The story of the Harris family highlights the fact that the development of wind farms is subject to few planning checks, writes Michael Clifford.
Some nights, Sean Harris is sitting watching the TV and he thinks he hears the fridge humming. On other occasions, he has been out on the road around his home in Ballyduff in West Waterford, and the engine sounds as if it’s a car approaching him from behind.
Those are the more benign effects of the Barnafaddock Wind Farm, as he sees it. He is not alone, but neither are his problems shared with huge numbers in his rural community.
In most people’s view, the wind farm is in the mountains and its developer has compensated the community with funds for social and sporting clubs. They, however, don’t live on its
doorstep, as Mr Harris and some of his neighbours do.
“It’s been there since it started up,” Harris says. “It depends on the weather. If you get wind coming from the west, it can be very noisy and it’s worse in the winter. But it’s there all the time. It’s worst of all at night, or at least most noticeable because you don’t have noise coming from anything else at that time.”
Mr Harris and his wife Catherine and some of their neighbours are at their wits’ end. They are at the frontline of the battle in rural Ireland over whether too high a price is being extracted from some people in order to harvest renewable energy.
Their story is not unique. But it highlights a scenario in which the development of wind farms is subjected to precious little rigorous checking by planning authorities.
The Harrises and their neighbours believe that noise limits stipulated in planning are being breached. But they also believe they have evidence that the wind farm has been constructed much bigger than allowed by planning, making it noisier, more obstructive, and, from the owner’s point of view, more productive.
Their complaints have delivered a major headache to Waterford City and County Council, and raise questions that are applicable right across the country.
Barnafaddock Wind Farm began to get off the ground more than a decade ago. Somebody saw the potential for harvesting wind in the mountains above Ballyduff Upper, a picturesque village that nestles at the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains.
Landowners were brought on a day trip to a wind farm in Wexford, and were suitably impressed. The local community was informed, meetings called, and promises made about a fund for local clubs, which have been fulfilled.
“The community in general is happy enough,” Catherine Harris says. “They are going to be getting money for the lifetime of the windfarm, to be divided among all the clubs. But we’re the ones living next to it.”
The initial plan for the farm, to be located between Ballyduff Upper and the village of Araglin on the Cork border, was for 32 turbines.
As part of the plan, more than a dozen landowners agreed to sign option agreements to the value of €1,000 per annum for seven years.
As it was to turn out, planning permission was only granted for 11 turbines. This included three on Coillte lands, which are more remote from those sited in farms.
This left a number of landowners in dispute with the developer over how much money they were entitled to.
The issue was relatively minor, but it certainly soured relations between some of the local farmers and the developer. There was also an issue over a right of way.
Initially, the wind farm was developed by a company called Barnafaddock Sustainable Electricity Ltd. However, by the time construction began in 2014, it had been sold to Element Power, which specialises in renewable energy. In February 2014, during the construction phase, Element Power sold Barnafaddock to US giant GE Electric. It completed the construction phase and sold the farm on again last year, this time to Blackrock, a joint venture between a major US fund and Irish businesspeople.
In an environment where subsidies are plentiful and the landscape changing rapidly, the flipping of wind farms is not uncommon.
Once the farm became operational in 2015, some of the locals began to notice the imposition of noise in particular.
Kenneth Geary, who has rented out his family home which borders land where the turbines are sited, says that sleep is a major problem.
“My tenants simply can’t get a night’s sleep,” he says. “One of them had to resort to sleeping tablets at one point.”
A condition of the planning permission was that a noise monitoring report would be conducted within a year of operations commencing.
The owner has responsibility for commissioning the report, giving rise to a question as to how independent any such report can be. The system arguably compromises the perception of independence at the very least.
In the case of Barnafaddock, GE Electric hired reputable engineering consultant Fehily Timoney. The survey was carried out between March and May 2016, and the report found that the noise limits were largely in line with design criteria.
Some of the locals living next to the turbines found this difficult to believe. Roland Krikke, a Dutchman who has been living in Ballyduff Upper for 12 years, began investigating.
He commissioned his own noise report. “That found that at a number of different moments the noise level exceeded what is allowable,” he says.
“I have informed the council but they have done nothing about it.”
The work of consultants often differs, but Mr Krikke also made a startling discovery. He found that despite planning permission having been granted for turbines with a 90m diameter — for eight of the 11 turbines — there was no mention anywhere of the specific model that was to be used at Ballyduff.
“It wasn’t even in the Environmental Impact Statement,” he said. “Or the planning permission, and I talked to the neighbours and nobody seemed to know what was going on.”
Mr Krikke got his hands on the Fehily Timoney report into the noise and saw a reference to the GE 2.85-103 model. Further research led to the discovery that this was a model that, as it says on the tin, includes a blade diameter of 103m.
This is 15% bigger than the 90m allowed for, with the potential to generate a lot more energy.
It also has the potential to generate a lot more noise, and is certainly not what the planning authority gave permission for.
Later, the model was confirmed through examining a release from GE at the time it bought Barnafaddock, where it stated that the farm, and another purchased at the same time in Donegal, would be “powered by GE’s 2.85 megawatt turbines with 103m rotors.”
Mr Krikke wanted to be sure to be sure. Armed with a range finder, which can measure distances, he approached the turbines one evening when they were turned off.
The results, he claims, were that the one he measured showed up a diameter of over 100m. The only available model that could answer for that length is the 103m model, previously advertised by GE Electric.
Mr Krikke had already been in correspondence with Waterford City and County Council over what he saw as the noise problem. Now, he informed them of this discovery.
When he received no response initially, he persisted with it.
“The shocking main issue here is that the 13 metre increase (15%) in blade diameter is a big deviation from the planning conditions that has not been signalled by your office, and
whereupon no action has been taken,” he wrote.
“Whatever the reasoning for not doing so, it should be remedied and acted upon immediately by your office.
“Hence, I request that your office will do an immediate check on the compliance regarding the material conditions for blade diameter.”
His request for action and response to his queries has yet to be met (see panel).
A spokesman for the owner, Blackrock, told the Irish Examiner that the company had no comment to make on the matter at this time.
Questions on the matter to Waterford City and County Council eventually received a response, in which it is claimed that the noise monitoring report was “conditioned” on the three 103m turbines on the Coillte lands.
However, in response to this newspaper or the local residents, the council has not stated whether or not it is satisfied that the blade size is as per planning permission.
Nearly six months on from when the council was initially informed that there may be a problem with the blade diameter, local people have been left entirely in the dark.
There are other issues also to consider.
Is the site properly insured?
If Barnafaddock is an unauthorised development, as alleged, then there could be issues over whether insurance policies such as public and workplace liability are valid.
Undertakings given to financiers such as banks may also come under
review. Through it all, it would appear that Waterford City and County Council is keeping the head down and hoping that the matter will go away.
“The big issue is that rights of people are being squashed,” Mr Krikke says.
“For an individual it is impossible to take on the big wind farm companies; no individual has the money to battle through the courts. So it is my opinion you must rely on the council to protect the interests of people.”
Sean Harris agrees. “What happened has happened, if we are right,” he says. “They built it wrong; it was the council’s job to check, but it’s up now.
“It would be like saying I got permission for a bungalow and I built a two-storey house.
“If I did that they’d come after me. We live under one law, or so we’re told.”
Waterford Council is duty bound on any planning irregularities
The response of the authority charged with granting planning permission, and inspecting the development to allegations of planning irregularities raises more questions than answers.
Waterford City and County Council (WCCC) granted planning for Barranafaddock wind farm. It was also charged with ensuring that the development was built according to the planning conditions.
Since last April, WCCC has been aware of the allegation that the diameter of the wind turbines is longer by 15% than was granted in planning. Nothing to clarity or rectify the situation appears to have been done since then. If the engagement with both the media and the public on the issue is anything to go by, the strategy employed by the council appears to be to keep the head down and hope things will blow over.
On August 25, I emailed an inquiry to a spokeswoman for the council. The following was the text: “Allegations have been made from local people that the size of the blades on the wind turbines exceeds that for which planning permission was granted.
The blades are alleged to have a span of 103m while permission was granted for eight of the 11 turbines for a span of 90m. Waterford City and County Council has been in possession of this allegation since last April.
I submitted a number of questions:
- What steps has the council taken to determine whether the operator is complying with planning permission in this regard?
- What course of action is open to the council if planning permission is not being complied with?
- Is the council in receipt of rates or fees from the operator, and if so what is the annual figure?
- What system of building inspection for wind farms exists in the local authority?
- Why has the council not signed off on a noise monitoring report which was required for planning permission and completed over a year ago?
- There was no response. I emailed again on August 28, enquiring as to when a reply might be expected. This time the response informed me that a response would be forthcoming on September 4, a week away. When I questioned the delay, the response was: “I’m sorry it can’t be earlier but the query crosses a number of sections and is complex in nature.”
In any event, come September 4, I emailed to inquire at what time I could expect a response and there was no reply. A statement, which only partially addressed the query, was finally issued another week later on September 10.
The statement said: “The developer was permitted to construct three turbines with a rotor diameter of 103m and eight turbines at 90m. A noise monitoring survey was conditioned in relation to the three turbines of 103m diameter.
“The noise monitoring survey was carried out. Subsequent to this, we received a complaint about the conditions under which the noise monitoring was undertaken. As a result of which we sought clarification from the noise monitoring consultant, and the council is now satisfied that the noise survey report has been undertaken in accordance with best practice guidelines and is in accordance with the condition of planning permission.
“In terms of your general query, where a developer is not in compliance with planning, enforcement action can be taken.
“In terms of rates income, the wind farm is currently undergoing a valuation process. Council is not in receipt of rates in respect of the wind farm.”
Ronald Krikke first informed the council about his belief that the blade diameter was 103m rather than 90m, rendering the farm an unauthorised development. He received a reply after further requests on April 24. A senior planner emailed him that his correspondence had been forwarded to the district planner “for follow up and we will respond back to you once we have reached a decision on the matter. We will also re-direct your correspondence to the windfarm company for clarification of the issues raised. Once we have sufficient information on the matter we will consider whether there is a compliance issue with permission conditions and take whatever action is appropriate at that time.”
Mr Krikke took exception to the actions being taken by the council.
“I did not give your office permission to redirect my correspondence to the windfarm. If clarification is needed on certain issues, your planning office should make its own queries with the windfarm — supposedly after first researching its own planning files, where most of the information wanted can be found.”
The responses from the council to the public and the media reflects poorly on its legal obligations as a planning authority. The fact that the current owner did not develop the farm is not the issue. Inquiries by this newspaper to the previous owner GE Electric were redirected to the current owner Blackrock. The current owner is now responsible for its asset. The council is duty bound to pursue the owner rigorously to either rectify the alleged planning irregularity or face court proceedings. The frustration of local residents to the council’s attitude towards their concerns was encapsulated by a letter sent on September 8 to the council by Kenneth Geary.
“I am following up on a request for a response from the Planning Authority based on the community’s concerns pertaining to Barranafaddock windfarm,” he wrote.
“To date there have been numerous correspondences from several members of the Ballyduff Upper community. There have been consistent delays by the Planning Council in responding to members of the community. In many cases concerns and facts which have been brought to your attention have been ignored.
“At this stage we are demanding a comprehensive and immediate response to matters which have been raised and not responded to. These issues are pertaining to on-going noise complaints as well as the material deviation from the authorised plans.”
As of today, Mr Geary has not received any response to the latest missive from residents concerned about whether or not planning laws are being applied to all.
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.