Need for Reform
It is recognized that offshore wind farms must be to a proper scale and properly sited to avoid unacceptable impacts on the coastal environment. The outdated and undemocratic legislation (Foreshore Act 1933) governing construction in Irish waters, together with inadequate regulation, has led to developers being awarded foreshore leases by the Minister for the Marine for construction of massive developments which are out of line with best European practice in terms of turbine size, number of turbines and distances from shore.
The European section of the above table is taken from a 2009 report commissioned by the UK authorities as part of the Offshore Renewable Energy Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) to assist in decision making on the coastal buffer distances of wind farms for Round 3 of offshore wind leasing. This report contains useful information on the approaches in other EU countries to coastal landscape protection. Identification of Seascape Units around the English Coast and Consideration of Seascape Buffer Zones (page 21). White Consultants with Arup CESA Jan 2009.
Particularly striking is the number of massive 5MW turbines permitted and proposed in Ireland’s near-shore zone. These mega turbines (160m / 524 feet high), are still largely at the pilot stage. They are designed primarily for use in locations far from shore where visual impact is not an issue. At end 2009, just six of these 5MW turbines were installed worldwide - at the Alpha Ventus test site, 43km off the German coast.
In Ireland, hundreds of these huge turbines have been permitted and proposed, 5km to 13 km off Ireland’s scenic coastline. These developments are almost all on shallow sandbanks, cheaper to develop than deeper water further offshore. (These sandbanks are an important marine habitat protected under EU legislation) There has been no independent, professional assessment of the visual impact of these large scale industrial developments on Ireland’s scenic coastline. The wild life impact of such extensive development is unknown.
Why have hundreds of 5 MW turbines been proposed in Ireland’s near-shore waters? Somewhat similar to planning permission on land, the value of a foreshore lease for construction at sea is based in large part on the size of development permitted. Clearly a foreshore lease for a massive 1100 MW development, such as Codling Wind Park off Bray Head, Co Wicklow, is a lot more valuable than a foreshore lease for a development a fraction that size in the same location. Under Ireland’s lax regulatory regime, developers have been allowed to pick out sites on “a first come first served basis”, obtain foreshore leases from the Minister for the Marine for massive development inappropriately close to sensitive coastlines and sell the foreshore leases on to international power companies, netting very significant profit. All this activity has been happening under outdated legislation and below the radar of public attention.
It is worth noting that the two foreshore leases for offshore wind farms in Irish waters awarded by the Minister for the Marine are for 99 years. The European norm is 30/50 years. This again contributes to the value of the Irish leases.
INTERNATIONAL COMPARISON - 2009
Further details on the discrepancy between Ireland and the rest of Europe are contained in CCA's - Comparison of Irish and International Offshore Windfarms, 2012. This is presented as a chart which sets out the name of the wind farm, distance from coast, number of turbines, turbine size, capacity in MW, status of projects and additional remarks. Based largely on the OSPAR database on offshore wind farms, CCA’s chart shows that Ireland is out of line with good international practice in terms of size and number of turbines permitted and proximity to shore.
It is clear that Irish regulation with regard to key regulatory parameters is still much more lax than in other countries. This poses a very serious threat to Ireland’s sensitive habitats, marine wildlife and coastal landscapes, important aspects of natural heritage and quality of life. The threat still pertains in 2018.