Farmers wishing to take full advantage of solar power will have to wait many months if they are depending on an exemption from planning permission for solar installations.
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The slow pace of legislation to achieve exemption is yet another setback for the once-promising contribution of rural solar to renewable energy.
Hopes were raised in January 2021, when the Government first announced details of the Micro-generation Support Scheme (MSS), allowing payment for exported electricity from the renewable energy installations of non-domestic applicants such as farmers.
Farmers looked forward to the scheme incentivising the installation of rooftop and ground-mounted solar photovoltaic panels, from which they could power their farms and sell up to nearly €3,000 per annum of surplus electricity to the national grid.
However, it wasn’t “approved” by the Government until mid-December. Even then, Environment, Climate and Communications Minister Eamon Ryan said the Micro-generation Support Scheme payment for exported electricity was not expected to commence until the third quarter of 2022.
Meanwhile, many of those interested in rural solar power from the rooftops of buildings, such as schools, farms and community halls have been put off by planning permission restrictions. Since 2018, as renewable energy became more important, the Government has reviewed exemptions relating to solar panels.
In June 2021, a legislative bill sponsored by Green Party senators Pauline O'Reilly, Vincent P Martin, and Róisín Garvey was presented, seeking to remove planning restrictions around the installation of solar panels.
The bill is currently before Seanad Éireann, but Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage Peter Burke last week told senators the proposed legislation still has many “environmental thresholds” to negotiate.
Included are proposals for larger arrays of solar panels without planning permission, and for solar panels installed on the ground to reach a height of up to four metres.
Currently, planning permission is required for panels covering more than 50% of the roof area of dwelling houses, or 12 square metres, and 50% or 50 square metres in commercial settings, such as farm buildings.
In the proposed new legislation, there would still be some restrictions, such as proximity to the apex of a roof, and protections for listed buildings.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has been among those trying to speed up the legislation on planning exemptions for solar panels. Minister of State Burke said the Government supports the Bill, and a strategic environmental assessment directive has been carried out.
He said there must be exclusion zones around airports (although the Dublin Airport Authority is applying for permission to build its own solar panel farm). The legislation must also go through appropriate assessment, ecological assessment, and public consultation.
“We expect to have it concluded within a few months,” said Minister of State Burke. Planning exemption could open the way for thousands of schools, community centres, sports clubs, and farms to install solar panels.
It is estimated that solar panels would meet 75% of schools' energy costs, and would reduce the carbon footprint of the education sector by as much as 28%.
Businesses, farms, and community buildings such as schools and sports clubs generating up to 5.9 kilowatts, will be eligible for a Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland grant, scheduled to be launched later in 2022. It is expected such supports for new installations would last until 2028.
Home-owners will also be paid for exported electricity, at a competitive market rate from their electricity supplier, and can qualify for SEAI grant aid of up to €2,400.
A tax disregard of €200 was introduced in Budget 2021 in respect of personal income received by households who sell back to the grid the residual renewable electricity they generate.
The Government support scheme targets 380 megawatts of capacity (about 15% of the Climate Action Plan target of up to 2.5GW of solar renewables). The initial expected payment for non-domestic microgeneration is €0.135 per kilowatt-hour exported.
ICOS, the policy and representative body for co-ops, says dairy farms are a perfect fit for solar microgeneration. Energy consumption on a considerable number of dairy farms is high enough to warrant a solar panels array of up to 30kW.
As well as earning up to €2,773 per annum, from selling surplus electricity, dairy farmers could save up to €2,340 per annum on their farm energy bills.
There are also TAMS II grants of 40% or 60% for solar panels on farm buildings, and for power storage batteries. TAMS includes grants for solar PV panels and rechargeable batteries and solar panels for water heating on pig and poultry farms. More than 100 farmers have received TAMS grants already for solar investments.