Monday 29 August 2011

National debate on renewable energy policy urgently needed

OPINION: Public involvement is very important if we want to address urgent energy pressures facing the Republic, writes BRIAN MOTHERWAY .

IN 1907, two Norwegian whaling entrepreneurs announced plans to site a whaling station on Arranmore Island in Donegal.

Initially, the islanders were in favour of the proposal, as the developers had explained the economic and employment benefits, and also promised investment in local buildings and infrastructure.

However, opposition grew as the plans became more widely known. In particular, word had spread among fishermen from Norway and the Shetlands that whaling stations adversely affected conventional fishing. A Derry solicitor known for his objection to whaling was appointed to act for the opponents. A public inquiry, chaired by the chief inspector of fisheries, took place in February 1908.

Tensions were high, with opponents angered to learn that the developers had already hired local labour and loaded supply ships in anticipation of a favourable outcome to the inquiry. There were also accusations of petitions full of names, all in the same handwriting.

The inquiry itself focused on a core question. The whalers argued there was no conclusive proof whaling harmed fisheries, while the opponents argued back that this absence of proof was not good enough. When “common sense” would suggest many reasons to be concerned, it was for the developers to prove no harm would be done.

In the end the proposal to site a whaling station on Arranmore was rejected. Soon afterwards, it was announced that the now inappropriately named Arranmore Whaling Station would be built on Iniskea, off the Mullet Peninsula. Labourers and landowners in that area would reap any rewards that arose, and fishermen in that area would experience any drawbacks. The enterprise ticked over, relatively unsuccessfully and closed in 1915.

Any of this sound familiar?

An inquiry from one angle, struggling to keep the discussion focused on science and proven facts; animosity among a wide range of stakeholders; accusations of shoddy practice; money, influence and power wielded in various ways. This case shows the history of such stories is more than a century old. And little, on the face of it, seems to have changed.

The modern incarnation of this is the public hearings held by bodies such as An Bord Pleanála or the Environmental Protection Agency, looking into developments from bridges and roads to factories, landfills and electricity lines. Hopefully none of these is thought as nefarious as a whaling station, though sometimes the heatedness of the debates would suggest otherwise.

In most cases decisions are arrived at eventually, but not consensus. It is an adversarial process. Some people are happy, some are bitter, no one’s faith in the system is enhanced, and the stage is set for the next battle. Why can’t we do this better?

Public hearings, when they work, can add considerably to a decision-making process. They apply checks and stops, they make bureaucrats work harder, and they can bring new information and new solutions to light.

In a well-functioning democracy where representative structures work well, they can enhance both the process and the outcome. But is that the reality?

The core problem is that these public hearings are often asked to deliver things well beyond their capacity.

As part of a much wider democratic institutional context, planning and licensing hearings are designed to deal with narrow, technical agenda in detail, under prescribed terms. They are good at technical questions, at analysing information, but not at solving much wider societal questions. However, when people feel a democratic deficit, they naturally use all opportunities they get to engage “the system”. So a hearing that is designed to focus on a narrow, specific question ends up hearing arguments about the nature of society, capitalism, and many other such things well beyond its scope and capability. Moreover, hearings are never the idealised exchange of information to reach consensus: they are invariably polarised, pitching those “for” across the table from those “against”. Both “sides” use all the strategies most likely to give them the outcome they want. Of course they do.

All this is important to Ireland’s energy future. We know we have to move to reduce our carbon emissions and our reliance on imported fossil fuels. A process of change has started – we have had some success with on-shore wind energy in recent years, which is reducing our emissions and our imports at no additional cost – but not without considerable controversy.

Public involvement is very important if we want to address our urgent energy pressures. There are environmental, social and economic dimensions to be discussed. We have choices to make. Can we accept wind farms in our communities, and if not, how do we propose to get our energy? Can we accept wires across our landscape? Are we willing to pay more for certain options than for others?

These are difficult questions, requiring mature, reasoned and informed debate. You don’t get that in a contentious two-day hearing about a specific, controversial issue where any outcome will displease half the participants.

Renewable energy is a tremendous opportunity for Ireland. We have some of the best clean energy resources in the world, resources that can not only meet our own needs but could become a major export commodity in future decades. If we need to debate the details of this, let’s do it out in the open. Do local objectors oppose the broad principles or the local specifics? Both are legitimate debates, but they cannot be resolved in the same forum. Local communities perceive that their concerns are neglected in national debates, but, equally, national considerations are often unpicked again and again in each local controversy.

So, can we agree that renewable energy is a good thing? Can we agree it is an opportunity for Ireland? If so, can we accept that it does involve building stuff – wind turbines and wires, mostly? There are good reasons to allow such development in some places, and not to in others. That’s what planning and other such decision-making processes are for. If we can agree the broad principles of this development, can we use these principles to let the system get on with looking at specific local questions?

Each part of the democratic structure has its role, its strengths and weaknesses. Local hearings can help deliver better decision-making, but not on their own, especially where there is already contention.

From whaling stations to pylons, a century of evidence shows us how hard it is. But then, as Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the others.

Brian Motherway is chief operations officer at the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. The full story of the Arranmore Whaling Company is told in James Fairley’s Irish Whales and Whaling , published in 1981 by Blackstaff Press.

Irish Times

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