East Cork farmer plans to add solar energy production to his existing wind turbines to ensure security of supply

By John Verling

I took a left at the Y-junction after Saleen village, but became distracted by the success story on the hill, two turbines turning in the gentle wind. They only become visible on the near approaches, slightly hidden by a dip where the land plateaus at the top of recently harvested fields.

A quick call brought me back to the right road, where Michael was waiting to lead the rest of the way to his home. He’s been farming here, as his family have for generations before him, since 1983, with a mixed output of barley and seed crops. Around his kitchen table, we drink coffee, and get onto the subject of renewable energy and sustainable ways of producing it.

RHI, REFIT, RESS are acronyms much in the news.

The R, for Renewable, is a constant, and each scheme is about encouraging capture of energy from renewable sources.

A lot has been made of how a mismanaged RHI brought down the Northern Ireland power-sharing government.

Tillage and wind farmer Michael Quirke with his son David Quirke and neighbour Ronan Walsh. Picture: Larry Cummins

And if targets aren’t met in renewable generation by 2020, much will be made too of subsequent fines the Irish taxpayer will pay to the EU.

A 2009 directive has Ireland committed to producing 16% of all energy consumed from renewable sources.

The aim is to get 40% of electricity generation, 12% of heating energy use and 10% of transport demand from renewable means.

Agriculture can play a significant role in supplying renewables to help Ireland meet those EU 2020 targets, but farmers haven’t always benefitted from energy schemes in the past. To get the agriculture sector on board again, there are questions to answer first.

Two obvious ones are can power generation on farms pay, and can it be sustainable?

Solar and wind are areas where farmers can get involved, but can they live with Environment Minster Denis Naughten’s recently published Renewable Electricity Support Scheme guidelines?

“We need to make schemes feasible for farmers,” Michael Quirk believes, “they should be given a chance to take an equity stake in any renewable energy project on their farms, not just rely on rental income.”

Michael always had an interest in capturing wind energy. In 2001, he went to a Meitheal Na Gaoithe workshop in Tralee to learn more.

There, he saw the potential in building a wind farm, and he began the planning process in 2003. The granting of full permission in 2005, however, was only the beginning.

The next step was a grid connection. Without it, he couldn’t sell the electricity generated. Michael applied for one, but soon afterwards, a moratorium was placed on connecting wind-generated power to the grid.

Tillage and wind farmer Michael Quirke with his son David Quirke and neighbour Ronan Walsh. Picture: Larry Cummins

Luckily, Michael hadn’t begun construction, and he sat tight on his planning for a few years.

The 2009 Renewable Energy Feed-In Tariff (REFIT) programme gave wind generators a price for their electricity, and enabled them to apply for a grid connection once more.

Michael submitted his plans, and got a link into the local sub-station at Cloyne in 2010. Now, he had what he needed to make his project viable, but the banking collapse did away with any finance he was hoping for, to get the sails turning.

Not one to give up easily, he applied to Tridos Bank, which specialises in funding ethical projects. Due diligence was done, finance was closed and Michael began construction in the winter of 2010.

The upside of the delay was

that

the German turbine manufacturer, Enercon, had opened in Tralee in 2010, allowing Michael to put two top-class E48 turbines on top of his masts.

In April 2011, the wind farm was energised, feeding DC electricity to his transformer station, which in turn delivered AC to the grid line in the next field. He was up and running, and his two turbines were supplying electricity to homes and businesses in Cloyne. It may have taken nearly 12 years, but finally, he was part of the national grid.

Tillage and wind farmer Michael Quirke with his son David Quirke and neighbour Ronan Walsh on the access steps of one of the wind turbines on Michael’s farm at Aghada, Co Cork. He has plans for a 5 megawatt solar farm covering 25 acres at the site. Picture: Larry Cummins

Three years later, Michael began the next step in securing the future of his generating operation — adding solar energy production to the wind farm, and becoming a hybrid energy park. Doing so would further take the risk out of his project, because the wind mainly blows at night, and the sun shines in the day.

Planning was submitted, and he got full permission in November 2016.

A grid application went in too; he can use the existing one into Cloyne, but still needs approval by Networks Ireland for the extra capacity.

Michael Quirk has plans for the first hybrid energy park in the country, but can’t start until he gets that grid connection to supply more electricity to the local area.

While waiting for grid approval, he has plenty to do running the farm; he sees electricity generation as a part of the overall farming enterprise, and one which also benefits the local community.

“I live here, so when I get involved with the community, I want to be sure it gets done and done properly,” says Michael, “I’ll always stay farming of course, I am a farmer.”

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