The good, bad and ugly of solar energy on Irish farms

Some 2,500 people attended the Energy in Agriculture event in Gurteen College, Co. Tipperary earlier this week.

Farmers from all corners of Ireland flocked to the venue to learn of the latest advancements in green technologies and how they may be applicable to their farms.

One of the key topics discussed on the day was solar energy and there was a particular focus on how the technology has developed and improved in recent years.

The good

Paul Kenny, CEO of Tipperary Energy Agency, started by saying: “We are starting to see a real uptake of solar across large industrial and agricultural buildings where the load (energy requirement) is large high enough.”

Solar Electric Ireland’s Robert Goss said the price of solar technology has dropped dramatically in recent years.

The price of solar panels has come down and the installation and supply chain has improved.

“We started off by buying pallet loads of modules from Germany and China and now a whole truck load arrives into Wexford and we supply the products from there.”

Colm Byrne, of Hybrid Energy, said there is also potential to make significant advancements in solar energy in the coming years through the use of storage technologies.

“One of the challenges with solar is that you have got a peak output in the middle of the day, which tails off as the sun sets.”

To really make off-grid solar power systems viable, he said, you need to use some sort of storage facility.

“It’s now becoming close to viable to store that energy produced during the day and to use it at different times,” he said.

The bad

Despite the positive advancements that have been made in terms of solar technology, BioXL’s Tom Bruton said: “At the moment, it only makes sense to consume the energy created on your own site because of a lack of export tariff payments.

“In due course, it would be a wonderful opportunity if you could also export surplus electricity to the grid.

“But, to do this, you need to engage with ESB Networks and enter into a fairly lengthy and complex grid connection process which definitely needs to be simplified.

“You are also in a situation where many projects, both small and large, are queuing to get connected up to the grid. It’s quite a challenge if you don’t have the load on-site to export power off-site,” he said.

Cost of connecting to the grid

Bruton also touched on the cost of establishing a connection to the grid. He said: “For a smaller scale application, below 500kW, it’s €1,400 you have to pay on day one for the application to be assessed.

“ESB Networks is then obliged, in due course, to give you a grid connection offer which may or may not be affordable or make commercial sense to you.

“You also need to submit detailed maps, electrical diagrams and information to ESB Networks to process your information; so there’s a level of expertise, drawing and administration involved in the process.

“It’s taking ESB Networks up to a year to process each of these applications; that’s a process that needs to be simplified and sped up,” he said.

The ugly

Since 2014, there has been a huge demand for grid connections from solar projects. In total, applications to supply 6GW of electricity from solar have been submitted.

It’s estimated that there’s only a national requirement to supply 2GW of electricity from solar energy and, according to Co. Cork farmer and solar developer Michael Quirk, that’s going to leave a lot of farmers disappointed.

“When you have uncertainty and you don’t know what’s going to happen you get a build up of scale because everybody has to be big to make it possible,” he said.

He added: “If the grid application process had been controlled at the start and connected to specific parcels of land; it wouldn’t have been so easy to speculate.

“If you needed planning permission to make that grid application, you wouldn’t have had that level of speculation – it wouldn’t have been such a problem.

Every year the statistics on farm incomes are released and these don’t lie. If you are not in dairying in Ireland you are an endangered species.

“A lot of that grasping of leases was out of desperation; I don’t think that has changed in the meantime.

“The price of grain hasn’t gone through the roof and nothing has changed; so people would still be hopeful that they are holding onto leases that have value.

“They’ve offered up their land for 25 years for a return and, now, it looks like they won’t even get a rental return.

“There is going to be a lot of disappointed people; if a couple of large solar projects are built then who needs a big network of small, farm-scale projects,” he said.