Special report: Solar could be light at end of the tunnel for energy needs

Our rainy island gets as much sunlight as Germany

In Europe, the UK, France, Italy, Spain, and Greece are all among the top users of solar power while worldwide, China is being chased by Japan and the US. So why has Ireland been so slow to follow suit? asks Caroline O’Doherty

With fossil fuels designated environmental enemy number one and nuclear power a political impossibility, the search for clean and renewable sources of energy is intense.

Onshore wind has dominated the Irish response so far, but there is growing local objection to the proliferation of turbines across the landscape.

Offshore wind remains costly and complex to develop, and despite great optimism about their long-term potential, wave and tidal technologies are still largely untried outside of engineering laboratories.

Biomass — fuel developed from crops and animal and human waste — has its place but it relies on waste creation, it is costly, and there are emissions and ash to deal with when it is burned to produce energy.

So what’s the next big thing in renewables? All indications are that it is the one that has been with us the longest and appreciated the least — the sun.

Attention is turning rapidly — though very belatedly by international comparisons — to solar energy and its ability to provide a green source of electricity that will not only help slow the impact of climate change but save us from the tens of millions of euros in fines we’re facing from the EU if we fail to make carbon reduction a reality within the next four years.

In 2014, ESB Networks, which controls the national electricity grid, received just two applications from solar energy promoters to connect a solar project up to the grid.

A year later, there were 329 applications. In the five and a half months up to the middle of June this year, there were 143 more. In total, they promise almost 3,000 megawatts of electricity — roughly enough to power 2m households.

Those 474 statements of intent are not so far matched by 474 solar installations on the ground, but around 200 planning applications are thought to be under preparation for submission to county councils or have already been lodged.

A handful have been through the process and come out the other end virtually unscathed, receiving planning permission with a relative ease that suggests there should be no major obstacle from for the many more expected to follow.

David Maguire, chairman of the Irish Solar Energy Association, isn’t surprised solar has been off the agenda here, particularly in light of the financial crisis. Picture: Clare Keogh
David Maguire, chairman of the Irish Solar Energy Association, isn’t surprised solar has been off the agenda here, particularly in light of the financial crisis. Picture: Clare Keogh

Solar installations can range from small residential rooftop panels, to large-scale commercial or industrial rooftop arrays, but the few that have planning permission here, and the vast majority of the anticipated projects, take the form of solar farms, also termed solar parks, which use agricultural land to set up rows of solar panels on top of metal stands that are driven into the earth.

They use solar photovoltaic (PV) technology which specifically uses light to make electricity (as opposed to solar thermal which creates heat) and on average they would cover 25 to 30 acres in any given location and would operate under 25-year-leases after which time they would be dismantled and the land returned to agricultural use.

Yet despite this massive surge in activity, there is a notable lack of official preparedness for the arrival of solar on the energy landscape, not to mention the physical landscape.

There are no planning guidelines for the development of solar farms, no industry wide standards for installation and, crucially for promoters, no supports from the State.

As recently as 2010, Ireland’s National Renewable Energy Action Plan envisaged no role at all for solar in contributing to the country’s renewable electricity targets by 2020.

The 2014 Green Paper on Energy Policy mentioned only domestic solar installations and the follow-up White Paper published last December which sets out the country’s transition to low-carbon energy use from 2015 to 2030 only carries a few paragraphs on the subject.

It says: “Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is rapidly becoming cost competitive for electricity generation, not only compared with other renewables but also compared with conventional forms of generation.

“The deployment of solar in Ireland has the potential to increase energy security, contribute to our renewable energy targets, and support economic growth and jobs.

“Solar technology is one of the technologies being considered in the context of the new support scheme for renewable electricity generation which will be available in 2016.”

That date has now been pushed out to 2017 and meanwhile, the Renewable Electricity Policy and Development Framework, due for publication at the end of this year and intended to clarify questions concerning planning and environmental law, focuses almost entirely on wind energy.

By contrast, the UK has been rolling out solar farms at a rapid rate since 2011 and earlier this year it passed a major milestone with more electricity being generated from the sun than from coal.

Germany has had a growing solar industry for a decade and until recently was the world leader in terms of quantity of solar power produced, a boast now held by China. Getting in on the act early has presented challenges for the Germans, mainly due to the cost of deploying and supporting a still evolving technology, but it does mean solar is now a widely accepted and well-regulated form of energy production there.

In Europe, the UK, France, Italy, Spain, and Greece are all among the top users of solar while worldwide, China is being chased by Japan and the US.

So why has Ireland been so slow to follow suit? To get a common misconception out of the way, it is not because we don’t get enough sun.

There are no planning guidelines for the development of solar farms, no industry wide standards for installation and, crucially for promoters, no supports from the State.
There are no planning guidelines for the development of solar farms, no industry wide standards for installation and, crucially for promoters, no supports from the State.

Our rainy island — in particular the south, south-east and east where almost all the proposed solar projects are based — gets as much sunlight as Germany.

In some ways, the climate is even better suited here because we rarely get snow that would have to be removed from PV panels, and the frequent rain helps prevent the build-up of dust that occurs in many drier countries and which would impair performance if it wasn’t regularly washed off — an expensive use of fresh water and manpower.

David Maguire, chairman of the Irish Solar Energy Association, an industry grouping representing 100 solar technology and investment firms, isn’t surprised solar has been off the agenda here, particularly in light of the financial crisis.

“It used to be expensive. Ten years ago, five years ago, it didn’t stack up for Ireland. It does now,” he says.

“There was an 80% reduction in the cost of deploying solar in five years. That has tailed off since 2013 but we’re still seeing annual reductions of 7% so it’s a very good time economically to get into solar.”

But it still is an expensive technology and there is no system in place yet to pay for solar electricity supplied to the national grid — that’s the issue that has been pushed out to 2017 for decision.

Mr Maguire says supports such as a guaranteed tariff for supplied electricity or some form of subsidy would cost the State €25m a year up to 2020, by which time solar PV could supplying 10% of our electricity needs.

“Solar is the only renewable that doesn’t get state support. Look at the €130m that goes into peat generation — one of the dirtiest fuels. Solar’s looking for a small portion of that.”

That small portion would add €19 per year to the average household electricity bill but Mr Maguire believes it would be a small price to pay. “Ireland is obliged to produce 40% of our electricity from renewables by 2020 and we’re 14% away from that target with just four years to go. We won’t make the target with wind and if we don’t meet the target, we’ll be fined possibly as much as €300m every year until we do reach it. By the time you’ve paid those fines, you could have built all the solar the country could possibility take.”

READ MORE:  Solar power reaches record high, but cuts to subsidies are slowing demand


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