Future is bright with solar power

Would it surprise you to know that south of a line from Dublin to Kenmare Ireland’s potential for solar electricity generation is as good as that of Germany’s? 

The difference is that while Germany has installed tens of thousands of megawatts of solar, currently generating 6% of its electricity with plans to go to 20%, we have yet to install even 1 megawatt. This at a time when we need to increase the amount of renewable electricity we produce, reduce our CO2 emissions and decrease our dependence on imported fossil fuels.

What is solar electricity? It is produced by flat photovoltaic (PV) panels which generate electricity when light falls on them. To generate I kilowatt (kW) you need about 5 square meters of panels. A typical panel size is 1 square meter and produces one fifth of a kW (200 W) when the sun is shining. The panels are then interconnected to generate larger amounts of electricity; this is called a PV system. A domestic installation of 5 or 6 kW is typically mounted on the South facing roof of a house, while 15 or 20 kW could be mounted on the South facing roof of a barn to supply much of the energy needs of a farm. This demonstrates one of the great advantages of solar electricity; it is modular, allowing any size PV system to be built to fit the available space or budget.

The amount of electricity produced by a solar system each year is known as the solar yield and depends mainly on local meteorological conditions. The highest solar yield in Ireland, achieved in the near coastal regions between Mizen Head and Wexford, is 1000 kWHours/installed kW/year. This is the same yield as is achieved near Munich in southern Germany as well as on the South coast of England, both locations having hundreds of thousands of solar PV systems installed.

Currently the cost of installing PV systems is about 1000/kW. This is almost half of what it was five years ago due to continuing technical innovations as well as volume manufacturing. Europe alone has an existing installed capacity of 80,000 MW which is being added to at a rate of 10,000 MW each year.

What would be the benefits of promoting the development of solar electricity in Ireland? — Since it is modular it is ideal for use for small scale (eg farm or domestic) applications where each owner becomes an electricity producer, using whatever electricity is needed at the time, selling the surplus to the grid and purchasing from the grid when no renewable energy is available.

For small scale renewable energy generation (less than 50 kW) a PV system is a more attractive option then a wind turbine as it has little or no visual impact and, having no moving parts, produces its electricity silently. It is also virtually maintenance free over its lifetime of 20-25 years making the cost of solar electricity competitive with that produced by noisy, unreliable and visually intrusive wind turbines. Also, wind turbines produce one third of their electricity at night when demand is at a minimum whereas solar produces all of its electricity during the daytime when the demand is maximum.

Solar electricity is usually produced during periods of stable weather when wind speeds are light and the power output of Ireland’s large, already installed wind generating capacity would be at a minimum. Consequently wind and solar generated electricity are by and large complimentary.

Since most of the solar systems would be installed in the South and East of the country, close to the main centres of population with an existing electricity grid, few if any new power lines would need to be built to cope with the increased electricity generating capacity. Indeed were a sufficiently large solar capacity to be installed it could reduce the need to transport wind generated electricity from the North and West to the remainder of the country by means of contentious new power lines.

The ability to be able to use spare land or roof space to construct silent solar generating plants with little visual impact would be a boost to rural community dwellers at a time when rural Ireland is suffering many setbacks.

Solar electricity generation technology has developed as a consequence of the “high technology” boom of the last 50 years and as such plays to Ireland’s strengths in this area, affording many opportunities for indigenous product development. This is in contrast to renewable energy possibilities from waves, ocean or biofuels in the pursuit of which countries with a tradition of heavy engineering in the shipbuilding or chemical arenas would have a natural advantage.

So what needs to be done to bring the benefits of solar electricity to Ireland? Firstly a reasonable feed in tariff (FIT) needs to be in place, from all electricity supplying companies, to their customers who produce solar electricity to incentivize investment in solar generation. At the moment Electric Ireland is the only company to pay such an FIT for surplus electricity a customer may be producing, paying 0.09 for each kWHr exported to the grid and selling it to the next customer down the road for 0.18. Even if the FIT was raised to 0.18, though still lower than in the UK and Northern Ireland, it would provide an important incentive to solar generation. In addition the current policy of paying no FIT at all to commercial enterprises should also be reversed.

Secondly an easy, inexpensive and streamlined process of connecting solar electricity generators to the grid should be in place. Such a process exists in most European countries and in fact has been instrumental in the mushrooming growth of solar electricity generation throughout Europe. ESB Networks has seemingly not yet woken up to the benefits of solar generation and have put unnecessarily expensive technical barriers in the way of connection, effectively a disincentive to the whole process.

Throughout Europe there is no debate-the role of solar energy as a component of electricity supply is firmly established. Straight thinking and determined action are needed in the Department of Energy if the very real benefits that solar electricity can bring to the homes and the people of Ireland are to be realised.

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