Varadkar boast shows need for clarity in Ireland


March 19, 2018

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Maybe it was the Guinness talking. At a St. Patrick’s Day lunch in Washington DC on Thursday, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar boasted about how he got involved in the planning process for a wind farm in 2014 at the behest of the not-yet-president Donald Trump. Well, I guess it’s nice to hear a politician telling the truth.

And just in time for the Irish Wind Energy Association’s annual spring conference in Dublin this Wednesday and Thursday. The political climate for the wind market in the Republic of Ireland was always going to be a big talking point at the event, but we’re sure Varadkar’s bout of braggadocio will add spice to the discussion.

The story dates back to 2014. Varadkar was Irish tourism minister and Trump was a brash billionaire who was investing in two golf resorts in the UK and Ireland.

Trump had already spent a few years in dispute over plans for a Vattenfall wind farm off the coast of Aberdeen Bay, which he said would spoil views from his Trump International golf resort in Scotland. He lobbied Scotland’s then-first minister, Alex Salmond, and other British politicians to have the development cancelled.

Unfortunately for Trump, Salmond showed a bit of backbone and the billionaire had to pursue his case through the courts – where, again, he lost. Hmmm… I thought Donald Trump always won.

And so, when Trump heard about a similar wind farm that Clare Coastal Wind Power was planning near his Doonbeg golf resort in 2014, he used similar tactics.

Varadkar said at the lunch that Trump called him to say he was concerned that the project would damage Doonbeg’s landscape and affect his resort. Varadkar said he then “endeavoured to do” what he could, and talked to Clare County Council about the planned wind farm. The council ultimately refused the scheme.

“The president has very kindly given me credit for that but it would probably have been declined anyway,” he said.

Varadkar’s spokesman has since downplayed the intervention, and that he simply “sought clarity from the local authority”.

In addition, a representative from County Clare said that Varadkar did not seek to influence the decision, and the inquiry was made from his office in the form of a ‘status update’: “Effectively, what [Varadkar] did was sought information,” said the representative.

Not that this denial is worth much to opposition politicians or the developer in question. Labour leader Brendan Howlin called it “extraordinary” and “entirely inappropriate” for the now-prime minister to “meddle and intervene” with planning; and Michael Clohessy, director of Clare Coastal Wind Power, said the firm was “disappointed at the admission… that he interfered in the planning process”, and was now reviewing its options.

Whatever happened in this case, it puts a spotlight on the fairness of the system for supporting and approving wind farms in Ireland.

The system is currently in a state of flux, as the industry is waiting for the final version of the new Renewable Energy Support Scheme, which is set to introduce auctions from 2019; for the launch in May of the integrated single electricity market for the island of Ireland; changes to grid access rules; and changes to the rules for planning consent in the ‘Wind Energy Development Guidelines’. These are four huge areas that could all have a big impact on the system individually, and all are crucial for investors.

Ken Boyne, managing director at Ionic Consulting, said that the industry is waiting for clarity in all of these areas, and there was a risk that too many changes were being made at once.

However, he added that the positive take was that it could lead to the government to introducing a coordinated approach that would help the wind sector. Investors will definitely be hoping so.

And, with Varadkar’s statement last week, the need for clear and transparent rules will be more important than ever.

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