Plans for large-scale offshore windfarms are sending shivers up the spines of some fisheries bodies, ecologists, and community groups. While many business elements and environmentalists have welcomed the chance to harness the strong Atlantic winds, there are others who fear the seascape around our coasts could will be littered with massive turbines, resulting in damage to tourism, aquaculture and biodiversity, as Siobhán Cronin reports
RURAL onshore windfarms have long been a subject of much debate, ever since the first project was commissioned by Bord na Móna in a bog in Co Mayo in 1992.
Their value to the national grid has been weighed up against their ‘nuisance’ value – ranging from the aesthetic effect on the landscape, to more serious issues, like noise pollution and the possible effect on people with higher sensory sensitivity, like people with autism.
According to wind energy Ireland, there are now over 300 windfarms across Ireland, the majority of them in two bands – one stretching across the southern part of the country, and the second one, stretching across the northern part.
The history of some of these farms is a troubled one. There have been several instances of both individual residents and entire communities challenging windfarm projects.
In some cases, local authorities refused planning permission but when appealed to An Bord Pleanala, they got the green light.
Windfarm developers have found that their financial contributions to local communities, like sports clubs, local organisations and projects, have helped to ingratiate themselves with the locals and minimise negative reception.
A report from the Irish Wind Energy Association last November revealed that Cork windfarms had given €424,740 to their local communities in 2019, out of a total of almost €3.5m dished out nationwide.
Between these generous handouts and potential legal challenges, many developers of windfarms have found the projects an expensive business. But now the sector has spotted another option on the horizon – literally. And that is the huge potential of offshore windfarms.
In the past five years plans for offshore wind sites along the east, south east and south west coast have taken major steps forward.
It must be attractive to developers to think that such sites have no immediate ‘neighbours’ and therefore may not need to be accompanied by large cash reserves for legal challenges, or planning objections.
However, a spokesperson for Wind Energy Ireland told The Southern Star that it is expected that offshore windfarm operators will still be expected to contribute to local communities.
‘The terms and conditions for the Renewable Electricity Support Scheme (RESS) for offshore wind energy have not yet been published by the Department,’ they said.
‘However, it is our understanding that offshore windfarms will be required to invest €2 per MWh of electricity produced in a community benefit fund, as it is with an onshore windfarm … to put that in context, it would mean that a typical 500 MW offshore windfarm could expect to generate an annual community benefit fund of somewhere between €3.5m and €4m every year for the duration of the scheme.’
It is not yet known what would be categorised as a ‘local community’ to a windfarm located several kilometres offshore.
And now environmentalists and other vested interests are starting to sit up and take notice of other potential threats – to fishing and to seascapes, in particular.
BirdWatch Ireland has already said it fears the cumulative effect of so many windfarms planned for the east coast will endanger seabirds.
One group in Munster that has started to gain traction in recent months – Blue Horizon – says its members were shocked by the huge number of planned windfarms off the Waterford coast.
While they are not against offshore wind in principle, they were horrified to find that the Irish government may allow these major construction projects to be located as close as 5km from shore – the only European country which is considering permitting such turbines within 22km of the mainland.
Another lobby group worried about the knock-on effects of the construction of so many offshore projects is the fishing industry.
The Castletownbere-based Irish South & West Fish Producers Organisation (IS&WFPO) has been lobbying for more inclusion in planning talks around these massive offshore construction sites.
They fear that both the construction and operational phases of such massive farms could disturb both spawning grounds and fish stocks and ultimately damage their members’ livelihoods.
Only time will tell if the benefits of offshore wind can outweigh the fears of these interested parties, but it does seem that the road to completion of these major sea-based ventures may not be as smooth as the project managers had hoped.
‘We will see Ireland surrounded if we are not careful .... ’
THE biggest criticism of the offshore wind energy sector in Ireland so far has come from fishing interests, worried about the future of important fish spawning grounds, and the effect of large-scale construction at sea.
Patrick Murphy of the Irish South & West Fish Producers Organisation told The Southern Star recently that the commandeering of sites at sea by windfarm developers today is akin to the land grabs from the native Americans in the 19th century.
‘This is the next frontier for Europe, we are going to see Ireland surrounded by these giant turbines if we are not careful.’
He said Europe has committed to producing 300 gigabytes of power from wind energy – which translates to 30,000 turbines around Europe’s coast.
Ireland has some of the best locations for such turbines, from a wind and accessibility viewpoint, so there is no wonder it is becoming an attractive location for big energy firms.
‘But what we need is local jobs, local security, but this is not land, this is sea and yet this is big business, and if it’s not done right, it will damage spawning grounds,’ said Mr Murphy.
Environmentalists have long known that largescale drilling and construction at sea causes the displacement of fish stocks and spawning grounds, and ultimately can damage local fishing industries.
Mr Murphy, while not in total opposition to offshore energy, said the developers need to start consulting with affected parties, like the fishing industry.
‘We need to get together and agree locations so that if fish spawning grounds are damaged, then at least we can maybe find another species that can co-exist, like lobster or crab. We might need to create new nurseries at the farms, or in protected areas for displaced grounds.’
He likened the effect of both construction, and operation of windfarms, to a man standing with two dustbin lids banging them together. ‘No birds are going to come near him while he is doing that – it is the same with fish and these giant projects,’ he explained. ‘It’s like the Walton’s Mountain episode of the Walton’s, but this is real life, and real jobs.’
He said that environmental impact studies are regularly undertaken to see the effects of widescale construction on the likes of dolphins, birds, and crustaceans – but not spawning grounds.
And Ireland has some of the most valuable spawning grounds for fish in Europe.
‘These spawning grounds are everywhere, and these windfarms could create a corridor between them, damaging them. What’s more, construction or turbine frequencies could also damage or displace the grounds.’
Mr Murphy believes the real effect of offshore windfarm on the environment has not been properly tested yet, because Portugal – which had some of the first offshore farms in Europe – does not have the ecologically-sensitive fishing areas that are located around Ireland.
‘What makes us unique in Ireland is our spawning grounds,’ he said.
He said one example of at-sea construction having a long term effect on the sector is the transatlantic telecoms cable – which was laid at Valentia in Co Kerry in the 1800s – still fouls fishing equipment to this day.
‘And if they talk about grants for us, well grants are no good to fishermen. We need to sustain jobs and for this, we want to be at the decision making table to have an input,’ said Mr Murphy.
He noted the sector is still reeling from the effects of a disastrous Brexit for fishers.
‘If 30% of our grounds go [due to Brexit], then maybe we can employ 30% of those fishermen in providing maintenance and guard boats for these farms.’
Winds of change: Part 2 of our special report into offshore windfarms is available to read here.