Fewer than 2% of dairy farms have solar PV system installed

A typical solar PV installation on a 100-cow dairy farm will supply 30% of the farm's electricity need on an investment of €15,300
Fewer than 2% of dairy farms have solar PV system installed

The way the agriculture industry produces and uses energy is going to radically change in this country in the next years.

Despite solar “sparking most interest” among farmers of all the renewable energy technologies available, fewer than 2% of dairy farms in Ireland currently have a solar photovoltaic system installed.

As farmers await the introduction of a microgeneration support scheme in the near future, Barry Caslin, Teagasc energy and rural development specialist told the Irish Examiner that farmers are “getting their ducks in a row” ahead of that.

With “exciting opportunities” coming down the track, the way the agriculture industry produces and uses energy is “going to radically change in this country”, with a transition to renewables in the coming years, he added.

Teagasc representatives told a meeting of the Oireachtas joint committee on agriculture, food and the marine this month that opportunities for the deployment of solar PV systems that are economically beneficial for farmers have been greatest where a significant part of the energy generated is consumed on the farm, such as on dairy, pigs, and poultry, thereby offsetting “expensive grid-supplied electricity charges”.

Teagasc estimates that fewer than 2% of dairy farms currently have a solar PV system installed. There are around 18,000 dairy farms in Ireland.

Research officer John Upton said that dairy farms use approximately 400GWh of electricity per year; pig farms use approximately 136GWh per year; and poultry farms use another 12GWh or so. 

"The demand profile on a dairy farm has a peak in the morning and a peak in the evening," Mr Upton said. 

The electricity generation profile is at its peak in the middle of the day, when one is not milking the cows. 

"Clearly, some energy storage is required. Some can be implemented quite cheaply. 

"The cheapest way to implement storage is through storing hot water in a dairy water heater. That can be implemented at a cost of roughly €40 per kWh of storage. 

"That level would get a dairy farm to approximately 30% of renewable consumption without additional storage." 

A maintenance engineer flown in from Britain at work on Ireland’s largest solar farm, at the Eli Lilly plant at Dunderrow, near Kinsale, West Cork, last year. 
A maintenance engineer flown in from Britain at work on Ireland’s largest solar farm, at the Eli Lilly plant at Dunderrow, near Kinsale, West Cork, last year. 

Mr Upton told the committee that in the absence of substantial on-farm demand for electricity or a significant export tariff, the payback periods can easily exceed 10 years, resulting in low levels of interest in solar PV systems on some farms.

“The only viable option for deploying solar PV for dairy farmers has been to follow the self-consumption microgeneration route as there has been an absence of an export tariff for electricity exported to the national grid," he said.

“Additionally, planning permission is required for PV arrays in excess of 50m2. These aspects have limited the appetite for the installation of larger systems among farmers.” 

He described a typical solar PV installation on a 100-cow dairy farm, comprising the installation of an 11kWp solar PV array on the dairy shed roof — a size that does not require planning — and involves an investment of approximately €15,300.

“This size system will supply 30% of the farm's electricity needs from renewables and will pay for itself in around seven years at current electricity prices and without grant aid,” Mr Upton told the committee.

“This size system would offset three tonnes of CO2 per annum.” 

Renewed interest in solar

Teagasc said that going forward, with recent announcements on the advent of a microgeneration and minigeneration solar PV export tariff and potential easing of planning requirements in the near future, there should be “renewed interest” among farmers in adopting solar PV by allowing for up to 50kWp systems on farms.

“However, some anomalies may remain in place, such as the inability of farmers to avail of the export tariff if they utilise their Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine TAMS grant to part-fund their solar PV system,” Mr Upton said.

“These anomalies can create confusion among farmers and may inhibit mass levels of adoption.” 

However, the opportunities for solar deployment on farms are great, according to Mr Upton, given that shed roofs are the “ideal home for such systems and there is no shortage of space for these systems on a typical farm”.

“Development of solar energy generation in agriculture has the potential to have three major benefits for Ireland’s agriculture industry," he said.

“First, enhanced energy security through the displacement of fossil fuels will bolster our national energy self-reliance through the consumption of locally generated renewable electricity in place of electricity generated from imported fossil fuels.

“For example, a conservative estimate of 200GWh of electricity could be generated by dairy farms if they were to meet 50% of their electricity demand from renewable sources.

Diversification

“The second benefit is related to farm diversification. 

"Income generated from exporting excess electricity will provide additional income streams for farm families in rural Ireland and encourage parallel income streams from the farm.

“Third, renewable electricity generation is better for the environment and generation of electricity on farms will help contribute to our national efforts in the area.

“The potential of high levels of adoption of solar PV on dairy farms alone could save over 100,000 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year nationally if every dairy farmer installed 26kWp of solar panels.”

Last month, Neoen, one of the world’s leading independent producers of exclusively renewable energy, announced its Millvale solar farm in Wicklow has been connected to the Irish national grid, just nine months after completing financing for the project. Picture: Keith Arkins Media 
Last month, Neoen, one of the world’s leading independent producers of exclusively renewable energy, announced its Millvale solar farm in Wicklow has been connected to the Irish national grid, just nine months after completing financing for the project. Picture: Keith Arkins Media 

Fianna Fáil TD for Cork East James O'Connor told the Dáil he would like to see a PV system put in place for security of energy supply to dairy farms in Ireland.

"That is something that could be rapidly advanced in the summer months," Mr O'Connor said during a debate on agriculture.

"PV is different to other styles of solar energy in that the exposure to daylight, rather than heat, is the important component. 

"Exposure to sunlight is obviously important for all solar energy but PV works differently from other systems and is suitable to Ireland. 

"That is one area in which I think we need to do a lot of work in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. 

We need onsite generation of energy with backup battery supplies.

"The electricity bills for Irish dairy farms that milk, for example, 120 to 150 cows could range from €6,000 to €10,000. 

"The costs involved are staggering. 

"There could be a lot of positive work done in that area that could have a long-term impact to help reduce costs for farmers if the Department of Agriculture would work with the Department of Environment."

Social Democrats TD for Cork South-West Holly Cairns told the Dáil that this area has to be "prioritised further" as families are facing a cost of living crisis that is "especially pronounced on farms".

"There are thousands of farm buildings across Ireland that could contribute to our renewable energy production as well as being helped to address rapidly rising energy costs," Ms Cairns said.

"The climate crisis compels action as soon as possible.

"Farmers can play very key role in this. There is a considerable capacity on farms to harness solar energy to power not only the farm, but to sell energy back to the national grid. 

"This is a win-win for individual farmers and for addressing Ireland’s climate targets."

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