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Bindoo Wind Farm in Cavan Alamy Stock Photo
Analysis

How a planning blockage is threatening Ireland's wind farm industry

ABP has not approved a single wind farm project submitted to the body within the last 12 months, writes Paul O’Donoghue.

MENTION ‘PLANNING PROBLEMS’ and most people likely think of housing.

It’s unlikely the first thought of many would be ‘how will this affect wind farms?’.

Ireland’s planning system was thrown into chaos last year after Paul Hyde, the deputy chairman of An Bord Pleanála (ABP), resigned and was later sentenced to two months’ imprisonment for failing to declare a personal interest in a planning case.

The knock-on impact created a massive backlog in planning cases at the regulator. While the issue seems to have been eased for housing, with property completions up this year compared to last, one sector suffering is wind farms.

ABP has not approved a single wind farm project submitted to the body within the last 12 months.

The delay directly led to a significant slowdown in the number of projects being delivered under the state’s Renewable Electricity Support Scheme (RESS).

As renewable projects need planning approval to apply to RESS, the latest round for the scheme saw just a handful of wind projects able to bid. Just three new onshore wind farms were approved, down from 14 in the previous auction.

This planning blockage is making building new wind farms almost impossible and seriously threatening Ireland’s 2030 emissions targets, which rely on delivering more onshore wind.

The problem

For some idea on the scale of the problem, Ireland currently has around 4.5 gigawatts (GW) of onshore wind energy installed across the country.

There are 1,000 megawatts (MW) to 1 GW and 1 MW of wind energy is estimated to produce enough electricity to meet the demands of around 600 homes per year.

The aim for 2030, which feeds directly into Ireland’s 2030 emissions reduction targets, is to roughly double Ireland’s current 4.5 GW of onshore wind capacity to 9 GW.

This makes the latest round of the RESS auction all the more disappointing – the capacity of the three onshore wind projects approved which received contracts was just under 150 MW.

As RESS is one of the main ways new wind farms are developed, it calls into question how close Ireland will come to meeting its 2030 targets.

To explain how this links in with the planning system and more specifically ABP: almost every wind farm application goes through ABP, whether it is appealed to the body, or a developer applies straight to the regulator under strategic infrastructure legislation.

This means if ABP is not functioning as quickly as it should, no new wind farms can be cleared for development.

As well as the issues around Paul Hyde, ABP has also faced a significant increase in its workload as it has been tasked with deciding on appeals as to whether or not plots of land should be liable for vacant sites taxes.

The issue has now become the number one concern for the Irish wind sector and was top of the list in budget requests from industry body Wind Energy Ireland.

The group has highlighted that ABP is taking an average of 90 weeks to issue decisions on wind farms, rather than its target of 18 weeks. It has said there is now 2 GW of onshore wind projects “stuck” in the planning system.

Away from the lofty goals of reducing our carbon emissions, there is also a practical knock-on effect for consumers – RESS contracts are effectively supported by taxpayers via the PSO (Public Service Obligation) levy.

The theory is that the fewer projects which are able to compete in these RESS auctions, the less competitive the process will be.

This removes some of the pressure from developers to bid lower than they could, possibly requiring a larger RESS subsidy than they would get otherwise. This would then push up the PSO levy for all electricity users.

“The lack of competition drives up prices and reduces the volume of renewable energy contracts which can be awarded at auction,” was how the issue was summed up by Wind Energy Ireland.

Solutions

In terms of how the problem can be solved, industry groups say the solution is simple – more resources for ABP and streamline the planning system.

For its part, ABP recently issued a statement acknowledging the backlog of cases caused by the “significant turnover of personnel at board level in the organisation over recent months”.

The body has also said that it has recruited extra staff to help deal with the buildup of cases.

Wind Energy Ireland is also pushing for talks with the government to look at the RESS auction, with a view to wind farms getting a decision much faster and knowing in advance if they are eligible to bid for the subsidy.

But as long as the current system remains in place with the level of backlog ABP has had to deal with, it is hard to see where a significant level of improvement will come from.

This should be a serious concern for both the government, which already looks like meeting its 2030 targets will be a stretch, and for consumers who may be needlessly paying higher taxes.