Calls for clarity from Government as solar farms applications soar

Hundreds of solar farm projects are with the planners, but opposition is growing

Solar farms: caution has been advised
Solar farms: caution has been advised
Majella O'Sullivan

Majella O'Sullivan

Ireland is lagging behind the rest of Europe in the development of solar energy but being a relative latecomer isn't without its advantages, as solar photovoltaic (PV) technology improves and costs drop significantly.

Already in excess of 25,000 acres has been committed for use for solar energy production. While farming organisations recognise the new opportunities, they advise caution in what they say has been a real lack of clarity from the Government.

In the past year, in anticipation of Government supports, the number of applications to develop solar farms has exploded. Up to the start of the third quarter of 2017, there were 221 planning applications submitted to local authorities for utility scale solar schemes.

The aggregate generating capacity of these is of the order of 1,500 megawatts.

One-third of applications have been in counties Cork and Wexford. So far, only eight have been refused by either the local authority or by An Bord Pleanála.

The increase in applications has been in proportion to local opposition with protest groups springing up all over the country where developments have been proposed.

Those in favour argue they're a clean, non-intrusive alternative to fossil fuels and our best hope in meeting our carbon omission targets when combined with wind energy, thus staving off huge fines.

The IFA says it is a legitimate alternative land use for farmers desperate to explore alternative sources of income but advises caution when clarity is lacking on tax, succession and farm payment implications.

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David Maguire is director of BNRG Renewables Ltd and chairman and founder of the Irish Solar Energy Association (ISEA). An environmental scientist by profession, he says Ireland is better placed than a lot of our European neighbours because of the quality of our light, even if we don't get a lot of sunshine.

The technology is the same as the solar cells on a calculator that most of us are familiar with but to a much larger scale. The light is converted into DC electrical current that is then converted to AC so that it can be used to power homes.

There are three sectors in solar: roof-top domestic, roof-top commercial, and large-scale ground land, where solar cells are mounted to supply energy to the grid.

"For solar farms to be viable in Ireland they need to be on a minimum of 25 acres but bear in mind, you're only losing 3pc of the grass sward there, shading of the panels only accounts for about 30 to 40pc of the site.

"That site typically is rectangular or square on a flat or slightly south-facing field and located near an ESB substation," Mr Maguire explains.

The ISEA is looking for "robust Government policy" to be able to deliver "good value" to the consumer and to gain "popular support".

"What we have proposed to Government, as a trade body, is what we believe is the best value support mechanism that's achievable. It should be auction driven where projects bid for the price of electricity and the lower bids win the contract and that price is index-linked but fixed for 20 years," says Mr Maguire.

The ISEA has also made a submission to Government on community benefit that for every solar PV project built there is, for example, a solar panel installed on the roof of the local school to meet its energy requirements and give it a source of income from feeding in what it doesn't use to the national grid.

It proposes local communities would be able to invest in a project as individuals.

It also wants to see a mechanism where ISEA members adhere to community-engagement principles where they meet the neighbours before they put in for planning and explain the scheme.

"Currently, that's not required under planning legislation and we strongly feel it should be part of the planning process in anything you do," Mr Maguire adds.

Chairman of the IFA Renewables Project Team, James Murphy, says solar is a legitimate alternative land use option that farmers shouldn't be afraid to explore.

However, he says there are pitfalls they need to be aware of.

"We would always say to the farmer, whatever the technology, get yourself very experienced legal advice and make sure the tax man is aware of what you're doing," he says.

"When you're considering 20, 25 or 30-year contracts, they are intergenerational decisions that will impact on the next generation as well so it's important that's taken on board.

"It's worked in other countries around Europe and farmers have been able to make use of it. The difference here is that in other countries, policy was designed to benefit small-scale producers, and so far in Ireland we've not seen that level of policy design.

"So far in the progression of our renewable energy sector, it has been pretty much left to large-scale developers to set the pace, and that hasn't worked for the benefit of individuals or communities.

"Our members live in rural communities and they need to feel engaged in this as well," he adds.

The IFA is calling for clarity on a number of key issues. If part of a farm is used for solar energy production, is the farm then designated 'commercial' and would it be able to benefit from capital acquisitions tax allowance?

"This would have a huge impact when that farm was transferred from one generation to the next and we need clarity in that area.

"This is of grave concern to farmers who have been approached by solar developers and who, understandably, are eager to consider it," explains Mr Murphy, who says there's also need for greater clarity around whether the basic payment will be paid on land under solar panels.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking as we fast approach the 2020 deadline for the EU'S 20pc renewables target set out in the Renewable Energy Directive.

At the recent Energy Ireland Summit, Jim Gannon, chief executive of Sustainable Energy Ireland, predicted Ireland was going to fail to meet its targets by 2.5pc.

Government has been relying on wind alone to meet those targets and the effect of this shortfall is about €300m in EU fines to the exchequer per annum.

Wind alone isn't reaching the targets and the next cheapest form of renewable generation is solar PV.

The ISEA says that solution can be deployed rapidly with a light touch on the land and farmers are willing to facilitate this, once they know where they stand.

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