Government seems to have misjudged the public mood over Eirgrid’s pylon network plans,
writes Tom McGurk.
For weeks now, there has been a growing tide of concern in the government parties at the public
anger with Eirgrid’s pylon network plans. A path has been beaten to both the Taoiseach’s and Minister
for Energy Pat Rabbitte’s door by concerned local and Euro election candidates.
Each has sought an answer to the same question: ”What am I going to say when the householders
ask me where I stand on the pylons issue? The smell of electoral annihilation is in the air.
Apparently one major Labour Party grandee had even warned that, come the elections in May, Labour
might lose 60 per cent of its local government seats and also sustain big loses in Europe.
A political lifeboat has had to be launched to save candidates from choppy electioneering waters;
there is a manual on board providing them with answers to the big pylon questions.
Thus, out of the blue last Tuesday came Rabbitte’s appointment of the McGuinness Review. By
Wednesday, even he was being slapped down by the Taoiseach after he had hosted a panic-stricken
Fine Gael meeting of TDs from Cavan and Meath. Despite Rabbitte’s assertion otherwise, Kenny ended
up requesting that the McGuinness Review also look at the proposal for the North-South power link, in
addition to the Grid Link and Grid West projects, which were initially the subject of the review.
Astonishingly, this is despite the fact the North-South project is ready for submission to planning.
Time and again, Rabbitte and his colleagues have misjudged the public mood on the two massive
state infrastructural projects on their desk: wind turbines and pylons. Last summer, Rabbitte began by
poking fun at objectors of the huge Midlands windfarms project, and only a few weeks ago he was
accusing the anti-pylon groups of ”jumping up and down.
On television this week he was being suitably supplicant as he talked about the growing concerns of
local people. It’s too early to judge to what extent voters will buy the McGuinness inquiry line. One suspects that it
may actually harden the resolve of many against the pylons project. Given the level of anger about
the Eirgrid project across the country, there is even the possibility that the rescue plan will blow up in
the faces of the government parties.
But the most compelling reason for thinking that the new inquiry is little more than an attempt at
buying political time is the fact that – essentially – it is already a waste of time because it is asking a
question that it already knows the answer to.
To compare overground and underground routes for the cables will come up with the same answer in
a few months time as it would come up with if asked this morning. Underground is technically more
challenging and potentially much more expensive.
I have to say potentially more expensive’ for the moment because suddenly the whole question of
compensation is now emerging for putting pylons above ground.
I will come back to this in a moment, but if the McGuinness inquiry was charged with really finding a
solution to this crisis, then surely it would seek to investigate the larger picture and how we have got
to this impasse.
In other words, it should revisit the 2007 decision by the then Green minister Eamon
Ryan to use Euro 30 billion to establish a new Green Energy policy for Ireland and to give
Euro 4 billion of it to Eirgrid to vastly upgrade the national network. At the time, Ryan
said that the purpose of the upgrade was to enable the new transmission network to
carry 60 per cent more renewables, in other words, wind energy.
The important context here is that the rate of change in the energy business is relentless. For
example, only ten years ago, the US was fretting at the prospect of running out of oil. Currently, as a
result of fracking – the production of gas from deep underground shale-rock mining – it is now almost
totally energy self-sufficient.
Even in the seven years since Ryan launched his plan, the energy context here in Europe has radically
changed. Both Denmark and Germany have decided that, in future, all wind farms will have to go offshore to
reduce electricity costs to consumers, while in Britain the Cameron government is determined to
extensively promote fracking. This includes in the North.
Two weeks ago, the EU radically changed its mandatory green requirements too. This significant
change in EU policy means that while binding renewable energy targets remain at 27 per cent at
overall EU level, there are no binding targets at member state level.
What this means in effect is that member states – including Ireland – will have to achieve emissions
targets, but will be free to decide on their energy mix in order to achieve those emission reductions.
Essentially, this means that we in Ireland should reassess our renewable energy policy to
take account of the changed circumstances and, in turn, produce a new, proper costbenefit
analysis for our proposals on wind and power transmission.
These EU changes will also have an impact on our energy exporting ambitions, especially
to Britain. They now have the flexibility to use more nuclear power and shale gas to meet
their emission reduction targets, and therefore that potential market from Ireland is
What, for example, will this mean for the huge Midlands windfarm plans which are targeting Britain?
The Ryan plans were made at the moment of unquestioning acceptance of the genius of wind power.
The zeitgeist about wind is entirely different now. There is also the longer-term question of our
building a massive new network system, greatly in excess of our power requirements, which could
become a white elephant in the near future. Indeed, how long will this new network take to
Meanwhile, the Eirgrid management of this project raises more and more questions. For example, not
a single member of its board has any network transmission expertise. They have to buy it in. Nor do
board members seem to have anticipated the looming compensation crisis if the project does go
ahead. They may have anticipated homeowners reacting, but what about hundreds of thousands of
acres of land sanitised by farmers because of the high tension lines across them and valued at up to
€12,000 an acre?
If we get to a compensation war, this controversy has the potential to end up as a defining legal
moment in the Supreme Court. The dimensions of what Eirgrid is planning across 500 kilometres of
Ireland – involving thousands of homes, businesses and farms – will test the constitutional right to
private property to the pin of its legal collar. In the history of the state, nothing like this has ever been
And if Eirgrid thinks that it will be deciding on the levels of compensation – should that day arrive – it
had better have another think. Already Rabbitte has multiplied the company’s difficulties by
announcing on television – apparently unilaterally – that the market price would be paid for houses
that couldn’t be sold because of pylons. Maybe underground might prove cheaper in the long run.
There is a growing sense now that both the government and Eirgrid are losing control of this project.
They are facing levels of opposition they had never imagined.
From the outset, too, they have been less than frank with the public, trying to disguise the extent of
the wind power requirement on the new network and involving the public in a submissions ritual that
is essentially meaningless. What on earth is Joe Public supposed to submit other than, ”I don’t want it
near my home?
The minister’s tactic has been to meet the underground demands with a warning that consumer bills
will rise as a result. I suspect this inquiry will also be used to underline this propaganda line.
(c) Sunday Business Post