A closer look at microgeneration

Published by Kayle Crosson on

19 February 2021 

It seems like microgeneration is having a bit of a moment. 

A new scheme for it was announced back in January, and it should see individuals and communities being able to sell their own excess renewable electricity into the national grid by July this year, according to the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. 

The consultation for the scheme just closed this week – and we’ll be keeping our eyes peeled for any developments as it moves forward. 

But in the meantime, we wanted to get the lowdown of what microgeneration is and dig into the scheme a bit more. 

Kate Ruddock, Deputy Director of Friends of the Earth Ireland and long-standing advocate for community-owned renewable energy projects, talked us through it.

Microgeneration – let’s start out with defining it. 

Essentially it’s small-scale generation of renewable energy, whether it comes from solar, wind or hydro.

Right now the Government defines small scale as anything up to 11 kilowatts, which put another way is about 20 or so solar panels. 

And while we’re on the topic of solar – it’s important to keep in mind that right now, it’s the most cost effective for microgenerators here in Ireland. 

Right, so what’s the story with the scheme? 

So going by what was announced in January, farmers, businesses, individuals and community groups can generate their own renewable electricity through means such as solar panels on rooftops, and they can receive payment when they sell excess energy onto the grid. 

The scheme was a long-time-coming in a way, as the 2019 Climate Action Plan published by the then-Fine Gael government promoted microgeneration, and said that a “number of changes” would be needed to facilitate the model. 

Fast forward to the Programme for Government that was published about a year later, and you see the new coalition committing to prioritising microgeneration with the goal in mind of selling excess micro-generated electricity back into the grid by June 2021. 

How much excess electricity a household will be able to sell is going to depend on their own energy usage, but Kate Ruddock said she would expect that a 3 kilowatt array would see 60 to 70 per cent of its energy go to the house itself, leaving the remaining 30 to 40 per cent to be sold to the grid. 

And how does it measure up? 

Well, according to Kate, the scheme as it currently stands does just about the bare minimum. 

There are restrictions existing for the size of the renewable energy installation and how much you can sell back onto the grid. 

There’s also quite strict criteria as to how efficient the building-in-question has to be that’s generating and using renewable energy. 

The structure has to have a BER rating of C, which is quite high and is likely to require a large investment in some places for the building to be brought up to that standard. 

The payback on the scheme is also quite poor at the moment, Kate told us, as right now it’s between 10 to 12 years.

For context, payback scales normally operate with a five year timeframe. 

At the moment the process of grid connection is quite challenging. The process is very complicated, and it’s also coupled with planning permission difficulties. 

There are some planning permission exemptions at the moment for solar panels, but they exist only for households. 

A residential household wouldn’t need planning permission if they wanted to cover less than half of their roof, for example. 

However, if you’re a school or a community building and if you want to put up even just one solar panel, you’re going to need planning permission. 

This takes a considerable amount of time, and money, as it costs €3,500 to acquire it. 

(Side note – Friends of the Earth say that schools would be great sites for microgeneration. They’re demand is high when students and teachers are there, but low when they’re closed on weekends and holidays. So they could have a considerable amount of energy they could sell back onto the grid). 

One last thing to note here – our own current policy and the scheme itself is not aligned with Northern Ireland, where you don’t need planning permission for such an endeavour. 

So what can be done about it? 

There are a couple of things the Government can do, but essentially it all comes down to giving people better incentives, Kate said. 

Firstly, the Government can remove these aforementioned restrictions and make sure the process of grid connection is aligned with the objectives of the scheme. 

On the planning permission front, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing Peter Burke said that the Department was reviewing solar panels exemptions. 

One of the key considerations of the review is to, according to Mr. Burke, “ensure that solar panels can be erected subject to certain siting and size conditions – without the need to obtain planning permission, to facilitate more widespread generation of energy for self-consumption.” 

Another issue, according to the Minister of State, that remains to be worked out on this is regarding something you might not expect – aviation safety. 

He said that potential “glint and glare” impacts for aircraft need to be reviewed to make sure panels wouldn’t pose a risk to incoming aircraft and safeguarding maps are expected to be finalised next month, so we’ll see what comes out of that.  

Will these incentives be applied? Will these aforementioned restrictions be removed? Hard to know right now, but we’ll be following closely to find out. 

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