Although it is not known as one of the world’s sunniest destinations, Ireland is now aiming to build up to 30 solar projects over the next five years to help meet its renewable energy targets.
Electricity Supply Board (ESB), the country’s state-owned utility, says it wants to develop 100 MW of photovoltaic (PV) solar capacity in ground-mounted schemes of between 5 MW and 20 MW in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, “with the potential that this may extend to 500 MW in aggregate” by 2021.
The country has just 1 MW of installed capacity today and there are no commercial solar farms. By contrast, there is more than 8,400 MW of solar capacity installed in the UK.
Ireland has a target of 16% overall renewable energy usage by 2020, 40% of which will be met by renewable electricity, as part of EU efforts to tackle climate change. Until recently, it has focused its efforts to meet those targets via new wind capacity, of which there is more than 3,000 MW. Yet recent setbacks in developing some wind projects – including high-profile community opposition – mean that more diverse sources will be needed.
The cost of solar dropped by 80% between 2008 and 2013 and has fallen further since, making it increasingly viable even in Northern European countries such as Ireland. Developer interest is also rising, with companies such as Amarenco and the UK’s Lightsource looking to establish new solar projects in Ireland.
A recent study by KPMG suggested that the country could add 3,700 MW in solar capacity by 2030 if the government introduced a policy support mechanism. The consultancy reported that the government would need to spend about 670 million euros (US$757 million) up to 2030 to develop a domestic solar sector, but that every 1 euro spent would bring 3 euros in gross value-added to the economy. By 2030, solar would be cost-competitive without support, it added.
Increasing solar capacity would also help Ireland meet its eventual target of cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from energy by 2050, the government said in a White Paper released last year which set out a range of policies and support mechanisms to help decarbonise the sector. Current support mechanisms have been criticised for failing to incentivise renewables development properly.
KPMG says that building a solar industry in Ireland would increase energy security, cut emissions and support economic growth and jobs, as well as adding flexibility to the energy system.
At present, however, no such support exists. Ireland’s Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has said it will introduce new support mechanisms for renewables next year, but a consultation document released in July 2015 lays out no firm plans beyond the statement that “solar PV panels…should offer some possibilities in Ireland in the medium term up to 2030.”
If the government and the ESB include developers and stakeholders early on in their discussions, NewsBase believes that its 100-MW target is more than achievable – but extending this to 500 MW seems highly unlikely in the current policy environment.