‘We have to talk climate change and the consequences of doing nothing’

Although no solar farms have yet been built in the Republic, a handful of projects have been granted planning permission.

‘We have to talk climate change and the consequences of doing nothing’

Among them, one planned for a site in south Wexford is considered the test case, having gone through an An Bord Pleanála appeal complete with oral hearing.

“I was happy that it went to Bord Pleanála because the board sets the standard,” says developer Patrick Blount. “We were confident that we had covered all the angles and the appeal and the hearing proved we had.”

The site is at Coolroe, Ballycullane, Co Wexford, near historic Tintern Abbey, an area described as “gently rolling farmland”, and it covers 25 acres previously used for tillage and pasture.

Wexford County Council gave it permission in December 2014, despite 13 objections, prompting four of the objecting parties, including two couples living beside the site, to appeal.

Their objections were varied but loss of visual amenity was a big concern, with fears that the installations would look like a “silicone vineyard”.

One objection said: “Under the proposed development, they [appellants] would have a view of solar panels, security fencing, and cameras. It would look like a prison.”

Fears of glare from the sun reflecting off the panels were another issue, as was loss of farmland, disruption to wildlife and concern about the viability of the project, with questions asked about who would remove the panels and restore the site to agricultural use if the developers became insolvent.

The objectors also argued that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) on the project should have been carried out and that no solar farm should be granted permission until national guidelines for their development were put in place.

The inspector who handled the appeal relied largely on British guidelines while examining the Coolroe application and took the opportunity while on a trip to Wales to examine solar farms in operation there.

“There is a mature suite of policies in existence in the UK which are not applicable, but are informative,” the inspector wrote.

On the question of why no EIA was carried out, the inspector made a decision that could be important for all future applications, namely that none was required.

“Large solar PV arrays are not listed in Schedule 5 of the Planning and Development Regulations,” it is noted, Schedule 5 being a fairly exhaustive list of commercial, industrial, energy, mining, tourism and infrastructural developments that automatically require EIA.

“Nor does the proposed development meet the requirements for sub-threshold EIA,” the inspector continued, “as it would not have any impact on a designated environmental protection area nor have any significant effects on the environment.”

Some planning experts have commented since that the omission from Schedule 5 is simply because solar was not considered when the list was drawn up, rather than any considered decision that there is no environmental impact to assess.

They suggest councils will push for greater clarity on the issue as more applications land on their planning desks. But for the moment, the situation remains that no EIA is required by law, meaning one less obstacle for developers.

Mr Blount says the other concerns were easily addressed. Glint and glare was measured by a specialist UK firm which concluded there was a possibility of some glint from the panels affecting two houses between 6pm and 6.30pm on days in March, May, June, July, and September.

Moving the panels in one part of the site further back from the houses and planting additional hedging was proposed to deal with the issue, and accepted by An Bord Pleanála as a solution.

Mr Blount, who also developed a number of wind farms in Donegal and Louth, is now involved in solar projects proposed for two more sites at Killinick, also in Co Wexford, both of which were granted planning permission by the county council and have not been appealed.

“We’re working on 12 projects now and that’s as many as we’re going to work on but we have three projects with full planning permission and we have three live grid connection offers as well so we are ready to rock,” he says.

A smaller farm proposed by Reeve Wave Ltd for a 4.5-acre site at Ballytrasna, Lissarda, near Macroom, Co Cork, also has planning permission that survived an appeal to An Bord Pleanála.

However, a 34-acre farm proposed by Highfield Solar for Ballycooleen, Avoca, Co Wicklow, was rejected by Wicklow County Council in April and it is the developers who have lodged an appeal with An Bord Pleanála which is due to decide on the case by September.

In this case, the council ruled the development would be obtrusive and change the character of the area.

An Elgin Energy plan for 30 acres near Mountrath, Co Laois, is with the council which has sought a Natura Impact Statement on the implications for conservation. Elgin also have a plan with Tipperary County Council for a site near Thurles.

Having cleared his planning hurdles, all Mr Blount wants now is for the Government to offer financial support by way of direct subsidy or payment per unit of electricity produced.

“If there is a support mechanism tomorrow we could have projects up and running before the end of this year,” he says. “It’s pretty quick compared to wind. We could have several solar parks operational by this time next year, if the political will was there.”

He says he understands the concerns residents might have about the visual impact of his development, but he insists there will be none of any significance.

“If you’re in the Wicklow Mountains and you see a solar part on the slopes of Slieve Maan, that’s absolutely objectionable,” he says. “But if you’re in an area that’s flat land and you look over a ditch and you see a solar park, as would be the case in Wexford, how different is that from looking at a few glasshouses or looking at the rows of plastic [that] farmers put down to grow maize under?

“Once a project is well-sited and the developer has been sensitive to that, there shouldn’t be a visual impact issue.”

Mr Blount says the bigger picture — climate change — has to be considered as well.

“The thing that people are just not talking about is the whole question of where we are going to be in 30 or 40 years,” he says.

“We know that sea levels are going to rise half a metre to a metre. It’s unstoppable. Areas of Cork City will be under water, parts of Waterford city too.

“But the biggest single effect of climate change is going to be mass migration of people. I get so hot under the collar when I hear about the level of objection we get to wind enegy in Ireland, without any consideration of the consequences.

“We have to talk about climate change and the consequences of doing nothing in parallel with talking about developing a new industry because the two things are connected.

“I think the issue can be summed up as ‘under glass or under water’. Would you rather have solar parks or floods? We have to start talking about that.”

Cara Augustenborg, a climate change lecturer at University College Dublin and chairwoman of Friends of the Earth Ireland, is also concerned about the lack of public debate around climate change and the public’s role in mitigating it.

She is part of the postcarbonireland.org initiative by 29 leading academics who are seeking a citizens convention on climate change.

“Solar is going to be part of our energy future but if we don’t do this properly and we don’t bring people along then you end up in the same situation you’re in with wind where you have a lot of public opposition,” says Dr Augustenborg.

“Communities didn’t benefit from wind, so we have to be more proactive when it comes to solar. If it’s going to disturb their landscape, then communities need to get something back. The only model can’t be developer-led with only the developer benefiting.”

In the UK Friends of the Earth has made a big push for rooftop solar, particularly for schools, and she believes the same should be encouraged here.

“Schools don’t run on the weekend or on holidays so they would be generating energy that they wouldn’t use and if they could feed that back into the grid and get money for it, it would offset the cost of solar for them.

“It would also avoid some of the planning issues that are bound to arise with solar farms. I can’t see many objections to something you can only see from the sky.”

State aid urged

Energy firms says it is vital they get a support mechanism from the State to help defray the costs of solar installations, but that mechanism could take one, or several, of many forms.

The Public Service Obligation (PSO) is a charge on all electricity users that is automatically added to electricity bills and creates a fund for use in the support of renewable and sustainable energy generation.

Solar is the only renewable not included in the PSO, which largely benefits wind and, to a lesser degree, peat burning, biomass, and hydroelectricity. It costs €68 per year, but that could rise to €90 later this year.

The Irish Solar Energy Association (ISEA) believes adding another €19 to bills annually between now and 2020 would provide the €25m needed annually to kickstart their industry.

How the PSO is used is the next question. It could fund a Renewable Energy Feed-In Tariff (REFIT) to give electricity generators a payment for each unit of power produced and fed into the national grid that would remain fixed to shield start-up solar operations from the price fluctuations in the open electricity market.

A report by KPMG commissioned by the ISEA last last year recommends use of a REFIT for residential and commercial roof-top solar installations.

In the case of roof-top, where solar will not provide all the electricity needs of the operator, such as at night (because there is no way yet of storing electricity produced at peak times for use later) but at times will produce an excess that must be transferred to the grid, the REFIT could be payable directly or as a credit against bills for power bought in.

For large-scale projects, such as solar farms, it suggests a Contract for Difference would be more suitable. It would provide a top-up payment based on the revenue received by the electricity generator for sales of electricity, rather than on the units of electricity generated.

The KPMG report also looked at tax measures and regulatory changes which it says could have direct or knock-on financial benefits for solar.

It says if the installation of rooftop solar was made mandatory on all new buildings, this would boost the sector by creating a steady stream of demand for the technology. This in turn would drive efficiencies in design and innovation which would bring down the cost of solar for everyone.

Other measures it suggests include reductions or exemptions on the local property tax for buildings fitted with solar panels, and on stamp duty when the same properties are bought or sold.

It says solar equipment could be made eligible for Vat reduction or exemption, and that revenue from subsidies could be exempted from income tax.

KPMG also emphasise the need to continue allowing deductions from Corporation Tax liabilities to cover depreciation in the value of solar equipment, and for farmers to be allowed claim Vat refunds on solar equipment installed for agricultural use.

What the State would get in return is the speedy roll-out of 7,300 new high-skilled jobs. Longer term, the report says for every €1 invested in solar, the economy would benefit by €3.

The ISEA argues that, long-term, the State could be crippled by fines for non-compliance with EU targets for electricity production from renewable sources.

By 2020, 40% of our electricity is meant to be generated from renewables and we are currently about 14% below target. Estimates of the fines that could be imposed on us hover at €140m to €300m per year.

The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources began a public consultation two years ago on a Renewable Support Scheme for all renewable technologies, including solar, and said a decision would be made this year.

However, it said whatever form of support was chosen would have to be approved by government and also get clearance from the European Commission under the strict ‘state aid for industry’ procedures.

The department now says it is expected that whatever scheme is adopted will be rolled out next year.

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