Wednesday 13 December 2017

British firm plans €500m of solar farms in Republic

New plan to lease low-grade land from farmers

Lightsource Renewable Energy is in talks with Bord na Mona about using State-owned land in the Midlands
Lightsource Renewable Energy is in talks with Bord na Mona about using State-owned land in the Midlands
Sarah McCabe

Sarah McCabe

The UK's biggest solar energy company plans to spend up to half a billion euro on building solar energy farms across the country, with the Midlands as its prime target.

Lightsource Renewable Energy is in talks with Bord na Mona about using State-owned land in the Midlands, and is exploring other potential sites on low-grade farmland.

The company was founded by Belfast resident Nick Boyle. It is the world's third largest solar energy company outside of China.

Recent projects include the UK's largest rooftop solar panel system on top of the Bentley luxury car factory in Crewe.

There has been relatively little solar energy development in Ireland until now. EU targets require 40pc of the country's energy to come from renewable sources by 2020. Most investment has gone towards wind farms.

These have attracted criticism from some quarters - most notably by Doonbeg golf course owner Donald Trump - who argue that windfarms are visually damaging to the landscape. Solar farms have come under similar fire in the UK.

British environment minister Liz Truss famously described them as a "blight on the landscape" which hurt food production by using up farmland.

Mr Boyle disputes this. Landowners can continue to farm underneath the panels, he said, because they are mounted off the ground.

The company will be focusing on low-grade farming land in the Republic, he added.

Lightsource has spent £1.5bn building solar farms - tracts of land covered in solar panels which convert light into electricity - in the UK.

It recently expanded into Northern Ireland, obtaining planning permission for four sites with a consultation process under way for four more.

It usually leases land for 25-year periods rather than buying it, paying "significantly more" than the return obtained from farming, he said, at a price linked to inflation.

The absence of subsidies for solar energy projects is impeding progress in the Republic, Mr Boyle said.

In the UK, government subsidies are available for solar technologies.

Lightsource is asking the Irish Government to introduce similar subsidies, which are already available to wind projects.

Solar was never included in government plans for renewable energy, Mr Boyle said, because it was believed that Ireland did not have enough sunshine to make it cost-effective.

Technology has moved on, he said, and the cost of generation should continue to decline as it develops further. Up to 40pc of the country's electricity could be generated by solar farms on 0.02pc of the country's land mass, Lightsource estimates.

"We think solar, for Ireland, is the perfect fit. It is a lot less of an obtrusive technology than wind or other forms of energy generation. It can be blended in with the landscape - panels are no more than 2.5 metres off the ground - and can be placed anywhere, meaning sites tend not to be very visible."

The Department of Energy and Communications is beginning the process of developing a new electricity support scheme to be available from 2016 onwards, it told the Sunday Independent.

"A key component of this work will be consideration of the available technologies, such as solar, their cost effectiveness and the level of support required. The scheme will be subject to state aid clearance in accordance with the European Commission."

A public consultation process will take place first.

John Mullins' Amarenco snaps up two prime French solar farms

John Mullins' Irish owned and headquartered energy company Amarenco Solar has just bought a solar farm in the south of France for €7.2m and is close to finalising a deal for another valued at €6m.

The buys were made as part of a sub-fund launched by Amarenco Solar - which is focusing on investing in solar assets among the regions in the south of France. The first plant, bought for €7.2m, is a 12 megawatt facility in Bordeaux.

Mr Mullins declined to reveal the location of the second solar farm but said that he it is a 10 MW facility and added that he expected the deal to be completed within the coming weeks.

He said that the fund is focused on buying up as many large solar farms as possible, saying: "A 12MW plant is the largest plant that you can build in France - and we want to buy the largest plants that we can."

He said that the buy would represent an equity investment of approximately €6m which he said has mostly been raised "through a series of high net worth individuals".

Mr Mullins said that the fund is aiming to secure €100m worth of assets in France over the next 12 months.

"We want to be raising more equity over the course of the year and we are in discussion with a number of houses to give us a line of equity to give us the firepower we need," he said.

"We believe that we can get another €100m worth of assets in motion, with the sun on our backs maybe €150m," he added.

Amarenco also acquired a 12 MW solar plant in Avignon in France valued at €19m earlier in the year.

The energy company is also looking at developing potential sites for Irish solar farms. The company is currently looking to develop 15 sites in total -across Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Kerry - which Mr Mullins previously said he hopes will be powering Irish homes within five years.

Paul O'Donoghue

Sunday Indo Business

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