13th April 2017
Solar farm legislation is “urgently needed” as councils struggle to deal with an explosion in planning applications, says Cork Senator.
Speaking in the Seanad this week, Fine Gael’s Tim Lombard called for national guidelines to assist Local Authorities in dealing with planning applications for solar farms.
Over 160 planning applications for solar developments were lodged across the country by the end of January, with a major increase in applications in 2016. Together with Wexford, Mr Lombard’s native Cork has received the most applications.
“I have raised the issue of guidelines for solar farms in the Seanad on a number of occasions now and I firmly believe that legislation is urgently needed in this area,” he said.
He expressed his disappointment that An Bord Pleanála approved a recent application for a farm near Kinsale against the advice of the council inspector and “in the face of great local opposition”.
The Kinsale-based community group, Jagoes Mills Action Group (JMAG), was formed last year by locals concerned with the proposed development of the 32-acre solar farm near Farrangalway.
JMAG contend that the State is “completely unprepared” for the development of a solar industry. Combined with the “aggressive pace of applications”, JMAG is concerned that an “incoherent and uncontrolled development” of the industry will occur without clear guidelines.
“We feel that it is not only logical but responsible that the government enacts detailed solar-specific policy, legislation, and planning guidelines as soon as possible,” said JMAG spokesperson Tom Coyne.
He added that this would help “ensure best practice, proper regulation and a strategic, plan-led approach to this new industry in Ireland”.
According to Mr Lombard, strong guidelines will help avert similar situations where “inspectors are saying one thing and An Bord Pleanála is doing another”.
He added that guidelines will help to manage applications in an “informed and consistent” manner, and plans to write to the Minister for the Environment Denis Naughten asking him to introduce guidelines as a matter of urgency.
Cork Councillor Kevin Murphy told The Green News that a similar letter was sent by the council to the offices of both Mr Naughten and Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Simon Coveney earlier this year.
A motion brought by Mr Murphy calling for a moratorium on large solar energy projects in the county until detailed planning guidelines are in place was passed by Cork County Council last November.
“We have guidelines for all different types of developments like wind and wave energy projects, but nothing for solar,” said the Fine Gael councillor. “I think there is a big deficit there.”
A lack of strict guidelines linking electricity grid applications and planning permission should also be of concern, according to planning agent Conor Walsh.
Mr Walsh, who deals directly with farmers on small solar projects, said that this has led to grid saturation as developers buy up space prior to seeking planning permission.
Community and farmer-led projects will suffer according to Mr Walsh as they do not have the financial resources to sit in the grid queue, potentially for years.
He called on the government to take swift action in order to make the system “a little bit fairer to the smaller players”.
“Free up the grid, allow planning permission to be a prerequisite for a grid connection, and have a more level playing field whether you are a corporation, a PLC, or old McDonald the farmer,” he added.