A panel of experts is being established to examine if high voltage cables can be put underground, Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte has announced.
The move is designed to defuse the controversy over plans by Eirgrid to erect a network of pylons to carry high voltage power lines.
Mr Rabbitte said today that he had informed the cabinet this morning of his intention to establish the expert panel to decide terms of reference for “comprehensive, route specific studies of fully underground options for both Grid Link and Link West.”
He said the panel will be required to ensure that the studies were “complete, objective and comparable to similar studies of overhead options for the two projects.”
Both the overhead and the underground options will be published side-by-side in objective and comparable terms before the project proceeds to the next stage of public consultation.
The chair of the expert panel will be former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness.
The other members are John Fitzgerald of the Economic and Social Research Institute, Professor Keith Bell of the University of Strathclyde, Dr Karen Foley, head of the school of landscape architecture at UCD and the economist Colm McCarthy.
Fianna Fáil welcomed the appointment of the expert panel to oversee the quality of the route options presented by Eirgrid but voiced disappointment over the lack of a fully independent review of the Grid Link and Grid West projects.
“The fact that EirGrid will be the body commissioned to carry out the study on those routes will not satisfy the communities across this country that have already lost confidence in this process,” Fianna Fáil energy and natural resources spokesman Michael Moynihan said.
“What we need, and what we have continuously called for, is an international independent assessment of the EirGrid proposals.”
The plan to build a network of giant electricity pylons across rural parts of Munster and Leinster has drawn fierce criticism from campaigners while TDs on all sides of the Dáil have also expressed concerns about the potential adverse effects of the network on health and tourism.
Earlier this month Taoiseach Enda Kenny faced renewed concerns from his own TDs about the plans .
The issue was raised at the first Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting meeting of the year with TDs John Deasy, Waterford; John Paul Phelan and Pat Deering, Carlow-Kilkenny; Michelle Mulherin, Mayo; and Bernard Durkan, Kildare, expressing concerns.
There is anxiety in both Fine Gael and Labour that public resistance to the €3.2 billion initiative by EirGrid could damage the Coalition’s prospects in the local and European elections in May as well as at the next general election.
EirGrid has said it hopes to announce its preferred route in the €500 million Grid Link project in June, following which there will be further consultations before planning permission is sought.