Ireland is in the throes of an unlikely solar revolution. Within a relatively short period, solar has become the country’s fastest-growing renewable power source. Almost 60,000 residential homes have solar panels on their rooftops – and 500 houses are being connected to the grid every week.
A multiplicity of favourable factors behind this kicked in during 2020-2021, confirmed since then with record grid connections by householders, businesses and big international solar companies.
This all culminated in solar delivering 10 per cent of the country’s electricity on a sunny May day this year. It coincides with the technology being continually enhanced, driven by innovation and increasing efficiency. This means even a dull Irish day can deliver significant quantities of solar power, while thousands of homes can feed excess electricity from their installations onto the grid and get paid for it.
The term “solar panel” is often used interchangeably to describe panels generating electricity and those generating hot water. The former are photovoltaic (PV) modules and are best suited to Ireland. The latter work best in places with year-round sunshine, though technological enhancements mean they can be deployed here. Solar PV generates power during daylight hours, with about 75 per cent of its energy produced between May and September.
But the road to this point has been far from smooth. In critical early years when this renewable option was emerging, agents of the State failed to see its potential and refused to fund research, despite EU pleading.
Since then, businesses, farmers and householders have encountered endless bureaucracy, restrictive planning rules and interminable delays in getting grid connections. More recently, these blockages have largely been addressed, including removal of VAT and scaling up of grants.
When we announced that we wanted to reach 5 gigawatts – ie 5,000MW – by 2025, people said we were mad— Eamon Ryan, Minister for Environment and Climate
The Irish Solar Energy Association (ISEA) has charted solar’s remarkable growth and impact in easing dependence on fossil fuels, and our precarious lack of energy security. The country’s burgeoning solar capacity is delivering 600,000 megawatt hours of electricity a year – equivalent to power for a city the size of Belfast. This saves 202,000 tonnes of carbon annually – equivalent to 1.4 billion kilometres of driving in a fossil-fuelled car.
We are at the point where solar could deliver up to 20 per cent of Ireland’s electricity at certain hours this summer, “which is incredible”, according to energy analyst Dr Paul Deane of UCC. “If we were having this conversation three to four years ago, I would be laughing at you.”
Current capacity is 700 megawatts (MW), equivalent to two gas-fired power plants when the sun shines, he says. On an optimum day we can take one, maybe two, power plants off-grid, because enough energy is being produced naturally. With output set to increase eight-fold by 2030, Deane admits he underestimated the surge.
The clincher was: “As energy prices increased, the cost of solar panels went down; we have crossed that sweet spot.” There was always a clear environmental case for solar across the world; “now it makes economic sense”. The combination of “a horrible war in Ukraine and the energy crisis” provided the jump-start, though green shoots were evident before that.
Critical to this was removal of barriers by the Government, which reduced paperwork and eased planning rules – especially for residential solar – “making it easy for people to do the right thing”.
A typical household could reduce their electricity bills by €450 per year, and if done at scale Ireland could meet one-quarter of household electricity needs, a study by UCC’s MaREI Research Centre found last year. It examined every rooftop in Ireland using satellite data and found more than 1 million homes have roof space and orientation suitable for 10 solar panels.
With next to no bills from May to September, Deane says payback on investment is considerably less than 10 years, enabling householders involved to have 15 years of generating their own electricity for free – based on a 25-year lifespan.
Solar power is taking off like a rocket, says Minister for Environment and Climate Eamon Ryan, who has responsibility for energy. “When we announced that we wanted to reach 5 gigawatts [GW] – ie 5,000MW – by 2025, people said we were mad. But, this year, we will produce 1GW. Next year we will have 2GW, and I have no doubt but that we will increase this again in 2025.”
Enhanced grants for businesses will typically support 20 to 30 per cent of the investment, making it easier for them to reduce energy costs and decarbonise, Ryan says. The scheme is also available for public buildings, sports clubs and community organisations.
This transition away from expensive, insecure and polluting fossil fuels to clean, cheaper and more secure renewables is moving at an exponential rate, Ryan believes. “In May just gone, for the first full month on record, wind and solar produced more EU electricity than fossil fuels. In Ireland, one third of our electricity was produced from wind power last year and this too is only going one way... Even in cloudy Ireland, I see no reason why solar power cannot provide the same type of green energy boost.”
Based on watts per capita, Ireland will be on par with Germany and the Netherlands by 2025, predicts ISEA chief executive Conall Bolger. The Government’s 2023 climate plan “has put us in the solar vanguard” – our 2030 target of 8GW matches the ambition of the largest solar producer in the world, Australia.
There is a pipeline of “utility-scale” projects greater than 5MW in size. The State-supported auction process provides a route to market, while good companies are seeking to get into rooftop solar under an improving policy framework that includes microgeneration.
Bolger believes payback for domestic solar “is now closer to five years” and in some commercial circumstances is just 18-24 months – at a time of a punishing energy crisis. It’s about taking control and reducing risk on energy price, he adds, though with domestic solar “it’s not so much for the money, but a point of principle” in helping to green the grid.
The payments system is in its early days, necessitating use of smart meters, which is not always seamless. As a service industry, work needs to be done on a proper architecture for participants, he says. He is more worried about commercial rooftop, which may still be lumbered with unnecessary requirements.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the National Microelectronics Research Centre, established in UCC by a small team led by electronic engineer Prof Gerry Wrixon. It was a seedbed for solar in Ireland and was to become the Tyndall National Institute, a leading research facility in photonics and electronics. When set up in 1983, similar centres emerged in Europe.
Wrixon always had an interest in innovative solar cells, while the EU was anxious to progress matters through large PV pilot projects. But they did not secure public funding “because our civil servants thought it was a non-starter”, he confirms. “Unfortunately, nobody was interested in solar energy back then. We had ‘a come to Jesus moment’ and had to tell them we were unable to get money.”
Undaunted, they embarked on Fotavoltaic, a 50kW PV system on the UCC farm on Fota Island to power pumps, coolers and milking machines. It was the largest solar project in Ireland or the UK under the initiative. There was some political interest, notably from Charlie Haughey and Hugh Coveney (father of current Minister for Enterprise Simon Coveney), who as mayor of Cork opened the facility.
Ironically, Wrixon notes, it is not fully appreciated that Ireland has an advantage over most of Europe in that solar efficiency not only depends on sunlight but also ambient temperature. “Ours is lower than most other countries. It gives an extra boost to photovoltaics.” There is a loss of efficiency at 25 degrees plus.
Island projects were also pursued, recognising solar’s potential in replacing inefficient lead acid batteries. This started with brothers Jim and Mike Casey living on Beginish Island in Valentia harbour, who used to row across to the mainland for Sunday Mass and to charge up their battery.
They installed four panels on their roof, enough to power a television and low-voltage lights. Asked later about their impact, Wrixon recalls the brothers said the panels meant they could detect a change in wind direction during a storm from the whistle in the roof, but that shifting from trying to light oil lamps to flicking a switch was the biggest change.
After delivering a paper on solar power in the RDS, Haughey approached him about putting an installation on Inishvickillane, his island off the Kerry coast. They set it up and it became “the most reliable energy-producing equipment out there”.
The old AEG-Telefunken panel had 4 per cent efficiency; nowadays it is typically over 25 per cent and the panel area has shrunk by a factor of five. Wrixon has long had rooftop solar PV and has replaced 5kW panels with 9kW panels, which provide a lot of power from March to October, with half used for domestic purposes and the remainder going to the ESB.
While there is much talk of a revolution, he believes Ireland has some way to go; especially in exploiting its potential in the agriculture sector, and in developing ancillary industries such as those using sophisticated electronics in, for instance, recharging EVs where excess power is available. He was part of a microgeneration initiative evaluating how best to get solar onto the grid and avoid problems in having too much renewable power in areas where infrastructure is not able to take it.
It took farmer Michael Quirk 12 years to build a wind farm on his land in Cloyne, Co Cork, and in 2014 he sought to put in an adjoining solar facility. It was “energised” last December after almost nine years of frustration, delay and uncertainty. He was motivated by belief that farmers can make a contribution to meeting the climate challenge and deliver renewables to their local communities.
He is “having a good summer” with his 25-acre 25.2MW south-facing installation. Asked whether getting it completed it was torture, he replies: “It was an experience; like most nightmares, when you wake up, you get on with your day.We are trading power. The economics of it are okay.” The Ukraine war changed everything, he adds, with high power prices including renewables, and he doesn’t think they will fall back.
While he encountered rising costs and is left with an overriding feeling that it’s expensive to do business in Ireland, positives won out over negatives – especially in companies he chose to progress the development. But the marketplace has changed since 2014, Quirk believes, as much bigger projects have pushed out smaller ones – “they are too large for a country of our size”.
There are many known actions that would facilitate renewables decarbonising faster. We simply need all stakeholders to pull together and deliver these— Conall Bolger, Irish Solar Energy Association
Having the Greens in Government and having an understanding within Ryan’s department of solar’s potential was critical to getting projects built, he says. He would tell visiting farmers that projects of his size had become impossible to build. He is more optimistic now “because of a better financial structure for smaller stuff”, though the community element is not fully there.
The conditions are set for the revolution to roar on. Solar complements wind in Ireland; when one is at a high level of generation, the other is usually low, and vice versa. Panels could soon become much better at capturing sunlight, as combining silicon-based solar cells with novel materials such as perovskite layers is opening up the possibility of unprecedented efficiency.
In pushing the case for developers, Bolger cites immediate challenges threatening progress, including “a series of vital policy decisions that have been inexplicably put on the long finger”.
He acknowledges grid provider EirGrid’s latest iteration of its Shaping our Electricity Future strategy in detailing what’s necessary, but says grid issues are “probably the primary blocker, especially for utility-scale projects”. His emphatic message is: “Stop talking about it; construct the highways”, for a robust network.
“EirGrid have provided a blueprint which details one pathway to reaching Ireland’s solar targets... It is clear urgent action and investment at scale is required. We need to invest in our electricity network so it is fit for a 21st century purpose, and ready to cater for the anticipated influx of renewable electricity supply. Society and the political system should support this investment so that we can decarbonise.”
Planning must give way to implementation, he underlines. “It’s nearly 2024. We have passed the halfway point of the first carbon budget. The first climate action plan is now four years old. There are many known actions that would facilitate renewables decarbonising faster. We simply need all stakeholders to pull together and deliver these.”
That includes better use of the grid we have by being smarter in getting more capacity, rather than the current approach of seeking to maximise renewables while minimising demand, which Bolger says is “like planning for a windy, sunny night”.
That said, he acknowledges tangible progress. “The increasing prominence of solar energy in Ireland marks a significant milestone in our journey toward a sustainable and carbon-neutral future. With each passing day, we witness the profound impact that solar energy has on our society, economy and environment.”