EirGrid is to seek planning permission for the contentious GridWest and GridLink projects at the end of next year and in the middle of 2016 respectively.
The semi-State company, which operates the national energy grid, has committed to improving the way it engages with communities affected by the projects it is undertaking before seeking planning approval.
EirGrid said it would move to a “more community-focused approach” when developing projects and present information about them to the public in a more “straightforward way”. It is also to seek support from the political system and State agencies “to better explain energy issues and make the benefits of a stronger system clearer to all”, and is to locate staff in affected areas to liaise with concerned community members.
The move comes after EirGrid faced a wave of criticism over how it interacted with communities based near three proposed high-voltage power lines, which are designed to strengthen Ireland’s energy infrastructure. There are local fears over the visual, environmental and health implications lines and pylons might have.
An independent panel, chaired by former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness, is examining the feasibility of placing the lines underground. It is likely to receive the proposed GridWest route before Christmas and the GridLink plan in the second half of next year.
The public consultation period on the overground GridLink route, a €500 million project linking Kildare and Cork via Wexford, received 38,000 responses and EirGrid said it has now responded to all but about 100 of these with the remainder likely to be addressed this month.
GridWest, a €240 million project between Roscommon and Mayo, also drew significant local opposition. The route for a third line, a €288 million North-South Interconnector running between counties Meath and Tyrone, is at a more advanced stage and a draft is currently being considered by An Bord Pleanála, with a response expected before Christmas.
Slap on the wrist
In January, then minister for energy Pat Rabbitte conceded that consultation on the projects had not been good enough and called for greater efforts to win "public acceptance". EirGrid subsequently sought a review of its public consultation methods and published the outcome on Friday.
Environmental consultants SLR found the consultation process was “technically well delivered” but had a number of “flaws” such as that the route options were essentially “done deals” prior to “meaningful” public engagement” taking place.
“There was no early presentation of undergrounding as an option; it was only when the public pushback commenced that this option appeared on the discussion table,” SLR noted.
A separate report by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators found EirGrid had a “sincere desire to meaningfully engage” with the public but it needed to “considerable work on a number of fronts to clarify what it is and what it does”.
It said “responsibility to justify government energy policy does not rest solely with EirGrid” and in its opinion was that “more needed to be done on a political level to support EirGrid” when people questioned the need for such projects at all.
EirGrid chief executive Fintan Slye said he accepted the review findings of the reviews and was keen to restore trust and ensure "greater participation in the decision making process" in future.
Mr Slye said the organisation was not giving itself “a slap on the wrist” but was “recognising the real and genuine concerns that people had and we’re saying we’re listening and improving”.
When put to him that people were likely to be annoyed regardless of the route chosen, he said EirGrid needed to be “more open to having those difficult conversations” and not assume it alone “can come up with the right answer”.
“We have no vested interest in any particular solution here. We are trying to do the best thing,” he added.