We need to think now about our solar power revolution

Given the lack of regulations governing solar power, Kieran Hartley argues that we need to rethink how we want to use it to meet our energy needs in the future...

THE lack of planning guidelines governing the hundreds of applications for solar farms, or Utility Scale Solar Photovoltaic’s (SPV’s), will leave consumers out of pocket and lead local communities to protest.

Ireland is on the brink of a solar revolution — but there are choices to be made and the Government must tread a wary path.

The opportunity exists to either accept giant solar farms which need hectares of land and taxpayer’s subsidies, or adopt a new approach, where householders, businesses, and farms can generate their own solar power and sell excess back into the national grid using rooftop solar panels.

Politicians across all parties and none need to provide the leadership to craft a new vision in the renewable energy sector. The opportunity exists now to encourage all citizens to play a role in Ireland’s renewable energy project and link their household cash directly to climate change.

If the Government simply allows commercial interests to dictate the pace of change in our solar journey, it means we will have learned nothing from the lessons of, increased costs, community activism against pylons and wind farms and public pessimism and non-acceptance of state-backed infrastructure projects.

Energy Minister Denis Naughten told the Irish Renewable Energy Summit in December that he wanted a complete review of our renewable energy policy — wind and solar. It is a timely call.

He also said that his department is working on a new support scheme for renewable energy to be available by the end of the year which will be in line with the EU’s rules for taxpayers support for energy projects — householders will know this as the hidden tax on every energy bill that is the PSO levy which is a grant to energy providers.

The EU wants to encourage a gradual shift to market-based support for renewable energy. It also published draft proposals in November, which, if adopted, would require Ireland to continue to retain a 15% target up to 2030. As our population and economy grows demand for electricity will further increase.

Currently, there is no subsidy, or REFiT (Renewable Energy Feed in Tariff) for solar power in Ireland, The manufactured cost of solar panels is spiralling downwards and Ireland faces a subsidy implementation choice: either rooftop solar or utility scale commercial solar farms.

The introduction of an imaginative rooftop solar REFiT will open the solar revolution to all building owners, households, businesses and farms; and will activate local energy generation at points of energy use in households, businesses and farms with excess power sold to the grid via the REFiT scheme.

By matching householder demands for solar panels, a rooftop solar REFiT scheme can be simply capped to accommodate the unused excess power sold back to the electrical power grid, greatly limiting the public purse exposure to the new renewable energy support scheme whilst leveraging solar to the maximum and to the greatest number of users.

This may negate infrastructure requirements, i.e. additional grid lines and interconnectors. Consumer’s capital investment in solar panels could be amortised and paid off via their energy bills; a Solar Green Deal scheme as done elsewhere in the EU. It adds value to every household in the scheme.

How could this work? The ESB is ideally placed to implement and administer such a deal on behalf of the State with the installation and construction outsourced to local installers under the guidance of the SEAI. Rooftop solar could create significant construction employment, new and sustainable jobs in a new indigenous industry not reliant on FDI should be welcomed.

The manufactured cost of solar panels has fallen considerably, but the EU Minimum Import Price (MIP) for solar panels maintains an EU wide artificial price. Ireland needs to lobby and negotiate this downwards in order to kick start the solar revolution.

A reduction the price of solar panels, along with refit and green deal scheme could kick start a solar revolution which would be of considerable benefit to Ireland. It could increase household, business and farm energy independence which will in turn increase State energy independence — the two can go hand in hand.

Importantly, for families who rely on electricity for refrigeration or medical reasons,, a localised supply — provided from your roof — would help allay fears about power outages in stormy weather.

If we are to focus on clean energy, we need to pinpoint ways to move Europe away from centralised fossil-fuel-based systems, towards de-centralised, clean power production with consumers at centre-stage.

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