Pylons: A rational reflection on EirGrid’s expansion

The debate concerning the construction of the new EirGrid pylons seems to be leading nowhere and it is quickly becoming apparent that both sides are unable to reach some sort of compromise. The problem centres on the new extensions to the national grid which are needed primarily for our development of renewable wind energy.

To better understand its utmost necessity we should look to the present situation in Germany. The Germans have highly developed wind power but the problem comes when integrating this with traditional energy sources as it’s harder to predict the levels of electricity you will generate at any particular time. It is equally difficult to manage the output from traditional power stations as with these you know how much electricity you’ll get but you can’t just shut them down instantly.

If wind is particularly strong for an hour or two at any given time then the net result is an awful lot more electricity during this time, often too much electricity. Germany’s grid has therefore faced the prospects of overload and blackouts.

If Ireland seeks to reach its renewable energy targets then grid improvements are very important in ensuring reliable energy well into the future. These extensions will also help in the eventual export of energy to the UK, which again would help Ireland to manage its grid and electricity supply more effectively.

The opposition has arisen around the proposed routes for national grid extensions as local residents in the affected areas have numerous complaints, mostly about suspected health risks; devaluating property prices; taking up space on farmable land; and how they could be detrimental to the scenic landscapes of the regions in question.

Immediately this debate is one of the rights of the individual versus the right of the collective. Those in opposition use the slogan ‘bury the cable, not the people’ yet they ignore the fact that putting this line underground would result in a final expense multiples of the costs of the overhead cables. Therefore this would drastically push the total amount needed above the €3.5 billion already set aside for the Grid25 project which is to service the nation as a whole.

What they are proposing is that the entire population should take on the burden of an enormous, unnecessary expense so that each one of them specifically will not have to live close to an overhead line. This is utterly ridiculous when one remembers that currently Ireland cannot even afford to put proper flood defences in place, not to mention our deteriorating health services, roads, and mass unemployment that all need urgent investment to remedy.

The health risks associated with building these pylons are their most legitimate concerns, property devaluation being another important issue, however the health of our nation’s citizens takes priority. At the time of writing, the European Commission has stated that they cannot find any directly related risks from exposure to high voltage overhead cables. They make it clear in their report, which is a collection of many other scientific writings, their references numbering several hundred.

Putting all of this underground should be ruled out, it would be far too expensive and those in opposition to the grid expansion need to realise this. However EirGrid has also failed to respect the worries that people harbour, which their own reports into the proposed routes currently allude to. These reports seem very reasonable as first glance, it explains why we need this new link and goes into great detail showing us how they took urban areas into consideration, how they avoided national parks and areas of historical and cultural significance; all excellent stuff to hear.

Two major questions remains unanswered though; in what way were the local people informed and involved in the planning process? The people were allowed to voice their opinion in public meetings but this seems more like an afterthought to cover themselves rather than real engagement. Secondly, how far from peoples’ homes will these pylons be built? If I were living in the vicinity of these pylons then naturally I would like to know the answers to these questions.

I could not find these answers easily but from a documented questions and answers session for a proposed route through Cavan, EirGrid quotes building restrictions saying that if one were to build a house within 25 meters of a pylon then they must be consulted when applying for planning permission. Does this mean that theoretically there is no minimum distance? Could those at EirGrid build a pylon right beside your house if they wanted to and if they were granted planning permission? It certainly seems that this is the case from the material that EirGrid have made available.

EirGrid goes on to give the general public an assurance that they will aim for a distance of 50 meters but what does this assurance actually mean? Is it a binding assurance or just a mere guideline that can be ignored where convenient? At present it seems like the latter is more likely and they are just picking a vaguely acceptable distance at random to satisfy demands and at this stage it does little to defuse the tension involved.

Both sides on this issue have flaws in their arguments but I believe that EirGrid could have avoided this. Instead of doing all this planning from an office with minimal public involvement there should have been onsite consultation long before this debate erupted. They also should have set the minimum distances the pylons in question are to be built from peoples’ homes on their website at the time of announcement. What we have seen are not concrete answers, merely aiming to keep them 50 meters away does nothing to help reassure the people living along the proposed route. EirGrid should have also set fixed rates of compensation and made them visible along with these other assurances on their website. Had these basic communications been carried out then much of this discontent could have been avoided.

However those opposing the EirGrid plan seem misguided due to the lack of any effective leadership or direction. They are ill-informed on matters of health risks and are potentially easy prey for a populist politician to stand in and play the role of their knight in shining armour. Their idea to have these cables fully undergrounded will almost certainly not become a reality and perhaps this allows us to put all of this debate into a finer perspective. Should we not be more concerned about EirGrid’s engagement with the people instead?

There will always be people opposed to plans like this, and I am sure that objections would be voiced towards these plans no matter how well EirGrid managed it, but as time moves on it seems a lot of this furore could have been avoided if the company had spoken with the people and made information clear and accessible before all of this exploded like it has.

Ian Moran is an International Business and Chinese student at DCU.

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