The next couple of months will see major developments on the way for microgeneration in Ireland and for farmers who are interested in exporting electricity to the grid, the message is “to get in early and start looking now at the supports that might be available”.

Local Power‘s managing director Pat Smith has outlined a number of changes to come in the near future for microgeneration and the wider renewable energy sector.

Microgeneration Support Scheme

A major one is that Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan has “committed to having a feed-in tariff payment for electricity to the grid in place by July this year”, through the Microgeneration Support Scheme.

As Smith explained, this means that for any energy that’s not used on the farm or in the home, it’s exported and a payment is received for it. He said what that payment will be is not yet known.

“Microgenerators can export up to 6kW/hr [single phase supply] and up to 11kw/hr [three phase supply] based on a simple application process to ESB Networks,” Smith said.

“However, in practice, it looks like the rules will encourage self-consumption as there is going to be a 30% export limit on the amount of generation that can secure a premium tariff payment.”

An example given by Smith is that if your system generates 10,000kWh per year, the maximum export that you will get paid a tariff on is 3,000kWh – “which works very well for many businesses that are closed at the weekends and farms that have very little usage at certain times of the day”.

Other grid access restrictions will quickly become apparent

Following on from this, other grid access restrictions will “quickly become apparent as the amount of energy that can be exported from a premises will depend on the size of the transformer and number of properties it is feeding”.

“If your property is being fed by a 15kVa transformer [230,000 of them on the network], you will be able to export up to 15kW/hr to the grid if you are the only one on that transformer or the first to seek an export agreement from ESB Networks,” Smith continued.

“However, if there are more properties being fed by that same transformer, you may find that the capacity is taken up or restricted if someone else has applied before you.

“In such a circumstance, ESB Networks will have to upgrade the transformer/line before allowing you to export to the grid.”

Local Power believes that the government is “looking positively at offering specific grant and feed-in tariff supports under a mini category” for the installation of up to 50kWp of solar PV. ESB Networks is currently working through the application and assessment process for grid access.

“This is long overdue and will be a very welcome development for SME’s and farms,” Smith added.  

“Again, the same grid restriction issues are likely to apply and businesses and farms with their own transformer are in a very good position to secure a grid export agreement.”

Significant changes to facilitate microgeneration

For larger systems, those up to 500kW export, a faster grid application process is also being considered – “but support at this scale is going to be subject to a competitive bid process and grants may be secured through a number of programmes”.

The most suitable programme depends on the type of business, but examples include the the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland’s (SEAI) EXEED and BEC (Better Energy Communities) schemes.

However, Smith said that this year’s BEC application process “has been massively frustrating, with many solar PV projects being rejected and lends weight to the argument that there now needs to be a dedicated grant available for solar PV projects big and small”.

Smith told Agriland that he still has “to get to the bottom” of these rejections.

“There are businesses and farms that put in projects to get BEC grants and they didn’t get through the assessment process, just rejected – we honestly don’t know why people who have committed to spend money on renewable investment would not be supported,” he said.

“And there’s situations there where big businesses have got grants and then small operators didn’t get grants. There should be a grant for everyone who’s prepared to invest into a project and it should be simple to apply and an easy process and this whole thing of making it complicated for people to get grants is crazy.

“That’s why we’re advocating that there be a dedicated grant for solar PV that people can make their application and know that once they comply with a couple of simple rules, that they’re going to get their grants to do it. It should be simple, it should be easily understood and it should be available to everybody.”

Farmers are still hugely encouraged to pursue renewable projects, with the main message being: “Get in early if you have any interest in exporting electricity to the grid and start looking now at the grants and other supports that might be available to ensure the economics are as attractive as possible.

“In addition, if you have solar PV already on your roof, a feed-in tariff will make expansion of your system a more economic option.

“There are other significant changes to facilitate microgeneration being progressed by ESB Networks which are positive and will hopefully reduce the costs of installing systems between 10kWp and 50kWp and streamline the application and approval process.”

New planning exemptions

Local Power is expecting new planning exemptions for rooftop solar PV to be announced in the coming weeks “after months of unnecessary delays”.

“The planning exemption that we have been arguing for is that there should be no planning requirement for rooftop solar and we’re hopeful that there will no requirement for planning except if it’s facing the road,” he said.

“If it’s facing the road, they’re talking about some limits, but our view is that there should be no planning required for solar PV – end of story.

“The exemptions, they’re overdue. They were promised by the end of March, and we still haven’t got them.

“I’d be critical of that because they talk that climate change is a priority and it’s urgent, and yet these basic changes aren’t being made.

“It’s indicative of a lack of joined-up thinking. They have it all agreed, it just has to go through the Oireachtas. Whatever is holding it up I don’t know, but it’s indicative of an inefficient system.”

However, Smith remains positive, with many things to look forward for the sector.

He noted that the first solar PV farms will be built in Ireland over the coming months, and ESB Networks has secured funding support “to upgrade the network to facilitate grid access for as many renewable energy projects as possible in the future”.

He also told Agriland that he feels there is “a great opportunity for the farming community to generate a proportion of their own electricity and indeed export to the grid, and rooftop solar is an ideal way of doing that”.