been the focus of protest.


Consultation programme
It became clear to Rabbitte that the public consultation programme initiated by EirGrid had run into the buffers. Essentially, people were being asked whether they would prefer this or that route for new power lines – with undergrounding them ruled out on cost grounds.

But the electricity network operator, a spin-off from the ESB, has changed its tune. As EirGrid chairman John O’Connor said yesterday, “We must do everything we can to address the concerns of communities and gain their support and trust.”

The State company pledged to work with the expert panel in reviewing underground and overhead options for the two vitally important lines and to provide “community gain funds” for localities and residents located close to new pylons and substations.


Analysis of undergrounding
It also promised a “comprehensive analysis of undergrounding” for both Grid Link and Grid West, saying that tourism, agriculture and bloodstock industry concerns would be “comprehensively addressed” and it would review its public “consultation process”.

The expert panel will ensure EirGrid’s studies are “complete, objective and comparable to similar studies of overhead options for the two projects”, so that both overhead and underground options can be published side by side, for comparison purposes.

Importantly, to assuage public concerns about possible impact on health from high-voltage overhead power lines, a new review of the scientific literature is to be commissioned from “appropriately qualified experts” – even though EirGrid maintains there is no such impact.


Impact on landscape
For those concerned about the landscape being blighted by power lines it will be reassuring that at least one member of the expert panel – Karen Foley, head of UCD’s school of landscape architecture – is qualified to make an informed judgment on their likely impact.

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