A leading economist has said that plans to export electricity to England from windfarms in Westmeath and neighbouring counites is "crazy" and not in Ireland's interests.
Yesterday (Thursday) Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte and his British counterpart Edward Davey signed the Memorandum of Understanding to export 5000 megawatts of electricity from the midlands to the English national grid. The two firms driving the project, Mainstream and Element, have claimed that the construction of 2,300 windturbines has the potential to turn the region into a green energy hub and create 40,000 new jobs.
Speaking at the launch, Minister Rabbitte said that project presents an opportunity for employment growth and export earning, which the country "must seize".
The signing was also welcomed by Eddier O'Connor, founder of Mainstream.
"Today is a very meaningful step towards creating a 2.5 billion energy export industry for Ireland which is equal to our dairy exports in 2011. Mainstream has secured a firm grid connection to the UK and we are on track to start exporting in 2017.
"We haven't seen anything like the scale of this anywhere in the world. 5,000 megawatts is roughly equivalent to Ireland's peak electricity demand and this brings massive opportunities for job creation. Germany creates eight jobs for each megawatt of wind energy installed whereas in Ireland we only have one job for each megawatt. That is because Germany has a strong manufacturing base. Here in Mainstream we are strongly focused on bringing the manufacturing base to Ireland and we're in talks with major players to make this happen. If we could achieve German levels of employment, 5,000MW could bring up to 40,000 jobs."
However, opponents to the project such as Communities for Responsible Engagement with Wind Energy (CREWE) and Westmeath's Lakelands Wind Information Group have questioned the projected employment figures. They have also voiced their concerns about the environmental impact of the windfarms, whose turbines will stretch almost 200m into the air.
"People don't actually understand the scale of them," said Andrew Duncan, spokesman for the Lakelands Wind Information Group "Putting up the largest turbines in the world without consultation - I think it is ludicrous, to be honest."
The well known Mullingar businessman added that opposition to wind energy in Britain is the real reason behind the plan.
"It seems to be an Irish solution to a British problem - politically they don't want turbines on the British countryside".
Former ERSI economist Richard Tol, professor of economics at University of Sussex, said he felt that the whole scheme was "crazy" and would not work in the long term .
"From an Irish perspective this is not selling the family silver; this is giving it away. There is no money staying in Ireland that I can see. But from the British perspective it is a good deal," he said.