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Energy firms: are they saving rural Ireland or buying up our support?

November 23rd, 2017 11:25 AM

By Southern Star Team

CASH FOR COMMUNITIES: SSE Airtricity has donated over €1m since 2008 to community groups and projects in the vicinity of its three Cork windfarms, two of which are in West Cork. They have spent a total of €5m nationally in that time, contributing to local projects.

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Renewable energy companies are making big investments in West Cork communities, denying it’s a tactic to win over opponents, but claiming it’s a bid to foster engagement and provide long term benefits. Emma Connolly reports

 

PEOPLE may have been wondering why solar and wind farm developers have become the saviours of rural Ireland, pumping hundreds of thousands of euro into often ravaged areas.

Eyebrows have been raised in some quarters at the amount of money coming from high profile companies, some of which may have faced objections to their developments at the planning stage. 

In the absence of national planning guidelines, West Cork has seen a plethora of solar and wind farms cropping up, with lots more in the planning process. 

Several communities have consequently established action groups to oppose them on visual, noise and health grounds, with mixed success. 

However, Irish renewal energy companies like BNRG Renewables and SSE Airtricity insist their motivation for donating and investing is simply to deliver effective community engagement and participation.

BNRG Renewables Ltd is planning to build two solar farms near Bandon. 

A planning decision is due shortly for a solar development near a townland called Finnis, while an application will also be lodged for a second one near the town. 

Instead of donating to groups, which they say can be divisive to a community, their approach, if planning is successful, is to install solar panels on the roof of a local school. 

Their formula is that a 1MW on the ground should deliver 2KW on a roof. 

Director David Maguire said: ‘Contributions might not always benefit local communities. This would provide the long-term benefit of energy savings, additional revenue (in the event of a micro-generation tariff) and educational benefits for a 25-year period. One attraction of this approach is that it would deliver tangible benefits to the locality that would also possess symbolic value – ie it shows solar impacting positively on a community.’ 

A further possible attraction for regulator and/or local authorities could be that such an approach would be relatively straightforward to prescribe and monitor. 

‘Where a suitable community benefit project (eg roof installation or energy efficiency project) cannot be identified by the community, then a one-off or annual payment could be made,’ explained Maguire.

Members of his team have visited two local schools in the Bandon area and are working to establish which one would be most suitable for the investment, which would be between €10,000 and €20,000. 

As chair of the Irish Solar Energy Association, Mr Maguire said people could take the view they were trying to influence the planning outcome, but that in reality it came down to a ‘fear of the unknown’. 

‘Yes, we are trying to engender public support. Is that selfish? Maybe. But the reality is that the planning system is so tough and robust that a badly sited development will get refused planning anyway,’ he told The Southern Star.

‘Solar is better for the community – investing locally won’t get us a better route through planning, and we are doing it anyway and not boasting about it.’

 He agrees that communities might be more accepting if they feel they can be involved the process. ‘It’s a gesture of goodwill but it’s wider than that,’ he said.

‘There’s a real challenge in dealing with climate change and this raises people’s awareness about climate challenges and renewable energy in general.’

Maguire added: ‘Solar is going to happen – we are the last country in Europe to introduce it, it’s everywhere, but there are long term benefits, including employment.’

He acknowledged a level of opposition had been voiced locally when his team met people individually and collectively in the Finnis area, on visual, noise and glare grounds. 

But he insisted: ‘We don’t need to bribe local people not to object to this.’

Maguire also said that a Community Energy Investment Fund (CEIF) was something they were keen to introduce in areas where they had a presence – eg Bandon. This would allow people to co-invest in projects with them.

‘This model allows the wider Irish community to benefit from the installation of solar PV financially, with the knowledge that they are investing in a sustainable opportunity that has the regulated backing of the Irish State, and helps communities near solar PV projects to invest in projects.

‘The CEIF would be similar to the Special Saving Incentive Account (SSIA). The community investors (individual residents) would invest for a defined period with a set rate of return. As there is a reasonable degree of certainty in relation to the lifetime economics of a solar project, it should be possible to offer a product to those investors.’

The CEIF would be owned and operated by the Irish State. It would match any funds provided by private individuals. These funds would be invested across a portfolio of Irish solar projects on commercial terms. The State would guarantee the security of the fund and its returns, allowing it to offer funds to the sector at very competitive rates and also remove the element of risk for the non-professional investor.

A third option being considered in communities is an Ownership Project through a crowd funding model which allows people to invest as little as €10 or as much as €50,000, with an equal transaction cost. 

‘This is a very democratic way of allowing everyone to get involved as it removes brokerage fees. It would fundamentally change the status quo as the entire public would benefit and get involved in the solar discussion.’

Aoife Carlin of the Jagoes Mills Action Group represents residents living near a solar farm in Kinsale, which has planning but has yet to be developed. She said they were less concerned about donations and investment, and more about legislation surrounding wind and solar developments. 

Their group, she said, was not anti-renewable energy but very supportive of it and critical that as a country Ireland was behind the EU in this area. ‘I think before we consider what’s appropriate regarding investment or ownership, the first step is to ensure that the planning system in this area is robust enough.’

Their action group had lodged an appeal with An Bord Pleanála (ABP) against a decision by Cork County Council to grant permission to Green Mills Energy for a 5MW solar power plant on a 32-acre site at Farrangalway near Kinsale. While an inspector had recommended it not be granted, that was overturned the ABP board. 

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