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Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine debate -
Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Solar Energy and the Agricultural Industry: Discussion

Apologies have been received from Senator Paul Daly. Before we begin, I remind members, guests and persons in the Public Gallery to turn off their mobile phones.

The purpose of the meeting is to examine solar energy and the agricultural industry. The committee will hear from representatives of the Irish Solar Energy Association in the first session, and of Teagasc in the second session.

From 28 February, the legal requirement for mask wearing in all settings has been removed. However, it is still good practice to continue to use a face mask, particularly in crowded areas.

Witnesses giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the committee. This means they will have a full defence in any defamation action for anything said at a committee meeting. They are expected, however, not to abuse this privilege and may be directed to cease giving evidence on an issue at the Chairman's direction. Witnesses should follow the directions of the Chairman in this regard and are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that, to the extent that is reasonable, no adverse commentary should be made against an identifiable third person or entity. Witnesses who are to give evidence from a location outside of the parliamentary precincts are asked to note they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts and may consider it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. Privilege against defamation does not apply to publication by witnesses outside the proceedings held by the committee of any matters arising from the proceedings.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Parliamentary privilege is considered to apply to the utterances of members participating online in the committee meeting when they participate from within the parliamentary precincts. There can be no assurances in respect of participation online from outside the parliamentary precincts and members should be mindful of this when contributing.

In the first session, we will hear from the following representatives of the Irish Solar Energy Association: Mr. Conall Bolger, CEO; Dr. Tara Reale, head of business development UK and Ireland with Lightsource; and Mr. Gary Connolly. I invite our guests to make their opening statement.

Mr. Conall Bolger

I thank the Chairman. On behalf of the Irish Solar Energy Association I thank the committee for the invitation to address it on the topic of solar energy and the agriculture industry. I am CEO of ISEA. I am joined by Dr. Reale, head of business development UK and Ireland with Lightsource bp, and Mr. Connolly, commercial director with Activ8 Solar Energies. ISEA was established in 2013. Our mission is to decarbonise Ireland’s electricity sector through supporting the development of solar in this country. We are pleased to address the committee in respect of the tremendous potential of solar for society and the agricultural sector.

The climate action plan aims for renewable electricity delivering 80% of power needs by 2030. Achieving this target will require a strong contribution from solar. As the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communication, Deputy Eamon Ryan, noted recently, the plan’s indicative target of up to 2.5 GW for solar energy should be a base line for our ambitions. Given the right policy landscape, we believe Ireland can deliver 6 GW of solar between now and 2030. That would be enough to meet one fifth of electricity needs.

This year is proving to a be a big one for solar in Ireland. Just last week there was the milestone moment of the Millvale solar farm connecting to the national grid. It is the first solar farm to do so, and further solar projects across the country will connect in the weeks and months ahead. The microgeneration support scheme should come into effect in July and ISEA members report significant interest from individuals, communities, farms and businesses seeking to participate in the energy transition.

As the committee will be aware, to date, the climate conversation on agriculture has been fraught. Solar provides a practical option to aid agriculture in its transition. Making land available for solar developments presents opportunities for farmers to diversify their revenues with minimal impact on the sector. Our estimate of the necessary solar contribution to meet Ireland’s renewable target entails using the equivalent of approximately one fifth of 1% of agricultural land. Buildings, such as sheds, on many farms can host panels and enable farms to move towards energy independence. If one also considers the potential savings to the agrifood sector of farmers generating their own clean power, it suggests an immediate benefit to maximising solar.

We have the resource, land and building stock. We have a sector motivated and interested in participating in solar. Unfortunately, however, there are barriers inhibiting progress. We believe there are three broad areas that require action, namely, support structures, taxation and network access. The support structures require concerted action to maximise the take-up of solar by farmers. In our view, the design of the TAMS II solar grant has been unduly restrictive and that has minimised take-up. The microgeneration support scheme, announced in December 2021, now has a clear plan for homes to access its benefits. However, the timeline for farmers remains unclear and that should be addressed.

A second barrier relates to an agricultural relief under capital acquisitions tax rules that allows farming families to inherit agricultural land without being subjected to potentially unaffordable levels of inheritance tax. Current rules allow farms with solar panels to qualify for the relief so long as the panels do not take up more than half of the total land area. This stipulation is inadvertently preventing farmers from hosting solar panels. Easing the restriction could have an immediate impact for farmers and the solar industry. Solar installation does not prevent the use of the land for agriculturally relevant purposes such as sheep grazing. Depending on the equipment layout, international experience suggests that 55% to 80% of the land under lease could be available for use, and that is before one considers use of the land under panels.

Accessing the network is another area of concern. It can be a lengthy, uncertain and expensive process. Ireland needs to rationalise that process for all users, from an individual farmer seeking to export from his or her rooftop to the utility-scale solar farm. A helpful fix would be to ease the restrictive legislation in respect of so-called direct lines. Direct lines provide direct connections from renewable energy sources such as solar farms to the customers, which are typically large-scale industrial users. Direct lines could provide quicker routes for users to connect to renewable sources of energy. That would allow large energy users such as agrifood facilities to satisfy much of their demand from green sources.

There are further simple actions that could make solar more attractive for everyone in society. These include a reduction in VAT rates on solar panels and other solar equipment, and implementation of planning reforms for rooftop solar photovoltaic, PV.

We believe that Ireland will be a greener country by the end of the decade, providing its citizens and businesses with access to cheaper locally generated electricity. We can meet our objectives, and solar is a necessary part of getting us there. Agriculture will benefit from solar at scale and that requires the active participation of the agricultural sector. I again thank the committee for its time. My colleagues and I are happy to answer members' questions.

Cuirim fáilte roimh gach uile dhuine. It is great to have this session on what is and should be a really positive story for Irish energy generation, but also for Irish agriculture. Frankly, it is shameful that we are hearing of difficulties in terms of farmers being able to participate in what should be a very positive story in the context of energy generation. Many of the issues outlined by Mr. Bolger are not new; we have been hearing about them for the past decade. To me, it is inexplicable that some of these blockages are still in place, especially considering we have a Government that is stating categorically that it considers these issues to be a priority.

I have a few questions. We can go over and back. There has been much interest and many questions from members of the committee following the Millvale announcement last week.

Many people are asking pertinent questions about whether or not this is an option at which they would look. Could Mr. Bolger give more detail about the size of the farm involved and the proportion of the farm that is now allocated to solar panels? One of the things that interested people was the fact that the stocking rate, which involved a sheep farm, was only reduced by 25%. Clearly, this is an opportunity for this particular farmer to continue farming while get an alternative income stream.

Could Mr. Bolger touch on what the model would be if a beef farmer decided to go down the same route? How much of this farmer's land would have to be apportioned for such a project and would it be possible for the farmer to continue breeding cattle on any feasible basis?

The big question is whether this is a realistic route that more farmers would go down. As Mr. Connolly will know coming from the good part of the country, as I would describe it, we in the north of the country might not have as many summer days as they do in Cork so is it a feasible option in all parts of the country in terms of the return that might be there?

Mr. Conall Bolger

Starting with Millvale, as the Deputy rightly identified, the landowners are using the sheep essentially as vegetation management. It was discussed quite a bit with the stocking rate reduction being relatively small. The panels occupy an area of about 25 ha for a capacity of 15 MW peak.

Could Mr. Bolger repeat that?

Mr. Conall Bolger

It is 25 ha with a capacity of 15 MW peak. It is a phrase used to express the maximum output from a solar array.

I have seen the activated panels we are talking about. How many of these panels is Mr. Bolger talking about?

Dr. Tara Reale

If I might jump in briefly, we deal with huge utility scale projects. The most modern panels are around 630 W peak and you multiply out then. They are about 1.2 m by 0.9 m.

How many houses would that 25 ha service?

Mr. Conall Bolger

It is specific to that farm. The layout relates to how much energy you can produce. That farm is saying it can service 3,600 houses or meet the equivalent of that annual demand in terms of what is going to produce. According to the developer, the number of panels was 33,600 modules.

So the answer is a lot.

Can a farm like that manage the peak, the trough and the demand for power?

Mr. Conall Bolger

With solar, what you get is a predictable power source. It tracks the hours in a day so you know when it is going to come on, peak and go away. International experience shows that the level of error on the forecast is less than 1% so we know what is going to do. Obviously, you get different seasons so in winter, the peak tends to be a bit lower and the days a bit shorter. It is still producing power. In summer, the days are longer and the peak is a bit higher. We are the beneficiaries of our weather. The wind and the solar resources are inversely correlated or to put it another way, the wind tends to blow when the sun does not shine and vice versa. What that means is that when you layer those two together at scale, you start getting more hours of the day where green energy is coming. We have a lot of wind. What we really need to do is start scaling up our solar power to complement it.

Regarding what you find when you do that, Afree Management Consulting undertook to compile a report for us. It found that the annual bill savings to customers would be €106 million per annum in the 2030s spread across the Irish population. Because it is coming on in the middle of the day and has that peaking shape, it is also knocking off some of the less efficient power stations. What this means is that you are getting more emissions reduction than you might otherwise have had. No one technology by itself will fix anything at a system level. It is about having the right blend of them working together to take the carbon out of our power system if that makes sense.

What about the other questions? Is it practical for other types of farms? Is the Millvale template feasible in parts of the day where summer days might not be as long?

Mr. Conall Bolger

If you drew a line from Louth through Athlone and out through Galway, the resource south of that tends to be better than the one north of it. What we are finding is that the technology is continuing to improve. Worldwide, we are seeing sites that were not necessarily feasible previously are now feasible. Our members are reporting that people are building these all over the country and they seem to be-----

I am talking about this type of farm as opposed to just panels on roofs.

Dr. Tara Reale

Lightsource bp has ten farms in Northern Ireland that we developed four or five years ago. It is down to economics and a number of other factors but they work everywhere. In respect of the question about the size of the scheme, it really comes down to the amount of grid capacity that is available at any location. That is a perfect example of a decent relatively small development on a 38 kV ESB network but if you are going up to 110 kV transmission network where there tends to be a bit more capacity, the projects need to be bigger just to afford the cost of the substation and the fixed costs of such a scheme.

I will touch on the other points the Deputy raised about the different types of farmers. We speak to everybody - tillage, beef and dairy. Some people just do not have the interest in it because they really enjoy farming and want to continue while others see it as a really good way of diversifying their income stream - even if it is for interest. Some see it as a retirement option. Many different kinds of farmers are interested in the solar option. You cannot keep beef cattle on the same land simply because they are too big but you could keep some of the farm over. Not everybody wants to give all their land over. It is really sheep and small livestock that are suitable for grazing with panels.

You hear about the most frustrating aspect of this when you talk to farmers who have had solar panels installed and who are by law precluded from providing electricity to the grid because TAMS is so ridiculous. There will be a new TAMS in the next CAP so could Mr. Bolger touch on the difficulties that scheme in particular has created and where improvements are needed in the next round so that we get it right next time?

Mr. Conall Bolger

The Deputy is right to highlight the difficulties under TAMS. When it was first announced, great play was made of €10 million funding. As we have seen from a number of parliamentary questions, nothing close to that has been released from the scheme. That reflects a lot of the restrictions that are built in there. The level of take-up has been low because it is difficult to navigate the process, your allocation is not ring fenced from the other elements of your TAMS allowance so if you have undertaken other modernisation measures, you might not have quite the space left to go after the solar side of it and as the Deputy rightly pointed out, there are restrictions on export, which mean that people are essentially not allowed to spill on to the grid. What that means is that they must build a smaller system than would be ideal to meet their needs, which seems contrary to the entire point, which is enabling them to generate their own power, free themselves from the tyranny of the market and protect themselves from the kind of price swings we are seeing.

Mr. Gary Connolly

As to why this solution could work nationwide, as Dr. Reale mentioned, a number of large-scale systems have been implemented in the North of Ireland and a large system will be rolled out just outside Louth village, close to where we are from, in the coming months.

Is that a land-based farm?

Mr. Gary Connolly

I believe that is tillage.

Okay. So the panels would be on the fields in the same way as the-----

Mr. Gary Connolly

Yes. More to the point, it is the north of the country so it is a 32-26-county solution, as has been seen already.

With regard to TAMS issues, I have been involved in a large programme with a large co-operative here to roll out solar on rooftops through TAMS to many dairy providers. We came across a number of obstacles. As Mr. Bolger said, there was an issue with not ring-fencing that €10 million of funding. That figure was announced but was not ring-fenced for solar; it was contested with every other upgrade in TAMS. We contested that within TAMS, that could have been segregated in the same way as the low emissions slurry spreading was segregated out with great success. When it comes to solar, the most progressive farmers are those who want to jump on board but they are also those who have already capped out at the €80,000 funding that came with TAMS in the first place. That rapidly diminished our ability to roll it out. More than 50% of that co-operative's suppliers of milk put their hand up looking for interest in the system we put forward in TAMS but in the end, only 10% of suppliers took up the system. We had finance in place and had looked after all the bureaucracy of TAMS but it was still to onerous and difficult for farmers to get on board. There was massive interest from the farming community but the set-up was too onerous. I have a number of other instances of obstacles-----

I have a couple of questions I want to ask. I am sure others will touch on that issue.

One of the maddening aspects of this is planning, particularly for rooftop installations. I have been a local councillor and am involved in many areas where internal planning disputes come out but have never been aware of opposition to people putting solar panels on the roof. For people who want to be ambitious about what they put on their domestic or agricultural buildings, it can be a significant additional cost if they have to go through the planning process. I take it Mr. Connolly's organisation has been in negotiations with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Has he a sense that there is an eagerness and willingness to resolve those planning issues?

Mr. Gary Connolly

I would not characterise it as eagerness. We have been engaging with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage for some time. We have sent periodic letters and members of our association have engaged with it. I understand the next step to be a set of interim regulations involving some easing around much of the country, with an exclusion zone around airports while they do some assessment, and a parallel strategic environmental assessment which is supposed to deliver the final regulations around this. I have heard that the update in that regard is coming in next quarter pretty much since I started this job in January 2021. I am reliably informed that many others have traipsed that road before me. We struggle as an organisation to understand why it has taken so long because we understand a lot of the work has been done. It has been under way for a long time. I think the Deputy is right to frame it in terms of the impact on people. At the domestic level, it is 12 sq. m or 50% of the roof area, which results in people putting in smaller systems than would be optimal in order to fit within the planning. That is happening on firms around the country as well. It is a 50 sq. m rule and it encourages people to go towards a smaller system than would be ideal. That has an impact on people's energy bills, particularly given what we see in the energy markets today and what people are exposed to. The wholesale cost of power is three or four times what it was this time last year. Everyone's bills were raised by suppliers on three to five occasions last year. We are not done yet and there are the knock-on effects of the horrible war in Ukraine. There is an issue of human welfare, in some ways, with the delays in the planning. We want to see those guidelines and the process kicking off. We want to see it ventilated and to see the consultation process begin in order that people can benefit from it.

We hear of delays in network access and in people being paid for electricity they provide to the grid and that this will be resolved next quarter. Where do the witnesses see that matter now, in terms of being comprehensively addressed?

Mr. Connolly mentioned two issues related to Department of Finance. One was the capital gains tax rule on 50% solar. The principals for which we have these provisions in place for family farms are as applicable to people producing energy as to those producing food. It is a public good and it is a recognition of the importance of that being maintained in a community. The second concerned the VAT rates that apply. Has the ISEA been in negotiations with the Department of Finance and has it been more forthcoming than the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage was in respect of the previous issue?

Mr. Conall Bolger

I will address those questions briefly. I suspect they might come up again under other question areas. On network access, there is a missing piece in terms of farmers looking to export from the farm. A trial was put in place for mini-generation. It would be where farms normally set land in terms of what they would like to export. ESB Networks received 150 applications from people who fit the scale and it was closed immediately, pending a review by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, and ESB Networks. We think that is probably not a wise thing to do because it generated interest and provided a route to the network for many people but then the door closed. That is a concern for the on-farm side. The large-scale utility stuff is a long-standing area of concern. It takes too long, costs too much and the process is too uncertain. We will probably circle back to that in later conversations.

As to when people will get paid, we understand that for those on the domestic side who are sub-6 kW, which is the standard size, payments are due to flow from 1 July with the option for credit going back to February, when the statutory instrument implementing it was signed. For farms that are sub-6 kW, it is unclear. It looks like it is quarter 3 or quarter 4. There is a package of measures including grants and export payments and there is avoiding energy prices. That is unclear, which is why I referenced it in my opening statement. For the people who are a bit bigger than that, and here farmers are relevant again, we are still waiting for clarity on what it will look like. Those people on the next step up get paid a clean export premium, so it is a slightly different rate. However, those people are likely to be looking at TAMS support. We cannot see how TAMS over here says you cannot export and people over there say you can get an export payment. That area needs clarification.

On capital acquisitions tax, we support the characterisation that it is energy farming as much as farming traditional agricultural products.

We have engaged with the Department of Finance and we have been asked to provide more information. I am not sure that we have done a good job convincing them just yet, but we are working hard on the topic. We would encourage all representatives to take an interest in it.

On VAT rates, members are probably aware that there is a European Union directive which states that the VAT on panels can be reduced by between 0% and 5%. If we are trying to encourage this roll-out and trying to help people, then we should make it a bit easier upfront and maybe shave a bit of the cost off in order that people can access it a bit more easily.

I welcome the witnesses. The current rules allow farms with solar panels to qualify for the relief if no more than 50% of the land area is covered. Is that holding farmers back from getting involved in the business? Mr. Connolly stated that some farmers would like to go into this full time and big time. Are there any stipulations that are holding farmers back? What is the reason for the size stipulation in the first place and why is it there? Is this the kind of condition whereby a farmer cannot get into it unless it is just part of the land?

Mr. Conall Bolger

It is fair to say that we believe this issue is really material. We are definitely seeing evidence that it is dissuading farmers from participating. One can understand why. It is a very sensitive matter. There is also the demographic change in farming. In 2016, two in five farmers were over the age of 65. This is obviously a serious concern. With the benefit of being able to diversify incomes in situations where we are looking at one in three farms being viable, we really think that this is quite a material issue.

I will hand over to my colleague, Dr. Reale, who will talk about the impact she is seeing in her engagements with farmers.

Dr. Tara Reale

We are seeing this becoming more and more of a major issue. If we look back to when the threshold was initially implemented, which, I believe, was 2017, we can see that the trend in Ireland followed that in the UK and Northern Ireland, where it was for these small, community-sized solar farms that generated 4 MW or 5 MW peak. For such operations, probably a maximum of only 20, 30 or 40 acres of land was needed. Then there could be a situation where one landowner could conceivably have 80 acres or where there could be two landowners who, between them, would not be impacted. It could also be the case that there are a lot of sites.

We must consider how policy has now changed since then. In order to get grid access, especially from EirGrid, a project must be large-scale in nature. This is also in the context of the economics. Members will appreciate that - as is the case with everything one buys - the more one buys, the cheaper per megawatt the actual cost. This has driven developers towards these large-scale farms. Then there is the whole process of finding grid and the need to take into account all of the other planning considerations, including those relating to visual impact, special areas of conservation, heritage issues and so forth. In that context, you are quite limited in where you could conceivably put a solar farm. If you speak to landowners, if they are interested - many of them are because of diversification of income, wanting to retire or the fact that their children are not interested in farming - if their neighbours are also willing to go in on the project, again, this is on the proviso that those neighbours have land that is appropriate from a topographical point of view, you are often in a situation where there are perhaps 150 acres or 160 acres of land. This may seem like a very large amount of land. It is, especially if it is a large farm or collection of farms, but it is not really sufficient in many instances. It depends on how you are connecting into the grid. We would have say to the farmer involved that there would be no point in us optioning the land because it would be highly likely that the project would never get off the ground because the economics would not work. We would tell them that we would be doing them a disservice by having the land under option. We have had to turn away a number of opportunities where people were extremely eager to get into solar energy because we just could not make the economics work.

We have a number of projects in development at present. They are a bit more marginal, and we are happy to keep investing in them. We have done some basic scenario analysis to see if we could take 50% of their land versus 60%, 70%, 80% and so on. Based on one particular project, having a typical hurdle rate, bidding into an auction and having the benefit of 80% of someone's land versus 50% of the land, that translates to €12.50 per megawatt hour of cost to the consumer in the renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, auction, which is a sizeable amount.

Mr. Conall Bolger

In addition, Deputy Browne also asked why the condition is there. Our understanding of why it is there is that the intent was for the relief to support the retention of land in agricultural use. Further to the point made by Deputy Carthy, we would probably argue that the mixed use of land with solar and other functions, such as agrivoltaics, which is growing food among the solar panels, letting animals graze and other measures, meets the definition of what constitutes farming and agriculture. We probably would contest that definition. That is what we have been told is the rationale for it.

The Irish Farmers Association, IFA, has stated that Ireland ranked 23rd out of the 27 EU countries for generating energy from agriculture in 2018. Have we improved our standing in 2022? In 2018, we were only producing 2.6% compared with an EU average of 12.1%. Has this improved in the four years since that report was done by the IFA?

Mr. Conall Bolger

I do not have specific figures in front of me. We can check the specifics. I suspect, however, that if the number has changed, it has not changed significantly in that timeline.

The issue was raised about the planning obstacles being put in place by the Government. Has the Irish Solar Energy Association been kept up to date with the progress on where we are now in the context of planning?

Mr. Conall Bolger

Does the Deputy mean planning for rooftop solar?

Yes, rooftops specifically.

Mr. Conall Bolger

As we said previously, we are due to see something in summer. There will be set of interim regulations and an easing, except around the airports. There will probably be more studies done in that regard. There will also be a process for a strategic environmental assessment that we believe will run before arriving at final regulations. As I said previously, we have heard this a number of times before. We are probably a little sceptical on that. We are hopeful and we really believe it is important, in particular for those farmers with sheds who have the roof space. It dissuades them from taking full advantage of the resource that is just beating down on their roofs every day.

I have two quick questions. I am interested in what the witnesses have to say about direct lines. Will Mr. Bolger clarify a point on the direct lines? Does the electricity have to go just in one direction or can it be redirected to different projects? I am thinking, for example, of a family resource centre and community hall in Cashel. Can the power that is generated on the top of the resource centre be redirected or has it always to go to the grid? If there are enough panels on a roof, then you will generate more power than the resource centre actually needs. A community or sports hall, also in the same location, might be under pressure with funding and so on, and here is a revenue-saving opportunity if it can be redirected.

Mr. Conall Bolger

This is where the benefit of the direct line idea comes into play. Currently, if one is going to transmit electricity over cables, there is a requirement to always get a distribution licence. ESB Networks has this. If, for example, a community centre or an agrifood business are connected into the public electricity network and then it is proposed to build a solar farm just across the road, you cannot just link the two up. The operator of that solar farm goes off to build connections and all the necessary infrastructure, which is then handed over to ESB Networks to operate and own.

There is a lot of scope for the direct lines approach. The obvious immediate use case is probably large industry like the agrifood industry. We are talking about data centres at the moment and their energy consumption. We think there is an opportunity there and if they are generating more of their power on-site that will help with the issue. In the long term we see the direct line option offering some structures for community-based energy solutions like the models that are being described. The future of the power system is that every building in the country will generate its own power with large-scale utility solar and wind battery storage. There will be large-scale offshore wind farms with hydrogen and so forth and all of those systems will talk to each other. We are not there yet but undertaking the direct line approach is one piece of the jigsaw that helps to get us there. We have a restrictive approach to this currently and a lot of the other countries do not; they make it a lot easier.

Can Mr. Bolger tell us something about power storage and how long that power can be stored for. Is it affordable and does Mr. Bolger see it is as something that is needed on farms themselves?

Mr. Conall Bolger

Is the Deputy talking about storing power on a farm specifically?

Mr. Conall Bolger

Mr. Connolly can talk about that.

Mr. Gary Connolly

I can speak to that. On a smaller scale we found that battery systems can be used. Batteries really come into their own at a larger scale so we found that, especially on the dairy side of things, the cylinder is a thermal store in itself and we put kilowatt hours that would have been exported to the grid otherwise into the hot water store on that smaller scale on small dairy farms. As we got into larger farms actual lithium battery storage is an option for both peak shaving and moving into virtual power plants. Even then one moves into the utility grade solar and that is where the batteries really come into their own.

I thank the witnesses.

I thank all the speakers for coming in. It is like a lot of things in energy at the moment and we never start talking about the money so we will talk hypothetically. I have a 50 acre farm and I can connect to the grid and everything else. What is my return?

Mr. Conall Bolger

I would not like to speculate on that.

Can we speak generally because that is what people want to know. The witnesses have given ambitious targets and said that we want to go to 6 GW but we need to start getting the message out there, even if it is in broad strokes, because it is a huge leap of faith for a farmer. The witnesses paint a rosy picture but it is a huge leap of faith for a farmer to make such a big transition. What are we roughly talking about in returns for a farmer?

Dr. Tara Reale

I will paint it in broad strokes as the Deputy can appreciate that it differs completely from developer to developer and from project to project. A project in the sunny south east might be a lot more-----

Let us say in the midlands; in the capital.

Dr. Tara Reale

It depends but maybe €900 to €1,300 per acre.

Per acre or per hectare?

Dr. Tara Reale

Per acre.

Is that per annum?

Dr. Tara Reale

Yes. It is per annum for the life of the project and it is index-linked.

Broadly speaking, for my 50 acres I would get €50,000 per year.

Dr. Tara Reale

It would be €50,000 to €55,000 per year index-linked for the life of the project which would be 30 to 35 years. If one is interested in sheep farming one will still have income from that.

One will still have the benefits of doing that farming. I know Lightsource bp is representing two different companies but is that the typical return that could be expected across the industry?

Dr. Tara Reale


That is good. The figure of 6 GW was mentioned and I ask the witnesses to flesh that out because it is slightly at odds with what the Minister has said. What do we need to happen to get to 6 GW?

Mr. Gary Connolly

To get to 6 GW we are talking about a blend of the utility scale projects and we are probably talking about 4.5 GW to 5 GW of utility scale solar power. I can talk through what that looks like in a minute. The remainder would be customer scale solar power, which is essentially solar panels on rooftops across the country. We have work under way with MaREI, the research centre in University College Cork, to look at what the potential resources in Ireland are. It is working to look at all the home rooftops in the country and how much they could generate. Panels do not need to be put on a big percentage of buildings, including: schools; universities; various industrial and commercial settings; and homes across the country, before one starts getting to quite big numbers quickly.

On the utility scale, the Minister mentioned the RESS auctions. Dr. Reale mentioned these auctions and in them the renewable projects compete to be guaranteed a price for 15 years. If one models that forward in terms of the four that have been announced and if one assumes that solar will do anything like what it did in the first auction in terms of wind rate, a variety of scenarios will be run such as projects falling over and not being able to make it stack up at the end even after the auction. One still gets to scenarios where one is easily at 4,000 to 5,000 based on what has been published by the Government on the programme of RESS auctions. Even with a relatively conservative set of assumptions one can get there. The key is that if all that solar power is layered in with all that wind power the number of hours in the day when we are generating clean power will be increased. There is another benefit to all these projects under the RESS auctions. The way the contract works is that if it is below a certain price the projects get topped up from the public service obligation, PSO, levy on customers' bills but if it is above that then the projects pay back. The last RESS auction is €73 per MW hour. Around now it is about €250 per MW hour in that market. If we had built those projects faster than we have they would all be paying back €180 per MW hour right now.

That probably comes to the next question. I refer to farms that the ISEA has optioned at the minute and where the farmer has gone through the process of getting planning permission and risen the ire of his or her next-door neighbours and everything. A number of farmers are asking me what the delay is and why the projects are not coming through. I know Mr. Bolger said that there have to be economies but should the ISEA be engaging with farmers like that and sending them on a flight of fancy if they are not going to follow through?

Mr. Conall Bolger

Is the Deputy talking about the ground mount?

Mr. Conall Bolger

The process for a farmer is that the developer will engage with him or her on the land access. Then there is a planning process, followed by a grid application process, an auction process and then the developer has to go back and get financing for the project so that it can go back and build it.

I am finding that we are getting the planning but the developer says that companies are not following through on the grid application then. Is there a lag there?

Mr. Conall Bolger

The number one issue for the industry is getting access to the network. What happens is the developers cannot go into the grid process until they have planning. They cannot go into planning until they have optioned the land because that is good practice. At that point, depending on what has happened, the farmer could have been waiting a period of time. In the Millvale project that was energised last week the farmers were first optioned in 2016. The developers want to deliver these projects quickly and more quickly than they are being delivered. Ireland is something of a laggard in the length of time it takes to get these projects up and running. My association was set up in 2013 and I am talking to the committee about the first energised project in 2022. The grid is a big part of that problem. What happens is the developer goes into the grid connection process for a particular project. The proposal gets taken away, a lot of studies are done, there is an annual process and then an offer goes back. The developer has no certainty going into that process on how much it will cost or how long it will take and when it gets the offer back it still does not know.

I am a bit wiser on that now. I know the sector is fast-moving, that it is getting huge efficiencies, that it is becoming much more productive and that it is probably becoming more financially rewarding.

Have we come to a point, given the move towards offshore wind energy, at which solar has taken precedence over wind farms on land?

Mr. Conall Bolger

Internationally, solar, in capacity terms, was the largest renewable technology installed worldwide-----

What about in terms of current profitability for the operators? I know Mr. Bolger has a vested interested in solar, but would it be much more financially prudent for a body such as Bord na Móna? It went with the wind farm in Mountdillon, which was ultimately unsuccessful. As Mr. Bolger sees it, would solar be more financially rewarding for such bodies, given the efficiencies in respect of construction and how easy it is to develop solar? Is it a much sounder business case to look at the Mountdillon site as solar rather than wind energy?

Mr. Conall Bolger

I cannot really speak about a specific site. What I will say-----

Hypothetically. Let us say a site of 300 ha.

Mr. Conall Bolger

Ultimately, internationally, solar can be deployed quickly. A site can be built in months rather than years. If the connection process were faster and cheaper here, there would be a lot of good options, but it is also a product of the financial model. It is back to the numbers again, I am afraid. While there is a good solar resource in Ireland, and it is something we have not taken advantage of to date, with a wind farm the capacity factor is significantly higher. As for the auction we have at present, because wind and solar compete, there has been a mechanism to allow solar to compete with wind in the first two auctions, which probably tells us where the relative technologies are in an Irish context, if that makes sense.

I am conscious that others wish to speak. I am nearly finished.

Deputy Carthy went into TAMS in some detail. I do not need the witnesses to go into this now, but perhaps they could email the committee bullet points about the changes they would want to see in this regard, particularly in respect of reform. I am sure they have already shared that with the Department. I would be keen to see that. There is no need to go into it now, but if they could share that with the committee, it would be helpful to all of us.

I will make a point about accessing the network, which we have discussed, and direct line. As a case in point, I know of a large company involved in agrifeed that wants to do its own solar farm and wants the power, which is a significant player in agrifeeds. As to where the witnesses are at, and they have laid out the roadmap and where we want to get to, how realistic is that, and what would the timeframe be? I know there is some legislation in this regard, but what do we need to happen to get that direct line?

Mr. Conall Bolger

I believe it is section 37(1) of the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 - my colleagues will correct me if I have got that wrong - that provides for the limitations around direct line. That legislation needs changing. We would probably need to issue some guidelines on it as well as to how and in what circumstances this could be done. The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications is scheduled under the climate action plan, and we have been advised since, to issue a consultation on direct lines. We had hoped to see it in the first quarter of this year, in April, and we still hope to see it very soon. It is a live issue; it is not fanciful. I refer the Deputy to practice in other markets where this is seen. It is reasonably common just over the water in Great Britain and in some other European markets.

I wish to make a final point about direct line, if that is okay. Is there an issue if you go under or over a road with a direct line, or is that an old wives' tale?

Mr. Conall Bolger

Currently, you cannot go over or under a road, full stop, I believe.

Mr. Gary Connolly

I came across such an instance just this past week, and yes, that is a barrier-----

The profile of our country is such that it is a mishmash of roads. Ours is a very small country. Surely there must be some way around that. It is a hindrance for operators that want to tap into their own solar farms.

Mr. Gary Connolly

Currently, you cannot go over even a single road, let alone the mishmash of roads the Deputy speaks of, so yes, absolutely.

Is there any other jurisdiction where a solution to this has been found?

Mr. Gary Connolly

I think Dr. Reale can speak to that.

Dr. Tara Reale

Mr. Bolger mentioned that it is section 37 of the Electricity Regulation Act that needs a very simple amendment removing the prohibition. At the moment the only way we can get around it in Ireland is for someone to be an auto-producer and to generate their own electricity on-site. As Mr. Connolly mentioned, however, the land needs to be completely contiguous and the road is deemed as not making said land contiguous. In the UK this is fairly common practice. Lightsource BP owns the project that feeds Belfast International Airport. It is about a mile down the road from the airport, on Crooked Stone Road. These statistics are pre-Covid, but pre-Covid it was supplying about 27% of the airport's annual electricity demand. The legislation there just does not have such restrictions, which means that the operational licences can be obtained by third parties, not just the distribution network operators, DNOs.

To finish, will section 37(1) address the road issue as well?

Dr. Tara Reale


All the questions have been asked. I was going to make the point just made, particularly about the direct lines and where it was good practice to place them, but we do not have to look very far, just up the road, to see that it is possible.

I will ask a question about planning permission for ground-mounted panels and the delays in the network connections. There has been a bit of discussion about the networks. What do the witnesses believe has to happen? They say that with the direct lines it is the simple deletion of section 37(1) of the Electricity Regulation Act. Is it as simple to deal with the network connections? What has to happen in order for those blockages to be freed up?

We have heard a lot from wind energy representatives at climate committee meetings about planning delays and the delays in getting a decision. They are very keen to see the resourcing of the planning process, the environmental NGOs, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and so on in order that decisions are received much faster. Is that an issue for today's witnesses as well?

My last question follows on from on-roof solar and the interim regulations we were promised, which would exclude the areas around the airport. Going back at the direct line issues, are there countries where glare and glint at airports are a problem? Is there a need for the interim regulations at all, or should we just press ahead and free up the planning process for people to put solar panels on their roofs?

Mr. Conall Bolger

I will respond to the questions in reverse order, if that is okay.

As for on-the-rooftop solar panels and the exclusion of airports, we are not convinced that it is that serious a concern. My colleague, Dr. Reale, highlighted Belfast International Airport, where you can see the panels from the planes when coming in. Rotterdam The Hague Airport has just opened a 14 MW solar farm just by its runway. Dublin Airport has just applied for planning permission for its own solar farm, so I am not sure how concerned it is about glint and glare in all that. We think the approach is probably too conservative and does not reflect the good practice we have seen in other jurisdictions. If the wind energy industry talks about planning as issue number one and grid as issue number two, we reverse the order - grid is issue number one for us and planning is issue number two.

We share concerns about the resourcing of the planning process. In the mid-2010s, Ireland lost many planning experts as a result of the economic crash and the economic challenges it created. To date, solar has been quite successful in the planning process. The last statistics I saw showed that about 93% of planning applications for ground-mounted systems had been successful. We want to update a set of planning guidelines that we developed in 2016 and 2017. They were designed for planners with a view to showing what good development looks like and the good practices to ask for. We hope to update those guidelines this year, probably this year going into next year, with the intent that the update reflects the issues planners face.

The fundamental issue is resourcing. We are hopeful that if we provide them with some information, or with a resource on which they can draw, it will enable them to assess these applications a bit more.

Beyond resourcing, there is also the planning process and the delivery by local authorities. Once these projects come out of planning, are financed and building has started, we start getting into issues such as road opening licences, as well as various other implementation challenges. The local authorities are burdened with a lot. They could probably do with some help in resourcing those processes.

I could probably talk for two days about what is needed for the network. I will not labour that. It is key that we get our plan right. Our plan for rolling out the network is wrong. It is out of date. It is not consistent with Government policy. When I talk about that plan, I am talking about a document called Shaping Our Electricity Future, which was produced by EirGrid during the recent climate conference on the path to 70% clean energy. First, it did not capture the 80% renewable electricity target in the climate action plan. Since then, we have seen analyses from a number of sources that suggest that it is not consistent with any sort of pathway on our carbon budgets. I think they have been published just before this meeting.

It is not consistent with a pathway towards 80% clean energy. This is because we have seen that although the demand will go up, the level of renewable generation does not go up at a rate that is consistent with that. This means that our relative share of renewable generation could be decreasing, even though we are installing more capacity. The plan targets 1 GW of onshore solar PV, yet the climate action plan sets 2.5 GW as an indicative target. As I said in my opening statement, the Minister said that that should be a baseline. We think that we can get to 5 GW of the utilities scale there. Therefore, this plan is not in keeping with any of that.

Essentially, this is the plan that will determine whether they build the kind of infrastructure that is needed to connect all these projects. Each project has its own connections, like, for example, an R road or an L road. The local connections are the way to get there. However, they all have to be aggregated up into something bigger. That is the transmission network. That is what EirGrid is responsible for managing. That is also what is needed to take the power from all these individual renewable generators. That highway is not currently being built or planned for appropriately to get us on the pathway towards the 80% target. We understand that EirGrid is planning to update it this year. However, that plan needs to be delivered with urgency and then the next steps need to be taken.

They are talking about their plan. We know that the climate action plan is due to be upgraded as well, to take account of the carbon budgets. Will we have a situation where we will have a Shaping Ireland’s Electricity Future that will be consistent with the updated climate action plan? If not, we are always going to be out of synch. Are the two talking to each other, in Mr. Bolger’s opinion? Do they need to be talking to each other?

Mr. Conall Bolger

Shaping Ireland’s Electricity Future made an assumption that there is one way to get to the decarbonisation answer. It said that there was just one scenario. Yet, there are many different paths to get there. This could be by different relative blends of different technologies. Also, technologies are moving so fast that what is state of the art today will not be state of the art in five years.

I would have expected to see Shaping Ireland’s Electricity Future look at a range of scenarios. Then we would start putting in place the pieces of infrastructure that are common across most of those scenarios. We would start working from there. The plan’s focus on 2030 is not the right focus. It needs to take account of getting to 2030. It needs to take account of carbon budgets. However, ultimately, we are trying to decarbonise the electricity system. We are trying to take carbon out of the power supply. We therefore have to have a longer-term plan for zero carbon. The year of 2030 is just a point in the road. Where do we go after that? How quickly can we take the other 20% out of the power system? The plan needs to be structured more around those pathways to full decarbonisation, while also keeping us in line with our carbon budgets and with the renewable energy target.

About 20 years ago, I graduated from a master’s programme where we studied solar PV. The hypothetical solar farm in Longford-Westmeath, which was to be on a 50-acre farm was pie in the sky at that point. Yet, here we are 20 years later, where I hope that solar is going to be a significant part of the energy mix as we go forward through to 2030 and beyond.

This is positive. The hearings of this committee are very positive, in particular this session with respect to energy, as well as in general. This committee is forward looking in trying to find paths forward for agriculture. In generating electricity, there is a clear path forward. I welcome this session. I welcome our guests today to educate and inform us on what the opportunities might be.

Mr. Bolger has made a clear point about the importance of the grid. He says that grid connections are his primary concern, and planning is his second concern. The wind industry might invert those priorities. I would encourage all members of this committee, and indeed all members of the Oireachtas, to embrace the importance of grid development, because it is a huge challenge across the country. I would like Mr. Bolger to comment on that. We are not going to get to the 70% target, let alone to 80% target or beyond, unless we develop our grid. We will need leadership from all of the parties in the Oireachtas. This is not easy. It is very hard actually. We need our State players to do what needs to be done. We also need our politicians to the right thing and to show leadership. I am talking about big projects, such as the North-South interconnector. We will not get to the 80% target unless we get the North-South interconnector up and running as soon as possible.

I am interested in Mr. Bolger’s points on the direct lines, as well as about how we can through legislation enable the development of direct lines and the development of solar farms so that we can connect them directly with industry. He briefly touched on the challenges posed by data centres. It seems to me that with solar energy, if you build out the farms that Mr. Bolger says that are in the pipeline and that can be built, we will get more solar energy in the summertime. The data centre industry would say that that is when their greatest electrical demand is. It therefore looks as though there is a correlation there that can be explored. I do not know if the Irish Solar Energy Association has entered into any talks with the data centre industry, because this is a topical issue. This is in an area that we are very challenged by. While we need data centres and we use them in all of our lives, they are a challenge to our system. We have to decarbonise our system and they are very energy hungry. Mr. Bolger might speak more about that if he could.

He says that we can build up to 6 GW of installed capacity. However, 6 GW of solar and 6 GW of wind may not equate to the same amount of energy, because of the characteristics of the renewable resource. What is the percentage of our energy mix that 6 GW could equate to? That is an important number to have. We are currently at 36% wind. We want to get up to a figure of a high 60% or to 70% by 2030. What can solar do for us there?

I have a practical question around the solar farms. The land can be used for grazing and for other forms of light agriculture as well. How permanent is the infrastructure on the land? Can it in the future be returned to food production and to agricultural use? This is an important question and I think listeners will be interested in it.

We spoke about, and Mr. Bolger mentioned, the issue of capital acquisitions tax. Has he anything more to say on that and how the 50% threshold is impacting the industry? If Mr. Bolger thinks there is more to say on that, I would certainly like to hear it. Am I correct in saying it is very much an issue for the Minister for Finance? If this committee believes that, we should notify him of it. I am sure members will agree it is something we should explore.

Mr. Conall Bolger

I thank the Deputy for those questions. I will go back to the question regarding the delivery of infrastructure. He mentioned the North-South interconnector being crucial for operating our electricity system. That is true. Every systems study we have ever seen states that. I have been in the electricity industry for about 16 years now. When I joined, we were told the North-South interconnector was coming and how it was going to enable us to manage this system. Whatever about the rights and wrongs of it, and there are two jurisdictions, which adds further complexity, and many affected communities on the route, it points to some of the challenges. There have been other subsequent plans, such as Grid25, which was going to involve a great deal of grid development. I do not think a cable of that has been laid although there might have been some minor upgrades. There is something to be said for energy being fundamentally about infrastructure. There is no getting away from that. We want to enable people to directly participate themselves. We spent a lot of time during this session talking about that and it is crucial.

We also need larger utility scale projects that will involve the building of infrastructure. It is one of the reasons we emphasise in the plan that it is important we build the right infrastructure and do not overbuild, which some of the standards are encouraging at present. They are forcing developers to build more cable and more infrastructure than they need to, which is not very efficient. We encourage all Members to think about the level of support they could or could not give to a piece of infrastructure recognising, as with any development, it has to be done using good practice and plenty of community engagement. Clearly, something has to be done. It is the Achilles heel of our renewables programme and, ultimately, it is something we have to grapple with as a country.

The direct lines and the summer load correlation is not something I fully appreciated but it is a very interesting point. If many of the data centres could get in solar complemented with a battery system and maybe some other system, and there are some models where they could perhaps look at doing something with an anaerobic digester, such as biogas and those kinds of interactions with agriculture, we start getting to a situation where the data centre industry can meet a lot of its demand using those kinds of models. They could build that whole concept of the circular economy of outputs from agriculture becoming inputs to data centres and sustainability of energy. There are some very exciting things there.

On whether we have had talks with the data centre industry, we have probably had some engagement with it. It is fair to say that it is in a very interesting phase. The Central Statistics Office has just published statistics indicating data centre electricity demand is now greater than that of rural electricity users so this is not a problem that is going away. There is a real opportunity for us to show a little leadership and have the most sustainable data centres in the world. It is something we can do, if we are prepared to grasp it and enable it. If direct line is something that helps get us there, it seems a relatively straightforward fix in order to move us on.

On the 6 GW solar question, we estimate that will be approximately 20% of our total power demand in 2030. When we start layering the average wind profile, it is very interesting that the hours of the day when wind and solar tend to generate are different. If we put the two of them together, we start getting to the point where we are getting closer and closer to 100% renewables. Our challenge then becomes, in essence, how to manage the periods where we do not have enough and the periods where we have too much. That builds into the need for a flexibility strategy for Ireland, including demand response, storage, batteries and, in the longer term, pieces such as hydrogen and so forth. It is about that integrated system. That is how we will get to the full decarbonised system.

I will hand over the question on land use for other purposes, but I note a scheme is in place to recycle the solar equipment at the end of its life, and a common part of the planning permission for those projects is they have to put money aside to restore the land to the situation-----

What is the lifespan of the panels?

Mr. Conall Bolger

It is 25 to 30 years. I will hand over to Dr. Reale.

Dr. Tara Reale

Some equipment manufacturers are now giving up to 40 years for the lifetime of a panel.

On land use, solar farms typically have small steel pile foundations that are approximately 1.5 m to 2 m down and are very easily removed when the project is over. When the land is not intensively farmed for agricultural use and is, in effect, allowed to rest, the soil often regenerates. We have seen in our UK pipeline a major biodiversity net gain simply by the inclusion of more habitats, in addition to the species-rich grass defined by the engineering, procurement and construction, EPC, contractor during the construction process. We have seen net biodiversity gains of between 50% and 150% over the 40 years. The land is in pretty good condition at the end of the lifespan of a panel.

On taxation, is it more than 50% of the land area that will not quality for agricultural relief? Is that the issue?

Mr. Conall Bolger

Yes. Those are the rules of the benefit.

Deputy Leddin has made a proposal that we write to the Minister for Finance requesting that land will qualify for agricultural relief irrespective of the percentage covered by solar panels. Is that agreed?

That is it. I do not know if our guests want to say more about the 50% if members are agreeable to communicate with the Minister. The ask is to increase it to 80%. Is that correct? The ISEA representatives mentioned that.

Mr. Conall Bolger

Yes. We suggested 80% in our submission but if the committee wants to look for more we probably would not disagree with that.

Power and food were mentioned in an earlier question as qualifying for agricultural relief. I do not see why we should have any limit. The whole farm should qualify as it is providing energy. I would be in favour of looking for full agricultural relief for the land. I cannot see why the ISEA would not look for 100%.

Mr. Conall Bolger

The Chairman will get no opposition from us.

I have a follow-up question and another point I want to make but I agree on this issue. If the Department of Finance goes back to the logic for the capital gains tax provision in the first place, which was to recognise the unique nature of family farms and that, in many instances, it is not like passing on another type of company where there may be assets. In many cases, if tax was applied the so-called beneficiaries would probably have to sell the asset in order to get the benefit of it because it would not have that type of capital in reserve. The provision was also in recognition of the public good that comes from a family farm. If a farm is producing energy, especially renewable energy, a public good is being derived from it in the same way.

The whole of the land is still actually being farmed-----

-----because it is accessible to livestock anyway. I cannot understand why the limitation is there.

The fear is it could be extrapolated that no farming per se, as in food production, would be taking place.

The only stipulation I have is that the farm is not benefitting a corporation but is still a family farm structure and that structure is protected, whether it is producing energy or food.

I agree on that. I will ask one question and make a comment.

The Deputy has more questions.

It is a follow-on question related to the soil quality Dr. Reale mentioned. Even though they are solar panels, I take it the sun does not reach the soil underneath the panels. I am interested in Dr. Reale's statement that the soil quality is shown to improve significantly.

Dr. Tara Reale

I probably misspoke there in one sense. There is biodiversity and there is land quality in relation to drainage, etc. There is evidence and research out there - one could probably find contrary evidence - that the soil improves because it regenerates because it is rested. As I said, one could probably find contrary evidence.

Is it the adjoining lands?

Mr. Conall Bolger

We also have to recognise there are gaps between the panels.

I accept that.

Dr. Tara Reale

The panels are raised and the sunlight gets under them. The latest technology is bifacial and it is in the interest of the owner for the panels to be raised so that the light gets under them.

Only a quarter of the land would be covered by the panels. Is that correct?

Dr. Tara Reale

It depends on the design. It could be a quarter going up to 45%, if it is very crammed. It depends.

I visited farms in Germany and I thought that roughly 25% to one third of the land was covered. The rest would be channels.

I have a final comment in respect of the North-South interconnector, which is a good example of how not to do things. Mr. Bolger is correct that the process for the interconnector was initiated 20 years ago. The difficulty has been that there has been no public consultation in two decades since. Twenty years ago, a fait accompli was presented to communities that opposed the plans and we have had 20 years during which those communities have been lectured to without any alternative being provided. There are similar interconnectors. There is an interconnector between Belgium and Germany, the Aachen Liège Electricity Grid Overlay, or ALEGrO, interconnector. It is similar in make-up. While there are always differences, ALEGrO and the North-South interconnector are very similar. There was a parallel process. A proposal for an overhead 400 kV interconnector power line met community resistance but two different courses of action were taken. Belgium and Germany went the course of public acceptance and engagement and came to a decision to underground the interconnector. That is nearly completed. In Ireland, we adopted the pig-headed approach where we are essentially at a point where the real delays have not happened yet. The real delays will happen when EirGrid or its agents attempt to walk on to the land of people who say they are not entitled to do so. I agree that we need the North-South interconnector but I also agree that we need to bring communities with us if we are to deliver these types of projects. That is one of the lessons we have to learn in all of this.

I thank the witnesses for this informative session. The roadblocks restricting the potential of solar farming could be removed easily enough. We will put Deputy Leddin's proposal to the Minister for Finance and, hopefully, that will remove one of them. Access to the grid is the major stumbling block that we must overcome. If solar farming is to work, whether on land or on roofs, access to the grid is key and farmers need to be able to sell surplus power they are generating on farmyard roofs. When we see the solar panels in place on our travels in other countries in Europe, it shows that are light years behind. We have the potential to do this and we must drive it forward.

Sitting suspended at 7.04 p.m. and resumed at 7.09 p.m.

Witnesses giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the committee. This means they will have a full defence in any defamation action for anything said at a committee meeting. However, witnesses are expected not to abuse this privilege and may be directed to cease giving evidence on an issue at the Chairman's direction. Witnesses should follow the directions of the Chairman in this regard and are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that, to the extent that is reasonable, no adverse commentary should be made against an identifiable third person or entity.

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Privilege against defamation does not apply to publication by witnesses outside the proceedings held by the committee of any matters arising from the proceedings.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Parliamentary privilege is considered to apply to the utterances of members participating online in the committee meeting when they participate from within the parliamentary precincts. There can be no assurances in respect of participation online from outside the parliamentary precincts and members should be mindful of this when contributing.

The second session will examine the same subject as the previous session. I welcome from Teagasc, Dr. Laurence Shalloo, head of programme, animal and grassland research and innovation programme, and Dr. John Upton, research officer in the livestock systems department. I call on the witnesses to make their opening statement.

Dr. John Upton

I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak to it this evening on the topic of solar energy in the agriculture industry. Teagasc as an organisation is fully committed to embracing solar energy on its research facilities, including research farms, as well as on its advisory and education facilities. This commitment is enshrined in the Teagasc statement of strategy, specifically strategic goal No. 5, which aims "to constantly improve organisational excellence and efficiency". Deployment of a number of major solar photovoltaic installations, or PV for short, has already been carried out within Teagasc as part of its energy action plan, including the installation of a 250 kWp system on the Moorepark pig research facility, along with several smaller systems on advisory buildings and research farms.

On a national level, the Food Vision 2030 report sets the goal to develop a climate neutral agrifood system, so that by 2050 the climate impact of methane is reduced to zero and remaining agricultural emissions are balanced by removals; scale up renewable energy sources, especially anaerobic digestion, biorefining and biomass supply and solar PV; focus on energy efficiency; and examine potential barriers to the roll-out of renewable energy at farm level, including necessary support for microgeneration and access to the grid.

Similarly, the Ag Climatise report sets specific targets for energy use in agriculture in the nearer term, whereby a reduction in energy use by 20%, along with an additional target of meeting 20% of agricultural energy use by renewables, should be achieved by 2030. These goals are, in turn, adopted into the Food Vision 2030 report as interim goals.

We have considerable ground to cover between now and 2030 to achieve these targets, given that less than 2% of dairy farms currently have a solar PV system installed. Teagasc has been very active in the area of energy in agriculture for many years and launched its first dedicated publication on energy use in agriculture in 2011. Furthermore, Teagasc has compiled a suite of fact sheets on energy use and renewable energy generation covering all farm enterprises, which were updated recently.

Teagasc has also dedicated considerable research resources to dairy energy efficiency. An active energy research programme at Teagasc Moorepark is evaluating the impacts of deploying microgeneration and minigeneration solar PV systems on dairy farms. This research is built on a foundation of energy auditing and modelling that has been ongoing for more than ten years. Teagasc has developed a very high level of understanding of energy consumption trends, energy costs and associated electricity-related carbon emissions of the dairy sector through this work. This has been disseminated extensively through webinars, the Dairy Farm Infrastructure Workbook, the Dairy Farm Infrastructure Handbook and Teagasc open days as well as farm walks. Teagasc is seeking to expand its research capabilities in this area through building capabilities in the Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, VistaMilk 2 research centre, which is funded by Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to include an energy research cluster.

Furthermore, Teagasc has partnered with Munster Technological University and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, to deliver an online dairy energy optimisation platform to help farmers reduce their energy use and maximise solar energy use. The optimisation platform automatically identifies the best blend of energy efficient and renewable technologies, based on either economic or environmental criteria, on a farm-specific basis. The user is also provided with a simple payback period and carbon emissions offset resulting from the technology upgrade. This tool can also advise farmers on microscale solar PV sizing while providing carbon offsets and payback times for such investments. Teagasc has always encouraged an "efficiency first" approach to farm energy since renewable energy is not "free energy" as it comes with considerable upfront costs. Therefore, farm businesses should always be assessed for opportunities to improve efficiency before evaluating renewable options. This approach is also promoted in the Ag Climatise and Food Vision 2030 reports.

Opportunities for deployment of solar PV systems that are economically beneficial for farmers have been greatest where a significant part of the energy generated is consumed on the farm, for example, on dairy, pigs, poultry and horticulture, thereby offsetting expensive grid supplied electricity charges. In the absence of substantial on-farm demand for electricity or a significant export tariff, the payback periods can easily exceed ten years, resulting in low levels of interest in solar PV systems on some farms.

The only viable option for deploying solar PV for dairy farmers has been to follow the self-consumption microgeneration route as there has been an absence of an export tariff for electricity exported to the national grid. Additionally, planning permission is required for PV arrays in excess of 50 m². These aspects have limited the appetite for the installation of larger systems among farmers.

A typical solar PV installation on a 100-cow dairy farm comprises the installation of an 11 kWp solar PV array on the dairy shed roof - this size does

not require planning - which involves an investment of approximately €15,300. This size system will supply 30% of the farm's electricity needs from renewables and will pay for itself in around seven years at current electricity prices and without grant aid. This size system would offset 3 tonnes of CO2 per annum.

Going forward, with recent announcements on the advent of a microgeneration and minigeneration solar PV export tariff and potential easing of planning requirements in the near future, there should be renewed interest among farmers in adopting solar PV by allowing for up to 50 kWp systems on farms. However, some anomalies may remain in place, such as the inability of farmers to avail of the export tariff if they utilise their Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, grant to part-fund their solar PV system. These anomalies can create confusion among farmers and may inhibit mass levels of adoption.

The opportunities for solar deployment on farms are great, given that shed roofs are the ideal home for such systems and there is no shortage of space for these systems on a typical farm. Similarly, dairy farms that operate spring calving systems produce the majority of their milk during the summer months, and hence consume the most electricity during the months of highest solar electricity generation.

Development of solar energy generation in agriculture has the potential to have three major benefits for Ireland’s agriculture industry. First, enhanced energy security through the displacement of fossil fuels will bolster our national energy self-reliance through the consumption of locally generated renewable electricity in place of electricity generated from imported fossil fuels. For example, a conservative estimate of 200 GWh of electricity could be generated by dairy farms if they were to meet 50% of their electricity demand from renewable sources. The second benefit is related to farm diversification. Income generated from exporting excess electricity will provide additional income streams for farm families in rural Ireland and encourage parallel income streams from the farm. Third, renewable electricity generation is better for the environment and generation of electricity on farms will help contribute to our national efforts in the area. The potential of high levels of adoption of solar PV on dairy farms alone could save over 100,000 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year nationally if every dairy farmer installed 26 kWp of solar panels.

A prerequisite to the successful deployment of solar energy in agriculture is that it should be profitable and equitable across all farm types and stages of development, regardless of farming system deployed.

I thank the committee for the opportunity to present this information and I welcome any questions members may have.

I welcome Dr. Upton and Dr. Shalloo to the committee and thank them. This is an important area of discussion and consideration for the committee. Our focus this evening is on solar energy and the agriculture industry. We all know the main benefits of solar and agriculture which Dr. Upton pointed out. They are enhanced energy security, farm diversification and the income that is related to all of that. Furthermore, renewable electricity is clearly better for the environment. They are very simple messages. I think people are travelling on that journey at a much quicker rate and pace than ever before. Perhaps Ukraine, energy costs and all these other issues have fed into the urgency to move fast to find sustainable and alternative solutions.

I had a look at the Teagasc strategy statement for 2021 to 2024, titled Teagasc Together - Harnessing the Power of Research, Advisory and Education Services to Create a Sustainable Food System. I was very conscious of the organisation's remit in research, advisory and education services. I have some questions which I will put separately. Where are additional supports, education and training needed? Many people want to engage with this technology but there are clearly huge upfront costs. In terms of Teagasc's remit of research, advice and education, where is there a real need for its services to push this game on?

Dr. John Upton

Teagasc has a role to play in each of those areas - research, advisory and education. To achieve our national objective of meeting 80% of our electricity consumption from renewable sources by 2030, a paradigm shift is required across the board among all electricity consumers. Farming is a particular example of that.

On the research side, as I mentioned, Teagasc is committed to a research programme to fill in any gaps in knowledge that exist. On education, it has run some education training courses for farm advisers which will help disseminate the available knowledge to these key stakeholders to empower them to implement change on their farms in terms of adopting renewables. Similarly, in education, there are modules on renewables built into many of our farm systems courses. The purpose of those courses is to bring the next generation up to speed on the research that has been done and how it can be applied to farms.

Is there much uptake? Is Dr. Upton encouraged by the participation and uptake in this area?

Dr. John Upton

Yes, certainly. There area always extremely high levels of interest in this area because it is new and exciting. It is easy to get behind and the students have an appetite for it. There is also an appetite for some of these changes at farm level.

Dr. Upton mentioned a paradigm shift, which is an understatement. We have a serious issue.

Dr. Upton referred to Food Vision 2030 which, he stated, "sets the goal to develop a climate neutral agrifood system, so that by 2050 the climate impact of methane is reduced to zero and remaining agricultural emissions are balanced by removals; scale up renewable energy sources", etc. That is all very profound but is it realistic? Does Dr. Upton believe it is achievable?

Dr. John Upton

The targets are certainly ambitious, as they should be. The work I have done shows that up to 400 MW hours of electricity could be generated on farms, which would offset consumption if 26 kWp of panels is installed per farm. There are no technical barriers to achieving that according to my research.

Dr. Upton is saying the climate impact of methane is reduced to zero?

Dr. John Upton

No, I am speaking about the climate impact of electricity consumption. The area of my expertise is on the electricity side.

Dr. Upton's statement said the climate impact of methane is reduced to zero and remaining agricultural emissions are balanced by removals by scaled up renewable energies. Will he explain that?

Dr. John Upton

The Senator has quoted directly from the Food Vision 2030 report.

What is Dr. Upton's view on that?

Dr. John Upton

As I said, from my research experience, the emissions related to electricity on farms can be offset by renewable energy generation. That is the scope of my knowledge on the topic.

Is the suggestion Dr. Upton cited far-fetched? Is it achievable?

Dr. Laurence Shalloo

I will respond here. The question is whether agriculture can be climate-neutral by 2050 and what role energy will play in that. Looking at the overall emissions of a dairy farm, for example, energy plays a pretty small role in that. In the carbon footprint only about 1.5% comes from energy, that is, electricity. To become climate neutral by 2050 there is a massive job to be done but there are other things that will have to form part of that, for example, how methane is treated in the calculations. Its lifetime will have to be part of the calculations to become climate neutral. I do not think anyone argues with the science around that. Methane is one part of it. Obviously, there will have to be significant reductions in nitrous oxide through changing fertiliser type from calcium ammonium nitrate, or CAN, based fertilisers to urea-based fertilisers and protected urea fertilisers, for example. That will form a second part. The third part, which will be hugely important, is the removals. Getting appropriate emission factors for the removals in terms of sequestration on mineral soils and losses through peat soils will form the third pillar in how climate-neutral looks for agriculture by 2050.

Dr. Shalloo accepts that is a highly ambitious target.

Dr. Laurence Shalloo

It is highly ambitious.

It is an honourable one, however. Ag Climatise sets a target for 2030 rather than 2050. What are our guests' views on these targets and whether they are achievable?

Dr. John Upton

The current target in the climate Bill is to have a reduction in emissions of between 22% and 30% by 2030 will be extremely challenging for agriculture. The research from our marginal abatement cost curve in Teagasc is very clear. The research on the ground can give us one third of that. The research that is near delivery and has shown huge promise will probably give us another third of that, with greater take-up. The final third will be based on research we are doing today that shows some promise. It will definitely be a significant challenge.

We spoke with the previous group of witnesses about solar farms. I went to see one in Wicklow. The panels were set up quite high off the ground, perhaps 1 m high or slightly less. There were sheep grazing on the land. That is really impressive. They could move in and out around these framed structures. It seems very exciting and profitable and the farmers involved are very excited by it. I thought about it prompted by a comment someone made earlier. This may not be the witnesses' area so they might tell me if it is not. I am thinking of the opportunities for developing new species, rich grasses and opportunities. These are clearly infrastructures that are set up for, let us say, 30 years. There are real opportunities for grazing and all that goes with that, particularly for sheep because of the size of the structures. These structures could go higher or lower depending on engineering design. I think there is potential for a lot of work because the ground will not be moved, tilled or ploughed for a long time. There are environmental opportunities on the back of all that. Is it an area that Teagasc would look at?

Dr. John Upton

It is potentially an area of future research. The country is still in the early stages of implementing these solar farms but I am aware of some research projects being carried out between the Netherlands and the United States, working on a blueprint for implementing sheep grazing systems on these facilities. We will certainly be watching those with great interest. There is potential scope to implement a similar type of research here.

Dr. Upton touched on the collaboration between SFI, Munster Technological University and Teagasc's Moorepark facility, with which I am very familiar.

Will the witnesses share with the committee what is happening and speak about innovation, synergy and collaboration as part of their work and the topic we are discussing?

Dr. Laurence Shalloo

The main project that Dr. Upton referred to is VistaMilk, which is a centre funded by Science Foundation Ireland and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It has existed for three years. A major part of that programme relates to developing solutions for methane, whether that is through genetics, feed additives or grassland management, as well as quantifying in a robust fashion the level of sequestration going on in mineral and peat soils. They are a major part of that centre. It is linked with the Walton Institute, formerly known as the Telecommunications Software & Systems Group, with the Tyndall National Institute, UCD and the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation. It is a strong collaboration. Dr. Upton might speak about Munster Technological University, MTU.

Dr. John Upton

Teagasc has a close working relationship with MTU. Many of the tools that we have developed to help to disseminate our research to farmers have been developed through collaboration with MTU and funded through the SEAI. In particular, the dairy energy optimisation platform is a tool that is based on our research and is available to use for free by farmers and advisers to help to identify the most attractive combination of both efficient and renewable technologies for deployment on farms. Solar energy is embedded within that tool too.

I thank the witnesses for their help.

I welcome the guests. Did the witnesses say that, by 2030, 80% of our power needs to come from renewable energy?

Dr. John Upton

That is my understanding of the targets.

We have one of the lowest levels of solar panel usage in Europe. What is the witnesses' view on changing the planning rules for farm buildings, schools and so on?

Dr. John Upton

I can only speak from a research perspective. Facilitating the roll-out of panels on the scale that is required will need the co-operation of all stakeholders, including planning authorities. I understand that co-operation is happening. Changes have been mooted that are due to be implemented later this year.

Are the changes to planning matters happening quickly enough to reach the targets that we need to reach?

Dr. John Upton

They are occurring and that is all I can say on the topic.

Is there an estimate of the average annual electricity needs for a dairy farm, pig farm, or such? Are there figures for how much land would need to be covered by solar panels to produce that much? Has research been done on that for individual farms?

Dr. John Upton

I thank the Deputy for the question. We are getting technical. I will address consumption first. Dairy farms use approximately 400 GWh of electricity per year; pig farms use approximately 136 GWh per year and poultry farms use another 12 GWh or so. A total of 600 GWh or 700 GWh of electricity is used per year by those enterprises alone. The scale of what is required is about the same as what was submitted under the renewable electricity support scheme, RESS 1, of 700 GWh to 800 GWh per year.

The peak demand for dairy would be for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, for milking and cooling the milk. Does that impact the ability of solar panels on a farm to meet the demand? How much extra would it cost to store the electricity?

Dr. John Upton

The demand profile on a dairy farm has a peak in the morning and a peak in the evening. The electricity generation profile is at its peak in the middle of the day, when one is not milking the cows. Clearly, some energy storage is required. Some can be implemented quite cheaply. The cheapest way to implement storage is through storing hot water in a dairy water heater. That can be implemented at a cost of roughly €40 per kWh of storage. That level would get a dairy farm to approximately 30% of renewable consumption without additional storage. Higher levels would require additional storage systems, such as ice. One of the main requirements for energy on a farm is cooling. If one builds a bank of ice with electricity, one can then use that later for cooling milk. Implementing an ice storage system would cost approximately €200 per kWh of storage. Batteries would be an option to go even higher and would cost approximately €400 per kWh. Energy can be stored cheaply in some systems, but it will cost more with different technologies.

Dr. Upton gave a figure for dairy farms. What area would need to be covered by solar panels to give the equivalent of what is required for a dairy farm? Has he that figure?

Dr. John Upton

The demand for dairy specifically could theoretically be offset by roof-mounted solar panels, without any land-based systems, because the dairy shed's roof will have no problem with housing enough panels to offset a particular farm's demand. Those roof-mounted solar panels would produce approximately 26 kWh at peak per farm, which would take up approximately 120 sq. m.

I thank Dr. Upton.

I thank the witnesses. I apologise for coming in a little late. I may give them something to work out first, if that is all right. Councillor Browne touched on-----

Councillor Browne.

I apologise, Deputy Browne.

I have been called worse.

An example of a 100-cow dairy farm was given. There are approximately 18,000 dairy farms in the country. The witnesses might work out on the back of a fag packet what tonnage of CO2 per annum might be generated if all that was capitalised on. Hopefully, Dr. Shalloo heard the witnesses speaking about solar energy earlier. We asked them about the return on this. They stated that a 50 acre solar farm would have a return of more than €50,000 per annum. That can be considered along with a sheep farming enterprise. That would be a considerable return for any farm and most farmers would probably jump at it. One hears those numbers, see where we are, and has misgivings about where we need to go. Does Dr. Shalloo think that Teagasc is doing enough or does it need to be more productive? There is much education to be done here. Teagasc's website hosts seminars. I appreciate it has been restricted in what it can do for the past two years. It has a role in sending a message to and educating farmers. I feel that Teagasc is only getting to grips with this now and is behind. Much needs to change with legislation. Teagasc is a primary mover in this. Will Dr. Shalloo expand on how Teagasc will bring farmers along?

Dr. Laurence Shalloo

I thank the Deputy for the question. Some €50,000 on a 50 acre farm would be €1,000 per acre. In our national farm survey, dairy enterprises, which are the most profitable, make between €1,300 and €1,400 per hectare, which would be €600 or €700 per acre. That will be a strong, competitive business opportunity.

From our perspective, this is a great opportunity. If one looks at the numbers that have been done, and Dr. Upton is doing these all the time, and at the return on investment when one is talking about a solar farm or about solar on a roof, the returns are quite strong. These are very comparable with many of the investments that one could make on a farm or outside a farm. From our point of view, we would be completely positive towards investment that will give very strong returns. That is something that-----

On the education side, has Teagasc plans to scale this up now?

Dr. Laurence Shalloo

Yes, we see this as a very strong opportunity. There are options programmes within Teagasc where we look at all of the options, be it animal-based agriculture, cropping, or whatever it is, and this will be part of that. We certainly see this as having a very strong role in the diversification. If one looks at all of the policies, diversification is part of it. This is one of the diversification pathways that looks very attractive.

It is probably the most attractive diversification that is out there. That is why we really need to see Teagasc taking a strong lead on it. Using the back of the packet of cigarettes model, how many tonnes of emissions are we looking at if we mobilise every rooftop on a dairy farm?

Dr. John Upton

I thank the Deputy for his question and luckily I came prepared.

I noticed that, mind you.

Dr. John Upton

If one gets decent levels of adoption, as outlined here, one will be looking at the order of 0.1 million tonnes nationally through the adoption of dairy farms at a level of a 26 kW peak.

That is a considerable return.

What would that do in respect of a reduction of our emissions-----

That is 0.1 million tonnes.

-----on a percentage basis?

Dr. John Upton

Is this in the case of agriculture or are we talking about the whole of-----

We are just asking about agriculture.

Dr. John Upton

It would be significant. The point to make is that-----

It is significant but it is also economical. My apologies for interrupting Deputy Flaherty.

That is probably comes down to the next question. This is like the leaving certificate again for Dr. Upton. Moving on to the next point, we will probably need to marry up the whole process of educating farmers to go solar, together with everything that we are looking at so far in respect of CAP reform. Are we are not looking at a model in which farmers are directly rewarded for an investment that can deliver a reduction in emissions and carbon offset? If we look at the examples given here, is that not the route we should really be taking for farmers?

Dr. Laurence Shalloo

Yes, absolutely, but there are barriers. If we take the dairy farm Dr. Upton talked about and one puts in the solar panels and is using 30% of that power for water heating and 30% for cooling, can that remaining 40% then be sold back to the grid? Is that a barrier to adoption of this at farm level? Perhaps with these grid connections, that is something that needs to part of the overall conversation, as well as the messaging that this is an important investment from which returns can be made.

My final question is in respect of the dairy farms, as they are a very specific type of farm. Have there been any efforts - I am sure some have been made - globally which Teagasc may have seen where there has been a co-operative effort by dairy farms to reach that scenario, which would be a utopian one for us?

Dr. John Upton

There are successful small-scale examples where groups of farmers have come together under a better energy community grant, or something along those lines, which I am aware of. There is another community of farmers in west Kerry which have banded together and have gone for funding to make the peninsula, in effect-----

Is there anything similar globally to the Irish utopian example where something like that has been done with dairy farmers or where they in the process of doing this?

Dr. John Upton

Not that I am aware of.

I thank our witnesses very much.

I call Deputy Carthy.

Is Teagasc aware of anywhere else in the EU where currently, as a standard practice, solar generated electricity cannot be automatically sold back into the grid?

Dr. John Upton

Would the Deputy mind repeating the question, please?

It is a big part of the discussion here that we cannot, as a matter of course, put solar-generated electricity back into the grid, or at least we cannot get paid for it. Does that happen anywhere else, where an established solar strategy is in place?

Dr. John Upton

It does not, as far as I am aware.

This is absolute lunacy. We hear member talking about over-riding the concerns of local communities for some projects, with all of the talk of environmentalism and climate action, with so much lecturing taking place, and yet we have this resource which is a win-win for everybody concerned. This is in terms of the national interest where it is asked how much better off we would be in the here and now if we were generating substantial amounts of electricity through solar energy with an income stream for farmers and the knock-on benefits of that for local communities. This also the case in respect of the overall climate targets, and yet we are here talking about petty blocks that are having a very big impact.

Dr. Upton mentioned in his opening statement the positive developments around planning. He said there were continuing anomalies and cited the issue of the targeted agriculture modernisation schemes, TAMS, which I will touch on later. Was he referring to other anomalies that we have perhaps not touched on here yet today?

Dr. John Upton

There is some documentation which lists the export factor that applies to solar mini-generation schemes whereby 35% of the power generated on-site could be exported and the rest should be used within the farm gate. That is the only other one I am aware of.

Okay. For clarity, what is the actual reason TAMS-aided solar generated electricity cannot participate in the microgeneration scheme? What is the blockage there? Is it a national blockage or is it EU rules, or do we know what the causation of that is?

Dr. John Upton

I do not know.

It might be helpful to us to know that in order to overcome the difficulty.

Returning to a point I was making, we, in essence, have a law that is preventing the extraction into the national grid of electricity that has been generated through solar power. This is crazy. There has been a great amount of talk about potential farm diversification benefits. If anything, one would have a fear that there would be no actual food production left because, economically, in the figures that are cited, this would be a very attractive offer. It is telling that we do not as yet have substantial numbers involved in this.

Has Teagasc carried out any research on the cost-risk profile of productive land at the moment? Is there a best practice model that allows solar generation and food production to take place to ensure the best and most secure return for the farmers in the medium to long term? Has that type of research been carried out?

Dr. Laurence Shalloo

If one looks at the numbers, the land area required is not very great to get fairly big generation. I return to Dr. Upton’s point about the rooftops being the first place to start where one is not losing anything and it is a win-win situation. The question was asked as to why there has not been more of that rooftop-type stuff. If one looks at the scenario where the dairy farmer is using 50% to 60% of what they are generating, and the rest of that power cannot go anywhere, then that is not a very good economic incentive for a dairy farmer to invest in this technology. The areas are relatively small in respect of the area required, even in land-based facilities, to generate significant amounts of solar power. Dr. Upton has the numbers generated on this.

Dr. John Upton

We were doing some quick sums on this issue on the way here and the renewable electricity support scheme, RESS 2, which was announced recently would be aiming to achieve 3,500 GW hours of electricity generation through renewables by 2024. We are talking in the region of 3,000 to 4,000 acres nationally to meet those objectives. That is 0.5% of our land area.

That is a small amount of land.

How much of that will be covered by rooftop installation?

Dr. John Upton

That would be all land, based on that quick calculation.

Dr. Laurence Shalloo

But if one accepts that we have 4 million ha of agricultural land, one is talking about 1,500. That is not massive in the overall scheme of things.

Are we under-reaching in respect of our targets with regard to solar energy? If I understand this correctly we have a 20% target. Considering the point I was making earlier on, there are very few planning issues with solar in comparison with those that one gets with wind, for obvious reasons. Wind is much more obtrusive and there can be all sorts of issues around visual amenity. The very fact that solar can be utilised on existing buildings, and even when it is used on flatter land or on areas where it will be less obtrusive, this is a consideration. Are we under-valuing the prospect that solar could in fact play?

Dr. John Upton

Solar energy represents a great opportunity for farms to diversify. We have to start somewhere. My understanding is that we are on renewable electricity support scheme 2 now and there will be subsequent RES schemes which I would expect to see expanding the scope. We are starting as we should with ambitious targets and I imagine it will go from there.

Returning to my very first question, we can have all of the grant schemes and all of the incentives that one can put in place but the real incentive is going to be the ability to sell back excess electricity and to get a fair return. We do not know for sure yet what that return will even be. Does Dr. Upton have any sense of what he might expect because we are quoting potential income figures. I presume that that is based on permanent payment per unit. What would Dr. Upton expect the average payment per unit to be for excess electricity generated in this way?

Dr. John Upton

Under the current mini-generation scheme, the mooted payment for 2022 will be 13.5 cent per unit. That will be-----

That is the mooted payment but is that confirmed yet?

Dr. John Upton

That has not been implemented yet but that is what is in the documentation that has been released so far. That will be guaranteed then for 15 years.

What are the electricity companies currently paying per unit for alternative sources of power on a fossil fuel basis?

Dr. John Upton

The price of electricity on a day rate currently is approximately 20 cent per unit and is approximately 10 cent on a night rate.

These companies then are getting good value from the solar power providers.

Dr. John Upton

The return on a kilowatt of panels at 13.5 cent-----

I am talking here about the idea of electricity providers who are buying the electricity. Is it true to say that they are getting good value?

Dr. John Upton

The Deputy and I may be at cross purposes here. I was quoting prices that the consumer was paying.

I understand that but what are the electricity companies paying for the electricity that they are purchasing and passing on then to the consumer.

Dr. John Upton

I believe that that is part of the single electricity market operator function which is priced on an hourly basis and that varies quite a good deal. I do not have figures for that for the Deputy right now.

I presume that it is more than 13.5 cent.

Dr. John Upton

I cannot confirm that.

That is okay.

Addressing the Chairman, we mentioned earlier on writing to various Ministers and I am aware that we have a great deal of work on the programme but there are merits in this committee considering the compiling of a report on this issue because there are so many potential benefits from it for the sector in which we have an interest. This issue crosses a number of Departments and it would be useful if we could consider, perhaps, compiling a report with recommendations for those various Departments to try to resolve these anomalies over the next period of time. Perhaps we might put that on our work programme as a consideration.

I said when the last witnesses were leaving that there were a number of roadblocks that could be easily removed.

I am finished now and I thank our guests again.

I thank our guests for their input and they were very well researched. Solar companies appeared before our committee before our current witnesses did and they obviously had vested interests. Our present guests, however, were giving an insight from the point of view of the industry, what can be saved and what this can do to meet more emissions targets. Leaving climate change aside completely, there is an economic benefit from doing this so one is therefore winning on both ends. There is an economic benefit and one is battling climate change. It goes down the road I like, which is to be told what we can do for climate change and not what we cannot do. I thank our guests very much for their input. We might come back to our witnesses again to look for more in-depth analysis.

Dr. John Upton


The Ministers may be able to give us answers to these other questions.

We will now adjourn. The next public meeting of this committee will take place on Wednesday, 11 May at 5.30 p.m. The committee met in private session today and several areas and topics were identified for examination. Arising from this the agenda for this meeting is be finalised and the members will be informed accordingly. As there is no further business this meeting now stands adjourned. I thank all in attendance.

The joint committee adjourned at 7.56 p.m. until 5.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 11 May 2022.