An Bord Pleanála has upheld a decision by Wexford County Council to refuse an application for the development of one of Ireland's largest solar farms spanning more than 200 acres.
The project, put forward by Dublin-based developer Highfield Solar Limited, is so vast that it would spread across seven townlands in and around Ballybrennan, Co Wexford.
Together with Co Cork, Wexford has received the highest number of applications for solar farms to date, with an explosion of applications in 2016.
Highfield Solar leads the way in planning applications across Ireland.
The company has lodged more than 20 applications since the start of 2016, with an estimated grid capacity of more than 250MW. Under prime conditions this could potentially power 75,000 homes for a year.
A joint venture between Highfield Energy Solutions and the UK-based Aura Power, it has made the three largest planning applications in Ireland to date in terms of both land use and electricity generation capacity.
The company recently had two other Wexford County Council decisions overturned by An Bord Pleanála (ABP) for a 31-acre solar farm near Enniscorthy and a near 50-acre site in Clonroche.
In this case, the planning authority sided with the council’s original decision that the development would be “contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area”.
The council refused permission last August, saying support for increasing the mix of renewables in the county was not provided “carte blanche”.
The planning report details concern with glint and glare from the solar panels due to the elevated nature of the proposed location, noting “particular concern from a traffic-safety perspective”.
The council is also concerned that the development could have a detrimental impact on the landscape and visual amenities of the area.
The decision was also influenced by a “lack of guidance at national, regional and local level” as to the appropriate location and scale of solar projects.
The lack of clarity on policy guidelines and financial support for the solar industry has led to disquiet among many developers. It was recently announced that a second public consultation on a new financial support scheme for renewables would not arrive until mid-2017, with a support framework not expected until early 2018.
In late January 2017, Offaly County Council granted Highfield conditional permission for Clonin North Solar Farm, potentially the largest solar farm in Ireland at 238 acres.
The solar farm has the potential to generate up to 50MW, with the company's grid application currently being processed by the ESB.
This development could be surpassed by another Highfield proposal for a 370-acre project close to Duleek, Co Meath. The solar farm would be capable of generating between 60MW and 75MW.
A decision is now due from Meath County Council this month.
According to the Irish Farmers’ Association, about 20,000 acres of farmland are currently under option agreement with solar developers linked to these applications.
It is widely accepted in the industry, however, that many grid applications across the country are purely speculative and the whole pipeline of projects won’t be built out.
The Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) has recently said the scale of applications "far exceeds what can be practically and effectively delivered", adding that there was "significant uncertainty" about how many of these projects would go ahead.
Several members of the Highfield Energy team have experience in the wind industry, such as director Peter Kavanagh. He is the former managing director of Wind Prospect Ireland, responsible for constructing more than 20 per cent of Ireland’s installed wind energy capacity.