Speculative solar developments pushing community projects out of the picture

Published by Niall Sargent on

August 28, 2017

Solar industry insiders have warned that speculative applications for connection to the electricity grid are pushing farmer and community-led projects out of the market before the industry even takes off.

According to Conor Walsh, a planning agent who works with farmers on small solar projects, larger developers in the industry are “putting the cart before the horse” by applying for space on the grid prior to gaining planning permission.

Mr Walsh says that, although his planning applications are coming through “one by one”, large players have saturated the grid, causing bottlenecks across the country as ESB process applications individually and sequentially.

Since mid-2015, around 220 planning applications for solar farms had been lodged across the country. Yet, to date, 574 applications for grid connection have been received by ESB Networks as large developers seek a strong position in the queue, with over 4.1  gigawatts (GW) of potential energy production now in the pipelines.

Combined with applications to EirGrid, which handles applications for large solar projects above 25MW, the congested grid queue rises to almost 6GW. Ireland’s total annual energy generation capacity from all sources is around 10GW.

Mr Walsh warned that small projects will be pushed out of the market without swift Government action as they do not have the financial resources to wait in the queue behind bigger developers.

He called on the Government to step in and issue strict guidelines linking planning approval to grid applications in order to make the system “a little bit fairer to the smaller players”.

“Free up the grid, allow planning permission to be a prerequisite for a grid connection, and have a more level playing field whether you are a corporation, a PLC, or old McDonald the farmer,” Walsh added.

A ‘Bogged down’ Industry

The situation has left the industry “bogged down”, says cereal farmer and former chair of Energy Cork, Michael Quirk, who received planning permission for a 5.7MW solar farm in Cork last year.

Mr Quirk has a substation on his land as he already operates a small 1.7MW wind farm. However, as the grid blockage is being worked through based on a first-come, first-served basis, he is sitting in the queue behind a larger developer that has yet to secure planning permission.

Without preferential treatment, he envisions a “long torturous process” to develop his solar project, which is becoming “more difficult and expensive” to implement the longer he waits for Government action.

“As a farmer who is attempting to establish a long-term sustainable future for my farm and my family, it seems obvious to me that unless community projects, or projects such as mine, are treated preferentially regarding grid connection, we will never see community or farmer-owned solar in Ireland,” he said.

“If the government is serious about it, they’ll have to put the rules together to make it possible, and as it stands at the moment it’s not possible, and that’s the bottom line really.”

In a statement, ESB Networks said that, although processing applications individually and sequentially “results in a queue of applications at many nodes”, it must follow Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) policy.

“It is worth noting that the CER has consulted on future connection policy and we understand that the outcomes of this consultation are under consideration,” the statement continued.

The Regulator confirmed to The Green News that it is still in the process of reviewing the existing rules, with a consultation for an “enduring connections policy” due to take place this autumn.

Feed-in Tariff

Clear guidelines from the Government on future state support for solar are also sought, according to Mr Ryan. He hopes that a feed-in tariff guaranteeing a minimum price for generated electricity, and grants for rooftop solar will be included in any package to incentivise community projects. To date, Ireland is the only EU Member State that does not offer state support for solar.

A public consultation on the Government’s new support scheme for renewable electricity is set to be launched in the coming days, however, concrete details on the new scheme are not expected until later this year. As the government continues “kicking the can down the road,” Mr Walsh says that “progressive and forward thinking” farmers will continue to suffer.

“I’d like to see the industry be given a breath of life in the form of an incentive,” he said. “Otherwise it’s going to be a damp squib.”

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London