On a day that summer forgot, with grey skies and torrential showers, Belfast International Airport is buzzing with people departing for sunnier climes.

And, contradictory though it sounds, the neighbouring solar farm is helping them on their way.

Crookedstone Solar Farm provides 27% of the airport’s electricity needs. Even during the dullest of periods on the greyest of days, such as this day, it is producing at 25%-30% of its capacity.

On its official launch day, June 2, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the solar farm’s proud owners were able to announce that it was operating at 100% capacity.

Those owners are Lightsource Renewable Energy, a UK-based company founded by Antrim man Nick Boyle that currently operates more than 200 solar farms throughout Europe.

Crookedstone is not only their first on the island of Ireland — it’s the only solar farm up and running north or south.

It is located on 34 acres of land just off the A57, the main access road to the airport. At their nearest point, farm and airport are 1.2km apart and an underground cable runs between them, delivering the electricity directly to the airport’s own private network.

For the airport, the attraction is that it gets a sizeable proportion of its electricity at a lower price than that charged by the province’s main suppliers while at the same time reducing its carbon emissions.

For Lightsource, the deal means it has a guaranteed customer for the next 25 years so that it can begin to get a return on its £5m investment. On days when it produces more electricity than the airport needs, the excess goes to the Northern Irish grid.

It is a partnership that could not be replicated in the Republic because, under current law, only Eirgrid and ESB are allowed to run cables across public roads or lands not owned by them.

Also, there is a financial incentive to produce from solar that does not yet exist in the Republic. It works through Renewables Obligation Certificates which are issued for so many units of electricity produced from renewable sources and which are worth cash when the power is exported to the grid.

But it provides a good example of what can be expected when and if solar becomes a reality in the south.

The first striking thing about the farm on approach is the silence. While promoters of cutting edge technology might be expected to enthuse about how dynamic their product is, those behind solar farms love to declare that their solar panels don’t do anything.

“They just sit there,” says Nick Robb, Lightsource’s head of development for Ireland.

He’s right in a way. The panels look like blue-grey rectangles of thick board, arranged side by side in rows running east to west atop metal frames driven 1.5m into the ground.

Tilted facing south, the dipped edges of the panels are 80cm off the ground and the raised edges reach 2.5m in height. They are in a fixed position and don’t move with the sun, as a tilting mechanism would add too much to the cost of installation and powering moving parts would use up too much of the energy produced.

Within the panels, under a glass layer, silicone cells are absorbing the light which excites their electrons into action, creating a current.

Small cables running along the back of the panels link with larger cables underground which connect with a small on-site substation. There are two substations on the site which do emit a low hum but it’s barely audible 5m away.

Apart from the panels, the site looks little different to how it did before the the three-month installation process began. Access is by way of the existing farmgate and the perimeter is marked by large-mesh deer fencing with ‘mammal gates’ to allow access for whatever small creatures normally traverse the fields.

All the original trees and hedgerows outlining the site boundary have been maintained along with a few stand-alone trees that disrupt the otherwise uniform rows of panels.

“They cast shadows so there’s no point in putting panels around them but that’s not a problem,” says Mr Robb. “We can add an extra one on somewhere else. The panels don’t have to be in straight lines. We can work around features of the landscape.”

Features beneath the landscape can also be accommodated, he says.

“If there is anything of archeological significance below the ground, we can position panels above it using concrete feet intead of pile driving into the earth. The feet aren’t permanent. They lift off at the end.”

End of life plans are built into the 25-year-project. “The metal gets sold for scrap and there is an EU agreement for the recycling of the panels so it’s more valuable for us to clear the site completely at the end than to abandon it.”

Lightsource expects to see a return on its investment here in about 12 years, by which time they hope to be in many more locations north and south.

It is working on plans for 20 more sites in the north and two weeks ago it lodged its first planning application in the Republic for a 33-acre site at Monaraha, Cahir, Co Tipperary.

A solar farm provides Belfast International with 27% of all its electricity needs


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