Irish eye disastrous 1km rule following rural anger


February 15, 2016

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Planning refusals are an occupational hazard in a sector like wind. Even so, it is galling for an investor when a scheme it thought was finally on track misses out on the vital consent.

Irish developer Element Power knows how that feels.

This month, it saw its planned €240m Emlagh wind farm in County Meath in the Republic of Ireland refused permission by An Bord Pleanala, the Irish planning body. ABP refused consent for the 140MW scheme due to its impact on the landscape, even though an inspector previously said it should be approved. This should be a concern for investors looking to get into the Irish market.

It has been a battle for Element to get this far. Emlagh was meant to be part of the developer’s planned Greenlink interconnector, which would have enabled Element to export power from Ireland to the UK. Greenlink stalled last year as Ofgem cast doubts on whether it should be allowed to proceed, and a consultation period of more than a year is due to close this September.

Despite this, Element still wanted to push on with Emlagh. But it faced serious local opposition. The 46-turbine scheme was also the subject of a five-week public hearing last summer, as well as a case in Ireland’s High Court. Now ABP has torpedoed the project — and we do not yet know if Element plans to keep battling.

The interesting element here is that the Emlagh refusal appears to be symbolic of a wider antipathy to wind farms from the Irish government. We have spoken to a number of UK developers and investors who are looking to grow in Ireland to escape the hostility of the UK government to wind. Emlagh suggests things are little better over the Irish Sea.

We are well aware of the anger among many in rural Ireland about wind farms, and some of it seems fair. We would not like to see our country ruined to power our neighbour over the Irish Sea. But wind can also play a key role in meeting Ireland’s own energy needs.

The problem for investors is that the Irish government now appears to be siding with those who shout loudly about the damage that wind turbines do to their health and homes. In September, the government revealed new planning guidelines specifying that wind farms could not be built within 600m of private homes, up from the current 500m. It may not look like a big difference but it would still rule out huge swathes of the country from wind developments.

And a row has blown up this month between environment minister Alan Kelly and energy minister Alex White over a plan by Kelly to further increase this setback distance, to 1km.

White says this would have an “adverse impact” on wind, and “probably mean there won’t be any more wind farms”. This is a fundamental argument that investors cannot ignore.

We see the appeal of Ireland for investors. The Irish Wind Energy Association said that Ireland generated 24% of its electricity from indigenous wind farms in 2015, which is the third highest figure globally, and could do so much more.

But this progress has been made with the current rules, and would certainly falter if a 1km setback rule were to be enforced. It is now up to Ireland’s cabinet to decide. It would take a bold developer — or a foolhardy one — to move into Ireland until that is decided.

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