Politicians must be straight with voters on necessity of power line pylons, writes Barry O'Halloran.

ON THIS day week, August bank holiday Monday, 400 vintage tractors will gather in a field in Co Meath and spell out the words "no to pylons" in letters over 20m (66ft) long and 12m (39ft) wide. Not so long ago, a group of people in the same region gathered under some high-voltage power lines after dark, holding aloft fluorescent light bulbs, which glowed in the electromagnetic field that the lines generated.

The scene was broadcast on television, as, in all likelihood, will the 400 tractors with their message. If you're one of the people facing a 17.5 per cent rise in your electricity bill, or whose business is struggling with increasing energy costs, you should pay close attention to what happens next.

Both demonstrations are part of an emotive campaign being waged against national electricity grid operator EirGrid's plans to build a 70km of high-voltage power lines and pylons, linking Meath, Cavan, Monaghan and Tyrone, at an estimated cost of €700 a metre.

The lines will be part of the national grid, the backbone of a countrywide system that transmits electricity from power plants to homes and businesses. They will have a capacity of 400 kilovolts (kv). There is nothing new or unusual about them: two such sets of lines already run across the country from Moneypoint power station on the Shannon estuary to Dublin.

For various reasons, the campaigners, led by North East Pylon Pressure (NEPP), want the lines placed underground. Last February, Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey suggested that EirGrid looks at this option. Following that, NEPP chairman, Francis Lally, said on RTÉ radio that the group wanted EirGrid to commission an independent report to look at this.

EirGrid commissioned German firm, Ecofys, to weigh up the pros and cons of pylons versus underground cabling. Ecofys found that putting the lines underground would cost five times as much, and three times as much to maintain, as overhead cables.

Underground cables are 10 times more likely to develop a fault, and when they do, it can take days or possibly weeks, to repair, because whole sections of cable have to be dug up. In contrast, most faults on overhead lines are dealt with in hours.

Ecofys concluded that underground cables were not appropriate for use on the national grid. The technology is not developed to the point where it can be relied on from the point of view of guaranteeing power is supplied to homes and businesses. No European country uses it as part of the backbone of their national grid, although it is used for less vital distribution links.

Last week, one of the report's authors, Dr Karsten Burges, spent three hours explaining this to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and an audience that included some of those opposed to the plan. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone more objective than Dr Burges, at least when it comes to power lines. Unfortunately, this means that he has not come up with the answer that the protesters and politicians want to hear.

Towards the end of the meeting, Thomas Byrne TD said the proceedings gave people who want underground cables extraordinary hope. "Last year EirGrid told us it was not possible to place the cables underground, but we have now been told that this is technically feasible and have been shown concrete examples of such work done in other countries," he said.

He subsequently argued that there was a long way to go and a great deal more work to be done to demonstrate that the lines could go underground.

Byrne missed the point. There is not a long way to go: the lines have to be up within three years, and the best option for doing this is to place them on pylons. The extra cost of putting them underground will ultimately be passed on to the customers, including the 1.7 million households already facing a 17.5 per cent increase in their electricity bills, irrespective of whether or not they live in the northeast.

That is not the only reason that this is relevant to people outside the northeast. It matters to the rest of us because this is part of the national grid, something that is vital to everyone in the country. What happens in the northeast threatens to set the template for any further developments of this asset.

And further developments there will be. Up to €6 billion could be spent on boosting the network over the next decade, while there are a range of new power plants due to come on stream over the next five years or so. Alongside this, demand for electricity will continue to increase. Using technology that is too expensive and still relatively unreliable is not an option. If we do that, the chances are that we will run into trouble sooner or later, and trouble in this instance means lights not turning on or workplaces or vital services not having the power they need to function.

This is a national issue. That does not mean ignoring local concerns. In fact, local concerns should be addressed as far as possible, but not to the point where it means doing the impossible, or the impossibly expensive.

Instead of pushing for the answer they want to hear, the politicians who turned up at last week's committee hearing need to start showing some leadership. In this case it means turning around to their voters, being straight with them, and saying that there is no feasible way around pylons.

They may not do that, but you can bet they'll turn up next Monday to show solidarity with the vintage tractor demo. And you can also bet that if they allow vital national projects to be delayed, or to be completed with inappropriate technology, when something goes wrong, they'll be the first to demand that somebody else's head rolls.