Planning has proved to be the chief stumbling block for most of the wind projects. Of the ten proposed wind farms with AER contracts, only two have so far secured planning permission. Three schemes have been turned down, two are awaiting the results of their applications while a further three have not yet applied for consent.
The most controversial scheme by far is in the south of the country where New World Power's plans for 30 turbines at Carrickbrock in Tipperary have generated a storm of protest. With partner Bord na Mona, New World had applied to build a 15 MW wind farm on the slopes of Slievenamon, a mountain renowned in song and legend. It is most famed as the home of Fionn Mac Cumhail -- the giant of the Giant's Causeway and Fingal of Fingal's Cave on the Hebridean island of Staffa (and further immortalised by Mendelssohn). The proposal has sparked 5000 objections and extensive press coverage. Even environment group Earthwatch, the Irish branch of Friends of the Earth Europe, which is a firm proponent of wind energy, is among the scheme's opponents. The group believes the site's historic and archaeological significance renders it inappropriate for wind energy development. Industry observers fear the controversy may lead to a backlash against wind energy in the country. New World is unlikely to pursue its plans for Carrickbrock. As one industry source observes, "The project is dead in the water" .
Some believe the problem in Tipperary has been aggravated by a lack of guidance on wind energy issues for local planners. "They have no list of criteria against which to measure wind planning applications," says one. The Department of the Environment issued draft guidelines on wind energy last summer but today they still remain at the draft stage. Moreover, they are criticised for being too vague to be of real value. Government officials concede that there has been a lack of advice available to planners and developers alike. "It was uncharted territory for many of us. We will all have lessons to learn from it," says Niall O'Donnchu from the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications. "Planning is proving a problem, but it is not an insurmountable problem. Only one developer has so far thrown in the towel."
The department is pinning its hopes for a way forward on a two-day conference on planning and renewable energy development, held last month in Cork. "It is the first time we have drawn together local authority planners, developers, environment and community groups and investors," says O'Donnchu. Consisting of one day in conference and a day of highly participative workshops, it was organised by the Renewable Energy Information Office (REIC) -- an agent of the Irish Energy Centre. Organiser Joanna Geary from the REIC explains that a key aim of the conference is to set up a working group representing different interests to look into planning issues of renewable energy and produce a document that could be a definitive set of guidelines. "We want to bring the main groups together. We hope that we can come up with a consensus approach and move towards an agreed format for producing the guidelines," she says.
Rush for high wind sites
The first round of the Alternative Energy Requirement did not produce a geographical spread of schemes. Most are concentrated in the north west of the country, particularly in Donegal. Its high wind speeds attracted six out of the ten schemes with AER contracts.
Donegal County Council has proved to be even-handed in its treatment of wind farm applications by granting planning consent for two and refusing two. One of the lucky ones is a project for 5 MW at Drumlough Hill on the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal. Its developer is North West Energy Systems, a company set up by Reiner Eschway of Germany with local support from the Inishowen Energy Co-operative.
The other project with planning consent is a 7.2 MW project at Cark, near Letterkenny, which is being developed by Renewable Energy Systems (RES) from England. RES hopes to begin construction of the 15 turbines at Cark later this year. However, before proceeding the company is awaiting the outcome of its appeal to build another wind farm at nearby Tullytresna. This was turned down by the county council because of fears of damage to the blanket bog covering the site. RES expects to hear the result from its appeal in April or May.
Development work on RES's projects is being carried out by B9 Energy Services based at Larne in Northern Ireland. The two companies have also worked closely together on building three wind farms in Northern Ireland that are all now operational. Alongside its work for RES, B9 is working on plans for its own 7.5 MW scheme at Binbane mountain near Glenties. This was rejected by Donegal County Council but B9 has appealed against the decision (Windpower Monthly, January 1996).
Still in Donegal, utility ScottishPower has applied for consent to build one of the largest wind farms granted contracts under AER 1. The county council is minded to grant consent for the 15 MW project at Cullinboy, Barnesmore Gap. But objections have been lodged by two bodies: broadcasting company RTE and the Irish Peat Conservancy Council -- again concerned about potential disruption to the blanket bog. Steve Cowie from ScottishPower believes the company can address RTE's worries about interference with broadcasting signals through planning conditions. Turning to IPCC's concerns, he claims the peatland is not of a particularly high value. "So we are still hopeful it will be built this year," he says. ScottishPower hopes the project will be the first of several it builds in Ireland. "We already own three wind farms in Northern Ireland and this would be very near those sites," says Cowie. "We intend building up a reasonable size portfolio in Ireland."
The only Irish company to win a contract under the first AER -- Gaoithe Saor Teo from Arigna, Leitrim -- has the smallest wind project in this round. According to the company's Sheila Layden the 1.2 MW site has already obtained planning permission, but due to technical changes to the scheme Gaoithe Saor has had to reapply for planning consent.
Three of the AER contracted schemes -- all being developed by English companies -- have not yet reached the planning application stage. Colham Energy from Bristol expects to submit its proposals for two sites in Clare and Leitrim -- each for 5 MW -- over the next two months. Meanwhile Western Windpower from Stroud in Gloucestershire is taking things more leisurely. It has yet to progress beyond discussions with planning officers for its 5 MW project of Enercon turbines at Crockahenny in Donegal.