Why bigger isn’t always seen as better in Ireland’s expanding wind farm industry
As wind turbines get bigger, so too do promised payments to communities – and locals’ concerns
A wind turbine base at Lettergunnet, Co Galway. Photograph: Ronan Browne
Mayo County Council has backed a demand by north Mayo residents for substantial “community gain” payments by the ESB and Bord na Móna if their planned €600 million wind farm in Bellacorick is approved.
The ESB and Bord na Móna had offered €1,000 per megawatt (MW) in “community gain” payments to the residents for their 370 MW 112-turbine Oweninny Power Ltd project at Bellacorick, but Mayo County Council voted earlier this month to multiply that figure by 10.
If approved as part of planning, it could amount to a community contribution of more than €10,000 a day, index-linked for 30 years, when in production, according to local estimates.
“Community gain” involves giving a return to the community – rather than to individual landowners – for a particular development, and it had been an optional power afforded to planning authorities until it was specifically legislated for after 2006.
An Bord Pleanála can attach it as a condition to planning approval, and it has already done so for the last section of the Corrib gas pipeline where €8.5 million over five years has to be paid by the Corrib gas developers into a fund administered for the Erris locality by Mayo County Council.
However, under the legislation in section 37 g of the 2000 Planning Acts, the community gain contribution must not impede an applicant’s ability to develop a project.
Mayo county manager Peter Hynes says the local authority is preparing a community gain policy in relation to wind farms generally, and has already forwarded the €10,000 per MW recommendation for Oweninny to An Bord Pleanála.
The Corick Power Group, comprising residents living in Bellacorick, Crossmolina, Keenagh and Bangor Erris, says it is not opposed in principle to the ESB/Bord na Móna project, which is on the site of the former Bellacorick peat-fired power station and what was then the State’s first wind farm dating from the early 1990s.
The group’s chairman Tom McHugh says it is concerned to ensure adequate community benefit is returned, in the form of a community gain that would be disbursed by an independent body and ring-fenced for the immediate area.
It is also concerned to ensure that there are employment opportunities for local people during construction and in maintenance of the project, he said.
“Most people are in favour of the project if it is a chance to regenerate the area,” Mr McHugh said.
Oweninny Power Ltd has said that it expects that there will be up to 100 construction jobs during the initial development phase, with “further operations and maintenance roles” once the wind farm is operational and “additional benefits” to “local suppliers, service providers, local community projects and the local authority”.
It also says that all 112 turbines are more than 1km from homes.
An Bord Pleanála, which received the application in July under strategic infrastructure legislation, has not yet decided if it will hold an oral hearing into the planning application.
Across the county border, there is growing concern among residents in the “gateway to Connemara” region about the impact of 370 wind turbines allowed for in the Galway wind energy strategy.
Residents say that about 60 per cent of areas zoned as suitable for wind farm development are in the second most densely populated areas of Galway county, and that many homes will be “negatively impacted”, because much of Connemara was excluded due to its special area of conservation (SAC) status.
‘Low wind speeds’
East Galway areas were also excluded due to the “low wind speeds” in spite of proximity to the midlands where the 3,000 MW “Greenwire” project is planned.
About 103 of the 370 turbines earmarked for Galway have already been approved in an 8km radius between Moycullen, Barna, Furbo and Spiddal.
Knockalough Community Group chairwoman Yvonne Cronin says her group believes developers are “rushing in” with applications to local authorities before the guidelines on turbine distance from housing are revised by Minister for Environment Phil Hogan.
Current guidelines, which are not binding on local authorities, state that turbines built more than 500 metres from houses are unlikely to pose problems such as noise, but the guidelines were drawn up before turbines of 120metres in height and more – as tall as the Spire in Dublin – became standard in planning applications.
The Knockalough Community Group and residents in adjoining Lettergunnet and Shannagurraun areas between Moycullen and Spiddal have called for the immediate suspension of activity on several wind farm developments, following identification of endangered freshwater pearl mussels in the local Knock river catchment, the only listed population in south Connemara.
The Knockalough group has also appealed to Minister of State for Environment Jan O’Sullivan to intervene to ensure that Galway County Council’s planning department accepts a unanimous vote by county councillors for an immediate review of the wind energy strategy in the county development plan.
The local authority has stalled on immediate action, and has said it would take place within the normal county development plan review, which could take two-and-a-half years.
In nearby Knockranny, outside Moycullen, the developer of a project that was turned down by An Bord Pleanála last year on archaeological and potential peat slippage grounds has submitted a new application to Galway County Council.
The Oldtown and Knockranny residents are objecting to the new plan for 11 rather than 14 turbines of 140m height on Knockranny hill by Western Power Developments, as they believe this new plan is very similar to the previous application.
The residents point out that the integrity of a ring fort on the summit will be negatively affected, and one of the turbine sites proposed is on a cillín (children’s graveyard).
A report prepared for the residents by NUI Galway archaeologist Maggie Ronayne says the developer’s environmental impact statement (EIS) is “incomplete” and location of a turbine on the cillín site would “impact it directly”.
They are also concerned about the proximity of the turbines to private housing.
Western Power Developments Ltd was unavailable for comment.