Startup has great hopes for a proposed solar power plant in Cork harbour

Startup has great hopes for a proposed solar power plant in Cork harbour
Solar Marine Energy chief executive and co-founder Eamon Howlin.

Mayo renewable energy startup Solar MarineEnergy is making plans to build Ireland’s first floating solar energy plant which it proposes to locate in Cork harbour.

“We have secured permission from the Port of Cork to install a 1.5MW plant at Ringaskiddy and are in the process of signing up the Marine and Renewable Energy Centre as clients for our electricity,” said Solar Marine Energy chief executive and co-founder Eamon Howlin, adding he has now applied to Department of Housing, Planning, and Local Government for a foreshore licence for the project.

Hoping to get the plant up and running next year, Mr Howlin said that in addition to providing a supply of clean green energy, the “floating photovoltaic” installation will allow the company to demonstrate the effectiveness of its technology to prospective clients around the world.

He said the proposed installation will have the capacity to provide enough electricity for the annual needs of 350 houses. Seven years ago, Mr Howlin and company co-founder Michael Whelan observed the emergence of floating solar energy. They identified a gap in the market for floating platforms built to international maritime standards.

“It is predicted that the global market for floating solar energy will reach $1.58bn by 2023,” he said, adding that this growth has come about since solar companies discovered that floating platforms were cheaper and easier to install than those on the land, while also having twice the power density of land solar plants.

As the industry began to emerge in 2014, Mr Howlin and Mr Whelan noted that floating solar platforms were being built mainly by companies whose experience was in the installation of solar panels on land.

“We had the marine engineering experience to design better ones and have since become the first company to design and engineer solar floating support structures in compliance with international maritime design standards,” said Mr Howlin.

Setting up Solar Maritime in 2016 to design platforms for inland waterways such as lakes and reservoirs, they have since worked on developing hybrid energy platforms using hydrogen as well as solar power.

The company aims to disrupt the floating solar energy market by developing platforms which can be used in nearshore marine environments, as well as on inland waterways.

Mr Howlin said that a key selling point for the firm is that it doesn’t use “cheap mass-produced blow-moulded plastic” in its platforms, which is the main material in use for floating platforms at present.

“Blow-moulded plastic is unsuitable because it has a limited lifespan and can be environmentally damaging because it degrades,” he said.

Back in 2016, the company started two years of extensive research and development. A year later, tapping some help from Competitive Start Funding from Enterprise Ireland, it designed its first platform. And early last year, it began collaborating with Italian company Upsolar Floating on the design of the new, more efficient platform.

The two companies have made several joint tenders for international contracts. “We have the marine engineering experience and they have extensive solar energy expertise. It is a perfect match,” said Mr Howlin.

Solar Marine Energy was chosen as the lead industry partner to work with UCC on a project to develop a floating photovoltaic power electrolysis plant to produce hydrogen.

The project, which secured €195,000 in grant aid, is significant for the firm because of its involvement in designing hybrid platforms. The company is now working on a number of research projects with Queen’s University, Belfast.

With its partner Upsolar, it has tendered for projects in Libya, Singapore, and Indonesia. The next step for the firm, if it is successful in obtaining a foreshore licence, will be to install the Cork harbour plant, which is to be its first commercial project.

Mr Howlin said he hopes this will help the company enter into a partnership arrangement with an Irish energy supplier. Currently employing three full-time and two part-time staff, the company is actively looking for an investment partner to grow the business.

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