Dark clouds hang over proposed 300-acre solar farm
David Looby reports from a public meeting in Clongeen on a proposed solar farm where health and property price fears were raised by local residents and speakers
Every argument under the sun against solar energy was outlined at a well-attended meeting in Clongeen Community Centre recently.
More than 80 local residents attended, where campaigner Kieran Hartley highlighted the negative aspects of solar energy.
Plans by Highfield Solar Ltd to erect solar panels on up 300 acres of land at Coolciffe, Raheenduff, Haresmead and Rospile, with the possibility of wind turbines being erected on adjoining lands, lead to the meeting.
Local residents were notified in early March about the company's intention to create the solar energy farm and since that time some farmers are understood to have given permission for their land to be used. A planning application is expected to be lodged with Wexford County Council in the coming weeks.
At the outset of the meeting one local resident said people in the community were in the dark about solar energy.
Mr Hartley, who was a candidate in the last General Election and has a Masters in Environmental Energy, said: 'I have toured the country about these infastructural projects. I will give you factual facts. The proposal is for a solar farm of PV panels to be constructed in Clongeen by Highfield Solar Ltd, a multinational company who have a number of solar farms proposed around the country. They build on behalf of landowners or developers.'
The company plans to apply for land which would enable them to generate 95 MW in power to include a new sub station.
The name on the submission to go on the grid (dated July 14, 2016) is Peter Kavanagh, Mr Hartley said. 'The company will build, operate and maintain the solar panels on up to 155 hectares (around 300 acres) generating 65 MW of power. They still have 200 acres if they want to put up wind turbines. They are not building a new sub station for one solar farm.' which, he said, are around 10ft high with enough space for a sheep to graze underneath.
'The energy will connect to a new sub station with wires to carry it away to a larger station to be put into the national grid. It works out at 1 MW for five acres, so, in total, it will be just under 500 acres so an industrial power plant is being proposed for this area.'
He said 28,000 acres have been signed up for solar power in Ireland 'before we have even one built'.
'There have been 241 applications and 1.75 GW is the generated capacity. To date only eight have been refused.'
When asked by an audience member how many have been granted, Mr Hartley said it was impossible to know. He said the Government subsidises renewable energy schemes, including solar and wind energy. 'You get paid for the energy you generate. All of these come on line and have to fight to get on to the national grid. There is a large scale application for Clonroche. A solar farm of this scale would completely industrialise our rural countryside which is relatively agricultural.'
He said once a public notice is posted on a ditch 'the clock starts ticking' and people have five weeks to make a submission to Wexford County Council based on factual concerns, like inability to access a historical building, damage to flaura and fauna, or proximity to a house. A six month period follows in which further information can be furnished by the company and following this an appeal can be made to An Bord Pleanala during a four-week window.
'Once granted the developer has ten years to build. They have a 20 to 30 year contract with landowners.'
Mr Hartley said the PSO levy residents and business owners pay has increased year on year ever since the Government started subsidising renewable energy companies. 'In 2010 it was €19 and in 2017 it was €105. You are paying for them whether you like it or not. You pay tax at industrial rates and it affects inheritance tax. The company are saying this is the future.'
The health implications were outlined. 'They are only small solar panels. The company say this is the future, but they are chemical based with an aluminimum frame. They are for 30 years but you live by the coast and there is salt water.'
He said the chemicals can enter the water source and become air borne if freed from the aluminium. 'The chemicals cause respiratory or lung problems. There can be a reflective glare and if it's on your house there is nothing you can do about it. From 4 p.m. you will be drawing the curtains. It's up to yourselves, as a community, if you are going to stand together. It's very important that the community has an open and honest conversation. The developers are entitled to the same rights as yourself.'
He said the motors which move the panels create noise. One English lady said her community in England was devastated by wind farms the size of Big Ben. She said there is glass covering the solar panels, enquiring how chemical seepages could occur. Mr Hartley said after being exposed to salty air for 30 years they could wear down. He quoted Google searches and said there are a lot of alternatives the Government could be advancing, including roof top solar panels on schools, homes and businesses.
'Minister Denis Naughten is sitting on the fence. This is subsidy harvesting for the very elite few. Why can't we be given rooftop panels which are an educational way whereby we can educate our children into the future about how to be kind to the environment.'
He said solar energy companies are subsidised when the sun isn't shining. 'They get €70 per MW hour. If the sun isn't shining they get €35 per MW so the developer is still getting €70 per M/W.'
He said Highfield also have a licence for wind farms.
'What they are doing is called fishing. They are signing up landowners for €500 and there is no way out of the contracts. If your son or daughter wants to build on the land they have to get permission. Rate and council tax are payable. Farmers I've met will tell you it's the sorriest thing they ever did.'
He said a local auctioneer at Wallace's told him earlier that day that houses in the Tintern, Ballycullane area are devalued by between 50 per cent and 75 per cent after a solar farm planning application went in there.
A farmer expressed concern that a forest at the north end of the site in Raheenduff which might have to be knocked if the solar farm goes ahead. Calling on the Clongeen community to stand and fight against the proposed development, he said: 'You can do what other communities have done and come to regret it later on.'
One man asked if there are restrictions relating to how close solar panels can be to houses. 'There is no restriction. It's a preferred distance. I am not opposed to any renewable energy scheme but it should be up to us (the community).'
He said the IFA expressed concern about the solar panel contracts. One local resident said: 'This is really good agricultural land which could be tied up for 35 years. None of us want to fall out wth our neighbours. We are a tight knit community. We plan to approach the landowners to see if they could back down.'
When asked why farmers would give up their land for which they receive Single Farm Payments, Mr Hartley replied: 'Farming is tough. You can't blame someone. If I have a business and it doesn't work I will try another business. The bigger the area the more farmers think they are making. Farming is crippling at the moment and it's not productive and it's not set up correctly.'
Suggesting that farmers can use anerobic digesters and roof solar panels, he said farmers have had to remove solar panels and wind farms themselves once the developer is finished with a location.
'This is a punt, a gamble. Farmers get €500 for signing. Farmers get €25,000 for 25 acres. They may a small but more but there will be a catch. It's the golden goose. If something is too good to be true, it is. These are American, hedge fund companies. This is guaranteed money for them as the Government has them bonded for 25 years.'
He said fossil fuels are dying out, but solar energy is not the answer, he argued. 'When power stations are placed on idle, they are burning fossil fuels. This can be when there is a chance of no sun or wind. We have to decarbonise our environment but we don't need more wind. We can't use it. We are payng developers to turn off their systems. This is not just coming from me. The statistic are on Bonkers.ie.'
He said all national and European Paris Climate Agreement guidelines are supportive of solar power. 'Be under no illusions, the odds are stacked against us. You must make a decision collectively. Do you want to take ownership of this for your children and your families. It has to be the entire community. It could be five to ten years of a battle. They may move the site location, redraw it, reduce the mega watts. It costs €100,000 for a High Court case, Clonroche paid €120,000 and won and got the money back in legal fees.'
One man asked if the solar energy companies are Irish and was told that most are United States and Chinese based. 'This is really good agricultural land that is going to be tied up for 35 years. The solar farm comes right up to the road in some places,' one resident said. None of us want to fall out with our neigbours. we are a tight kit community.'
Some resolved to approach the landowners to see if they will 'back down'. A committee is being formed this week to campaign against the solar energy farm. Highfield Solar Ltd decliend to comment.