THE site of the ESB's three thermal units at Poolbeg in Dublin's ddocklands, which are due to be decommissioned in 2010, looks set to be handed over to one of the state power company's competitors, even though sources indicate it could be worth over 500m.
An ESB spokesman confirmed that, under its decommissioning deal with the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER), the site would be provided to independent generators, which precluded any other uses of the site. He said the land could be simply handed over or the independent generators might be asked to pay a nominal rent.
The revelation will surprise many in the property business who believe the site has considerable potential for commercial, residential or retail development.
Sources indicate that the land could easily achieve a price of 8m per acre if it were put up for sale. A precise value for the entire site is difficult to estimate, however, because the ESB has refused to disclose how much of the 90-acre campus it has to keep for the continued operation of its remaining power plant there.
One source said his only concern was the site's proximity to the proposed Poolbeg incinerator.
"If you were trying to sell swanky apartments and the view from the window was a plume of smoke from the incinerator, that would be a problem, " he said. "But even with the incinerator, it could still work as an office and retail development."
Sources close to the ESB have claimed that the Poolbeg site, even after decommissioning, would be too contaminated for use as anything other than an industrial site and that it would be impossible to rezone the land.
However, industrial decontamination expert Michael Cunningham, managing director of White Young Green Ireland environment, said all sites could be decontaminated.
White Young Green has carried out decontamination work at high-profile sites including the Gasometer at Dublin's Barrow Street and numerous docklands areas in Dublin.
"You can remediate any site. What generally happens in cities is that the material for the basement is excavated and shipped overseas for treatment while the remainder is treated on-site, " he said.
He said the decontamination and reuse of old industrial sites tended to be the preferred option.
"That would be the policy in most developed countries: the first option for development you look at is brownfield sites."
A spokesman for the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) confirmed that the Poolbeg site would continue to be used for power generation but he said it was too early to say how it would be transferred to the private sector.
"I think the purchase of the sites would be the most satisfactory outcome but if someone was willing to just pay rent, we would have no problem with that, " he said.
He was unable to say, however, whether the land would be sold at market value or at a nominal value decided by the regulator.
THE coming fight over Poolbeg's future is part of a fight about the character of Ireland's capital city.
Replacing the ESB's industrial age eyesore with something fit for human habitation is desirable.
New environment minister John Gormley and energy minister Eamon Ryan should be well-suited to this task once they get their feet under their desks.
But for all its ugliness, the Poolbeg site is familiar and distinctive. With the news that Guinness will abandon its ancestral home at St James's Gate, there is a risk that both sites will become homes for more glass and steel boxes indistinct from apartments and offices in any other city in the world. Dublin deserves better.