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Column The people should have a say in planning Ireland's energy grid

Rebuilding the grid will take more than a decade and we are still at the start. Now is the time to change the process from an adversarial one to a truly participative project developed in the public interest, writes Ossian Smyth.

THIRTY-FIVE THOUSAND submissions were made to EirGrid last week on its Grid Link project which seeks to run new power lines between Cork and Kildare. This compares with just 278 submissions received at the previous consultation in 2012. Clearly there is a great and growing public concern about the visual impact of pylons on people’s local landscapes and the possible health risks from overhead high-voltage cables. This is evidence of the public’s understanding of the strong link between the quality of our environment and our quality of life.

Despite this huge response from the general public and the large number of lobby groups that have formed in communities around this issue, there is a sense that EirGid is just ‘going through the motions’. Public consultations are a legal requirement for major infrastructure projects, and the promoter must be seen to have considered and responded to the submissions so that the project complies with the law.

In a dramatic turning point at the planning hearings for the North-South Interconnector in 2010, a member of the public pointed out that EirGrid had given the wrong heights for its pylons in the newspaper advertisements. This led to the collapse of the first of EirGrid’s recent high-voltage projects. The planning process for that project had to be run again from scratch at great expense and with little change in the substance of the proposals.

Bruised by this encounter, EirGrid has taken an increasingly legalistic approach to the public engagement process for its projects.

People need to be involved

To make public participation worthwhile, we need to include people at design stage in these projects, not just when planning permission is being lodged in order to tick some legal boxes. Pat Rabbitte is presenting these projects to the public as if there are no alternatives, instead of offering true public participation to discover the best options.

EirGrid have organised their consultation around multiple possible routes – many very close to each other. However, alternative approaches to the project were dismissed prior to public involvement.

The options included:

  • Undergrounding the cables through picturesque locations,
  • Full undergrounding of all cables,
  • Use of lower voltage cables on smaller pylons across multiple routes,
  • Running high-voltage cables alongside motorways,
  • Running high-voltage cables parallel to existing high-voltage lines.

Each of these options will have different costs, health and landscape implications, and each of these is worth exploring, given that we will be living with our choices for the next 50 years. The Commission for Energy Regulation only recently told the Oireachtas that full undergrounding would cost €2bn, costs which could be recouped by raising electricity bills by 3%. This information should have been presented before the projects commenced. To date, we have still seen no estimates for partial undergrounding.

Upgrading is needed

There is no question that upgrading the grid is needed to allow Ireland to decarbonise and transition to an economy based on clean domestic renewable energy, rather than imported fossil fuels. People have accepted previous network infrastructure upgrades in the past, such as the gas lines that were buried across the country.

This is not just a question of NIMBYism. Locations like the Comeragh mountains are treasured not just by local residents but by the many thousands of tourists who visit to reconnect with the raw, natural beauty of the Irish countryside.

The implications for public health of each option need to be clearly presented by independent public experts. So far we have had the Health Minister, James Reilly, say in private that he is concerned about the health risks in North Dublin, and then in public state that he has no concerns about high-voltage power lines for the rest of the country. This issue is more important than the local political concerns of the Minister.

Rebuilding the grid will take more than a decade

The Government must be transparent and reveal all of the advice they have received regarding health implications and costs to the state on the pylons issue.

Ireland is a signatory to the European Landscape Convention which requires the state to carry out landscape management, protection and planning. Yet the government has done none of this. How can an assessment of landscape impact be made without this basic action?

Rebuilding the grid will take more than a decade and we are still at the start. Now is the time to change the process from an adversarial, legalistic winners-and-losers approach, to a truly participative project developed in the public interest, which has the consent of the people.

Ossian Smyth is the Green Party’s spokesperson for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. Follow him @smytho

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

Prendergast: ‘Pylons are the rape of rural Ireland’

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