North-South pylon ruling significant but not the end of the road
It could be 2018 before Eirgrid and its subsidiary know if €280m plan can go ahead
Given the gap between the sides in the North-South pylon proposal, the planning process was always going to be difficult
This week’s High Court ruling on the proposed €280 million high-capacity power line connecting the Republic’s and North’s electricity grids is another staging post on what is turning out to be a long road for the development.
The project is part of the North-South interconnector, which will ultimately involve 138km of 440 kilo volt electricity lines running on pylons from a substation at Woodland to Turleenan in Co Tyrone. It will cost Eirgrid and its subsidiary in the North, System Operator Northern Ireland, about €280 million, should they get to build it.
The plan dates back a decade. In 2007 when the Republic and North merged their electricity markets. There is an existing link between the the two grids, but a second, higher capacity line was needed, so the North-South interconnector was born.
Government, business and of course, electricity suppliers on both sides of the Border support the development. It will help guarantee electricity supplies into the future, especially in the North, which could potentially face power cuts from 2021.
Backers also say that it will cut prices. A study by accountants Grant Thornton, jointly commissioned by the Republic’s leading business lobbyist, Ibec, and the Confederation of British Industry Northern Ireland, shows that it should cut homes’ and businesses’ electricity bills by €30 million a year when it is up and running.
Ibec chief executive Danny McCoy predicted this week that those savings should increase the longer it is there. The reason it should cut prices is that the current link’s capacity is limited.
This means not all electricity generators across Ireland, North and South, can supply all those who want it all the time. Those constraints effectively limit supply and so push up the cost.
A direct consequence of this cheaper power and increased security of electricity supply should be more investment and more jobs on both sides of the Border, at least according to Ibec. Nevertheless, not everyone regards the plan in its current form as a blessing.
Locals in counties Meath, Cavan, Monaghan and Tyrone fear its likely impact on their properties, environment and health, there is some debate over the effects of radiation from the magnetic fields that build up around high-capacity power lines.
Once the plans became known, that opposition quickly became organised. One body, the North East Pylon Pressure Campaign (NEPPC) represents about 300 landowners through whose property the line will run. It claims much wider support throughout counties along the route.
As its spokesman, Pádraig O’Reilly, emphasised again this week, it is not against the interconnector. Instead, his members want it put underground. However, two studies, one in 2007 and another in 2011, found this was technically difficult and far more expensive than the cost of putting it on pylons.
O’Reilly argued this week that electricity grid technology is moving on all the time, but Eirgrid is not. The national grid operator has always pointed out that both studies confirmed no power link on the North-South interconnector’s scale is underground anywhere in the world. Doing so, it has said several times, would involve huge costs and unforeseen technical problems and risks.
Given the gap between the sides, the planning process was always going to be difficult. Eirgrid used laws allowing applications to build critical infrastructure projects to go straight to An Bord Pleanála rather than to county councils. Despite this, its first attempt failed in 2010. The oral hearing, part of the process, had to be abandoned when it emerged that the State company had quoted the wrong height for some of its pylons on its public notices.
It took until last year to get the project back to the oral hearing stage. This time it passed and the board granted permission for the project in December. NEPPC and Maura Sheehy of Donaghpatrick, Co Meath, one of the landowners affected, sought a judicial review of the decision and asked the High Court to quash it.
They named An Bord Pleanála, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, and the State as respondents and Eirgrid as a notice party. Mr Justice Barrett heard the arguments over six days in July and this week ruled in the project’s favour.
That is unlikely to be the end of the matter. O’Reilly warned afterwards that “the fight has not ended here.” NEPPC and Sheehy are likely to appeal. The matter is back before the court in October, where the group is likely to signal that it wants to take the case to the next stage.
Around the same time, Cavan-based anti-wind-farm campaigner Val Martin is also likely to have his day in court. He is also seeking a judicial review, although it is not expected to take as long as NEPPC’s challenge. One of the line’s purposes is to facilitate more wind- and renewable-generated electricity.
Later this year, the North’s Planning Appeals Commission, an independent body, is likely to decide on an application to build the Co Tyrone section of the line. This is System Operator Northern Ireland’s responsibility and the commission held a public inquiry into its plans in February.
While this week’s High Court ruling was a significant step, it could be next year before Eirgrid and its subsidiary know if they can go ahead with the plan as it stands, or take some or all elements back to the drawing board.