‘I don’t think farmers are really represented or heard in the energy transformation’

The most recent Teagasc Farm Business Options webinar focused on opportunities for farmers to get involved in the renewable energy transformation.

As Teagasc notes, to encourage deployment of green technologies, Ireland has introduced the Renewable Electricity Support Scheme (RESS) incentive to “encourage early adopters; while making the prospect of producing electricity to feed directly to the grid an attractive one”.

A consultation on the design of a Microgeneration Support Scheme was announced last month, with Minister Eamon Ryan saying that farmers will receive a “fair price” for selling excess electricity they generate back into the grid under the new scheme.

Gráinne Blount of Natural Forces, a power producer that delivers renewable energy projects in partnership with local communities, explained the ways that a landowner can get involved.

“You can lease your land to a renewable energy technology or developer – it’s quite a low risk in doing that and you have a secure rental income,” she explained.

Another way you can get involved is developing a project yourself – there’s higher developing risk there and there’s a steep learning curve –  because you’re not just looking at the technology, you’re looking at the market, the feasibility, the policy, competitors.

“Then there is opportunity to become part of a community development – if there is a community development in your area, there’s an opportunity for you to invest and become part of the project and become part of the project ownership through that 51% ownership that’s available for local investors. With that investment, you would expect to have an attractive return on investment.”

Project details

Blount outlines the timeline for developments: the first two to three years of any development is early stage – it’s high-risk and it includes doing feasibility and technical assessments, securing planning and grid connection and hoping to secure the RESS contract.

“After that point, you’d hope to be in constructing your project and you have that 20 to 25-year lifetime where you’re repaying your investment and getting the return,” she continued.

For a 5mW, you’re talking around a 25ac site for solar. On that there would be ground-mounted solar panels; onsite substation and transformer units and underground ducting and cabling and that would be connected to an ESB substation.

“You’d want an ESB substation within 3km of the development site, because you either have to go overhead or underground to connect your project to the grid.

“For wind projects, wind technology has improved massively, so where you would have had 10 or 15 years ago five turbines to make up a 5mW project, you can now get one turbine which is significantly more economical for a 5mW.”

Knowing the scale of a project

Rory Mullan of MullanGrid Consulting said the first things to consider when wanting to connect is what type of generator you want to connect to the system; and how many kW of generation.

“It’s important to know the scale of a project you want to connect. It could be microgeneration or large-scale, and the other key thing is do you actually want to export from your site?” he said.

“Are you putting this on to your existing premises and are you going to use all the power on your farm or will you need to export some of the excess?

“If you’re just going to use all the power on your farm, it’s referred to as a zero-export connection. It’s a lot more straightforward – it’s whenever you start looking for export capacity from ESB that it gets a bit more complex – then you basically have to fit in with one of ESB’s processes when you’re applying for your grid connection for export.

The first area is microgeneration. At the moment, there’s a fairly straightforward process for microgeneration for mainly domestic premises.

“And that might be 6kW single phase or up to 11kW three phase. There’s about 18,000 very small-scale installations around Ireland that went through that process.

“The next category is the 11 to 500kW – in terms of export capacity, they have to go through what ESB refers to as the ‘non-batch process’. But, to actually apply for this process, you need planning permission for your generator before you can apply.

“If you’re a complete greenfield site and want to export all your power, you’re into probably the last two categories.”

These categories are community projects; along with developing a larger renewable project through the ‘batch process’.

Every year or two, ESB and EirGrid process a large number of applications as part of this batch process.

“For this process, you need planning permission for your generator before you can apply and it can be anything from 50kW up to onshore 120mW. This is for when either individuals or companies are developing large wind or solar projects,” Mullan added.

“It’s the same process for a large hydro or biomass project – but the majority of the renewable projects are in wind and solar.”

‘There is a real willingness within these organisations’

Tom Marren of Astatine – which “develops, invest and project manages energy solutions which deliver ‘zero carbon roadmaps’ for its clients” – said that long-term co-investment is the approach it is taking with its farming sector projects.

Farm Smart Utility was founded by Astatine in 2019, and is a majority farmer-owned energy company, assisting Irish dairy farmers to reduce carbon.

“There’s a real opportunity for the co-ops and the farmers to come together,” Marren said.

According to the company brief, income generated by solar, battery and energy efficient solutions is €3,000 per annum.

“Dairy farms utilise most energy during milking at expensive peak times 6:00am to 9:00am and 5:00pm to 8:00pm.

“Utilising solar energy, we can transform usage to generate substantial income. On the average 100-cow dairy farm, the cost of electricity is circa €5,000 each year.

Income generated by solar, battery and energy efficient solutions is €3,000 per annum. Export power and utility payments will generate an additional €1,500 per annum. For an investment of €10,000, the company will guarantee a return of €2,000 a year (five-year pay-off).

Marren said that it would be a “missed opportunity” for farmers not to be involved in the energy shift.

“I don’t think farmers are really represented or heard in the energy transformation that’s happening at the moment,” he said.

“Our proposal for dairy farms is to put in 20kW of solar; 10kW battery; and a heat pump. That will change the profile where realistically then, most of the power – 70% – will come from renewables.

With these smaller systems, they can happen now – we don’t have to go for planning, go for grid, we’re staying below that.

“All of a sudden, if we go this structure, we start off small; then we’re in a structure where the farmer is recognised as an energy player and hence, we can talk to the different [energy] organisations.

“There is a real willingness within these organisations – they really want rural Ireland to participate in these projects.”