Solar energy could provide a bright future for Ireland’s 2020 targets
13 December 2016
All eyes are on the renewable energy sector as 2020 approaches, to see whether the Irish Government can meet its renewable energy targets of 16 per cent of all energy generated from renewable sources. These targets include contributions from transport (RES-T), electricity (RES-E) and heat (RES-H).
Industry and Government experts expect that these targets will not be met, due to the lack of development in the transport and heat sectors. Consequently, the renewable electricity generation sector must contribute more to achieve the overall objective of reducing CO2 emissions.
The recently published report from the Environmental Protection Agency, Ireland’s Environment: An Assessment 2016, is scathing of Ireland’s track record and more needs to be done at a policy level to ensure Ireland transitions to a low carbon economy.
Solar energy will prove essential in diversifying our energy portfolio. In 2014, wind contributed 19 per cent to the electricity generation portfolio; however, wind alone will not enable the country to move towards a low-carbon future. Tidal and wave technologies are currently developing commercial operating platforms, but with limited success.
Photovoltaic (PV) technology has been in existence since its development by NASA in the space race in the 1950s. However, it is only now that utility-scale projects are commercially viable, due to the reduction in costs from $70/watt in the 1970s to $0.45/watt today.
Successful solar projects are currently being developed by our neighbours in Scotland and Northern Ireland and the time is now to seize the opportunity to deploy this extremely versatile and proven technology.
There have been over 500 applications submitted to ESB Networks for connection of solar farms in the Republic of Ireland, totalling over 4,000MW since May 2015. It is estimated that 1500MW is achievable by 2022, which equates to 5 per cent of Ireland’s electricity demand.
Land options (solar lease agreements) are being signed across the country from Cork to Leitrim and, with the continued submission of planning applications, all elements with the exception of one are in place to see a thriving new industry. The solar industry in Ireland is now calling on the Government to commit financial support to solar projects to ensure we avoid fines in the region of €300 million a year should our renewable energy targets not be met.
Solar market worldwide – how Ireland compares
The worldwide total installed capacity of 229GW at the end of 2015, up from 1.2GW in the year 2000, shows a significant increase in the deployment of solar. Between 2014 and 2015, there was a 30 per cent increase alone and by 2020, it is expected that there will be in excess of 700GW installed.
European projections show increases from 80GW in 2014 to 170GW by 2020. The graph (right) shows the phenomenal increase in solar PV installations in the UK over the last five years due to government incentives. The total installed capacity in the UK now stands at 11.3GW as of July 2016. Domestic rooftop installations (<4kw) accounted for 2.5GW across 890k installations and utility scale (>5MW) accounts for 5.4 GW across 3,300 installations.
The rapid deployment of solar PV throughout the world in the last few years can be attributed to many factors, but two of the main factors include a drop in module price from $70/watt in 1970 to $0.45/watt today and also government subsidies.
Government subsidies are common place for renewable energy to help compete against established gas, oil and coal plants which over the decades have themselves benefited from government subsidies.
Ireland has a total peak demand of approximately 5,000 MW (or 29TWH annually) and is highly dependent on imported fossil fuels. Last year, Ireland imported over 90 per cent of its energy supply. The country spent €6.9 billion internationally in 2013 to supply the fuel required to power our coal- and gas-burning stations, as well as importing biomass fuels to assist in the burning of peat at power stations around the country.
The demand for electricity is concentrated on the east coast, with its large population and increasing industrial output. The emergence of data centres on the periphery of the M50 and the proposed new facility in Athenry will put further pressure on the system operators to meet electricity demand with generation.
The new Apple data centre in Galway will have a demand three times the size of Intel, which to date has been the largest user of electricity in the country. These data centres and foreign direct investment are leading the way by ensuring that large portions of their energy demand comes from renewable-energy sources and have contracted with large energy suppliers through power purchase agreements (PPAs).
Another avenue for these larger energy users is a direct connection between these plants and solar projects, which is currently prohibited under current Irish legislation. This connection method is successfully used in Northern Ireland, where Belfast Airport is now connected directly to a nearby solar farm.
Incentives for solar technology in Ireland
Should this type of arrangement be implemented in Ireland, many more projects and sites will become viable. The added advantage of this arrangement is that it would reduce pressure on the national electricity grid by allowing large-demand customers reduce their requirement to import energy from the grid network and effectively produce on-site or nearby electricity.
Ireland’s legislators need to consider alternatives to the status quo and look at alternative ways of supporting the decarbonising of our electricity system.
It is envisioned that the future for electricity generation in Ireland and Europe is a blended mix of thermal plant, wind, solar and storage technologies supported by European and Irish Government.
Recent calls on the Government to close large fossil-burning stations are welcomed by the renewable industry and could facilitate the diversion of the €136 million of annual subsidies paid to these plants to more sustainable sources of electricity supplies such as solar.
A typical solar farm will be made up of the following
- Solar array: series of solar panels laid out in lines across a field;
- Inverters: the inverter will take the electrical energy from the panels and convert it from direct current to alternating current;
- Transformers: these can be contained within the housing of the inverter and will convert the energy to a voltage which the grid operators can use;
- Substation: the substation is the point of connection between ESB/EirGrid and the solar farm and will contain a series of switches and disconnects to isolate the farm from the main electricity network; and
- Grid connection: the substation is then connected to the national grid via an underground cable or an overhead line.
Panel, inverters and support structures
Solar panels are made of either silicon or thin film technology. Silicon panels are categorised into two types: monocrystalline and polycrystalline, which differ on account of the manufacturing process.
Monocrystalline panels are created by cutting ingots of silicon while polycrystalline panels are produced by melting raw silicon into square moulds. Monocrystalline panels are more efficient, but tend to be more expensive. The majority of panels used last year in the UK were polycrystalline panels.
Thin film technology involves using a material such as cadium telluride (CdTe) as the semiconductor mounted on a substrate of coated glass, metal or plastic. The light absorbing layer typically has a thickness of 1 micron as opposed to 350 microns for a silicon layer.
The selection of panel type will come down to cost/m2 vs output. There is strong competition in the market with companies such as First Solar in the US vying for position against Chinese silicon manufactures. Both technologies will likely be widely deployed across Ireland in the coming years.
Electricity produced by PV panels is in the form of direct current and inverters are necessary to change the current to alternating so that it can be used on the Irish electricity grid.
Larger or central inverters typically the size of 20-foot containers will convert 1MW of energy. An alternative smaller device mounted to the back of the support structures is now emerging in recent years. These smaller devises are known as string inverters and allow for more control over the solar farm’s output.
This will become very useful in Ireland, where land parcels are smaller and shading from trees will be a greater issue than on projects in the UK.
Central inverters are favoured by operating and maintenance teams. However, more technical staff are required to service them. String inverters can be changed out with less down time with the potential for greater output as a result.
The support structures for solar farms are very straightforward and are the reason why solar farms can typically be built in under three months. A galvanised steel post is driven into the ground every three to five metres, with either an aluminium or steel frame bolted on to allow the panels be fitted. Systems are deployed depending on the configuration of panels, two in portrait versus four in landscape.
Over 90 applications have now been submitted to local authorities for planning consents for solar farms. A number have now achieved full grant of planning, while others are being requested for additional information prior to a decision being made. An Bord Pleanála has decided in favour of the four projects decided to date and provided clear guidance on relevant and immaterial issues.
Typical applications are for 20-30 acre farms. However, some larger ones, including a 250-acre site in Offaly, will be of interest to many in the industry in the months ahead.
Key aspects of the planning applications include landscape and visual assessments, which have proven to be minor, as solar farms typically will be no taller than 3m and can be well screened using existing hedge rows.
Other key elements of the applications are glint and glare assessments which detail the potential impact on nearby receptors along with ecology and archaeological assessments.
An important consideration in the selection of sites is the proximity to the local substation, as current requirements necessitate the direct connection to the local grid network. This is unlike the UK and Germany, where access can be provided by direct connection to an overhead line that crosses a site.
The result of such policy is that sites need to be sited within close proximity to towns with the potential risk for greater objection from communities.
Planning permission for solar farms has been very positive, as local authorities look to support solar projects as part of their overall objective is supporting renewable-energy projects across the various counties.
Opportunity in Ireland
The solar resource in Ireland is very similar to Northern Germany and the UK, where over 52GW has been installed since 2005. Uncertainty of the suitability of the Irish climate for solar project can now be quashed, following successful operational project in Scotland near Perth developed by Elgin Energy. Further developments are in construction in Northern Ireland and will be operational by end of Q1 2017.
Access to the grid is key to succeeding in this market and, although there are numerous projects proposed for the south of the country, many will never be developed due to grid constraints. In one example, some 11 projects have been proposed to be connected to a single 38 kV substation in Wexford when in reality only one or two will get a viable grid-connection offer from ESB.
Installations of solar PV in Ireland have been limited until now to small-scale domestic installations, with only a small number of medium-sized installations located around the country. Ireland can generate 1,500MW of solar in advance of 2020, provided a suitable feed in tariff rate is ratified by mid-2017.
Ireland has set a target of 40 per cent of all electricity consumed by end of 2020 must be met by renewable sources. The Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) directed ESB and EirGrid in 2009 under Gate 3 to issue 4000MW of connections to windfarm applications.
Many of these connections will now not be realised, due to planning restrictions and also the lack of transmission infrastructure in place to transport the energy to the east coast where the electricity demand exists.
Solar-energy projects have proven over the last year, that they can achieve planning closer to points of connection to the electricity grid and can therefore be deployed across the country, utilising the existing network and without significant upgrades to the electricity system and associated costs to the end user.
Solar Resource in Ireland and Europe
|Location||Solar Resource (kwh/m2)|
|Carrick on Shannon, Leitrim||1,040|
It is expected that the Irish Government will announce a support structure for all future renewable-energy projects in 2017, following the Department of Energy’s consultation process on a future support structure that commenced in September 2015.
A second round of consultation is expected in late 2016 to early 2017, which will help clarify the structure of support and provide certainty to investors who are looking to support solar-energy projects. Following the publication of the Government’s White Paper on Energy, there is now a realistic expectation that solar energy will be supported in Ireland in the near future.
Ireland is now in a unique position to take advantage of solar technology, following on from the successful deployment of over 12GW in the UK in the past few years. The industry has matured across Europe and installations are becoming more sophisticated.
With looming deadlines and the need to seek alternatives, solar PV can provide a much needed boost to the renewable industry and assist the country in meeting and exceeding its commitment to meet climate change.
Author: Michael Moore is a charted engineer with Elgin Energy, an Irish-based solar development company with experience in developing 200MW of solar PV projects in the UK. Elgin Energy is a leading solar-development company in Ireland, with proposals to develop in excess of 700MW across the island. See www.elgin-energy.com for more.
-  Solar Power Europe – Global Market Outlook 2014
-  GTM Research
-  Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy UK
-  SEAI Energy Ireland 2013 Highlights
-  Ireland consumed 2081ktoe of electricity in 2013. 1ktoe equates to 1,163,000kwh. Typically 1kwp installation will produce 915kwh in Ireland.
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