Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Questions (22)

Thomas P. Broughan


22. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the national policy of his Department regarding solar arrays, solar power and the contribution such power may make to sustainable energy generation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16263/18]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Communications)

We have all noticed over the past year or two a major number of planning applications for solar power arrays, particularly in counties Wicklow and Limerick and in Fingal in north County Dublin. What is the current level of proposed solar array power generation? How does the Minister see it fitting into the renewable energy strategy? He announced photovoltaic, PV, grants for households in respect of solar microgeneration on rooftops and so on a couple of months ago. What are the targets in that area? Why is the Minister loath to allow the microgenerators, which is all of us, to access the grid?

I will read the reply and then try to address the Deputy's questions.

The 2016 programme for Government and 2015 White Paper on energy recognise that solar PV has the potential to provide a community dividend, thereby enhancing citizen participation in Ireland’s energy future, and that it has the potential to contribute to meeting Ireland’s renewable energy and climate change objectives. While the White Paper identifies the long-term strategic importance of diversifying Ireland’s energy generation portfolio and, largely, decarbonising the sector by 2050, it does not set out targets for specific renewable technologies but rather provides a framework to guide policy between now and 2030.

My Department is developing a new renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, to assist Ireland in meeting its renewable energy contributions to EU-wide targets by 2030. The design of the new scheme has included an extensive economic appraisal which compared the cost of supporting solar PV, both rooftop and ground-mounted, and a range of other commercial renewable technologies, at various scales, to ensure that the new scheme delivers value for money for energy users whilst also delivering on the energy pillars of sustainability and security of supply. The analysis indicates that a number of renewable technologies, including solar PV, have converging and in some cases overlapping cost ranges and it is widely recognised that solar PV technology has become more cost-competitive for electricity generation over the past number of years, not only compared with other renewables but also compared with conventional forms of generation.  I am keen for this new scheme to encourage the diversification of renewable energy technologies in Ireland while being mindful of the need to minimise the costs to consumers through the public service obligation.

I am well aware of the very strong level of interest in solar PV in Ireland due to its potential role in Ireland’s future energy mix and I have written to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, highlighting my view that planning guidelines will need to be developed. In this regard, officials from my Department are engaging with their counterparts in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.

In January, I announced a proposed pilot scheme for microgeneration that will target solar PV and self-consumption among domestic customers, which is due to commence this summer.  Further details of this scheme will be made available when I have received a study being undertaken by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland into the likely uptake and demand for the scheme and have had an opportunity to consider its analysis.

I thank the Minister for his answer and I welcome his comments on planning. He referred to specific targets but surely he should have targets set for the 2030 and 2050 deadlines. The UK has 8.4 GW of solar capacity and Germany has approximately 35 GW. The Irish Solar Energy Association's chief executive, a former Deputy, Mr. Michael McCarthy, stated that the potential in Ireland was approximately 3.7 GW. Cost and the question of how it will impact on consumers are relevant issues. Has there been a cost-benefit evaluation of a subsidy for solar arrays via the public service obligation? Is such a subsidy being considered?

Regarding microgeneration, there was disappointment that the Minister did not introduce supports for the SME sector and farms. That would have encouraged wider microgeneration nationally. There seems to be great reluctance to allow microgeneration to feed into the national grid. In fact, the Minister stated that it is difficult to manage but surely that would be a task for ESB Networks.

Some supports are available for SMEs through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. Once we get microgeneration off the ground, I intend to see those supports expanded. The experience across Europe is that there are technical challenges with microgeneration. Strengthening the grid to deal with microgeneration output would require a significant amount of investment. In light of electric cars and so forth, the current trend is towards self-consumption. We can provide a cheaper and more effective solution to homeowners through microgeneration and self-consumption. We want to pilot this approach in order to determine whether it can work.

There are 658 applications to connect solar arrays to the grid. This would bring 6.533 GW to the grid. However, the current winter peak demand is 5.5 GW. As such, there is a significant oversubscription to meet existing, not to mention future, demand.

The number of proposals is extraordinary. It is welcome that the Minister and his colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government will work closely together on the planning front. When examining some of the applications, we were all struck by how one needed to cover the space of a GAA pitch plus a rugby or soccer pitch under an array just to generate 1 MW. Some 25 acres would be required to generate 5 MW. This means that there is a considerable issue regarding land use. Other issues have arisen during planning processes such as, for example, the impact on landscapes, the question of electromagnetic fields, inverters and transformers and the noise created by some of the systems that have to be used. That there have been so many applications is welcome, but the situation needs to be kept under observation.

Regarding the 2030 targets, does the Minister believe that microgeneration and solar arrays will play a fundamental role in supplying a more sustainable base load?

Yes. Microgeneration, rooftop, SME and ground-mounted solar power will form part of the energy mix over the next decade. To be honest, though, I suspect that the heavy lifting will be done offshore. This country's potential, in particular off the coast of Deputy Dooley's constituency, is significant. We need to develop that resource. We are on the cutting edge of research in that regard but we also need to be on the cutting edge in the context of deployment. We have many of the fundamental building blocks in place but we need to build on them. Solar will play a greater role in the first half of the next decade than it will in the second, when, in my view, offshore renewables will play a key role.