It feels like 190 years ago now, but I still remember one of the first stories I did while working on RTÉ’s Ear To The Ground with Mairead McGuinness and David Kavanagh. The year was 1993 and producer Liam Lavelle had steered the ETG Toyota Land Cruiser out west as we headed towards Mayo in search of a show.

We went north to a place and a sight I had never seen before. Born and reared in the flat bogs of the Midlands, I had never seen a wind turbine in action, so the sight of Ireland’s first commercial wind farm which began operating in 1992 at Bord na Móna Bellacorick was truly a shock to the system.

It comprised of 21 wind turbines with a total installed capacity of 6.45 megawatts and produced enough electricity to supply at least 4,500 households.

Something huge

I honestly thought that day it was the beginning of something huge. I remember looking at the mighty turbines and thinking, ‘If this can work here, why can’t it transform every other bog in Ireland?’

But then something happened. Even though all the key criteria for a successful wind farm industry were there, it was as if somebody turned off the lights. We all knew the negative environmetal impacts of generating electricity from fossil resources – coal, peat, oil and gas – yet the move to set up more wind farms was embarked upon only at a snail’s pace. In fact, Bellacorick remained Ireland’s only wind farm until 1997.

In 1998, with the uptake of commercial wind farms still staggering along so slowly, those of us who saw the writing on the wall for peat employment in the Midlands started to look around for alternatives. Although power stations in Longford and Offaly provided hundreds of well-paid jobs, we knew that this reliance on fossil fuels could never last and we searched desperately for ideas elsewhere.

Turf cutters

The solution this time came from Wales. A research project on burning biomass for energy had commenced at Cardiff University and in 1999, the most accomplished turf cutters of my town climbed on board our research bus and we headed for the ferry to Holyhead.

Our mission was simple: we were looking for realistic ways to save jobs in our power stations by replacing peat and turf with something less environmentally damaging.

Farmers in Wales

We visited farmers in Wales who were ready to plant hundreds of acres of willow, elephant grass and other such alternatives to meet the new market for biomass and then we went back to the university to see how these performed under laboratory tests. Quite well, it turned out.

Yes, there were questions about the type of land in which the willow would thrive best but there were also solutions offered and we returned to Ireland on our minibus, full of hope and enthusiasm?.

Alas, while Bord na Móna in fairness did show enthusiasm for a pilot programme to have willow grown and tested in the existing stations, the ESB in Lanesborough were not interested.

“You would need to be growing a million acres of willow a year to feed this station,” the ESB man asserted.

We argued that a proper incentive for farmers prepared to do it would help reach targets but it all fell on deaf ears – both at ESB and governmental level.

Twenty five years later, with the emergence of a new focus on sustainable and renewable energy, the pioneers who went to Wales in 1999 were told their power station in Lanesborough was to be closed down within 24 months.

The politicians who were neither present nor interested in 1999 pointed to the carbon footprint and some even had the cheek to tell us we were living in the past.

“We were green before you were green,” we told them that day, and we meant it.

A community that was reaching out for new ideas and bleeding-edge technologies way ahead of its time were kicked in the teeth by the modernists of opportunism. We will never forget it. We will never forgive them.

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