We need to claim it back!
What is at stake when a mega wind farm is proposed for an area of outstanding natural beauty, full of ancient monuments and sites, and home to living communities? My wife, Carole Anne, and I believe that this will despoil this area of West Cork for all time. Numerous phases of the proposed mega wind have been granted permission by An Bord Pleanála, the national planning authority, and are now subject to judicial review (always an expensive undertaking). We are one of seven families seeking a judicial review in the high court for the Carrigarierk Wind farm (phase 5 in the map below). The action is being supported by the local community. Developers with deep pockets are confident that small rural communities cannot afford to continue paying for these repeated legal proceedings at around €100,000 each. They are relying on that fact and that, eventually, we will throw in the towel and the turbines will go up. If ever there were a David and Goliath scenario this is it.
If this mega wind farm development goes ahead in our part of West Cork then, not only will this ancient and beautiful landscape be lost forever but it will also set a precedent for anywhere in the country to have these structures sprout up, effectively making areas of Ireland massive industrial zones. The turbines we are facing are 140 metre high and they’re getting unimaginably higher – 185m and up to 200m with a blade area span the equivalent of seven GAA pitches. At the same time, it appears that all of Co. Cork is open for consideration for wind turbine installations. It’s time to say enough is enough.
The irony is that we have always been supporters of green and sustainable energy and go as lightly as we can on the planet. We are not Luddites nor is this a simple case of nimbyism. We ask only that wind energy farms be sited appropriately and in accordance with guidelines that follow international best practice. Guidelines which take into careful consideration current scientific research findings regarding noise levels, shadow flicker, infrasound disturbance and the impact these giant structures have on wildlife and the environment.
Development by Stealth
Given the scatter gun approach that is the apparent strategy of developers, it would be naïve to think some places are protected from these giants congregating on our landscape. A small notice nailed to a telegraph pole near your home may not be a simple domestic planning application. This is what happened in our case. This practice should be called for what it is: ‘development by stealth’. It only pays lip service to public consultation and is a real example of the democratic deficit that applies in these kinds of cases. The report of the Cork County Council planning department refusing permission for the wind farm at Carrigarriek was comprehensive and sensible:
Having regard to the relative close proximity to numerous dwellinghouses within 1km of the proposes turbines, the excessive height of the turbines coupled with incongruous siting, it is considered that the proposed windfarm development would be excessively domineering from very many vantage points over a wide area, including when viewed from scenic routes S29, S32 and S34. The proposed development would, therefore, provide for a visually intrusive and domineering form of development that would fail to respect the landscape, would seriously injure the visual amenities of the surrounding landscape and would set an undesirable precedent for similar inappropriate development.
Upon appeal by the developer, An Bord Pleanála overruled the decision, citing national energy policy and Co. Cork’s own developmental wind energy strategy! Going to court is the last, drastic and expensive recourse for an ordinary community to have its voice heard.
The importance of credible guidelines
Thinking people are aware that the landscape is not frozen in time but in constant evolution. Solutions must be found to combat the problem of global warming. Solutions are not only technical but societal too and their success depends entirely on public acceptance. This will come if the framework used to devise the solutions is respected from the beginning as being coherent, just and understandable. This is why guidelines are so important.
The quality of the studies and the public consultation currently carried out by the wind energy industry and policy makers in Ireland is not sufficient to ensure confidence in the development process. The existing guidelines are known to be unfit for purpose yet developers and the professionals they employ justify their applications on these guidelines. Unconscionably, planners appear not to be concerned by this practice and continue to function with them. Instead of a truthful engagement with the public, the wind energy industry subjects us to constant spin.
There’s too much to lose
Few areas in West Cork have as special a place in the hearts of Munster people as the Shehy mountains and the Gearagh. Yet it’s precisely this area of West Cork, rich in ancient monuments and marked with scenic routes for hiking and cycling, that is being targeted. The Shehy More, Carrigarierk, and Barnadivane wind farms are one connected project, stretching from the Shehy mountains along the south ridges of Lough Allua and continuing through the catchment area of the Gearagh. Other wind farm developments have been granted permission throughout the upper Lee Valley, meaning Gougane Barra is to be ringed round by turbines! It’s unbearable to think that these heart-stoppingly beautiful places will lose their pristine quality.
We love this entire area. We have celebrated it in poems and paintings. We have lived here for over 20 years. For my son, Daryl, a landscape architect living in Provence and whose photographs are a superb record of his thinking eye, it was this ancient, magical landscape that instilled the appreciation of place that first spurred his development and still informs his practice today. The link above to Daryl’s website samples some of his photos of Gougane Barra, in many ways the spiritual heart of Cork. With hand on heart and for all its attractions, we wouldn’t have settled here if it were a mega wind farm. I wouldn’t even think to visit it as a tourist nor would I wish to urge friends or strangers to come here on holiday. Would you? Perhaps people would come if only to see how a beautiful county, one of the few places in Ireland where Irish is spoken as a first language, has been despoiled by these stalking giants and weep. Looking north and east to Kerry, I can already see at least 40 of these turbines from my home.
People live in the countryside too!
Unless we, together, act urgently to put the brakes on this exponential growth we may well end up like Denmark where there are 17 turbines for every 10 square miles. People coming home after a time abroad will be shocked by what is happening to the landscape here. You might also wake up one morning to find these giants in the field 500 metres from your door, sacrificing your well-being for the national interest and paying for the privilege by contributing to the lucrative subsidies the developer receives.
This is not as outlandish as it sounds. People have already left our community because of the threat of these wind farms. The ‘non-mandatory’ 500 metre setback distance recommended in the 2006 Wind Energy Development Guidelines is woefully inadequate for the protection of public health from the hazards of wind turbine noise. As Nigel de Haas, our friend and neighbour, points out in letter published in the Southern Star (June 18, 2016):
Ten years have passed since the Irish guidelines were issued, ten years during which the size of wind turbines has increased exponentially, and during which the international knowledge of the public health hazards of low frequency noise and infrasound have been well researched, peer-reviewed and published. Unknown no longer washes.
A recent High Court ruling found in favour of a number of households in North Cork who had to leave their homes because of intolerable noise levels (see the Irish Examiner report of 11 December, 2016, archived here). This does not augur well for rural Ireland which is already under severe pressures. The 2015 documentary ‘Downwind’ examines, amongst other things, how households were adversely effected by noise, infrasound and shadow flicker and were forced to leave their homes by the rush to wind power in Ontario. Ordinary people in rural communities recount their stories and frustrations with a system that favours the industry at every turn despite accumulating evidence for serious risks involved to health and the environment. The film also catalogues the haemorrhaging of the economy due to lucrative subsidies paid to developers. What has happened in Canada is reproduced worldwide and is happening now in Ireland. Policy makers here are ignoring the warning signs and consistently downplaying any risks in terms of securing health and amenity. Predictably, the policy has been to shoot first and not answer the questions. We feel our area of Co. Cork is being treated like a laboratory – we are told by An Bord Pleanála that after the turbines are built, they will be monitored and measured over time for noise, infrasound and shadow flicker and so on, as if this resolves the problems they present in the first instance!
Who will cry halt if we don’t?
This is not some impractical quixotic exercise. We’re not tilting at harmless windmills. Who in his or her right mind would choose to live 500 meters from a turbine? By not alerting ourselves to this issue and not demanding responsible decision-making we are giving a free hand to the developers and the powers that be to make this more of a reality for others and ourselves. Politics aside, Senator John Whelan cautioned against the indiscriminate development of wind farms in Ireland in his blog post, ‘Wind farm claims amount to outrageous hot-air’ (2nd February, 2013). Wind farm development on the industrial scale now being pushed by developers, he writes, ‘is neither economically or environmentally sustainable’.
Experts have warned of the increased likelihood of flooding in the Lee and Bandon River systems with direct consequences for the people and businesses in Cork City and Bandon – no strangers to the repeated distresses of flooding in recent years. Flash floods and increased run-off also threaten the destruction of the fragile ecosystem of the Gearagh – an area of special scientific interest and, speaking for the poet in me, an area of special artistic inspiration! More than a nature reserve, it is a biogenetic reserve, a European protected habitat and, as one of only four inland alluvial forest systems in the world, a designated ‘Ramsar site’ or wetland of international importance.
Kevin Corcoran, expert on the Gearagh, has stated that the environmental degradation of the upper reaches of these rivers has already reached the ‘tipping-point’. Upland development for forestry and the removal of mountain bogs for massive wind farms has far-reaching consequences, resulting in erosion damage and associated siltation within river catchments:
If you remove the bogs and their function of flood control, and add in climate change, you are creating a recipe for disaster… The engineers who say that dykes and ponds and silting areas can replace the bog’s anti-flooding function say so with such audacity that they remind me of the Titanic’s designers claiming, ‘This boat can’t be sunk.’ ‘The Gearagh: the River Lee’s ancient inland empire’ Irish Times (2nd July, 2016)
Green energy is supposed to protect our environment, not push it over the edge.
Who benefits from wind energy?
The guidelines currently used in Ireland are out of date and not fit for purpose. New guidelines, under revision since 2013 and promised by the government in 2016, have not materialised and are postponed for at least another year. This means that wind farms are still going up in County Cork and elsewhere according to guidelines that have been discredited and acknowledged as such in the Dáil by the minister responsible!
The general population in countries like Denmark and Germany, much vaunted as pioneers of wind energy in Europe, have long since had enough. The Der Spiegel article, ‘Mutiny in the Land of Wind Turbines’ (12th July, 2013), brilliantly shows how wind turbines have lost their novelty and curiosity value. The public in Denmark has said no more turbines on land. If (and that’s a big if) they are to be part of the energy system, then they must be sited at sea. Problems with wind power were being raised 7 years ago in relation with the Danish model but decision makers in UK and now Ireland are still not listening. In fact, the limits of wind energy technology to meet European energy needs is rapidly becoming apparent; renewable energy in the forms of biomass, biogas and solar is being actively explored. For the renewable sector to be more efficient, more sustainable and less obtrusive the mix and context is all important.
As the economist, Colm McCarthy, argues in the newspaper article ‘Why is the State forestry company building windfarms?’ (22nd March, 2015), the major incentives for investment in wind energy are the lucrative subsidies available to investors. Subsidies which are making the cost of electricity for residential customers in Ireland as much as 42% higher than the average cost in Europe but not as expensive as Denmark! Naïve then to believe that these developers are doing it because they’re green warriors fighting to save the planet. More like greed camouflaged as green.
And if development is not thought through…
As a family, we have lived more than 25 years in Cyprus, a beautiful Mediterranean island, before moving to West Cork. Due, not least, to extraordinary circumstances resulting from the 1974 Turkish military invasion of the island, the governments of the day adopted policies which strongly argued that it was in the national economic interest to develop its tourist infrastructure in order to replace areas lost to war, such as the beautiful resorts of Famagusta and Kyrenia which are located in the northern Turkish occupied area. Progress and mass tourism was so rapid and unbridled that islanders can now only with difficulty find pockets of wilderness where they can enjoy the natural attractions of their own country. Development was so extensive that precious water resources had to be diverted from local communities to service hotels, tourist zones and agriculture necessitating water rationing in other residential areas. Some coastal parts to the east of the island drew so much water that sea water encroached, salinating the water table, rendering the water unpotable, unfit even for irrigation. This caused real problems for farmers in a formerly rich agricultural area. The solution was the very expensive Southern Conveyor Project, a system involving dams, tunnels and open canals created to bring water from the south-west of the island to the east heavily dependent on rain and snow falls, and augmented by desalination and water treatment plants.
I give this as an example of what happens and can happen quickly when short-term gains trump the long-term interests of a country (and certainly, some few people became immensely wealthy on the back of this development). A similar kind of short-term thinking is being foisted on us here in Ireland. We have obligations to the 2020 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which require that national policy issues be debated and critically evaluated. Instead, we have a situation where wind energy strategies are developed independently by local authorities at county level in spite of being advised to pause doing so by the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, pending the adoption of the Revised Wind Energy Guidelines (see unpublished Circular PL20-13). The revised guidelines remain only an aspiration in the current Department’s own plans. The protection it itself aspires to develop remains on indefinite hold. The European Court of Justice ruled in October 2016, that the guidelines must be subject to a Strategic Environmental Assessment – a process that, the minister admitted last December, has yet to be put in place. So, in the meantime we have regulation with no teeth and a basis in planning law that is vague at best. The result of all this is that there is no consistency in the decision making across the country which in turn is generating uncertainty and confusion and a well-founded sense of grievance
In this light, it is a facile argument to say that it’s in the national interest that Ireland must become a green energy economy. No right-thinking person would dispute that last point but the issues are necessarily complex and the risks involved crudely underestimated and unfair. Ireland has come very late to the green energy table with the financial crisis, amongst other things, being cited as the reason for this delay but there’s a rush to ‘do something and i’ the heat.’ And that’s the nub of the question. We should never take what we have for granted and allow unchecked development and excessive zeal to damage irreparably our natural heritage and, importantly, to seriously undermine our rights.
A dramatic wake-up call!
Dr Liam Lysaght of the National Biodiversity Data Centre in the RTE magazine programme Eco Eye (broadcast on 10th January, 2017), stated that between a quarter and a fifth of all Irish wildlife species for which they have measurements is under direct threat of extinction. The reason for this he says is because
We’re not making enough space for wildlife. We’re not managing the countryside to give this wildlife the space for it to thrive… across all aspects of government policy and public policy we need to have measures in place that will actually nurture and help wildlife to thrive.
Habitat loss has tragically become the norm in this country. Intense exploitation of the landscape is in direct competition with the urgent need for conservation and ‘rewilding’. For birds and bats, the impacts from construction and operation of wind farm developments are direct and deadly. Only last year, three white tailed eagles were killed by wind turbine blades of Ireland’s largest wind farm on the Cork-Kerry border and reported in the Irish Times (31st July, 2016). In Norway, there has been many such confirmed kills of eagles in the years since 2005. Research in California has shown that sea eagles can range over vast distances of 100 miles and more. Nesting close to turbines is not the only telling factor as far as the danger to birdlife is concerned which is as developers would have it. As Clive Hambler writes in ‘Where eagles dare – the wind farms gamble’, proponents of wind farms appear not to understand that ‘numerous small projects have cumulative effects…[and] even single sites can do regional damage.’ There can be no mitigation if in the wrong place. Adding wind farms to the threats from poisoning and shooting will hardly improve the prognosis for raptors. Re-introduction efforts for the white-tailed eagle in Ireland are sadly met with an exponential investment in subsidised slaughter.
The time has come to realise that ‘the inconvenient truth’ does have inconvenient truths. That wind energy, one of the means of saving the planet, has an environmental cost and might, if not properly thought through, recklessly exacerbate rather than prevent the impacts of climate change is surely something to address. A patrician dismissal of this inconvenient conflict on the part of successive Irish governments is no longer tenable. Prioritising one measure (to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions) over another (i.e. implementing sustainable nature and landscape management schemes) is not safeguarding either our upland habitats or the future of rural communities. Mother nature is complex and we must have by now learned that we tamper with her at our cost. If this enthusiasm is driven by greed then, we must ask, what are we prepared to sacrifice?
What can you do?
For a further information on the economic, social and environmental issues urging caution in the wholesale deployment of wind energy I would strongly recommend the Wind Aware Ireland website
Moral and financial support: our community needs your help! If you wish to help us in the cost of this judicial review, please consider donating online via our fundraising page on ifundraise.ie
All donations to this cause, large or small, are gratefully appreciated.