Over 4,000 acres of farmland will be converted for solar energy projects in 2021 and solar energy companies maintain they are offering a valuable financial lifeline to farmers
Irish farmers are lining up to have solar farms built on their land with one solar company receiving more than 50 enquiries from interested farmers every week.
Scores of small and medium sized solar farms have been granted planning permission in Ireland since 2015, but to date, none have been built.
That is all about to change however, as construction work on the first tranche of farms is expected to begin in early 2021. More than 4,000 acres of farmland is expected to be converted to solar by the end of next year.
This September, the government gave the green light to just under 800mw of solar farms at the first Renewable Electricity Support Scheme (RESS) auction. That’s potentially enough solar energy to power close to 130,000 homes.
Wexford company, Harmony Solar, was one of the successful companies at this auction, and its head of acquisitions, Robert Roche, says solar energy offers a massive cash lifeline for farmers.
“We get farmers ringing us all the time. At the moment we are getting maybe 50 or 60 enquiries from farmers every week. It’s really picked up over the past two months, since the first [RESS] auction took place,” he said.
“Farmers now know that this is happening. We all know that solar is going to be part of the renewable mix in Ireland all the way up to 2030.
“We are quite open about it. We pay €1,000 rent per acre per year and that is index linked for 30 years. There is no farming enterprise that will touch that. On top of that, the farmer still has the option, albeit with a lower stocking rate, of farming his land.”
Not all farmland in Ireland is suitable for the development of solar farms. The amount of sunlight is a factor, and the highest concentration of proposed solar farms is in the sunny south-east, but more important factors are the distance to the grid, the topography of the land and its likelihood of flooding.
“Solar farms should generally be on flat land, so that is one of the first things we look for,” said Galway man, Paul Neary, director of international planning consultancy firm, NEO Environmental.
NEO has been involved in developing numerous solar farms in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England as well as planned projects in Clare, Galway, Kerry, Cork, Meath, Kildare, Wexford, Roscommon and Carlow.
“Second is irradiance levels [sunlight], so we’ve been working around the south east of Ireland to begin with, but we have built farms up in Scotland, which is much farther north than anywhere in Ireland. You get good irradiance levels around the coast too, so that is a factor.
“The last major factor is grid availability. If there is a good grid connection in the area, and we can find land that is suitable, it makes lots of sense to develop a farm there.”
Solar farms generally involve a long-term lease, typically 30 years or longer. The farmer is usually granted grazing rights to the land, with sheep or poultry considered ideal grazing companions for solar farms.
Cattle and horses are not permitted on solar sites as they can damage the panels. Tractor access is also limited so the spreading of fertiliser is not generally possible.
Lightsource BP is one of Europe’s leading solar farm developers and has already secured planning permission for more than 300mw of solar farms in Ireland
“While the land is under option and going through the planning process, the farmer is entitled to use the land as they wish. Albeit should the land be leased out to another farmer, any such leases would have to be terminable when the option to lease is called by the developer,” said a company spokesperson.
“When the solar farm is operational, we typically grant grazing licences to the landowners for small livestock such as sheep. This actually has a benefit to us as well since sheep are very good at keeping the grass down in those hard to reach areas under the panels.”
Once the lease is completed, the solar company is required to decommission the farm and return it to the farmer in its original state. Having been clear of intensive farming practices for 30 years, the farm is handed back as virgin, organic land.
“The ground footprint of a solar farm is very small, usually between 5 and 10 per cent of the whole area. This provides grazing for the sheep but also a natural habitat for birds and other animals,” said Paul Neary of NEO.
“The land is taken out of intensive farming so there are no fertilisers or pesticides spread for 30 years. At the end of the project, the whole site can be completely restored to its original state.”
Solar energy auctions
Following the first RESS auction in September of this year, expectations are high in the industry of a large roll-out of solar farms over the next decade. Seven further RESS auctions are expected to take place between now and 2030, which could see tens of thousands of acres of farmland being converted to solar.
Robert Roche of Harmony Solar says that more needs to be done to speed up grid connection in order to facilitate this expansion.
“The grid connection is very important. To break a major [grid] line and put a substation on it is €7.7 million currently. To make that connection viable you need to build larger and larger solar farms,” he said.
“We are hoping that there will be a significant increase in RESS II. A lot of solar power has been granted [planning] permission and they need to be facilitated.
“The delivery of the grid connection offer needs to be speeded up. It’s too slow. That’s for both ESB Networks and Eirgrid. It needs to be speeded up, the time lag is too long. Speeding it up would get solar farms built.”