Why we must stop opposing wind farms

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Notice: While objections are valuable and necessary safeguards, they should be a last resort when full engagement and negotiation has failed

It is an unpopular fact that we must accept the development of important new infrastructure in and around our communities in order to achieve a green energy sector. The switch from traditional energies to renewable energies requires the development of wind and solar parks, but also important new infrastructures to facilitate the reinforcement of the network, storage developments and interconnection.

To achieve this transformation, we rely on developers to design projects and have them licensed, built and operated successfully so that the renewable electricity they generate can be fed into the national grid. In addition, Ireland’s European and national commitments require that this objective be achieved within extremely difficult timeframes.

It’s anything but simple, especially since Ireland doesn’t have vast tracts of undeveloped land to build on. As a result, each new project will be located within or near a host community. We ask a lot of these host communities, who clearly support the local impacts of these developments. Another unpopular fact is that the projects will often be of such magnitude that they generate more electricity than what is required by the community directly.

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s Drivetime, Fergal Keane reports on the launch of a public consultation on plans to build a large wind farm just off the south coast of Dublin

Local impacts include the industrialization of rural environments as well as visual and sound impacts. It is often reported by members of the impacted community that their submissions regarding these impacts do not receive sufficient weight in relation to government policy and climate action. This creates anger and frustration and often leads to legal action aimed at delaying or preventing the project.

On the other hand, it typically takes two to three years for developers to design and assess a project’s environment to the point where they are ready to file a planning request. This is before they go through the planning approval and licensing processes required to allow them to build it, begin operations and finally bring renewable energy to the grid. This process requires teams of interdisciplinary professionals working together over extended periods of time to manage the extensive environmental, technical, financial and logistical elements of the project.

The environmental impact assessment process is complex and extremely extensive. It’s incredibly difficult for the best-intentioned and well-resourced developers to point to every “i” and cross every “t” against it. Developers also depend on the planning authority to get everything done right. As such, if well-represented objectors treat the review process as an administrative trigger for developers, it is highly likely that a flaw will be successfully identified. Meanwhile, time goes by, technology becomes obsolete, project funding is threatened and we continue to depend on fossil fuels.

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s Drivetime, Elaine Loughlin of the Irish Examiner, David Connolly of the Irish Wind Energy Association and Sliabh Luachra Wind Awareness Group Chairman Fred O’Sullivan discuss wind farm guidelines

The Aarhus Convention gave citizens important legal rights with regard to access to environmental information, public participation in decision-making and the right of access to justice. These precious rights have been conferred “in order to contribute to the right of each person of present and future generations to live in an environment adequate for their health and well-being”.

However, there are no legal restrictions as to the purpose and use of the rights. They can be as validly used to oppose a wind farm as an oil refinery. In fact, many would argue that the local impacts of renewable energy infrastructure are actually harming local environments.

But we all need electricity in our lives and therefore we need renewable energy infrastructure within us. We cannot accept poorly designed projects that harm our communities, but if we challenge them all, the result is a lack of renewable energy. So how do you do it?

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From RTÉ One News, Angela Dowd describes the wind farm near her Co Kerry home as “an absolute living nightmare”

In my current doctoral research, I am looking at how we can balance the needs of the climate, communities and developers when it comes to renewable energy infrastructure. A key preliminary finding is that the answer lies in the full engagement of all parties in the planning process. The three years preceding the submission of a planning request can be used by affected communities to engage directly with developers and negotiate improving local impacts and the types of community compensation that would be of real benefit to them. This goal of making a better project is a key goal of public participation that is currently underutilized.

For this approach to work, it must be required by law. Specific pre-planning obligations with clear and measurable requirements in the EPA guidelines are of utmost importance. This will protect developers to the extent that their compliance is demonstrable and clarify for communities what they can expect in the process.

Catching the developer at the final stage of the authorization process is bad for our climate. The closure of an operational wind farm due to legal or operational technicality is a bad result for our climate. While objections and remedies for judicial review are valuable and necessary safeguards against environmentally damaging development, they should be a last resort when full and good faith engagement in the process has failed.


The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ



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