What’s Blocking Renewable Energy Cooperation?

Kilkenny is notable for the number of large rivers that flow through or on the borders of the county. Indeed the Barrow, Nore and Suir define the geography of the county. Kilkenny LEADER Partnership (KLP) is not alone in using images of the rivers in its promotional materials. I have written before on the potential of the rivers in terms of tourism in the region. And they certainly provide a picturesque backdrop for visitors to the county. But it’s easy to forget that the same rivers were the highways for trade and travel in the not too distant past and in many cases the main source of power for industry.
Earlier this year KLP commissioned and published ‘Reclaiming Lost Power’, a report and developers users-manual for hydropower projects. The project was prompted by discussions with in the forum of Kilkenny Sustainable Energy Forum (KSEF) and our awareness of the number of mill sites around the county. Many of the mills were in use up until the middle of the last century and nearby towns such as Carlow were early recipients of electricity as a result of local grids powered by a small hydro scheme. A non-exhaustive survey has identified over 20 sites in Kilkenny and our collective thoughts were that some of them – at least, must offer potential for the retro-fitting of modern hydro-power systems. Martin Rafter KLP’s Rural Development Manager led the project and Jane Wickham of Carlow Kilkenny Energy Agency was the author of the report. The report identifies each site and provides a ‘kerbside’ assessment of the development potential. It is designed as a user-guide to further development.
The launch of the report took place on the 9th of July in Nicholas Mosse’s Pottery, in Bennetsbride where the business substantial power needs are largely met by the hydropower system that sit on the River Nore that flows by the door. Not too far up the same river on the outskirts of the city, John Brett’s Sawmills operates a variety of modern and older hydropower systems. This is a result of a partnership between John and Rick McGrath, an engineer and all-round renewable energy guru! It’s not as if the concept is untried or particularly complicated and it’s hard to imagine how we could have neglected this resource over the last 6 decades or so.
The launch of the report was more of a workshop and seminar and featured presentations from the aforementioned pioneer, Rick McGrath, Alan McCullagh of the Southern Regional Fisheries Board and Jimi Conroy of the National Park and Wildlife Service. Apparently a rare enough event when the guardians of the environment featured on the same platform as the existing and, importantly, the potential developers. There was a lively but good natured exchange of views between the various interests and it became apparent that the realities of hydro development in a modern context where the interests of the environment and complexities of connection to the electricity grid are not easily resolved.
Martin and Jane have now embarked on stage two of the project which is to actually develop some of the sites. They are hopeful that up to four sites may be developed over the next couple of years and KLP hopes to be able to support these developments where necessary. However one issue that may hamper that is the continued lack of a sectoral agreement between the Integrated Local Development Companies with state agencies such as Sustainable Energy Ireland (SEI), on the funding of rural renewable energy projects. The partnership proposal is that LEADER grant aid is given primacy in the rural areas while SEI funding focuses on the urban areas. Simple really!
It is almost five years since the companies first started to negotiate with SEI on the issue but despite genuine goodwill on behalf of both parties, an agreement has proved elusive. This problem affects all of the work we do with renewable energies. It is a serious issue. I believe that the blockage in agreement is outside of SEI’s control and lie in the ingrained habits of the public service. The reasons offered for the refusal to agree a partnership mechanism are hard to credit as being irresolvable. In my own view it is largely attributable to the state sector’s unwillingness to engage in real partnership with companies not directly under the aegis of the state.
The Irish Local Development Network subgroup on the issue has requested a meeting with the Minister for Energy, Communication and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan on the issue as an attempt to move the issue on or finally accept that joined-up development of renewable energy projects is not possible at present. We are promised a meeting soon.

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