Solar Power to the People

Solar energy initiatives have recently been in the news in many countries.  This week Barry McCarron looks at ways we can generate solar powered electricity and how it could help reduce the cost of energy for homes and businesses as well as the reducing national greenhouse gas emissions.

Roof solar PV panels generating electricity. (Copyright of Albertbridge: licensed under Creative Commons)

Roof solar PV panels generating electricity. (Copyright of Albertbridge: licensed under Creative Commons)

A recent article in the Irish times featured the possibility of the first Irish solar farms which are due to appear as early as next year. This was according to solar energy firm Amarenco.  This company plan to build up to 30 solar farms across the south of the country. The majority of these solar farms (18-20) are planned for the South East and South West.

There are two main solar technologies here in Ireland are.

  1. Solar Thermal Panels – this is for hot water. There are two types – evacuated tube and flat plate. This is the most common technology seen on roofs in County Monaghan. We will address solar thermal panels in more detail in a future column.
  2. Solar panel electricity systems, also known as solar photovoltaic panels (PV). Solar photovoltaic panels capture the sun’s energy using photovoltaic cells. These cells don’t need direct sunlight to work – they can still generate some electricity on a cloudy day. The cells convert sunlight into electricity, which can be used to run household appliances and lighting.

The website of the Centre for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technologies (CREST) in Enniskillen has a number of videos and case studies showing the range of solar (and other) renewable technologies available. (See http://www.crestproject.com). CREST will be hosting a 1 day seminar on 24 June with Dr John Harrison on options for battery storage linked to PV panels. This is aimed at technical and business professionals interested in energy storage installations. (See our Noticeboard below).

As we are located in the border region many of us have perhaps noticed the prevalence of solar photovoltaic panels in Northern Ireland. This is as a result of the financial incentives which are currently in place there. In Northern Ireland there are three benefits to a solar photovoltaic installation these are:

  • Cutting electricity bills. Sunlight is free, so once you’ve paid for the initial installation; your electricity costs will be reduced.
  • Getting paid for the electricity you generate. The UK government’s Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) scheme pays you for the electricity you generate, even if you use it.
  • Selling electricity back to the grid. If your system is producing more electricity than you need, you can sell the surplus back to the grid through the Feed-in Tariff scheme.

This growth in Northern Ireland is also down to the price of solar photovoltaic panels falling dramatically in recent years.  This could also play a significant role in the development of a similar industry here, however, adopting solar farms in the places like the “sunny south east” is a bit like putting the cart before the horse. We would advocate domestic/business scale solar panels similar to the market in Northern Ireland before we allow the development of large scale solar farms on premium agricultural land. These solar farms will have a role to play in the future but caution is needed.

Indeed, planning is vital for new energy projects. A part of this ensures that the project does not have a disproportionate impact on the local landscape and the community. In recent times, large energy projects have caused controversy, as local communities felt that they had not been consulted properly. Community energy projects are popping up around the country, whereby smaller energy projects are spearheaded by community groups, often with local shareholders. These small projects help make villages and towns energy secure and they often come with a long – term revenue stream for the community. Examples of community energy schemes include Templederry Windfarm, Co. Tipperary and Northern Ireland Community Energy (as featured in last week’s column.)

The alternative installation of solar panels on roofs is cheaper and less visually intrusive. Homes and companies that install such panels have the benefit of cutting their own electricity bills and learning about the benefits of renewable energy, but the current regulations here make it uneconomical as there is no instrument to allow us to  sell excess power back to the grid at times when their own electricity demand is low.

Until recently Ireland had a support in the form of a feed-in tariff for micro-generation but this was while the price for solar photovoltaic was unaffordable. These measures were abandoned when the price of solar photovoltaic panels was falling and becoming more affordable. The ESB is reluctant about the development of rooftop solar because they fear it will reduce the overall levels of demand on the electricity grid, and make it difficult to cover the cost of their infrastructure. This point is very much debatable. It should be possible to set the market rules so that flexible local generation is made viable while still covering the cost of running the grid.

One way or another, we are going to have to make a big effort to reduce our emissions in order to deal with the climate crisis, and renewable energy is likely to play an important role. Therefore, it will be important that homeowners and businesses can be incentivised to reduce their electricity and heating use, perhaps, in part, by installing solar panels. For more information see http://www.seai.ie/Renewables/Solar_Energy

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