Wind turbines, rural Ireland and my back yard


Environmentalist MICHAEL VINEYhas long believed in wind power – but had mixed feelings when developers came knocking at his door, with their eye on his mountain

THE YOUNG ENERGY entrepreneur from Cork who spread his maps on our dining table in autumn 2008 was full of high-tech enthusiasm. Here, he showed us, would be the 10 big wind turbines, spaced out along the top of the fields between us and Mweelrea Mountain. So the sea winds would whisk away whatever small noise they might make.

The cables would run underground around the hills to another set of turbines in a lonely valley beyond. And from there, vital to the project, surplus energy would be fed to a pumped-storage system carved out in a suitable mountain. There’d be some new roads, and widening of the one past our gate. And, yes, it would cost many millions of euro.

So there’d just be a year of lorries, mud, noise and machines, and then the first tower, whirling away between me and the summer’s rising sun.

We swallowed our misgivings, wished him success with the county planners and began to reorder the landscape in our minds: we’d still have the ocean, after all. And hadn’t we been ardent green supporters of wind energy from back in the 1970s, when Ethna was editor of Technology Ireland? She still finds the turbines beautiful, and sometimes I agree. For the nation’s sake, we couldn’t now object to a row of them in our remote backyard.

In a recent Observerinterview, the UK energy minister, Charles Hendry, shared his thoughts about linking Britain’s energy supply to “some of the fiercest winds in Europe” through new wind farms on Ireland’s west coast. This prompted me to check on the progress of the plan for our hillside.

“The Thallabawn project is dead,” came the answer from Organic Power. “The county council has just published its new renewable-energy strategy for Mayo and the area has been unzoned for wind.” Once, as a keen young reporter prone to asthma, I lined up in dread for medical inspection and two-year conscription to the British army. “You’re C4,” the subaltern behind the desk finally announced. ‘We won’t be needing you.” So life has great C4 moments of reprieve.

But how concerned should we be that, as the Observer has portrayed it, Britain’s plans to link electricity grids with Ireland “threaten to blight Irish beauty spots”, this helpfully illustrated with a photograph of Slea Head beach, on the Dingle peninsula in Kerry, whose “fierce winds” make it “suitable for turbines”?

“Companies cannot afford to build wind farms in Ireland, because there is no market for their power,” said Hendry. “We want to put that right.”

The Irish Sea interconnector, under development from the coast at Rush, in Co Dublin, to the coast of north Wales, could change the prospects for Ireland’s wind-power construction and generation. The export of 500MW of electricity could, it seems, be worth €1.6 billion a year.

Hendry attended this week’s meeting in London of the British-Irish Council, together with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and assembled representatives from Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

A network of common rules and interconnections, exporting surplus electricity as part of a European supergrid, was high on the agenda, but there was little to add to speculation that Britain may subsidise, through energy tariffs, private wind enterprise on Irish territory.

As Hendry has emphasised, it will be up to Ireland to decide how many wind farms to build and where. But how far are they likely to menace Ireland’s coastal landscapes and precious wildlife habitats? Feeding Atlantic wind power to Britain and Europe could be a dazzling godsend for the blighted Irish economy, and two things are likely to shape how it goes.

Local authorities from Donegal to Kerry have invested much energy and money in preparing wind-power strategies that leave good tourist scenery and conservation areas pretty much alone. The two generally coincide, and, whatever the domestic pressures, the EU habitats directive is proving an unforgiving defender of Europe’s Natura 2000 network.

Secondly, a technological leap in offshore generation – floating turbine systems – could send a lot more wind farms to sea more cheaply, even in deep water. These latest developments, described to an engineers’ conference in Dublin last month, could bring Ireland an indirect share of the €100 billion the UK has budgeted to spend on offshore energy.

Onshore, the planning criteria for wind farms adopted by county councils have been changing and developing. In Clare, for example, what mattered to its 2005 strategy were predominantly landscape and visual issues. Now its strategy takes in everything from national-energy security to cutting carbon emissions to creating jobs in rural areas.

Like its neighbouring counties, it rules out from suitable areas the zones of the EU’s Natura 2000 network (special areas of conservation and special protection areas for birds). But a number of national-heritage areas fall within zones “acceptable in principle”. This has left the Sliabh Aughty mountains – “good wind speeds, remote, proximity to grid” – as “open for consideration” on a case-by-case basis. The coastline – full of high winds, special areas for birds and conservation, and tourist attractions – is open to review “over time . . . where there are imperative reasons of over-riding public interest . . . including those of a social or economic nature”.

Clare’s strategy document clearly impressed Coillte when the national forestry company sought to influence Mayo County Council in drawing up its wind strategy, adopted earlier this year. A tenfold increase in Clare’s target for renewable energy (to 550MW), said Coillte, would place Co Clare “at the forefront of wind energy production”. And it urged Mayo to set similarly ambitious targets, especially for production from the thinly populated northwest of the county. Here, the fierce winds have swept through Coillte’s peatland forests (in one of which Shell has built its much-abused refinery).

Here, too, the Atlantic Coast Energy Co-operative (a partner in Coillte’s submission to the county council) is pressing a community approach to battling with the costs of planning applications in a process “fraught with obstacles”, not least environmental issues. It is based near Bellacorick, where Ireland’s first wind farm of 21 turbines heralded a new partnership between Bord na Móna and ESB. The farm is waiting to build a further 180 turbines on a great stretch of Atlantic bog restored at Oweninny, near Bangor.

Mayo is not rushing to set targets. Its strategy document states bluntly: “The number and size of turbines required to reach the national targets will increase almost exponentially in view of the fact that turbines do not and cannot operate at their theoretical maximum output.”

RESEARCH IN THE UK has “established that most sites were built on expected capacity factors of around 30 per cent”, it says. “The best performing wind sites, in the north of Scotland and on Shetland (with a wind regime similar to Mayo), are only producing capacity factors of over 50 per cent. Thus it will take a greater number of turbines to produce the national target than simply judging it by installed capacity.”

A third of Co Mayo, mostly in the west, is covered in conservation areas. Many of these protect low Atlantic blanket bog, one of the EU’s priority habitats, that in places reaches to the coast.

Also beyond bounds for wind turbines in the newly adopted strategy are the new national park around the Nephin Mountains, the cliffs and bogs around the Céide Fields and the “visual catchment around Croagh Patrick”, with its “cultural and ritual significance”. Add concerns for scenic roads with views of natural beauty in the montane coastal area (in which our own stone-walled road is deservedly included) and there’s not much of west Mayo left for wind-farm development.

This is being pushed east, among the drumlins, whatever the fall-off in wind strength.

In Donegal and Kerry, too, scenic amenity and conservation coincide to protect the best bits of coast, although the county councils point out that designation doesn’t necessarily preclude wind turbines from conservation areas – it just loads the odds against them.

Up to now, wind turbines had to be firmly rooted on the seabed with large and costly structures. In developments from Norway and the US, described to the Engineers Ireland conference in Dublin this week, turbines can be moored to the seabed while being kept upright by submerged but buoyant structures that act as counterweights for stability.

The prototype of Statoil’s Hywind, designed to work in depths up to 700m, has been anchored in the North Sea off Norway since 2009 and delivering power to the country’s grid. Statoil is considering locations for a first small “demo park”, among them waters off the Isle of Lewis, in the Hebrides, and also off the coast of Maine, in the US.

An American system, for much shallower depths, will be tested off the coast of Portugal this summer.

Neither system is probably anywhere near ready for the worst of Ireland’s Atlantic storms, but turbines built like icebergs could take a lot of offshore wind power even farther out to sea.