David Maguire, Chairman,
Irish Solar Energy Association (ISEA).
At present, Ireland is the only EU member state that does not provide support for the generation of energy from solar. Currently,Ireland’s renewable energy policy is focused on wind generation, a source of energy that is in abundance on the island. However, while Ireland has broken records with wind generation, dependence on wind alone to achieve targets is not sufficient to guarantee a seamless transition to the low carbon economy that is desired by politicians. Critically, a growing demand for energy stemming not just from an increasing population, but a burgeoning IT sector that sees multinationals want to construct data centres in Ireland due to its ideal climatic conditions is rapidly shifting the nature of energy use.
Moreover, the nature of investment in energy is skewed towards coal and gas with €1.6 billion being invested in 2015, which is significantly greater than investments made in wind over the last five years. Responding to this change calls for a dynamic, resilient energy supply that can only be achieved through diversification of energy sources. This must include solar.
The Irish Government has stated that it is committed to guaranteeing consumers have access to affordable energy. Presently, Irish consumers pay the third highest energy prices in the European Union as of 2015. The Public Service Obligation (PSO) Levy primary means through which the Government funds renewable energy generation, has been the view that the inclusion (and to some extent other renewables) renewable energy mix will see a rise PSO Levy, and subsequently electricity However, research undertaken by KPMG indicates that for every €1 invested in solar there is a return of €3. In other words, solar has the potential to deliver €2 billion in gross value added (GVA) and €800 million in tax revenues (2017-2030).
Short-term concerns are receiving priority over the long-term benefits. The creation of a diverse mix of renewable energy sources that guarantees security of supply, a key tenet of Government policy, is therefore being sacrificed. While there is evidence of the recognition that energy diversification is needed and should be supported, solar PV is being overlooked as a viable option for meeting the country’s energy needs. A recent speech by Minister Naughten has cast a shadow on the nascent Irish solar industry. Understandably, the Minister wants to dampen excess speculation, but he also needs to strike a balance and bring the Irish public on a journey that outlines the many benefits that solar PV can bring.
We have a unique opportunity to harness Ireland’s indigenous renewable energy resources in a sustainable manner. This can be done in a way that offers long-term opportunities for investment and for real community participation. Solar is an indigenous renewable energy source. Further, the industry is keenly aware of the need for a pragmatic approach to developing the industry, such that it is sustainable and provides the long-term benefits.
Over 40 planning permissions have been granted for solar farms in Ireland. This indicates that the vast majority of local councils have been supportive of solar PV developments. Councillors have welcomed the opportunity for, among other things, local employment, biodiversity protection and carbon emission reduction.
A limited number of councillors, however, have tried to curtail planning applications for solar PV development, looking to central government to give more direction on the issue. Minister Coveney has so far taken the view that regular planning laws are good enough for assessing solar projects, despite the fact that they pre-date any solar proposals.
In the absence of any national guidelines the Irish Solar Energy Association (ISEA) is preparing its own recommendations for best practice in planning. These recommendations will be based on best practices in other countries. The Association believes that the creation of unnecessary road blocks in the long run are harmful, not just to the industry, but to the Irish people.
For example, in relation to rooftop solar, current planning restrictions are curtailing the ease with which a home or business can install a PV array on its rooftop. Existing planning rules state that, “total panel area must not exceed 12sq m or 50% of the total roof area including existing panels” on a domestic dwelling or, “total panel area must not exceed 50sq m or 50% of the total roof area, including existing panels” in a light industrial or business setting. This is very restrictive in allowing a home or business owner to install PV, as they will be put off by the extra expense and time of going through the planning process.
It also leads to a smaller system being deployed which, due to economies of scale, costs more per kWp to install than a larger system. A smaller system obviously produces less electricity, which in turn negatively affects how rooftop solar can assist in the transfer to a low carbon economy. It is imperative that given our current situation of not being on target for reaching our renewable commitments by 2020 that we assist commercial and domestic property owners in deploying rooftop solar with more ease.
There is a vast wealth of untapped energy resource in the rooftop sector in Ireland. The introduction of a Feed in Tariff (FiT), as has been done in countries like the UK and Germany, would help deploy a large solar resource on currently-vacant roof space. This would in turn empower home and business owners to be a part of Ireland reaching its 2020 targets, while gaining savings on their electricity bills and creating thousands of new jobs that strengthen Ireland’s economy. Surely it is better to spend money now to achieve our targets rather than face fines running into the hundreds of millions of Euro? By not acting now we will not only be left with fines but also with a stagnant renewable energy portfolio in our country’s energy mix.
Speaking for solar developers in Ireland, the industry recognises the need “to bring the people with us”. Through ISEA, key industry players have engaged people about solar and how it adds significant value to farmers’ livelihoods, business owners, and citizens. Economic growth in this area will create approximately 7,300 jobs according to the recent KPMG report. There is a public acceptance of the technology. However, there is always more that can be done to engage stakeholders and to innovate new ways collectively to incorporate solar into Ireland’s energy supply.
Companies in the industry operate on single-digit margins. The call for support mechanisms (specifically, a contract for difference (CfD) mechanism for large-scale projects and feed-in tariff (FIT) for rooftop and domestic projects) is not solely about asking the government to subsidise the industry. It is more far-reaching than that. It is a call for holistic policies that address the challenges faced by solar (as well as wind and other renewables).
In particular, solar PV projects are sensitive to policies pertaining to the following: grid connection, transmission and distribution of the electricity produced, planning, building regulations, agriculture, environment and heritage. Without the relevant Government departments working together, and with key stakeholders to ensure that policies align, Ireland will fail to realise its ambitions of transitioning to a low-carbon economy.
By ensuring that renewable energy policy going forward is integrated and comprehensive, the Irish Government sends a clear message. Firstly, to citizens that it recognises the importance of clean energy in providing high-quality living; secondly, to businesses and investors that Ireland is open for green investment.
In closing, it is important to note that Government represents the voice of the Irish people and thus is the force that will mobilise Ireland’s transition to a low-carbon economy. Government has a responsibility to the Irish people to innovate, such that Ireland remains competitive and resilient in an ever-evolving global economy.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.irishsolarenergy.org