With Irish bogs nearing the end of their production potential, Sean Finnan looks at the alternative use being explored by governments both side of the Irish Sea. 

Two weeks ago, Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte signed a Memorandum of Understanding on behalf of the Irish government with members of the British government. The Memorandum deals with a promise to construct wind farms across the midlands in order to generate electricity that will be exported to Britain, through undersea cables from Ireland to Wales. Kenneth Matthews, CEO of Irish Wind Energy Association spoke of the benefits that the deal could have for Ireland: “Up to 30,000 indigenous jobs could be created countrywide, coupled with investments of over €18 million by 2020 if the required enablers along with this agreement are put in place.”

It is clear that alternative uses will have to be found for the midlands bogs with peat reserves approaching zero. Traditionally, the midlands peat bogs would have been a major employment centre for locals, but will the conversion of many of many bogs to wind farms have the positive impact on jobs that such advocates are declaring? With the current recession creating a type of jobless vacuum in the midlands especially, the numbers of jobs being speculated for this project is akin to a lottery win. However, apart from the initial construction phase, much of the jobs will be high skilled with the numbers needed to run the farms a fraction of that need for the bog lands.

Frank Convery, Chair of Publicpolicy.ie and Senior Fellow at UCD Earth Institute spoke to the University Observer on the employment possibilities of the bilateral agreement: “An impressive range of job types will be supported, but many of these are associated with the manufacturing phase, and also most require high skills. It will be important for the midlands to be able to meet as many of the skill requirements as possible locally, so that these more high paying jobs don’t leak to Dublin and elsewhere.”

However, according to a European Commission and International Labour Office’s 2011 report entitled “Investment in renewable energy generates jobs”, the biggest problem they identify is the lack of a skilled workforce. With wind power, 0.27 jobs are created in the operating and maintenance stage for every megawatt of energy produced. This is compared to the 0.74 jobs created at the same stage during peat production. There is a 36% difference in employment levels meaning that based on such figures, over a third of jobs will be lost in regular, full time jobs in operation and maintenance. Even in the construction phase of the wind farms, which will see a high amount of temporary jobs created, requirements will be for a medium to high skilled work force; a situation that may once again see locals lose out.

Bord na Mona recently commenced the construction of a signifigant wind energy project in Mount Luas, County Offaly. The €115 million investment will see 28 advanced technology turbines and provide eco-friendly electricity for 45,000 Irish households. The Memorandum of Agreement will however see the energy created by the new wind farms being directly exported to the UK market. Only last October, the British Minister for Energy John Hayes stated that his government would no longer have wind turbines in the British countryside. Instead, the wind energy will be sourced from the midlands. However, it will not be the government developing such wind farms but private companies, raising the question again of where the major benefits for such a project will accrue.

Richard Tol, Professor of Economics has described the scheme as “crazy”, stating that: “From an Irish perspective this is not selling the family silver; this is giving it away. There is no money staying in Ireland that I can see… But from a British perspective this is a good deal.”

A number of companies including US based Clean Energy, Oriel Windfarms based in Ireland, global renewable energy developer Element Power and Mainstream Renewable Power headed by Airtricity founder Eddie O’Conner are all seeking to benefit from the agreement. Privatising the State’s natural resources has always provoked controversy on this Island, but if this scheme in the Midlands proves a success, it could be the grassroots of a new alternative energy industry here.

As the bogs across the midlands are generally windless, the turbines will be among the highest built in the world, rising over 200 meters in order to catch enough wind energy to create energy. Naturally, their height is a cause for concern for local residents. “People don’t actually understand the scale of them,” said Andrew Duncan, spokesman for the Lakelands Wind Information Group. “Putting up the largest turbines in the world without consultation – I think it is ludicrous, to be honest.”

Local Politician Deputy Penrose, published a Private Members Bill last November at the behest of the Lakelands Wind Information Group, which is seeking to bring in a number of concerns raised by locals. It remains to be seen whether the government will take the concerns of residents into consideration considering the long-winded fiasco that has engulfed Shell for the past eight years.