'Devastating news' - Offaly reacts to closure of Shannonbridge power plant

Justin Kelly

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Justin Kelly

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justin.kelly@iconicnews.ie

'Devastating news' - Offaly reacts to closure of Shannonbridge power plant

'Devastating news' - Offaly reacts to closure of Shannonbridge power plant

Offaly's public representatives have been reacting to the news that the West Offaly Power Station in Shannobridge is to cease electricity generation and close down in December 2020.

Offaly councillor John Carroll told the Offaly Express: "Like all members of the community in Offaly, we are shocked at the news of the planned closure of these power stations. This will have a devastating effect on the people of south and west Offaly and indeed the full county when you consider West Offaly power is one of the biggest ratepayers in the county."

He continued: "While Government has been well aware for a number of years that this was on the cards, there was no urgency given to seeking to prioritise the Midlands for investment.

"Offaly County Council has been raising this matter continually for a number of years, inviting in reps from the IDA, ESB and Bord na Mona to outline how they were planning to contribute to job retention and creation post-peat use.

"This is the greatest blow to jobs in the Midlands and will take all sides working together to be innovative in creating sustainable employment from the funds that will be made available in the short term," Cllr Carroll concluded.

Fine Gael TD Marcella Corcoran Kennedy has said she is "extremely concerned with today’s announcement by the ESB."

"This is devastating news. I have yet to hear from the ESB as to why they have arrived at this decision and I am seeking further clarification from the company as to what impact the closure of these plants will have on our energy security.

"I had a discussion with Minister Bruton this morning and I have pressed upon him the importance of an urgent visit to Offaly to meet with those affected and to provide reassurance that the Government is foursquare behind ensuring a meaningful Just Transition is delivered without delay."

Marcella continued to say she welcomes the announcement of the appointment of Kieran Mulvey as Just Transition Commissioner.

"I am calling on him to meet with all the stakeholders as soon as possible. In relation to ESB’s planned contribution to the Government’s existing €6m Just Transition Fund, surely a successful company like ESB could bring more to the table. I am calling on the company to double its proposed €5m contribution to the Just Transition Fund.

"When the Ferbane Power Station closed nearly 20 years ago, the ESB created the West Offaly Fund which was a considerably more generous package.

"I am also in discussions with Minister Bruton and his officials to explore how the PSO levy which is currently levied on all electricity bills could be used to fund extensive bog rehabilitation works.

"The transition from peat mining in the Midlands has been flagged for many years and it has been accepted by Bord na Móna and the ESB, its biggest customer, that it would be peat-free by 2028.

"Since An Bord Pleanála’s decision to refuse ESB’s planning application to co-fire the station with peat and biomass, ESB’s exit from the burning of peat for electricity generation has dramatically accelerated. With the support of my colleagues in Government, I have been to forefront in proactively fighting for the workers, their families and the wider community.

"At my invitation, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Richard Bruton TD has visited Offaly twice since July to meet with all relevant stakeholders, the workers, community representatives, Bord na Móna, ESB and Bord na Móna group of unions," Marcella added.

In response to today's closure announcement, Fianna Fail TD for the county, Barry Cowen, has called on the Government to "immediately provide additional monies to the Just Transition Fund."

Deputy Cowen said it was totally unreasonable to expect the €6 million Just Transition Fund to cover the closure of power stations in the midlands, in particular when Offaly County Council will now be at loss of €3 million in rates which were generated by Shannonbridge alone.

Deputy Cowen said, “I acknowledge that the ESB have committed €5 million to this fund but this will not cover the losses. The Government needs to increase the fund, which was only secured through Fianna Fáil in the first place.

“It’s important to remember with today’s announcement that livelihoods will be lost. While we were all aware that change was coming it was never envisaged that it would be this quick or this brutal.

“The Government have failed to commit to their own plan of phasing out peat burning. It was their plan and their timeline that Shannonbridge transition to biomass. It was up to them to challenge the refusal of planning permission, but they didn’t.

“My thoughts are with the workers and their families who are facing a very uncertain future. Understandably they have very little confidence in this Government’s commitment to the region. It’s up to the Government to provide alternatives”, he concluded.

Independent TD Carol Nolan has said communities throughout Offaly and the midlands have been left devastated by the shock announcement from ESB management.

“This is the worst possible news that the communities, workers and their families could have received. We had hoped that with the recent opening of Lough Ree that some kind of viable way forward was possible. Indeed, we were left with that distinct impression by all senior personnel involved. I want to know what has changed in the last month and a half?" Carol said.

"Why were our communities lulled into a false sense of security if the situation was really as dire and irretrievable as ESB is now saying it is? I also think that workers will be left extremely angry with the lethargic approach that was adopted by this government over the last number of years.

"In fact, it is only relatively recently that we have seen the government give the sector the kind of priority and urgency that it demanded a decade ago and more. Today’s announcement also makes a mockery of the government's recent commitment to provide a so-called Just Transition Commissioner.

"We were told that the Commissioner’s remit was to be the “person on the ground” by Minister Richard Bruton.

"We were also told that the role would involve bringing back ideas to government as part of the just transition plan, which as I understand it is being implemented by the Department of An Taoiseach.

"Where is all that planning and engagement now when the people of Offaly and the midlands region have been left traumatised by the end of a generational and proud tradition,” concluded Deputy Nolan.

Cllr Peter Ormond, Cathaoirleach of Offaly County Council, has too expressed his disappointment and anger today with the decision of ESB to close both power plants.

"There has been uncertainty and nervousness in the region since the planning decision on July 23 of this year and today's announcement confirms the worst fears for employees and communities in the region," he said.

"There are over 1,000 employees currently working in Bord Na Mona and ESB in the region and today's announcement will have a devastating effect on West and South Offaly. I am also disappointed that Offaly County Council had no communication from ESB prior to the announcement.

"The communities and employees in West Offaly have been very good to the ESB and the lack of communication to employees and the public in recent months has been very poor. There is now huge uncertainty for many employees and families and the need for employees and communities to adapt in a timely manner has not been afforded to them.

"The question needs to be asked why did the ESB make applications last July looking for funding to dismantle the two power stations. The question also needs to be asked why didn't the ESB look at a new planning application and supply the stations with homegrown biomass. 

"The Just Transition team that was set up to engage with agencies and the timeline of 8-10  that was envisaged now looks like been reduced to 12 months. The period to the end of 2020 is way too short and not viable for the just transition to perform their duties," he added.

Cllr. Ormond has also questioned the timing of these announcements this morning and said, "to hear from Government sources the announcement that Kieran Mulvey has been appointed as the Commissioner for Just Transition one hour after the breaking news this morning is more than a coincidence.

"The Just Transition was set up to assist communities and workers moving from peat production to alternative employment. The period of 12 months is way too short a period of transition. It was also the wish of Fianna Fail that this Commissioner should have been from the Midlands.

Cllr. Ormond stated that Minister Bruton "needs to get serious about the present situation in Offaly."

"We had two visits from Minister Bruton in recent months and yet we have seen no action. What we have seen is carefully managed statements with no actions. This Government needs to produce some actions and capital investment in the Midlands.

"There was a lot of positive PR about €6 million investment in the recent budget and yet when we had the announcement for Rural Generation this week, Offaly only got €500,000 out of €62 million for one project in Edenderry. 

"While this announcement was welcome, Offaly County Council had made applications to the Department for two other projects, one in Banagher and one in Kilcormac. Kilcormac Town will be one of the hardest-hit communities with these imminent closures and yet the Department didn't see fit to provide funding to make Kilcormac the gateway to Lough Boora and provide alternative opportunities for the community of Kilcormac. 

"To conclude, today is one of the saddest days for Offaly with the loss of employment and power generation," Peter said.

"Offaly has been synonymous with power generation for many decades and today's announcement will bring that to an end in 12 months. The employees and communities in Offaly need everyone's support and much more needs to be done to protect the employees and communities."

Cllr Noel Cribbin described the news as "the end of an era" for the Midlands, adding that it was "sad to see the plants closing down with the loss of traditional and well-paid jobs."

He said the one "small thing to come out of it" was the announcement by the ESB that it would invest an additional €5 million in the Just Transition fund. He said he would be meeting with Marcella Corcoran Kennedy and Minister Bruton in the coming weeks to the discuss the future for workers and for the last remaining power plant in Offaly in Edenderry.

Edenderry is already burning a majority of biomass with plans in place to end the burning of peat there by 2023 but Cllr Cribbin has said its future could be sustained beyond that.

"I will be working to secure Edenderry power station. 80% of the biomass burned there is produced in Ireland and if the biomass due for Lough Ree and Shannonbridge was redirected to Edenderry, it could burn 100% biomass beyond 2023," he commented.

Looking at solutions in the wake of today's news, independent councillor John Leahy has called for the government to follow the Spanish precedent when it comes to the announcement of the closures.

Cllr Leahy said: "In Spain, the plan for a similar task in the coal-mining industry has been costed at €250 million. This has been put in place with a package of benefits and a sustainable development plan. It has offered workers in the declining Spanish coal industry a plan and a future.

"By contrast in Ireland, one year after the then Minister told the Dáil that Bord na Móna was assessing its eligibility for an application for assistance to the European Union globalisation fund, the application has not been made.

"Minister Richard Bruton has plans, normally coming out of his ears," Cllr Leahy fumed.

"Offaly Bord na Mona workers, however, are the forgotten people for this Minister. Blue-collar workers are obviously second-class citizens under this 'posh boy' government," the Kilcormac councillor added.

"There has been no practical plan when it comes to training and upskilling the loyal hard-working Bord na Mona workers. All we have is fancy pamphlets, Budget 2020 spin that won’t create twenty local jobs and uncosted proposals to turn the Midlands into a cannabis ranch.

"It appears to be the case that Spain has a government which cares about its blue-collar workers. The same alas does not appear to be the case here," Cllr Leahy concluded.

Minister Bruton is expected to make a statement on the closures on Friday afternoon.