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In Father Collins Park in Clongriffin on a breezy Monday, a single wind turbine toils to produce electricity to keep the lights on and the water features going in the green space.
Four other identical turbines loll gently from side to side – but fail to spin.
“For about the last 10 days this is the only one that has been running,” says local resident Susan Martin, out walking in the park as she does most days.
She pauses. “Now that I think of it, it’s really only that one that I’ve seen going,” says Martin, as she looks up at the turbine nearest to Main Street. It’s turning steadily and fairly fast.
Last summer, more of them were active, says Ray Elliott, who is out with her. “But I’ve never seen them all going together.”
When the 52 acre park opened in 2009, the idea was that the wind turbines would make it more “sustainable” by providing the electricity to power its floodlights, water features, dressing rooms and maintenance buildings, and would pay for themselves, according to an Irish Times article at the time.
But in recent years, the turbines have dropped offline month after month, blighted by maintenance issues, show emails released under the Freedom of Information Act.
A fault flagged three years ago with one of them posed a risk to the public, said a contractor last September, when it still had not been fixed.
Dublin City Council hadn’t responded by deadline to queries about whether that has since been sorted, or as to what lessons have been learned from the wind turbine project.
Between 2014 and 2018, the turbines’ electricity output plummeted from almost 230,000 kwh to 37,000 kwh, show council statistics issued to Fianna Fáil Councillor Tom Brabazon in January 2019.
With the turbines making less electricity, electricity bills for the park began to climb, from €18,000 in 2014 to €45,000 by 2017. The council sold less electricity on too, falling from €3,410 worth in 2014 to €530 worth in 2017.
Fine Gael Councillor Terence Flanagan says the council needs to be honest about what’s going on. “Are they functioning? Have they been switched off? Why has the output dropped? There are some questions there.”
He wonders if noise complaints meant the council flicked the switch on them, he says. He got piles of complaints a few years back about noise from them, but hasn’t lately.
“It can be quite loud when they are all functioning together,” Flanagan says. “The council need to rectify that situation.”
On the recent Monday in the park, Elliott also said he wonders if the council turns them off, at times. “If they were all going at once, you wouldn’t come into the park because of the noise.”
Emails released under the Freedom of Information Act include one complaint from a local resident in the last three years. That was in April 2021, asking the council to investigate a noisy night and make sure it didn’t happen again.
“We could not sleep because the wind turbines were on all the night!!!” she wrote. “It was terribly noisy and incredibly frustrating.”
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council, meanwhile, said that anomalies in the flow of wind can cause a situation where one turbine turns and the others don’t.
“The wind conditions are noted as low today at the park and not reaching the required wind speed to activate the turbines,” they said on 31 January, in response to questions about why the turbines weren’t turning.
Emails between council staff and contractors since the beginning of 2019, show another big reason why some of the wind turbines have sat stagnant for stretches at a time – faults and maintenance issues.
On and Off Again
As of June 2019 only one of the five turbines was working, emails show.
Two needed new magnets, and there were ethernet issues between the turbines and twisted cables, according to an email sent by a council official in July 2019. Maintenance contractor Enerpower quoted €6,615 to fix those problems.
In October 2019, Dublin City Council gave the go-ahead to get them fixed, but by November 2019 there were more problems and none of the turbines was working, emails show.
“No. 1 has gear box problems. No. 2 has a battery not functioning at the kiosk. Nos. 3,4 and 5 have tip brakes which engage when they are restarted,” wrote a council official.
In May 2020, a representative of Enerpower wrote to the council to say she had ordered magnet tips from America and they were in transit.
In November 2020, three of the turbines were running and two were not, according to emails sent by staff at Enerpower.
In September 2021, a staff member at Enerpower wrote to the council asking it to make a decision on the turbine with the broken gearbox, which had been out of action for three years.
“In my opinion, this is a health and safety issue and needs to be addressed,” he wrote. “I am also going to send you a registered letter pointing out the Enerpower cannot take any responsibility regarding the issue.”
The council staff member wrote back asking how the damaged turbine posed a health and safety risk.
The maintenance contractor said that the rotor, to which the blades are attached, was stuck because the gearbox was locked.
“If for some reason the rotor becomes free there will be no break on the rotor and it will spin out of control,” he wrote. “The rotor may become free due to a gust of wind.”
“Over time the blades are taking the force of the wind as there are in a fixed position. So at some point the constant pressure of the wind may cause the rotor to free itself,” he wrote.
If that happens the rotor, with the blades attached, could fall off and injure passers-by below, he wrote.
The entrance to the park from Main Street brings walkers directly beside the five wind turbines.
The council official asked the maintenance contractor to provide costs for three possible scenarios to make the turbine safe.
“We are looking at a cost-effective way to make it safe, we will look at turbine repair/replacement separately,” he wrote.
Dublin City Council didn’t respond to queries about whether that turbine has now been fixed.
When the project was launched it was envisaged that the wind turbines would power the park, says Flanagan the Fine Gael Councillor.
The turbines cost €1.2 million to install, said an Irish Times articlein 2009.
In 2019, Flanagan got a report from a council-manager saying that “the turbines are naturally becoming less efficient as they age and increasing maintenance and repairs are required.”
The five small turbines were selected because they are in scale with the park and are “regarded as an educational resource and demonstration example of how such facilities can be designed to be more sustainable,” he said.
They don’t supply the full energy requirements of the park, he said.
Justin Moran, head of communications and public affairs at Wind Energy Ireland, a representative body for the wind energy sector, says that building wind turbines in urban areas isn’t ideal.
Wind energy works best in isolated rural areas, where much bigger turbines can be built, he says, or better again out at sea where there is more wind and no neighbours.
The turbines in Father Collins Park are quite small. “The five together have a capacity of 0.25 MW,” says Moran. “To put that in context a typical single wind turbine deployed on an Irish wind farm these days would be at least 3 MW.”
Solar panels are better for microgeneration in the city, he says, both in terms of capacity and how they fit in with the urban environment.
“I can’t think of anyone who would try to build a project like this today – anywhere – let alone in the middle of Dublin,” he says.
Naturally, over a lifetime of 20 or 30 years, there will be times that the turbines need to be repaired, he says, and the cost of maintenance should be factored in at the beginning.
Commercial windfarms only make money when the turbines are turning so they seek very robust and durable turbines that don’t break down much, says Moran.
It’s a competitive business and the main manufacturers are competing on quality, he says. “Turbine manufacturers are constantly improving the designs to meet that demand from their customers.”