Ireland warned over strict onshore wind planning rules

The Republic of Ireland faces the loss of around 20% of its onshore wind capacity as developers grapple with strict planning rules at their ageing projects, research has shown. This could set back the country as it seeks to achieve 9GW of onshore wind capacity by 2030.


July 1, 2024

  • Outdated planning rules threaten around 20% of Irish wind farms
  • Industry lobbyists have called for more nuanced planning policies
  • The Republic of Ireland is looking to hit 9GW onshore wind by 2030


The Republic of Ireland is set to miss its onshore wind goals because planning consents for wind farms are too short, and because changes to local policies in will make it hard for owners to extend the lifetime of their wind farms.

That is a warning from trade association Wind Energy Ireland and consultancy MKO in their report ‘Repowering Ireland: How we stay global leaders in onshore’, which was released last Wednesday (26th June). They also called for national and local policymakers to remove the obstacles to support the country’s energy transition.

The research highlighted that wind farms totalling 854MW, or just under 20% of the 4.3GW of capacity operational in the Republic of Ireland in September 2023, is set to be decommissioned between now and 2030. That increases to more than 1.7GW by the end of 2035 and 2.5GW by the end of 2040.

This is because wind farms in Ireland typically receive planning consent for between 20 and 25 years, with no automatic right for developers to extend when the time is up. The report said that around 45% of wind farms in Ireland, or 165 of 279 operational projects, have planning consents that last either 20 or 25 years; and 101 more don’t have their operating lifespans defined in their planning consents.

Wind Energy Ireland said this is a problem because 156 of the 279 projects in its study won support during the 2000s when there was less understanding about how long a wind farm could profitably operate, but we now see that projects can run for 30 years or more. Developers would have to dismantle when the consent expires at 20 or 25 years even if the wind farm could operate profitably for longer.

In addition, developers may find it hard to extend the consent for their existing projects due to changes in local planning policies since they won that initial approval. The researchers estimated that 854MW of projects would be unable to operate after 2030, because 1.1GW of operational Irish wind farms (26%) are in areas where such projects are out of favour with planning officers; and 446MW more (10%) are in areas where planners have no guidance on how to deal with them.


Irish climate goals

The Irish government has pledged to grow its onshore wind capacity to 9GW, in line with its 2023 Climate Action Plan, but this will be far harder to achieve if the lifespans of Ireland’s oldest wind farms cannot be extended.

Noel Cunliffe, chief executive of Wind Energy Ireland, highlighted that Ireland’s oldest wind farm is 32 years old and still producing power: “Many of these wind farms which are under threat could operate for five, ten or even more years. We need to make it easier for wind farm owners to extend the duration of their planning permissions and, in the new Wind Energy Guidelines to be published before the end of the year, ensure the same problem does not arise in future.”

The report called for changes to aid prospective repowering projects, including greater flexibility about noise and shadow flicker for these projects in recognition that wind farms have already been operating at the sites; removal of the setback rule that these wind farms must be at least four times their tip height away from the nearest homes; and the addition of a presumption in favour of wind farm lifetime extension projects in the permitting process.

The report also highlighted challenges for repowering projects in Ireland’s Special Protection Areas designed to protect populations of hen harriers. It said 732MW of Irish wind farms are in SPAs where hen harriers enjoy protected status, and that a further 347MW are installed within five kilometres of those zones.

The study argued that hen harriers could be protected if wind farms are assessed based on their specific impacts on bird populations, and planners should see renewables projects as being in the overriding public interest under recent policies from the European Union.

In addition, there are concerns about the contrasting approaches that different local authority areas in Ireland will make it hard for developers to get the clarity over the future of their projects. They are crying out for a consistent approach.

Ireland is not alone. Permitting concerns are a bugbear for developers in wind markets across the world.

But without urgent intervention, and a more nuanced approach to projects that extending the life of wind farms, Ireland is set to lose operational projects – and lose ground in its energy transition.