Wednesday 28 September 2016

Cloud is no obstacle to solar energy production

Offers of e1,000/ac for top sites

Published 18/11/2015 | 02:30

David Maguire on the roof of the new 25,000t grain store built this year by Langmead
David Maguire on the roof of the new 25,000t grain store built this year by Langmead
Langmead are also installing solar panels on a new 25,000t grain store that they erected this year
This is just part of the 70ac of solar panelling installed by BNRG on Langmead's farm in west Sussex. The 15MW project represented a €10m joint venture by both BNRG and Langmead.

First it was wind power, then it was biomass crops, and now it's solar farms. Energy sector experts claim that Ireland's wet and cloudy climate is no obstacle to profitable opportunities for both land owners and developers.

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Farmers have been offered over €1,000/ac for 25 years by a number of different developers looking to secure the most advantageous sites in advance of the Government publishing its policy on renewable energy in the coming months.

David Maguire is one of the developers, having worked as an environmental scientist with the EPA for many years before co-founding the Dublin-based renewable energy company, BNRG.

He believes that the next 15 years will see up to 10,000 jobs being sustained by solar power projects here.

"We started in 2006 in Greece with two developments, before we developed solar farms in Bulgaria and Britain. We also have plans to develop solar projects in both the Caribbean and Latin America," he explains.

However, Mr Maguire also has high hopes of developing projects on his home turf, but it's already becoming a scramble.

"The two main driving forces are the solar resources and the grid connections. In the areas where the resources are high and grid connections low the land grab is already on," he explains.

"We are an Irish company with 16 out of 23 of our staff based here. It's an exciting time for us as we hope to finally get working here. But at the moment there is no framework for solar power so we have to start from scratch in terms of planning."

He believes that Irish farmers should proceed cautiously with any approach.

"Some deals are being offered now that are not realistic. There is no fixed price as the market is fluid. I would be worried about building up hopes that may not be realistic.

"The IFA are right in warning farmers who are being approached regarding land deals as they should make sure these companies have actually produced solar energy."

But the Howth native is convinced that once a framework is developed, the technology will become quite commonplace in parts of Ireland.

"There is plenty of scope in the country and investors love it because it is a very stable investment, plus it has near 80pc approval from the British public."

It all sounds good in theory, but as any developer of infrastructure in Ireland knows, the nimby (not-in-my-back-yard) culture is strong, and has probably strengthened on the back of a series of badly worked out projects covering everything from windfarms to pylons.

"One thing we need to do in terms of a legal framework is to facilitate communities to invest in their own energy. We actually used crowdfunding for three projects to allow the local community to be involved, and one of the farms will actually be a 50/50 investment between us and a community project.

BNRG's man on the ground is another Dubliner, Conor Grogan. He worked on solar projects in Spain before returning home. He admits that solar power is still more expensive to produce than wind, but is convinced that will change over the coming years.

"At the moment it is still expensive to produce energy via solar power but the costs are going down all the time and the efficiency is improving. Compared to wind and biomass it costs more but there are benefits," he says.

"In terms of getting something operational you can produce power from planning in less than a year compared to six, seven or even eight years from start to finish for many wind projects.

"The fact that there is no movable parts means there is no real maintenance, which also makes it low risk. Pension funds see it as a safe investment."

Mr Grogan adds that the overall height of the panels at 2.5m means that people can walk past a field hedge without even realising that the panels are in situ.

"They are also modular so they can be fitted to all kinds of surfaces and places. You see more and more of them on the roofs of houses, and that can also suit farmers with sheds. In fact, many see them as a positive image to project about their businesses," he says.

BNRG are seeing a slow-down in the British market now due to subsidies cuts, but are hopeful of some kind of government support in Ireland coming on stream over the next 12 months, details of which are due to be released soon.

See more when Darragh McCullough visits a €25m UK solar farm on Ear to the Ground at 8.30pm tonight on RTE1

Solar facts

90 minutes, enough sunlight strikes the earth to provide the entire planet's energy needs for one year

35,000 people employed in the British solar industry

Solar power costs up to €150/MWhr, compared with €69 for fossil fuels. However, it is the cheapest source of renewable energy after wind.

Solar panel prices have fallen by 70pc in the last five years

Solar farms installation costs will fall by 21pc by 2018 if import tariffs are lifted on Chinese panels

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