The operator of the national electricity grid has unveiled its preferred underground route for its controversial Grid West project.
The project involves connecting the north Mayo area with a strong point on the transmission system near Carrick-on-Shannon.
The underground route option would run from north-west Mayo to the area around the existing Flagford substation in Co Roscommon.
It is proposed to run the underground cable mainly along local and regional roads from north-west Mayo between Crossmolina and Ballina, down the east side of Lough Conn, north-east of Foxford and north of Charlestown, Ballaghaderreen and Frenchpark in Co Roscommon to the Flagford substation area, south-west of Carrick-on-Shannon .
This proposed route has been put forward after consultation with local authorities in Mayo, Roscommon and Galway, as well as the National Roads Authority and other relevant agencies.
Speaking in Castlebar today, EirGrid chief executive Fintan Slye said they had received extensive feedback from their public consultation.
"In January we responded with a number of important initiatives, including looking at underground options for the Grid West Project. Details of this underground route option are available today on the project website ," he said.
“Over the coming weeks we will be asking the people of the West to review the work we have done to develop this underground route option and also proposed amendments to the overhead route corridor, and to provide us with their feedback on both,” he said.
“Importantly, the work we are doing on both underground and overhead options will be brought together into a single report later this year. This report will be submitted first to the Independent Expert Panel and, subject to its approval, published for public consultation.”
The overhead pylons route has been estimated to cost €240 million but the cost of the underground alternative remains unclear.
The development comes on foot of a storm of protest against pylons from farm, tourism and environmental groups, which emerged as a major political issue last year for both Fine Gael and Labour.
This led the Government in January to appoint an independent panel to carry out a detailed examination of whether cables could be put underground.
That independent panel, chaired by former Supreme Court judge Ms Justice Catherine McGuinness, will review both overhead and underground options.
Minister for Communications and Energy Pat Rabbitte denied the proposed underground route was merely a box-ticking exercise by EirGrid.
He acknowledged that cost would be a big factor in the decision to opt for the underground route or the overhead pylons route.
Speaking on the Pat Kenny show on Newstalk today he said the Government would make the ultimate decision and that it would be a “difficult” one.
“If the [underground]route costs three times more .. then my personal view is that we can’t afford that. I would ask taxpayers to tell me why it is … that Ireland in its straitened economic circumstances is supposed to put those cables underground.
“Protesters have been saying to me they want to see a fair comparison. They are now getting a fair comparison and I hope that they would put on their other hats as taxpayers and electricity bill payers and compare the two.”
Independent MEP Marian Harkin said any cost benefit analysis needed to place as much emphasis on factors such as landscape and health as it did on the cost of materials and installation.
She said opting for the overground route would “ignore factors such as adverse effects on the tourism sector and the important health issues associated with the presence of high voltage overhead cables.”
She said she had confidence in the independent panel.
Michael Colreavy, Sinn Féin spokesperson on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources welcomed the proposed underground route while the party’s TD for Cavan-Monaghan Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin called for the cabling for the new North-South Interconnecter to be routed underground in light of the news.
The Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association also welcomed the announcement due to the negative effects on farming, landscape and tourism and the possible health risks of overhead lines.
A number of changes to the overhead route corridor were also announced today. These changes involve undergrounding over 7km of the existing 220kV line into Flagford.
It also involves an alternative substation site or the option to underground lower voltage lines (110kV lines) into the proposed substation at Moygownagh.
Partial undergrounding will lessen the visual impact of wires in and around both substations.
EirGrid is planning to write to people affected by the underground route option as well as updating people within the emerging preferred overhead route corridor option.
Over the coming week EirGrid will be contacting stakeholders with details about how and where they can review this work, meet with the project team and provide feedback.