Turbulent times for EirGrid

EirGrid, the state-owned energy company, was under fire this year due to the rollout of its Grid 25 strategy that incorporates the erection of thousands of Pylons across the country.

It came under sustained criticism from both community groups and politicians during the period and the relationship between the company and its critics is not likely to improve in the New Year.

Opposition

The opposition to the project kicked up a gear when more than 1,000 people attended a rally organised by the North East Pylon Pressure (NEPP) in early November. At the event the NEPP called on the Government to suspend the EirGrid North-South Pylon plan pending an investigation of costs involved.

Prior to the meeting a spokesperson for NEPP said to AgriLand that: “Some people in the area affected by the Meath, Cavan, Monaghan and Tyrone EirGrid project may be under the illusion that the scheme has gone away. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tomorrow’s meeting is to raise awareness of the fact the EirGrid is about to lodge a second application for planning permission for these enormous Pylons to be built on peoples lands,” he continued.

“NEEP has consistently demanded and will continue to demand that the grid be upgraded, but underground not pylons. There are many reasons not least health, land value, tourism, damage to the environment, intrusion on farming and ecological upheaval.”

At the meeting the group called on the Government to instruct EirGrid to halt its planning application process for the North-South interconnector pending an industry cost analysis.

Eirgrid’s Grid 25 project also came under the spotlight in Joint Committee on Transport and Communication. Where representatives of community groups who are strongly opposed to the projects were invited to air their views.

Issues raised by the groups included visual impact, undergrounding, property devaluation, tourism, health landscape value, lack of public consultation among more.

Padraig O’Reilly of the NEPP claimed the public were being misled by EirGrid on the true cost of pylons versus the undergrounding option NEPP advocates. “They are deliberately leaving out such enormous cost facts as land devaluation,” he said. Independent land valuation expert Phillip Farrelly told the meeting this would allegedly add some €200m-€250m to the cost of pylons.

O’Reilly called for an independent audit of EirGrid’s modus operandi specifically in relation to its refusal to objectively examine feasibility and cost of undergrounding, lack of accountability for the spending of taxpayers money and arrogant behaviour towards public consultation and information.

“We face the same challenges, the same issues and the same EriGrid excuses,” he said. “We need to combine our resources and information, maximise people power, maximise political pressure, to utilise the best expertise available, and to learn from what happened in Denmark where undergrounding is now the norm.”

Minister’s reaction

Minister for Agriculture Food and Marine Simon Coveney speaking at the Irish Creamery Milk Association (ICMSA) AGM this year also became involved in the controversy over the pylons. He said: “If we are serious about producing renewable energy in Ireland in a serious way. We have to be able to move it around the country.”

“I do have an understanding of how sensitive this is. But I also have an understanding of how antiquated our electricity grid infrastructure is and if we’re serious as a country about delivering growth, about bring in foreign direct investment here outside of Dublin. We have to be able to move energy around the country.

“There are only two 400kb lines at the moment that is big lines carrying a lot of electricity and both of those leave Moneypoint and go to Dublin. And I’m not aware that along that route there has been any dramatic or massive damage to agriculture and farming.

“Having said that I do understand why people would be concerned this is big infrastructure. It’s very visual and people don’t want to look at it. But there has to be some compromise here. If people want this infrastructure underground there are significant consequences to that. One it’s significantly more expensive and two there are real technical problems with it. That we have teased though over many many hours.

“If we choose to do something that is more expensive in terms of building the infrastructure then the only way to pay for that is to charge people more for their electricity. If there was an easy technical solution to this without cost implications or for consumers in Ireland who need competitively priced energy .Well then we would be doing it and EirGrid would be doing it.”

Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Deputy Pat Rabbitte, with responsibility for the project, is also getting a lot of heat on the issue. Speaking on the matter he said: “Development of the high voltage electricity grid as planned in the EirGrid Grid25 strategy is critical to Ireland’s economic and social development.”

He stressed: “Ensuring secure reliable and safe supplies of electricity is critical to Ireland’s ability to attract inward investment and retain and create jobs.”

Incoming chairman

The pressure on EirGrid did not relent into December when the planned new chairman of EirGrid Eddie O’Connor appeared for approval in front of the Transport Committee.

He grabbed the headlines when he stated he would not like to live near a pylon.

The appointment was heavily criticised in the committee with suggestions of a conflicts of interest due to his previous position as Chairman of An Bord Pleanla.” O’Connor stressed: “I would like to refute emphatically the reported suggestions that I would have a conflict of interest in taking up this position.”

The former chairman of An Bord Pleanala noted: “An Bord Pleanala is a totally independent arbitrator of these decisions and it would be an offence in law for anybody to interfere with those decisions improperly.”

Chairman of the national planning authority for 11 years, he said: “My chairmanship ended in June 2011 and since that date I have no involvement with the board or indeed could I have. My standing with An Bord Pleanala is the same as any other citizen. There is no conflict between my personal interest and those of EirGrid arising out of my previous employment.”

According to O’Connor: “I will not involve myself in individual planning applications or attend oral hearings…As chairman of the company I don’t think I can step away from certain processes in the company. That wouldn’t be right either…I don’t believe I have any particularly unique knowledge of how An Bord Pleanala works.”

‘Keeping the Lights on’

EirGrid was back in front of the committee again in the same week , this time represented by chief executive Fintan Slye.

According to the CEO: “Our objective is to keep the lights on, electricity is an essential part of a modern economy and a modern society.”

We look in the first instance at the extent to which we can upgrade the grid using the existing infrastructure. We look out into the future to ensure we have the grid necessary to ensure the lights stay on out in 10, 20, 30 years as well.

“But sometimes inevitably we need to build new infrastructure to cater for the needs of the future. We look at all the options available to do that. Be it over head or underground. We have no vested interested in a particular technology solution,” he stressed.

The said the Grid 25 strategy is investment in the transmission infrastructure and it’s essential to ensure balanced regional development. It is important the infrastructure is there to support industry and jobs, he said.

According to Slye: “It is a €3.2bn investment over its term incorporating 200 projects right across the country. From the very small to the very large.”

Outlining the three 400KV lines that have grabbed the public’s attention the most, he said: “We realise these projects are large in terms of scale and scope and we have set out for people how we were going to go about consulting and engaging with them.”

In terms of the North-South Interconnector, he said: “We have been developing that for a number of years. It is in the final stages of the planning application that hope to submit early in 2014.”

Regarding the Grid West project, the CEO explained: “It reinforces the grid in the West significantly. It is involved in harnessing the wind energy on the western sea board. We have identified a preferred corridor for that and we are out consult with people. We hope to submit a planning application at the end of 2015. So a long way to go.”

In terms of the Grid link, he said it launched in 2012. “It’s in a consultation period on the preferred corridors at the moment. At the request of this committee the consultation has been extended and will close on the 7 January next.”

On criticism of EirGrid’s consultation process, Slye stressed: “We will address all the issues that are raised. We will do it in a fair, balanced, open and transparent way.”

He continued: “We are very clear and upfront with people in regard to the process that would be involved in the development of these projects. The consultation has been above and beyond what has been put in place for other infrastructure projects to date be it roads or telecoms. Notwithstanding that we recognise there is a degree of concern out there about the information that’s available.”

He noted some of the concerns expressed: “There are a number of issues that we recognise that are coming up through the consultation, which are heath, undergrounding, visual impact, impact on property, community gin and the consultation process itself.”

On overhead versus undergrounding infrastructure, he said: “We have no vested interest in a particular technology solution. We look at all the available options to look at what is the best solution for the particular need on the grid and to meet the needs of Ireland Inc going forward.”

He continued: “Studies by both EirGrid and an independent government panel found it would increase the cost be a factor of three.”

“The vast majority of the existing girds in Europe are overhead transmission and the vast majority of the planned developments in the future are overhead AC technology.”

As to whether he would live next to a pylon he said: “I would have no issue, I know it’s safe.”

The New Year is likely to see further clashes between the company and its now extremely vocal opposition. With high-profile planning decisions and route announcements due in 2014 its not likely that Eirgrid will stay out of the news for long.

 

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