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Explainer: What’s happening with electricity pylons and why is it such a big issue?

Heard a lot about pylons in recent weeks, but not sure what it’s all about. Here’s Eirgrid’s projects explained.

UNLESS YOU’VE BEEN living under a rock over the last number of weeks, you will not have missed the heated debates about Eirgrid’s plans to build electricity pylons in Ireland.

The momentum of groups protesting against the construction of large pylons has escalated in recent weeks, with government ministers rallying behind the plans stating they are the best option.

So, what has all the fuss been about? If you haven’t been keeping up with this story, here it is explained:

I’ve heard people talking about pylons but what Eirgrid projects are they referring to and where are they being built?

EirGrid is implementing a €3.2 billion investment programme called Grid25 under which it aims to develop and upgrade the electricity transmission network.

Grid25 involves extensive work throughout the country, which includes building 800 kilometres of new power lines and upgrading 2,000 kilometres of existing lines – doubling the size of the electricity grid.

The controversy about pylons surrounds three of Eirgrid’s main projects. These are located in different areas of the country. The three projects are:

The Grid West project: The Grid West project is the largest Grid25 project in the west costing €240 million. It consists of a new high capacity power line linking the North Mayo area to a strong point on the transmission grid at Flagford, County Roscommon.

The chosen 1 kilometre wide corridor, starts north west of Moygownagh, runs west of Ballina, east of Foxford and Swinford, south of Charlestown and Ballaghaderreen before linking into the existing Flagford substation, near Carrick-on-Shannon.

image(Via Eirgrid) Can’t see it, click here.

North South 400 kV Interconnection Development: EirGrid and NIE Northern Ireland Electricity are jointly proposing a new high capacity electricity interconnector between the electricity networks of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

image(Via Eirgrid) Can’t view click here.

The Grid Link Project: The Grid Link Project is an estimated €500 million investment in the national electricity grid linking Leinster and Munster. The project consists of a new high voltage overhead power line linking Knockraha in Co. Cork to Great Island in Co. Wexford to Dunstown, near Kilcullen, in Co. Kildare.

In 2014, EirGrid will try and identify a route for the Grid Link Project from the corridor. Substation sites at Knockraha, Co. Cork, Great Island, Co. Wexford and Dunstown, Co. Kildare will also be identified. EirGrid does not expect to submit an application to An Bord Pleanála for planning approval for the route before 2016.

Eirgrid’s official deadline for feedback on the €500 million scheme was Tuesday 7 January, however they confirmed it’s still accepting submissions on project, eleven days after the publicised deadline.

image(Via Eirgrid) Can’t view click here.

Why is Eirgrid saying we need these?

Eirgrid says the project will put in place a safe, secure and affordable electricity supply throughout Ireland and will help meet our renewable energy targets. Here are their specific reasons for each project.

The North South connector is being built to increase the capacity and the reliability of interconnection between the two networks, says Eirgrid.

They state that the allowing the two independent networks to operate together as if they were one system will be of mutual benefit to residents and businesses in both jurisdictions and will eliminate current restrictions in cross border support in the event of a shortage of electricity in one jurisdiction, thus enhancing the security of electricity supply throughout the island of Ireland. They also state it will bring significant cost savings.

Eirgrid states that the Grid West project is needed as the existing transmission infrastructure in the region needs substantial investment to accommodate the west’s increasing levels of renewable generation and that Ireland’s renewable energy target is to meet 40 per cent of electricity consumption from renewable sources by 2020, which this project, they state, will help to achieve.

Grid Link Project is “a vital development” for the region, says Eirgrid and will deliver a wide range of benefits including securing the future electricity supply for Leinster and Munster, providing a platform for job creation in the south and east of Ireland, enabling Ireland meet its 40 per cent renewable electricity target as well as facilitating possible electricity links with either Britain or France.

So, do we need them or not?

It depends which side you are on.

Here’s what the politicians’ are saying:

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has recently rowed back the Government’s plans for pylons stating he is receiving contrasting advice from experts, but that he will set out his position soon. During his trade mission to the Gulf region, Mr Kenny defended the Government’s approach to pylons.

Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte siad there has to be a “trade off between the comforts of modern civilization and some element of intrusion”.

Meanwhile, Ireland South MEP Phil Prendergast, who has actively campaigned to have the building of pylons halted, described the construction of pylons the “rape” of rural Ireland, calling on the EU Commission to fully investigate the health risks on humans and animals of high voltage overhead power lines such as those proposed by Eirgrid.

A letter from the Minister for Health James Reilly was in the public domain recently, which raised concerns about electro-magnetic fields in his constituency, with Labour Senator Denis Landy stating that this should be concerning “to all citizens”.

Meanwhile, the Minister for Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation, Richard Bruton:

It goes without saying that regions linked to a modern power network would find it easier to attract investment from big companies.

What about other groups? What do they think?

Well, the new chairman of Eirgrid John O’Connor didn’t instil optimism in people when he appeared in front of the Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications in which he admitted that he personally would not like to live beside an electricity pylon.

Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, director of Engineers Ireland John Power said that companies looking to invest in Ireland could be discouraged if the electricity grid was not able to handle future demand, adding:

Put simply, a strong infrastructure is the foundation for economic prosperity.

Meanwhile Fáilte Ireland undertook a study to see what impact the project will have on tourism. They stated that it was a “sensitive development” and that Ireland is fortunate to have three core assets – it’s natural heritage, its built heritage and its cultural heritage.

Their report concluded that the “significance of landscape and visual factors, have been underestimated” in the Eirgrid Stage 1 Route Grid Link project, adding that it is their view that tourism factors have been “insufficiently developed in the analysis by Eirgrid.

Dermot Byrne, retired Chief Executive of Eirgrid explains why he thinks the Grid25 projects, stating there biggest challenge is public acceptance issue:


Why are the people who live near the proposed pylons angry and worried?

People who live in areas where the pylons are to be built are concerned for a number of reasons.

Those living in affected areas have voiced their concern about potential impacts on the environment, their health and property prices, with demonstrations against the building of pylons now gaining force and protest groups established all over the country.

Up and down the country anti-pylon groups are protesting against Eirgrid’s plans. The Kilmovee group in County Mayo, states that they are “ordinary people” that are fighting against the “imposition of a 400Kv power line and pylons through the heart of our community posing increased health risks and irreparably damaging our environment, heritage and livelihoods”.

image(Wexford Eirgrid Action Group Facebook Page)

Protests against Eirgrid’s plans are escalating with more than 50 pylon protesters staging a sit-in at the EirGrid information offices in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon on Wednesday night lasting for over two-and-a-half hours.

imageProtesters outside the offices in n Ballaghaderreen. (Kilmovee Against Pylons Facebook)

While the group, RethinkPylons a not for profit organisation run by volunteers against pylons states that Eirgrid will build 45 metre high pylons, which could be 50 metres from someone’s home.

Others have concerns that the projects are not to do with improving Ireland’s infrastructure and is more about exporting energy abroad, for profit.

Anti-pylon groups are so exercised about the issue that they are considering running in the local elections, with the controversial plans tipped to be a very important issue in the run up the elections.

What do I do if I am unhappy they are being built near me?

EirGrid has developed a Project Development and Consultation Roadmap to help people understand the process for developing a new transmission line and the opportunities for consultation as a project is brought to planning approval.

Typically there are four rounds of public consultation under which people can make submissions and provide feedback to EirGrid prior to the submission of a planning application to An Bord Pleanála.

Once an application is submitted, a formal period of statutory consultation begins under which people can make submissions direct to An Bord Pleanála.

Here are some links to where you can find further information and submission instructions.

Are they safe?

Eirgird state: “We recognise that this is an issue some people raise.  No, we do not feel people need to be concerned. The Irish electricity transmission system is safe and operated well within national and international guidelines and does not pose a health risk to anyone. We publish a lot of information on this subject.” Eirgrid’s study on electro-magnetic fields can be viewed here.

On the opposing side, some politicians have said they are concerned about the health risks. MEP Marion Harkin said she supported the undergrounding of cables because the European Commission had suggested a link between overhead power lines and childhood leukaemia was “valid” while MEP Phil Prendergast is urging the European Commission to fully investigate the health risks.

Why not put the electricity cables underground?

This is the nuts and bolts of the issue. While many groups acknowledge that the system needs improving and upgrading, their issue is that electricity pylons that they say will tower over their houses, ruin the landscape and de-value their homes are not the way to go.

They are arguing that underground electricity cables should be installed instead of 5o metre high pylons.

Sounds like a simple enough solution – everyone’s happy then, right? Wrong.

The Government argue that the experts have advised that if they go down the road of installing underground cables instead of overhead pylons, then the customer can expect to pay at least 3 per cent on their electricity bills for the next 50 years to pay for it.

He admitted that underground cables are “feasible” but that the extra cost will go “onto the bills of you and I and every other domestic customer”.

He said that the Energy Regulator has investigated what the additional cost will be and said they calculated that over all three legs of the Eirgrid programme it would cost an additional €2 billion and would add 3 per cent to consumer electricity bills over the next 50 years.

Eirgrid told that “in common with every other country in Europe, Ireland has an Alternating Current (AC) electricity transmission system, the vast majority of which is overhead line.

The said that in order to put the 400kV projects underground, they would have to be installed using a different technology, Direct Current (DC), as there are technical issues with putting 400kV AC lines underground over long distances.

Eirgird said installing long lines of high-voltage DC cables on to the Irish transmission system would be “extremely challenging” adding that sophisticated equipment is required to convert the power from AC to DC and back again so that it is compatible with the grid. “There would also be operational complexities,” said a spokesperson for Eirgrid.

Underground is also more expensive, they added.

So, the short answer is – the Government and Eirgird state that underground cables are too expensive and difficult to install, while residents think the cost to them, their livlihoods, tourism and their homes will be equally as damaging.

How much is this all going to cost?

The estimates are:

  • The North South 400kV Interconnection Development is expected to cost €280 million
  • The Grid Link Project €500 million
  • Grid West Project €240 million

When will they be completed?

EirGrid expects to submit a planning application to An Bord Pleanála for the North South 400kV Interconnection Development early this year. If the application is successful, it is expected that the project will be completed by the end of 2017.

The Grid West Project will submit a planning application in 2015 and it is expected that the project will be built by 2019.

The Grid Link Project will submit a planning application in 2016 and it is expected that the project will be built by 2020.

Column: The people should have a say in planning Ireland’s energy grid>

Read: Engineers say EirGrid project will be ‘key to economic prosperity’>

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