Like all modern households, mine consumes electricity. Big time! I depend on it for refrigeration, lighting, heating, cleaning, clothes and dishwashing. I could not imagine returning to the pre-rural electrification household of my farming grandmother. Every morning, she lit a fire and fanned it with a bellows to boil a kettle and cook breakfast.
Nor could I imagine her nightly smelly chore of filling and lighting paraffin lamps, nor the flickering candle which lit her bedroom. On the very few occasions when I light a candle on a special dinner table, it would quickly and irritatingly lose its charm, if I could not access “real” light at the push of a switch.
I never give a thought to this essential in my life, nor to how it is generated or arrives at my doorstep. As I push buttons and machines go on or off, the fact that I am contributing to the depletion of the very expensive imported fossil fuels, gas and oil, from which the bulk of Irish electricity is made, does not worry me.
But, the experts now tell me that this fossil fuel is finite and it will run out, sooner or later. And while there are still substantial supplies of coal in the world, extracting it from deep in the earth, is dangerous, expensive and the fumes and dust created by it, threaten the atmosphere and human health.
So the alternative is the green way; the generation of electric power from wind, water and waves. This has now become more than an aspiration, it has become an imperative for us in Ireland. By international agreement, and EU directives, if we do not generate between 18 and 20 per cent of our electricity requirements from these alternatives by 2020, we will have to pay very substantial fines. Unless our economic climate has a dramatic change by then, this will be money which we can ill afford, and which could more usefully be directed to health and education.
In theory, we can all be enthusiastic about the green way, until we personally find ourselves directly affected by the unpleasant facts of its implementation. Such is now the experience of the communities of the Comeragh foothill country of Bawnfune, Curraheenavoher, Boolabrien and Russellstown. While precise information is not yet available, it is anticipated that a proposal is about to be made for the development of a so-called windfarm on the high moorland and forestry ridges overlooking these townslands.
The anticipation is, and it is as yet no more than such, that at least nine turbines, exceptionally high - about 120 metres - nearly 400 feet - will be erected on the ridges. Again, anticipation is that this development will adversely affect the residents of the area, first by intrusion into a quiet and beautiful landscape, and practically by major access and construction works which may interfere with domestic water sources.
There is also the prospect that in operation windfarms produce what has been identified as the “flicker effect,” which has now given the status of a syndrome - the “Wind Turbine Syndrome” (WTS). And there is, too, a monotonous drone when turbines are in operation, and which is uneasy on the ear and inescapable in a quiet countryside.
On the other hand, it can be argued that these are conditions which those of us who live in towns have long come to terms with. The flicker, noise and exhaust of vehicular traffic are all endemic to urban living. Our ears are assailed by the “muziak” of supermarkers, our nights disturbed by boozy street disturbances.
It seems to me, however, that the real argument which can be made for or agaist windfarms is on the basis of cost and efficiency. Development costs, even though now subsidised by government grants, are enormous. Associated infrastructural costs would also seem prohibitively high, especially running costs, and the interconnection between isolated windfarms and the national grid. Whether these be underground connections, or overhead lines with pylons, both are disruptive in construction, and the latter has a serious impact on the landscape and environment.
The ultimate ideal, and the greatest efficiency, would be a European-wide grid, so that a fall in wind in one area would be compensated for by a plentiful supply in another area, thereby eliminating the need for fossil fuel stand-by power stations. But all of that is in the future and dependent on the willingness of governments to participate and very substantial long-term investment of capital.
Meanwhile the Irish policy seems to be the steady development in isolated pockets on high and windy sites. And here the communities of Bawnfune, Curraheenavoher, Boolabrien and Russellstown, anticipate a threat to the quality of their lives. “Not in our backyard,” they say. “Take your windfarm somewhere else!”
The problem is: where? The area of the Comeraghs, hills, peaks, lakes and valleys is spectacularly beautiful. It deserved the very best practices and policies in planning and conservation. It did not get it. The hill country currently the preferred location for the windfarm, was, until a few decades ago, an unspoilt rural area of small farms with moorland sheep-rearing. It is now a residential area, electricity-consuming, car-dependent, largely urban-orientated in work, school, recreation. Russellstown has such a density of houses that it is a suburb without the attached town.
This development is replicated, to a greater or lesser extent, in most of the valleys and much of the lower foothills of the Comeraghs, all of which have now become some other community’s backyards. So what is my threatened backyard today, may be someone else’s backyard tomorrow.
The potential of this beautiful mountain country has never been comprehensively examined. Apart from the obvious farming and tourism, the hills are both a watershed and a source of domestic water for very large urban populations, yet the wide distribution of septic tanks threaten that source. The woods, bogs and wetlands, as natural flood controls, have never been sympathetically managed.
Now, another very urgent potential in the production of green energy is about to be exploited in our hill country. Rather than making it up as they go along, should planning authorities not be setting down the conditions, the criteria, for such inevitable developments and working with, rather than in conflict with, communities?