There is mounting frustration among farmers that their participation in the renewable energy sector has effectively been hobbled by a combination of policy inertia and the prioritisation of mega wind and solar projects.
hile the debate around climate change has centred on the need to cut carbon emissions from agriculture and transport, the failure to frame the national discourse in a wider context and address the restrictions that have locked many farmers out of renewable energy generation has stirred serious resentment.
“Farmers are being continually blamed for contributing to the carbon emissions problem, but we are being excluded from being part of the solution,” one angry farmer says.
Ireland’s record on supporting micro-generation of electricity — defined as a grid connection of up to 6kW for single-phase current or 11kW three-phase — has been extremely poor.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) admits that there is no reliable database to record the level of electricity produced by micro-generation in Ireland.
But it estimates that there is an installed capacity of 75MW across around 30,000 micro-generators. This represents just 0.14pc of total annual demand for Ireland in 2020.
The record for on-farm renewable energy generation is equally disappointing.
Ireland was ranked 23rd of the EU-27 for renewable energy production from agriculture in 2018, the IFA points out. The farm sector generated just 2.6pc of the country’s total energy output, compared with an EU-27 average of 12.1pc.
Ireland’s renewable energy policy has traditionally favoured multi-million-euro wind energy developments, with major solar projects also starting to come on stream.
The farm organisations complain that there has been little consideration at policy level — or in terms of access to the grid — for small-scale developments by private individuals or communities.
Pat Smith, of renewable energy company Local Power Ltd, says a different approach at national level is needed.
He maintains there is enough suitable roof space on farms and businesses in Ireland to install up to 3,000MW of solar PV that could generate up to €500m per year of renewable electricity across the country.
“This would help businesses resource their energy costs and earn an income from their roof space, and would provide thousands of sustainable jobs across every community in Ireland,” he says.
“It would also help the grid in distributing generation across the country rather than in concentrated areas.”
Uptake of rooftop solar by Irish farmers has been restricted by the requirement in the Micro-generation Support Scheme that the farm or business must utilise 70pc of the electricity generated, so is restricted to selling just 30pc into the grid.
This usage stipulation means that micro-generation on farms makes most economic sense for high energy users such as pig and poultry units, as well as some horticulture enterprises or intensive dairy operations.
“It is disappointing that the lack of ambition for micro-renewables and a claim that there are grid connection issues has prevented tens of thousands of people, businesses and farms benefiting from adopting PV solar technology to generate some of their own electricity and export the surplus to the grid,” Mr Smith says.
He points out that roof-top micro-renewables have being rolled out successfully in many other countries and says unnecessary roadblocks to the widespread adoption of the technology need to be removed.
Mr Smith says planning is still needed for rooftop solar PV despite repeated commitments from various Energy Ministers and officials that this basic change would be made.
A spokesman for DECC told the Farming Independent that a proposed Micro-generation Support Scheme — which was initially promised by July but is now due to be published this year — will broaden the definition of a micro-generator and increase the output limit to 50kW.
The Department says a “suitable” payment for excess electricity generated by farms and businesses and exported to the grid will be available to all renewable generators in the second half of 2021.
Crucially, however, DECC insists that the primary aim of a micro-generation scheme is to enable electricity users to meet their own electricity needs, and that a cap on the level that can be commercially sold onto the grid by businesses such as farms is likely to remain in place.
“The rationale behind a cap of this sort is to encourage new installations that maximise self-consumption rather than maximise generation for export, as this is the best way of maximising carbon abatement and energy savings for the consumer,” the DECC spokesman says.
“Further analysis will commence shortly on appropriate payments to encourage larger installations specifically for generation for economic benefit.”
This approach has not impressed the farm organisations. They say national policy on renewable energy has favoured projects of scale, which are generally supported by large domestic or international concerns, or state entities such as ESB, Bord na Móna or Coillte.
“Farmers want to be central players in Ireland’s energy transition,” Paul O’Brien of IFA says. “They recognise the opportunities offered by micro-generation to produce energy for their own use but also to diversify their farm income by selling excess energy to the grid and enhancing the sustainability of their farm business.”
He describes the limited focus of the proposed Micro-generation Support Scheme on domestic installations as a “missed opportunity to support farmers and communities to transition to renewable energy”.
“The self-consumption limit of 70pc must be removed to provide low energy users opportunities to generate and export renewable energy,” Mr O’Brien says.
IFA has also called for the introduction of a capital grant to overcome the high initial investment costs required by renewable projects.
“A major challenge to micro-generation is the grid connection process, which continues to be a deterrent to the delivery of on-farm renewable projects,” Mr O’Brien says.
“Zero-cost access and use of the grid for micro-generation installations under 50kW micro-generation must be made available to farmer and community energy projects.”
ICSA president Dermot Kelleher has accused the Government of endless prevarication on renewables.
Instead of making “bold and ambitious decisions”, Government policy appeared to be “paralysed by fear”, he says.
“The recent consultation on micro-generation of electricity made it very clear that the Government has little interest in farmers making money from putting solar panels on the roof of a shed,” he says.
“Instead of enabling farmers to get a realistic return on investment by selling at an economic price to the grid, they made it clear that they only wanted farmers to produce what they could use themselves.
“This is not what a transformative renewable energy policy looks like.”
Denis Drennan of ICMSA is equally critical of the Government’s “ad-hoc and bitty approach” to farm-scale renewables.
“Years into this conversation about farm-based renewables, we are still talking about aims and ambitions when we should half-way through the actual installations by now,” he says.
“The Government has to get on with this. It is perfectly possible to have a renewable network that is based at community level and has buy-in from the local communities because of the clean affordable energy it will provide.
“That tech and model is already there all over the EU.”
‘The panels save me €150-200 a month on my electricity bills’
Douglas Kinkade does not consider himself an environmentalist. His decision to install solar panels on the roof of a calving shed two years ago was financially motivated.
The dairy farmer from Mullagh in Co Cavan milks 110 cows and was attracted to the idea by the opportunity to significantly reduce his electricity bill.
After consulting with Pat Smith, of renewable energy company Local Power Ltd, he opted for PV solar panels.
“We ended up putting 30 panels on a calving shed. They produce around 9KW on a good day,” Douglas explains.
“That’s enough to power a cooler in a small milk tank all day.”
Since the primary periods of electricity usage on the Kinkade farm are in the morning and evening during milking, it was decided to install batteries to store the power generated by the panels.
“When the electricity generated by the panels is not being used then it goes to the batteries,” Douglas explains.
Douglas describes the installation and wiring process for the panels as “pretty simple”, with the work completed in two days, and there is very little ongoing maintenance.
The full investment for the panels and the batteries was €20,000 but Douglas is confident that the savings generated will cover this cost in around four years.
While the installation of solar panels is now covered under TAMS, these grants were not available to Douglas when he carried out the work.
However, the investment did qualify for an accelerated capital allowance at the higher rate of tax, which effectively brought the capital cost down to around €10,000.
Meanwhile, the solar panels have reduced Douglas’s monthly electricity bill by around 25pc.
“This is roughly a saving of between €150 and €200 per month,” he says.
Looking to the future, Douglas would be open to installing more solar panels, if the capital investment was grant aided and farmers were paid a fair price for the electricity they feed into the grid.
“I’d put up the same again. But under the existing regime the majority of the electricity would go free to the grid,” he says
“The Government and ESB should surely be doing more to encourage people to supply into the grid.”