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Ex-Bord Gais chief raising €150m for Cork solar farms


John Mullins

John Mullins

John Mullins

Former Bord Gais chief executive John Mullins is raising €150m in debt to build vast fields of solar energy farms in the Cork region.

His renewable energy investment company Amarenco is borrowing the money from an international bank.

The majority of the solar farms will be built on farmland in Cork and surrounding counties, which get more hours of sunlight than northerly parts of the country.

Deals have already been secured with 25 farms in the south of Ireland. Long-term leases will provide land on which Amarenco can place swathes of solar panels.

Each solar farm will span around 25 acres and cost around €6m to build.

Solar energy panels were once considered too expensive to be cost-effective, while Ireland was thought to enjoy too little sunlight to make them feasible.

But technological improvements have made it a more realistic source of energy.

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.

While Amarenco will become one of the first companies to build solar farms in Ireland, several others have expressed interest.

UK public company Lightsource Renewables, run by Belfast man Niall Boyle, has expressed interest in building solar farms in the midlands. Lightsource is the world's third largest solar energy company outside of China.

It recently built the UK's largest rooftop solar panel system on top of the Bentley luxury car factory in Crewe.

But Lightsource's plans depend on the inclusion of solar energy projects in the subsidy scheme that pays millions currently to other forms of energy infrastructure, funded via a levy included in energy bills.

Amarenco is so confident that solar will be included in the subsidies system that it is forging ahead without waiting on the outcome of the review.

The Irish solar farms represent a change of tack for Amarenco, which until now has focused on investing in solar assets in the south of France.

Set up in 2013, it raised an initial €150m from private investors. Mullins stepped down as the chief executive of Bord Gais in 2012, as plans for the sale of retail arm Bord Gais Energy were taking form.

He spearheaded Bord Gais's development of renewable assets while at the semi-state, including the construction of several windfarms which were bought by US renewable energy giant Brookfield last year.

Mullins is also chairman of the Port of Cork.

Sunday Indo Business