Kathriona Devereux: If everyone says no to every pylon, we won’t save planet

The next ten years is going to see big changes in how we power Ireland, so says Kathriona Devereux in her weekly column
Kathriona Devereux: If everyone says no to every pylon, we won’t save planet

OLD POWER: The chimney stack of the ESB Marina Power station has been there since 1954, and is now retired.

OVERALL, the Irish public support climate action and recognise the urgent need to replace oil, gas and coal with renewable energies such as wind and solar.

What the public are probably less aware of is what’s involved in that transition. Oil, coal, peat and some gas-fired power stations will be retired and decommissioned, but what will replace them?

More and more of us will drive electric cars and switch our home boilers to heat pumps, but where is all the extra electricity going to come from?

It’s primarily going to come from more onshore and offshore wind turbines. Last year saw a big milestone achieved in Ireland’s energy history, with 43% of electricity produced by renewables. 

The next big target is to get 70% of our electricity from renewables by 2030.

Last week, I attended Wind Energy Ireland’s annual conference and heard that the next ten years is going to see big changes in how we power Ireland.

The whole country will need to get behind the expansion of renewable energy, along with a bigger and upgraded electricity grid. In short, this means more infrastructure — more turbines, more wires, more pylons.

Listening to smart people at the conference who are committed to working hard to decarbonise Ireland was heartening, but the sheer scale of the revolution required in re-ordering our energy systems without fossil fuels is daunting.

Speakers spoke about the massive effort put in to achieve the goals of 40% of renewable electricity by 2020 and that the next milestone, 70% by 2030, will require an even bigger effort. 

In 2030, we will be using much more electricity to heat our homes and transport us about the place.

This increase in electricity demand will require renewable energy companies to build more onshore and offshore wind farms and will require Eirgrid to upgrade and expand the electricity grid to transfer this electricity around the country to where it is needed. This 2030 goal is just a stepping stone to getting us off oil and gas completely by 2050 — running our country completely on renewable energy.

Off shore windmills, like this one at Middelgrunden just outside Copenhagen, Denmark will become a familiar site off the Irish coast.
Off shore windmills, like this one at Middelgrunden just outside Copenhagen, Denmark will become a familiar site off the Irish coast.

A recent report, Our Climate Neutral Future: Zero by 50, led by Dr Paul Deane at UCC’s MaREI and Environmental Research Institute, demonstrates that this energy revolution is technically and financially feasible but early action is required to meet our climate commitments.

The engineers responsible for acting early are not worried about the technicalities involved — they have been rolling out renewables for 20 years. They are worried about social acceptance and how the public will embrace this future electricity system. Will Ireland embrace wind?

Eirgrid are responsible for keeping the lights of the country on and they want to hear from citizens and consumers about how to shape our future electricity system. They have launched a public consultation about how best to proceed with this expanded electricity network.

Eirgrid has met with community resistance on previous large scale projects. Putting cabling underground at pinch points of disagreements has overcome some problems recently but won’t solve all future problems.

Painstaking consultation to avoid major objections will be needed to ensure projects can proceed without significant delays. A good recent example is the proposed onshore route of the Celtic Interconnector —the large cable plugging us into France.

The cable is due to come ashore at Claycastle Beach in Youghal and run to a new converter station at Bally-adam in Carrigtwohill.

Local communities at Killeagh and Castlemartyr objected to the cable running through their villages to the station.

Killeagh is only recovering from what felt like permanent roadworks, so I’m sure the thoughts of more diggers turning up was worrying.

To Eirgrid’s credit, they have amended their plans and are going a less contentious route.

Each project will require granular attention to detail to make sure important projects like the €1 billion interconnector project can proceed.

It’s easy to dismiss NIMBYism until you’re faced with an issue on your doorstep. 

Flicker, noise disturbance and other environmental impacts are all important concerns that need careful consideration. Working with communities and listening to their concerns, amending plans and finding a path of least resistance will be some of the most important meticulous work wind farm developers and Eirgrid do in the coming years.

Many city dwellers will not have to deal with the prospect of giant turbines appearing in their neighbourhood and changing the view, but east coast residents and a large proportion of the Dublin population will most likely have to get used to the sight of offshore wind farms on the horizon. Generating the energy where it is needed will be key to meeting our electricity demands in the future, and the growing energy demands of Dublin will require a radical expansion of offshore wind farms.

For some people, every turbine is a blemish on an unspoiled landscape, for others a symbol of hope at fixing the climate emergency.

Corkonians have lived with the sight of ESB’s Marina Power Station on our docklands since 1954. Now retired, I expect most people don’t give it a second look. It is part of the riverscape furniture, sitting there idle, waiting for a new purpose.

If someone proposed to build an oil and gas fired power station now in that particular spot, 2km from the city centre, I suspect there would be a furore. Will the same happen with the pylons and turbines that are needed to decarbonise our energy sector? Will people see them as a sign of hope and renewal rather than a blight on the landscape?

If everyone says no, then we won’t save the planet.

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