We cannot afford to ignore the potential of solar power
Published 27/04/2016 | 02:30
Contrary to popular opinion, the amount of sun in Ireland is good and comparable to much of the UK, is about 78pc of that of France and is even better than the Netherlands.
These comparisons on solar irradiation levels, as the industry likes to refer to it, are relevant because all these countries have installed significant volumes of solar PV in recent years.
Interest is gaining momentum in Ireland too in advance of an expected policy support, with over 2.5GW of solar PV grid connection applications into ESB Networks as of last week. That's a massive level of investment and interest from the players in the market. It shows a real belief that policy support will be forthcoming.
Coillte, Bord na Mona, SSE and now ESB have thrown their hats into the ring. These heavyweights have all recently announced that they are seeking to diversify their generation businesses into solar and are currently drafting plans to develop significant solar capacity over the coming years.
Seasoned industry experts like BNRG Renewables, Power Capital and Ameranco have made significant investment in Ireland already and recruited new teams to develop solar in their home country in anticipation of policy support.
SEAI and the EPC, both of whom are technical advisors to government on energy and environmental matters have stated that we are significantly behind our 2020 targets in electricity, heat and transport.
SEAI believes that we need to deploy 250MW of wind every year between now and 2020 to achieve our renewable targets or risk significant fines from Europe. Yet the average deployment of wind in the last few years has been 177MW per annum.
With the rising tide of public sentiment against wind in planning, the 250MW is becoming even more challenging, and it could result in Ireland facing significant fines of over €150m per 1pc of target missed per annum.
Despite that fact that large scale solar is the cheapest form of renewable energy after onshore wind and can be rapidly deployed, the SEAI failed to mention solar PV in the Ireland's Energy Targets, Progress, Ambition and Impacts report that it published this month.
It claims to be a 'summary for policy-makers', but the lack of inclusion of solar PV in the thinking of SEAI is concerning, especially now that solar is the single most prominent form of renewable energy worldwide. Bloomberg estimates that every year over the last five years, total global investment in solar has surpassed that of wind.
Indeed The Economist this month estimates that global investment in solar last year was over €147bn, more than natural gas and coal combined. Europe is still the world leader in solar PV use, with over 100GW of installed capacity, yet Ireland is the last EU member to award any policy support to this leading technology.
Why has SEAI not mentioned solar PV given it is the dominant generation technology globally and the cheapest source of renewable generation after onshore wind in Ireland?
Co-funded by SEAI, the Irish Solar Energy Association (ISEA) commissioned an independent report into the potential of solar energy in Ireland in 2015 which concluded that for every €1 in policy support the industry would return €3 back into the economy and would create and sustain over 7,300 permanent jobs.
It is widely accepted that solar PV supports significantly more jobs than any other form of renewable energy. As solar can be built rapidly, at a rate of 1MW per week, the report goes on to highlight that solar can make a real and immediate contribution to achieving our renewable energy targets thus avoiding significant fines.
It states that Ireland could deploy over 2GW of solar PV on rooftops and in fields between 2017 and 2022, which would result in an increased cost for consumers of less than 1pc.
Under the last support regime, 150MW of biomass was granted a REFIT (Renewable Energy Feed-in-Tariff) ranging between €0.08-0.14/KWhr. This is similar to what solar is seeking.
Yet biomass needs to be operating 90pc of the time, compared to about 12pc for solar. Because you only get paid for what you generate and not on what you install, you could deploy close to 1,000MW of solar for the cost of 150MW of biomass.
So if solar were to receive a policy support, what could the deployment look like in Ireland? Much of the installations would be located in areas of high solar resource along the south and east coast, which conveniently matches with population centres where the demand is highest.
This avoids additional transmission infrastructure such as high voltage pylons and thermal losses by maximising use of the existing grid infrastructure. While there may be over 400 connection applications representing 2.4GW with ESB Networks, processing these applications has been slow and only a small number of grid offers have been issued.
Few of these applications will produce results due to a lack of sun, unrealistic rental demands, and grid connections costs that are 50-100pc higher than other European countries.
Why are there applications for areas with low solar radiation? Possibly because some developers hope to secure land options on more favourable terms. The annual rents currently offered in the market range from €700/ac to as much as €1,750/ac for 25 years, but in my opinion anything over €1,000/ac is likely to struggle in a competitive auction.
While no large scale solar projects have been constructed in Ireland to date, I believe that policy support for solar in Ireland is only a matter of time as the case is compelling and Ireland cannot ignore the solar opportunity.
We would be keen to grow the home market after spending over a decade deploying solar in other countries around Europe.
Solar can help ensure that we meet our 2020 targets and avoid costly fines, create more jobs than any other form of generation, and deliver a net gain to the Irish tax payer. We cannot afford to ignore solar.
David Maguire is chairman of the ISEA and director of BNRG Renewables. Founded in 2007, BNRG has completed over €220m of solar projects in Europe. www.bnrg.ie