West Offaly Power in Shannonbridge

Threat to 4,000 jobs in Midlands

Likened to the impact of the closure of Google in Dublin, the ramifications of the ESB's sudden decision to close West Offaly Power in Shannonbridge and Lough Ree Power in Lanesboro at the end of next year will hit up to 4,000 direct and indirect jobs all around Athlone's hinterland, it's estimated.

With nearby Shannonbridge reeling from the news that around 40 jobs will go by December 2020 when the peat-powered plant ceases generating electricity, the bigger ripple of the Bord na Móna jobs associated with supplying the plant has fuelled fears not just for the future of village, but for the viability of large tracts of the rural areas of the Midlands in counties Roscommon, Galway and Westmeath who have relied on both semi-state bodies for generations for quality employment and the huge spin-off business they generated.
The State energy utility submitted an application to An Bord Pleanála in 2018 to switch Shannonbridge from peat to biomass over a number of years, starting in 2020. That proposal was rejected in July. Now, with the closure coming much sooner than anyone anticipated, there are huge fears the region will not be ready for the immediate impact or have time to put in place viable alternatives.
On a visit to Lough Boora in Offaly on Monday, Minister for Climate Action and the Environment, Richard Bruton said the Government is determined to ensure alternative employment is provided for hundreds of people affected by the decision to close both power stations much earlier than expected.
While there was anger in Shannonbridge that the Minister didn't meet the local community there, he did meet power plant staff and politicians to brief them on plans for the so-called Just Transition process later in the day in Lanesboro, where he was flanked by fellow Ministers Kevin 'Boxer' Moran, Paschal Donohoe and Josepha Madigan.
“We're here to try and develop an alternative future for people here because otherwise we will have to exit peat much earlier than planned and we now have to ensure we have alternative employment for people in the short run,” the Minister told local media.
Much of the emphasis there is on diverting affected staff to bog rehabilitation projects, retrofitting homes and creating new opportunities in recycling and green energy projects.
“It is a devastating blow to the whole region not just because of the direct employment, the numbers employed are small, but it is because directly and indirectly of the impact on Bord na Móna jobs. We're talking directly and indirectly 4,000 jobs by this so it is hugely significant,” local TD, Denis Naughten, said.

He added that he is still convinced of the need to develop a domestic biomass industry in the region to support the future of the stations or look at using them for gas in the future.
“For every 15,000 hectares of willow grown that would create 470 long-terms seasonal jobs in harvesting biomass,” he said, along with another 600 more short-term posts earlier in the process in planting and propagation and the potential the crop would create in terms of power generation jobs.
“If we could convert to 100% biomass supplied from the local area that would be the equivalent of taking 130,000 cars off the road,” he added, pointing out that he is totally opposed to the demolition of both stations until all alternatives have been examined.
While Deputy Naughten acknowledged these ideas will be more long-term, he is pushing for a “significant ramp-up” in the more short-term solutions put forward by the Government and he called for bog rehabilitation to be prioritised, also referencing the retrofitting of homes, development of recreational amenities, fish farming and horticulture as employment sources for staff directly hit by Friday's decision.
He will also table an amendment to the Finance Bill in the Dáil seeking a tax incentive designation for 17 Bord na Móna workshops and the two brownfield sites in Shannonbridge and Lanesboro in a bid to attract in new industrial investment to these sites. The Drum native also called on local communities like Shannonbridge and others to come forward now with projects that they think can create employment, come up with a strategy and apply for the various funding streams now made available like the so-called Just Transition Fund, Climate Action Fund and others.
The ESB has agreed to put €5 million into a Just Transition Fund established by the Government, with €6 million in exchequer funding to assist regeneration of the Midlands, although critics this week particularly in the Opposition benches believe it is not nearly enough. All sides have welcomed the appointment of Kieran Mulvey as the first Just Transition Commissioner.
“It’s important to remember that there was a timeline in place, signed-off by the Government. The transition was to be gradual and would provide space for viable alternatives to be established, that timeline has gone out the window and the Government is standing over the decimation of a region and the loss of livelihoods,” Westmeath TD Robert Troy complained.
He referenced the recent case of Minister Humphreys setting up an immediate meeting with all stakeholders on foot of job losses at Molex in Shannon to find new investment, and he believes the same needs to happen here too, rather than the more hands-off approach and talk of the Just Transition Fund.