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Microgeneration set to play a big role in Ireland’s energy transition

Solar power set to fuel democratisation of energy

A new era in the Irish energy is about to take off. Individuals, businesses, farmers, community organisations and sports clubs will be able to install renewable energy technology and get paid for excess power they return to the grid.

“Democratisation of energy” is happening finally in Ireland whereby consumers can have a more direct role in managing their energy use and avail of the economic benefits – in this instance, by installing solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. This provides tangible environmental benefits as renewables replace fossil fuels while it significantly reduces carbon emissions.

The timing could not be better. Europe is in the throes of an energy crisis, a consequence of soaring gas prices and fallout from the Ukraine war.

The Microgeneration Support Scheme is main enabler for all this. Regulations giving effect to the Clean Export Guarantee tariff were introduced last February, allowing micro- and small-scale generators to be remunerated for excess renewable electricity exported to the grid. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities also issued eligibility criteria for access to the tariff, so it is now available to wide range of applicants.

One of the first published tariffs, set at 13.5 cents/kilowatt hour (kWh), was offered by the clean energy company Pinergy. This is the rate of payment to eligible customers selling their excess solar energy back to the company.

“This significant remuneration in the market will lead to a scaling up of microgeneration,” according to a spokesman for the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications (DECC).

Scaling up of the scheme, with the first payments due from September, coincides with changes to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) domestic solar PV grant scheme.

“These remove the requirement for a minimum post-works BER C certificate. They also increase accessibility to the scheme, by allowing homes built up to 2020 in the scheme. The extension of the scheme to the non-domestic sector will be in place from July,” he confirmed.

Successful applicants will have access to a capital grant of up to €2,400 for solar PV installations of up to 6.0kW in the SEAI non-domestic solar PV grant scheme.

Toolbox of measures

With energy price volatility persisting, DECC – which has responsibility for energy – is working on a response in line with the toolbox of additional measures recently issued by the European Union. So supports/benefits for successful applicants in the microgeneration scheme are likely to be improved in coming months.

Already there is growing demand from people wanting to invest in solar energy, now that businesses and consumers can sell excess power to the grid, according to Pinergy head of energy services Philip Connor.

Research commissioned by Pinergy (conducted by iReach) confirms the level of interest and what is driving it; 42 per cent of businesses will seriously consider investing in solar panel installations, while more than two-thirds of businesses are planning to take positive action in 2022 so they are more “sustainability focused”.

Businesses wanting to play their part in a sustainable future was the top motivating factor (66 per cent). This was followed by desire to “make the business look good” (47 per cent) and “responding to customer demands” (42 per cent).

Having acquired Solar Electric last year, Pinergy is ramping up its service offerings and capabilities to support that growing demand, he says.

A rapid rise in demand for solar comes as no surprise, Connor says, as the energy market continues to grapple with supply concerns and rising energy prices. According to the research, the cost associated with installing solar panels was the biggest barrier for businesses investing in solar, being cited by six in 10 companies.

Costs

However, costs associated with installing solar panels have come down through availability of generous SEAI grants and initiatives such as the Pinergy Micro-Gen Plan under the MSS which provides consultation, design and maintenance services. Above all, “solar energy can give businesses and individuals control over their energy supply and costs, while empowering them to reduce their environmental impact”.

Having built the company around deployment of smart technology, notably smart metering, Connor believes it has enabled Pinergy to be first mover on microgeneration.

Generating your own energy, combined with offsetting, can typically reduce electricity costs by 20 to 30 per cent. While individuals or organisations can pursue the microgeneration option themselves, in any scenario there is need to understand current usage with real-time data, and potential yield and benefits – which can vary widely depending on circumstances.

Getting the correct maximum import capacity (MIC) is essential. This is the upper limit on the total electrical demand you can place on the network system, so it should be high enough to meet the requirements but it cannot oversize your solar system. If the MIC is too high, you may be paying for more capacity than you actually require; if it’s too low, you may incur an excess capacity charge, he explains – getting it right can also ensure quicker connection to the grid.

While there can be connection delays, and businesses often have more paperwork to do, and sometimes have to seek planning permission, it’s just slowing down projects, he says.

As for the place for solar on the Irish map, Connor emphasises the need for a diversified renewable energy base where wind and solar are to the fore, complementing each other. As both are intermittent and can quickly turn off, the need for battery storage and a balanced grid is critical.

Energy communities

Emergence of “energy communities” acting as “virtual power plants” will be in the mix. Connor cites Pinergy’s partnership with a developer using solar power and battery storage, which will provide new homes with an A1 BER rating, delivering a 40-60 per cent reduction in energy costs.

Battery storage will play a key role in storing excess power when it’s available, and then using it when electricity from the grid is most expensive. Batteries are already coming down in price and becoming more efficient. In tandem with this, optimising systems factoring in conditions for renewables, while availing of smart or time-of-day tariffs, will maximise savings routinely.

Irish Solar Energy Association chief executive Conall Bolger believes microgeneration is vastly underexploited in Ireland. The capacity to cater for rooftop solar PV in every home, public building and commercial business indicates the potential to deliver a big impact.

There is no doubting Ireland’s solar energy resources, he says, while those using solar technology are invariably happy with what they are getting. In addition, “it enlists people in the battle against climate change. It’s something they can do themselves.”

Depending on system size, they can make big inroads in getting off fossil fuels and secure significant reduction in their energy bills – Bolger often describes microgeneration as “a gateway drug into other sustainable energy activities”.

He underlines the fundamental role of ESB Networks, and especially the need for it to up its game, especially in increasing the volume of connections: "We cannot do things the way we did in the past."

This, he adds, is less of an issue with residential connections but often “companies are waiting a long time to be energised”. He points to research indicating system size deployed for homes in urban and rural areas should not be an issue for the network.

At the macro level, he highlights how “every 1 kWh made in a home means you don’t have to make it elsewhere”, such as in a large power station. A small step perhaps, but one that can add up in the decarbonisation of the economy and society.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times