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Energy crisis – Why are these wind turbines not turning?

A framed photograph hangs on the wall of Egan's bar in Derrybrien. The image shows local man Martin Collins on top of a makeshift stone barrier during a devastating landslide in 2003.

In the background of the photo a large, evergreen tree is moving across the road, travelling on a wave of sludge.

"The peat completely covered and submerged the bridge in that area," Mr Collins told Prime Time.

It’s understandable that he doesn’t remember exactly when the extraordinary photo was taken. The days following the peat slide were a frenzy of panic and concern.

Martin Collins on a makeshift barrier during the Derrybrien landslide in 2003

"It was a natural ecosystem that was being wiped out in front of our eyes," Mr Collins explained.

The bog slide happened when a 70-turbine wind farm, owned by an ESB company, was being built on the slopes of the Sliabh Aughty mountains in Co Galway.

The landslide caused extensive environmental damage and polluted the nearby Owendalulleegh river, killing 50,000 fish.

"The sludge mixed up with the water and it suffocated the fish," Mr Collins explained.

The flowing peat surrounded an unoccupied farm house and left locals terrified of further slides.

"It was like being in a movie or something. It was just unreal," recalled farmer and forester John Paul Fahy.

"I actually remember bits of the bog making their way down the river to this farm nearly 10km downstream."

Following the peat slide, the Derrybrien wind farm was completed and opened in 2006.

But today, as Ireland faces an energy crisis, its turbines have been turned off – the culmination of a legal battle lasting nearly two decades.

In 2004, an ESB subsidiary company and a building contractor were convicted at Gort District Court of polluting the river following the landslide.

In the following years, the European Court of Justice concluded that the State, under its planning laws, had failed to ensure that Derrybrien had appropriate environmental impact studies done before it was built.

Ten years later, the court fined Ireland €5 million for failing to comply with its original findings. Additional levies of €15,000 per day have been imposed until the situation is remedied. So far, almost €16 million has been paid to Europe.

Following on from the ECJ rulings in 2021, the ESB subsidiary company, which owns the site, applied for new retrospective planning permission known as substitute consent.

An Bord Pleanála refused the application and said the scale of the damage caused by the landslide could not be mitigated.

The legal bar to allow such a development to be retrospectively permitted is very high. Exceptional circumstances must be demonstrated. The board found that Derrybrien did not meet the threshold.

Derrybrien wind farm opened in 2006

"Derrybrien, under the law as it currently stands, is an unauthorised development," solicitor Dan Shiels, who has represented those impacted by the landslide, told the programme.

Following the refusal of permission under the retention process the ESB announced it was closing the wind farm and planning to decommission the 70 turbines.

No date has, as yet, been set for the decommissioning, which was to have occurred in 2040 if the farm had been allowed to continue operating.

Martin Collins, who had campaigned for almost two decades following the landslide, was among those who considered the matter closed.

"We thought this day would never come," he told RTÉ News earlier this year.

But the saga of Derrybrien isn’t quite over.

The closure of the wind farm comes at a time when energy supplies have never been as tight and there are calls for the wind farm to be kept open, somehow.

There are calls to keep the wind farm open

"When I'm out farming every day and you just see them standing there and you wonder when somebody is going to do something about it?"

Local forester John Paul Fahy wants the turbines to be turned back on.

"It's hard to walk and see the cows in the morning and see a green energy facility not moving.

"You go home and you see an electricity bill that's gone up by a crazy amount," he said.

"There has to be an answer for it."

Michael McNamara is among a group of independent TDs and Senators who think they have an answer.

The politicians have suggested new legislation could transfer ownership of the wind farm to a different State body, which could make a fresh application to keep it open.

For the proposal to succeed, the new application would need to reach the legal bar of exceptional circumstances that Derrybrien did not meet earlier this year, according to the An Bord Pleanála decision.

"The profit would not go to ESB. It would be invested in the local environment and ecosystem to try to protect it to the greatest extent possible into the future," Mr McNamara said.

He added that An Bord Pleanála had not accepted its own inspector’s report when it refused the application to keep the wind farm open.

"The board didn't explain why it couldn't be considered exceptional. That's a difficulty with the decision.

"The inspector took a very different approach to the board and it's not clear why they diverged in that regard," he said.

Mr McNamara said the damage of the landslide could not be undone but it was now a question of "taking the benefit of what is a sorry mess".

Independent TD Michael McNamara

But the Government has insisted that Derrybrien cannot continue to function.

A spokesperson for the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications told Prime Time that the Attorney General has advised that there is no legal basis for its continued operation.

The department’s legal advice, "did not identify legislative provisions that would be consistent with the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive and also provide for the continued operation of Derrybrien wind farm," its statement outlined.

The State also believes it is now in compliance with European directives because the correct planning procedures were followed through the substitute consent application and has asked Brussels to stop the multimillion euro fines.

Europe has yet to formally respond to the request to end the penalties. However, a commission official indicated to Prime Time that Ireland is required to "make good" any harm caused by its failure to remedy breaches of EU environmental laws.

"This will necessarily require an assessment of the impacts of the project and a decision by Ireland on how to proceed on the basis of that information," the official added.

"The current and future soil stability of the site is a key concern, given the landslide that was triggered."

The court did not require that the wind farm necessarily be demolished, the official confirmed.

The Department of the Environment reasserted the Government position that, "the substitute consent decision makes good on any harm caused by the failure to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment prior to the construction of the development".

Derrybrien wind farm generated enough power for around 30,000 homes

Beyond the legal arguments, those opposed to the reopening of the site point to the age of the wind farm.

Derrybrien operated for almost 20 years generating enough power for around 30,000 homes. Although still the largest gathering of turbines in Ireland, it is not as efficient as newer sites.

Before its closure it was providing 118 gigawatt hours of electricity, or just short of 1% of the country’s wind power.

"I believe that its life expectancy is close to its limit at this point," Martin Collins said, insisting the wind farm wasn’t a solution to the current energy crisis.

"I don't see that it would make any difference whatsoever. It’s a small, tiny amount of electricity," he added.

Mr Collins argued that the site is already owned by the State under the auspices of the ESB so a new owner is not a solution.

"It has gone through every court in the land," he added. "All they're doing now is causing division again when things were healing."

Solicitor Dan Shiels said the issue had been "thrashed out ad infinitum". He said that the wind farm had reached the end of the road.

He added: "A great harm was done to the environment and people of Derrybrien. Until that's acknowledged and dealt with, all the rest of this is just window dressing."

But Mr McNamara believes every effort should be made to keep the wind farm open.

"I am a bit surprised by the reluctance to examine what can be done," he said. "There are other views that it might be possible."

For Martin Collins, whose photograph hangs on the wall in Egan’s pub, there is only one way the Derrybrien story can end.

"As far as I'm concerned, the game is over, it's done."

A wider principle is at stake, he believes.

"Is there any point in fighting the fight at all if everything can be rolled over, what is the point?" he said.

"I don't know, does it suit anybody – the environment, the community – but justice has gone through the system and this is where we're at."

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