Windfarming in Clare?
by Richard Douthwaite

Proposals for at least three windfarms have been rejected in Co. Clare recently, largely because of objections from local people. They were quite right to do so. After all, why should anyone accept a moving, conspicuous intrusion into a well-loved skyline if it’s of no benefit to them?

One reason that there’s no local benefit is that windfarms produce almost no jobs. Once, a thousand miners dug coal in the area around Arigna, Co. Roscommon. Today, windfarms there are producing the same amount of energy as the miners once did but only three people are employed.

Another reason for the lack of local benefits is that Irish windfarms aren’t being erected by people from the areas in which they stand but by big companies like the ESB subsidiary, Hibernian Wind, or National Toll Road’s offshoot, Airtricity. As a result, the farms’ earnings leave the area.

It’s all very different in Denmark where a hundred thousand ordinary families have joined with their neighbours to generate electricity from the wind. Together they own 2,100 wind farms (some of which may be a single turbine) and produce about 16% of the country’s energy.

Two enlightened government policies produced this situation. One involved dividing the whole country into three zones. The first zone comprises areas of outstanding natural beauty where no wind turbines at all are allowed. The second zone is less visually sensitive, but only people who live within 10km of the site where the turbines will stand can put them up. Commercial windfarms go into the third zone where anyone can erect turbines.

The second policy involved forcing Denmark’s 110 electricity distribution companies to take electricity from small producers and to pay them 85% of the price households were paying for their power. In addition, families that needed to borrow to invest in wind energy were allowed to set their interest payments against their income tax. However, this tax relief was limited. Anyone borrowing more than enough to generate 150% of the power used in his or her house did - and does - not get a bigger tax allowance.

The generous payment and the tax relief made it very attractive for lots of families to join together and set up co-ops to erect wind turbines in their neighbourhoods. Doing so became perfectly routine. A typical group would find a site, arrange with a company to erect a turbine and then go to their local savings bank (the equivalent of a credit union) where those who needed to borrow to pay for their share would take out a loan of around _8,000.

When the turbine was erected and the electricity began to be sold, the cheques from the power company would go straight to the savings bank which would divide them up amongst the participants. Those who invested in the 1980s and early 90s were able to pay off their loans in around ten years, leaving them now with an income sufficient to pay their electricity bills and a bit on top.

The demand for wind turbines from these groups was so great that it led to the development of a wind-turbine manufacturing industry that now leads the world.

Could something similar happen in Ireland? Two community groups, one from Inishowen in Co. Donegal, the other from County Mayo, are hoping that it can. Both were given _7,500 by their local Leader companies to get a feasibility study carried out and this money was topped up by the Western Development Commission and Sustainable Energy Ireland. A Dublin firm of consultants, CSA, were appointed and its final report should be published before the end of the year.

It’s clear from the consultants’ interim findings is that the government’s attitude is the main barrier to thousands of Irish families investing in wind energy. First, it needs to scrap the bidding procedure under which only those windfarms that quote the lowest prices for their electricity get contracts to supply the ESB.
When the results of the most recent bidding round were announced in July, the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Dermot Ahern, gave major contracts to just three firms. Many other prospective developers were left in the cold, including a windfarm in which the Inishowen community group wants to invest.

Out of a total of 330MW of contracts to supply the ESB, 63MW went to Hibernian Wind and 158MW to Saorgus Energy, a Kerry-based company which has close links with Hibernian – it leased it the Derrybrien site where the bog slipped away last month and is a partner with it in a project to build a massive windfarm in the sea off the east coast.
“In total, the ESB and Saorgus have secured 82% of the contracts awarded. This cements the ESB’s monopoly position in the Irish market as the ESB currently has 88% of the electricity generating capacity in the country” Tim Cowhig, the chairman of the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA) said.
Instead of a bidding process which prevents windfarm developers from making firm plans, the government needs to announce that any windfarm capable of supplying power at a fixed price which it would name would be given a contract. Every country that has done this – Germany, Spain and Denmark among them – has seen a massive expansion in the number of wind farms and the establishment of a domestic industry to build the turbines. The government also needs to give premium prices to community wind schemes and to zone the country so that local people do not have to compete with big business for sites in their own areas.

In short, the government needs to copy the Danes. The final CSA report is likely to show that almost everything else – with the exception of capacity on the national electricity grid – is in place for ordinary people to save for their futures by investing in wind energy. Interviews the consultants carried out show that a lot of people would like to invest in a share in a community wind turbine and that most credit unions will lend to those who need to borrow to do so. Moreover, Ireland has much better wind conditions than any other country in Europe apart from Scotland for power generation so the return should be good.

The Western Development Commission will make the CSA report available on request to any community in the country when it is complete. Armed with that, we’ll be able to put pressure on the government to alter their procedures to give small local investors their chance to develop the national wind resource, either alone or in meaningful partnerships with the big boys.

Indeed, the Derrybrien bog slide might turn out to be a blessing in disguise because it means that many more communities in peatland areas will oppose applications to build windfarms from big outside firms. The only way those farms will go ahead is if the community is happy about their safety and given - or allowed to purchase - a significant financial stake.

Richard Douthwaite’s latest book, Before the Wells Run Dry: Ireland’s Transition to Renewable Energy, was published last month and is available in bookshops at 12.95 euro.
His account of how wind energy developed in Denmark can be found on www.feasta.org/documents/shortcircuit