Eirgrid: Poles apart in power game

The RTS (Ratheniska, Timahoe, Spink and surrounding areas) substation action group stage a blockade of the Eirgrid site at Esker, Timahoe, Co Laois last month. Pictures: Alf Harvey

Every morning, soon after 6am, they gather in the caravan. They have a rota, sorting out who can come on which mornings. As the dawn breaks across the Midlands, the light goes on in the caravan, the kettle is boiled, news of the day is exchanged.

And then they wait to see whether or not there will be an attempt to breach their blockade. Since last June, local people have been blockading the construction of a new electricity substation on a 20-acre site in Ratheniska, Co Laois, about 10km outside Portlaoise. It’s part of a dispute over the siting of the substation that has been going on for 10 years.

The project has been through the planning process, including an oral hearing. It has been before the High Court, which gave it the nod. But local people don’t accept the outcome. As far as they are concerned, their health and safety fears are being ignored by the State apparatus, including Eirgrid, which is responsible for electricity infrastructure, the planning authorities, and the courts.

“You can’t come into a community and tell them you’re going to build X and basically lie,” says Colm Fingleton, of the Ratheniska Timahoe Spink (RTS) group, which claims that the extent of the development was never made known locally.

“We had to take this step (blockading). It’s not a thing that people do lightly, go to the gate of somebody else’s farm. But at this stage, we had no other choice.”

The primary concern cited by the locals is what they perceive as a real danger to a water aquavar near the site, from which the local water scheme draws its resource. This, they believe, has not been given due consideration by the authorities.

However, this dispute is also indicative of a problem that is now common across rural Ireland where energy infrastructure is being built. Local people believe that the developer — Eirgrid — has shown itself to be untrustworthy, and, by extension, anything that it develops must therefore be treated with the greatest suspicion.

Lack of consultation The substation at Ratheniska is part of what is routinely described as “vital national infrastructure”. It is designed to take electricity from the 400kv line that travels from Moneypoint, Co Clare, to the greater Dublin area. The substation will facilitate diverting power to the Kilkenny region. The first intimation that most local people got about the project came in the autumn of 2009.

“I saw an ad in the paper,” farmer John Lowry says.

They would have to come on our land to make the connection with the 400kv line but nobody told us. I rang and they still wouldn’t say what the details were.

Eirgrid, which manages and operates the electricity grid across the State, had identified the perfect site for its purpose, as described in a strategic document about the project.

“It is approximately 1.5km south of the existing 400kV overhead line and is located in an isolated area close to a disused quarry… there are a low number of dwellings in the immediate vicinity and the site is accessed from an existing quarry road.”

So far so promising. Except the local people didn’t see it like that. As far as they were concerned, this substation was going to be too close to the aquavar serving the local water scheme. Mr Lowry says he remembers a time when there was no running water in the area.

“We went to a school where we’d no toilets,” he says. “My father and others started the scheme in 1975. There was nothing before that. And it got set up and expanded and now there are 12,000 people on the scheme.” The potential danger posed to the water resource is a constant theme among the group. The site, they point out, will include two transformers, requiring around 600 tonnes of oil. What if the oil seeps into the watertable? What if there is a fire?

Potential contamination has been assessed, mainly through an Environmental Impact Statement, which found that the substation would not pose a danger. The planning inspector agreed.

“It appears that the substation can be constructed without undue risk to groundwater sources. The development could be carried out and operated satisfactorily from an ecological standpoint.”

But locally, there is little faith in this assessment. The other big issue is so-called “future proofing”.

While Eirgrid has insisted that the project is designed specifically to link up with the Kilkenny line, local people see a Trojan Horse that will ultimately be used as a hub for wind farms. Across the Midlands, as with much of rural Ireland, wind farms remain highly contentious.

There was no mention of renewables in the planning application, and the High Court hearing on the matter heard that such a situation remained hypothetical. Yet locals claim that the size of the project will make it quite easy to accommodate multiple connections, which could plug into harvested wind energy.

As Colm Fingleton put it: “The difference between what they said it was for and what it could turn out to be is the difference between building a bungalow and a 200-room hotel.” A spokesman for Eirgrid said the substation is to have 10 bays, and not 17 as alleged by the local group, and that all these bays are allocated for the Kilkenny line.

One reason why trust is a sump may be the lack of consultation about the project. A log of interactions between Eirgrid and local elements prior to receiving planning permission highlights only two public forums, neither in the specific locality. While there were multiple meetings with politicians and elements of the county council, those who believe they will be most affected by the project were, as far as they’re concerned, left largely out of the loop. Eirgrid, in a statement, rejected a lack of engagement, pointing to meetings and newspaper ads it took out.

It said:

We are fully satisfied that we engaged fully and properly with people in Laois and Kilkenny

.

By November 2014, all roads led to Portlaoise where an oral hearing was held over five days. The inspector presented his report which was generally positive of the application with a few caveats. By the following April, the planning board gave the go-ahead.

With that, the RTS group brought their case to the High Court, which sat in December 2014 for three days to hear challenges to the planning permission. Judge Robert Haughton gave his ruling in January 2015. He dismissed all of the five separate grounds of appeal by the group.

An appeal to the Supreme Court was planned, but quickly shelved when it was conveyed to them that the costs which were covered by the planning board in the High Court, would not extend to an appeal. In other words, in the event of failure, the group could be saddled with the costs of the whole case. They backed down.

With due process complete, the way was now clear for a bright new shining substation to rise up from the lowlands of Laois. Trust further eroded And then Eirgrid went and spoiled it all. In 2017, work got under way. The local people kept an eye on events from nearby.

One method of keeping tabs involved stepping into the bucket of a mechanical digger which was raised up for an elevated view of the neighbouring site. Nearly immediately, they spotted that works were going on for a temporary pylon that did not have planning permission. Laois County Council was informed, work was stopped and trust was further eroded. Eventually, in 2018, things got up and running again.

But by then, the locals had had enough. At a public meeting in June last year, the RTS group threw it out to the 140 or so locals who attended.

“Amongst ourselves, we weren’t sure how to proceed,” says Dave Fingleton, another member of RTS. “So we asked the community what do we do. Does the community want us to keep on fighting this, even if it’s doing something that’s uncomfortable for everybody?”

The response came back in the positive and the site has been blockaded since. There have been attempts at mediation. Before Christmas, local TD Sean Fleming chaired a meeting between the group and Eirgrid executives, but nothing came out of it. Sean Fleming says the whole affair has left him with no faith whatsoever in Eirgrid.

“I watched their performance over the last 10 years and they have treated the community with contempt. I have no confidence in them based on that performance.

“They were never open or forthcoming at any stage. For instance, I have experience of a number of motorways going through this county. One road took out 20 houses, some of which people had been in for three generations. Yet the NRA (National Roads Authority) negotiated their way out of any trouble.

“The lack of that kind of skill on the part of Eirgrid is the reason why things are as they are now with this project.”

In response to a query from the Irish Examiner about where it goes from here, ESB Networks, which has taken over the construction of the substation, said that it is “aware of some local concerns” and “continues to liaise with the local community and landowners to alleviate these concerns.”

Meanwhile, every morning, before the sun rises, the local people man the battle stations. What the future holds is as yet unclear.#

‘We have to look at what we give back to the community’

Eirgrid has confirmed to the Irish Examiner that it has no plans to use the Ratheniska substation for anything other than connection to the Kilkenny line, as per planning permission. Yet, there is obviously a complete lack of trust in the company’s actions and plans. The narrative is one that is occurring with increasingly frequency in rural Ireland where energy provision has become a major challenge. Typically, a developer, state company or energy provider arrives in a rural area, spots an opportunity and attempts to set up shop.

Usually, the company is operating with the blessing of national policy, as with, for instance, wind energy or the upgrade of the electricity network. In addition, the incoming company is usually backed by serious financial muscle and plenty of technical expertise. Usually, there is a sense that there will inevitably be some opposition. So the tactic thereafter is to either attempt to tiptoe around the locals or display a complete indifference to any concerns. The most outstanding example of the latter approach was the Corrib gas field which began to impinge on Co Mayo nearly 20 years ago. The matter ended with seven local men being jailed for contempt of court and a protracted and bitter dispute that has left wounds exposed to this day.

There was plenty of local support for the project, but there was also scathing criticism of how Shell had handled the matter from day one.

The company’s personnel marched into Belmullet and the surrounding area expecting to be greeted like conquering heroes with saddlebags full of prosperity.

As far as they were concerned they had the Government on their side and money to throw around so the peasants would be best served by lying down and letting them get on with it. We know how that ended.

Today the tactic of tiptoeing around is the one most in vogue. Time and again, this has been how windfarm developers have conducted themselves, keeping engagement to a minimum, a tight rein on information, and offering up a few prayers to St Jude that it will get over the line before the local insurgents know what’s afoot.

That’s bad enough but even greater ignorance is displayed in how some of these developers negotiate the law. Rules are routinely broken, and, more often than not, local authorities appear to be just keeping the head down. That was what occurred in Barnafaddock, Co Waterford, last year when a wind- farm developer exceeded its planning permission and was not stopped until persistent complaints by local people could no longer be ignored.

In Ratheniska, Eirgrid attempted to build a structure without planning permission. And the slow response of Laois County Council also spoke volumes. So it’s high time that those charged with bringing energy infrastructure to rural Ireland copped on. The chief executive of Eirgrid, Mark Foley, left, acknowledged as much when he addressed the body’s annual conference last October. He said six regions, including two in Munster, needed electricity upgrades in the coming years if the State was going to meet the demands of a modern society and economy.

Doing that work in areas where there will inevitably be resistance is going to be a serious challenge. Mr Foley accepted that Eirgrid will need to approach it differently than has been the case heretofore.

“There are a number of key principles,” he said. “One is that you have to start [engagement] much earlier in the process. You don’t rock up with a fait accompli.

“Secondly, you have to listen, and part of that skillset is you preferably have people with local roots to do that engagement. Thirdly, we’ve got to be open to what we have heard.

“Fourthly, we have to look at what we give back to the community. It is about a contract between two parties. It has to be; both parties have to benefit in some way. It’s not about big infrastructure on people’s doorsteps. It’s about understanding what the need is, and whether we have looked at all the options, and if we have taken account of what people’s concerns are.

“We have to make communities partners, not just in transmission, but also other pieces of vital national infrastructure, for the whole economy and society.”

His analysis is spot on and would be unlikely to face any dispute in communities around the country.

Whether and how exactly Eirgrid and other operators actually follow through on it is one of the biggest questions facing further energy infrastructure development in rural Ireland in the coming years.

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