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Column: Can Ireland become a world leader in renewable energy production?

A national renewable energy planning strategy should consider all technologies – not just wind – while proper planning can address fears surrounding adverse local environmental impacts, writes Seán O’Leary.

Seán O'Leary

IRELAND’S POTENTIAL IN the area of renewable energy is significant – high wind speeds, a long coastline with significant potential for wave energy, and good climate and soil conditions for biofuel production are a strong base from which Ireland can become a world leader in the production of renewable energy. However, harnessing this opportunity requires a transparent, consistent and collaborative planning system.

Many commentators and members of the public have voiced concerns about the extent the public can participate in decisions relating to major energy infrastructure. Only proper planning can address the social acceptance challenge and fears surrounding adverse local environmental impacts. This requires a clear policy context including a national renewable energy planning strategy, both to ensure public confidence in decision-making and to avoid ad-hoc and reactive planning.

A national renewable energy planning strategy should consider all technologies, not just wind, and it must take all relevant issues into account: e.g. where will the grid need additional strengthening to accommodate renewables? How much land can be used for biofuels without compromising food supply or other land uses?

Strategies should not be considered in isolation

Any national renewable energy planning strategy should not be considered in isolation. For example in addition to the “Renewable Energy Export Policy and Development Framework” being developed by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, on foot of the memorandum of understanding with the UK government, a national landscape strategy is required.

Consideration of the impacts and cumulative impacts of renewable energy developments on landscapes will be critical in the assessment of any application for major energy infrastructure. Also updating the 2006 ministerial guidelines for wind energy provides an opportunity to take national and international research and practice into account along with developments in wind turbine technology.

The Irish Planning Institute is learning from best practice across Europe as a partner in the EU funded SPECIAL (Spatial Planning and Energy for Communities in All Landscapes) project and this will ensure Irish planners remain fully up to date with experiences and approaches elsewhere while also sharing their knowledge.

Retaining high cultural and natural heritage values

As noted by the Heritage Council in its November 2013 report “The Onshore Windfarm Sector in Ireland – Planning in Harmony with Heritage”, it is possible to have a high-quality environment that retains high cultural and natural heritage values, and to generate power and socio-economic benefits from wind turbines, both on and off-shore – but inclusive decision-making with full awareness of the complexity of the situation is required.

As the Northern Ireland Landscape Charter published this month acknowledges “Each of us is responsible and empowered to shape the future of our landscapes in the actions and decisions taken now by us and others on policy and development.”

Ireland’s statutory planning system is much more than development management (formerly known as “development control”). It is a democratic process that is enshrined in law and public participation in the process is a crucial part of that process. In order for our planning system to be effective, communities must play a significant role in the drafting of statutory plans for the sustainable development of Ireland and in decision-making on applications for development. Our planning system empowers us all to take part in planning for our future and it is only through participation that individuals and communities can ensure their opinions are heard.

Ultimately, planning for energy requires extensive public engagement and participation to ensure transparency, accountability and ultimately public ownership of the planning process. Planning serves the community, and therefore there must be proper engagement. However, this cannot be done in a vacuum: it must be done in the context of national strategies.

Seán O’Leary is the executive director of Irish Planning Institute, which you can follow on Facebook or Twitter.

Read: €29m investment for marine renewable energy research centre creates 77 jobs

Read: 500 per cent rise in use of biofuel since 2007

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