Wednesday 28 September 2016

Farmers in dark on solar strategy

The IFA is looking for more clarity on the Government's solar energy policy, reports Claire Mc Cormack

Published 20/07/2016 | 02:30

FARM families need Government "clarity and certainty" on plans for solar powered energy in Ireland, IFA president Joe Healy has warned.

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Speaking at a seminar on solar opportunities in farming, the IFA advised farmers to "exercise caution" when approached by privately owned solar development companies interested in leasing their land - often for up to 30 years.

The farm body stressed solar energy panels may provide an income to some struggling farmers, yet they fear some "too good to be true" leasing contracts contain red-tape that could potentially leave farmers, and their families, vulnerable and exposed for generations.

Addressing a crowd of more than 200 farmers in Portlaoise, Mr Healy highlighted the IFA's commitment to identifying opportunities that will strengthen farm incomes in the long-term.However, he is concerned that the Government is leaving farming communities in the dark when it comes to policy around solar energy.

"I want to see the necessary clarity around solar development so that farm families can make informed decisions as to whether this represents a real opportunity to diversify their farm enterprises and maximise the income that they can generate," he said.

"Developer led renewable projects in Ireland must end if we are to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated," he added. Although Mr Healy believes that solar energy has a bright future in Ireland - pointing out that the technology is working in other European countries, including Italy, Germany and the UK - he says many legal, taxation, and contractual consequences remain unanswered.

REFIT

The IFA are particularly concerned about the Renewable Energy Feed-in Tariff (REFIT) to be applied to solar projects.

Bob Hanna, a spokesman for the Department of Communications, told the seminar that while Ireland is "well on track" to meet 2020 EU renewable energy targets in electricity, "we will probably fail to meet targets in heat and transport, which will bring financial implications". He says there is huge solar potential in Ireland.

Up to 15,000ac of farmland are currently under some form of solar contract. ESB Networks are currently processing a backlog of more than 480 ground mounted solar applications to supply the national grid - almost 30pc are for locations in Cork and Wexford.

Typically 25 acres of land is required for every five megawatt solar panels. The financial incentive on offer to the landowner for entering into a lease agreement can be anything from €750 up to €1,400 per acre annually.

The Government is reviewing REFIT supports designed to incentivise the development of renewable electricity generation to ensure Ireland meets its goal of 40pc of electricity coming from renewable sources by 2020. Communications Minister Denis Naughten has indicated that further consultations on the tariff will take place in Autumn, with a figure anticipated to be announced by the end of the year.

However, the IFA says this time-frame is disappointing as farmers are signing contracts without full knowledge of how much financial support the development company will subsequently receive for constructing the project on their land.

James Murphy, IFA renewables project team chairman said: "The Government unfortunately wasn't able to bring any great clarity on the issue of the REFIT and that is creating a vacuum of uncertainty for those currently looking at a lease agreement of a contract offer.

"The companies, to be fair to them, are 'guestimating' what that tariff will be," he said, adding the tariff should be used to support policy and that a "top-up" should be in introduced where there is clear community involvement.

"Good policy guides and drives developers and we'd like to see the ring-fencing of some grid capacity towards community projects," he said.

The IFA encourage all those considering the solar option to "actively engage" with solar development companies and to "get professional advice as soon as possible".

The Irish Solar Energy Association (ISEA) says the sector can create 7,300 jobs and save more than €300m in EU fines annually, but first they need "modest support from the state".

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