THE VISION PAINTED by the world’s leading climate scientists was bleak. The spiralling trajectory of our planet’s climate breakdown outlined in a landmark 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report could only be halted by total systemic change.
Here at home, there was hope we would rise to the challenge. The Greens were elected to a coalition government that showed climate ambition across a string of policies peppering the Programme for Government.
The citizen was outlined as central to the energy revolution, with plans to increase rooftop solar and pay those selling excess electricity back to the national grid.
Thirteen years and several governments later, however, and Ireland is still languishing toward the bottom of the EU solar charts while many European colleagues – both south and north – excelled, offering a streamlined and simplified system of financial, regulatory and administrative support.
We are now staring down the barrel of strict EU legal requirements to put a robust system in place by next summer to support citizens and communities to both produce energy at home for self-consumption and sell it back to the grid at a fair market price.
Plans to achieve the targets are laid out in the Climate Action Plan, with a special multi-agency and department-led working group established last autumn to design policy to achieve the targets and set a lasting solar legacy for Ireland that has the citizen at its core.
Over the past few months, Noteworthy took a deep dive into this space, combing through hundreds of pages of research and policy papers, many released through Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) requests, to piece together the key blockages that stopped us from reaching the heights of our EU neighbours.
We also spoke with energy experts, community groups and citizens seeking to play their climate role, finding that the following unresolved issues have left us facing a ticking clock to meet the upcoming EU deadline:
- Lack of a simple long-term payment for excess electricity sold back to the grid
- Outdated regulations that require planning permission for solar above a certain size
- Delays in the rollout of smart meters – critical to accurately measure energy exports
- ESB Networks’ concerns over the impact of small-scale solar on the electricity grid
- Gaps in research in the smart grid – key to future community-led energy systems
Noteworthy also analysed dozens of records obtained through AIE requests that give the inside track on the Microgeneration Working Group (MGWG) and the direction in which future policy looks to be heading.
Decades waiting on a revolution
Plans are afoot to set out a long-term strategy to decarbonise our electricity sector – long supplied by imported fossil fuels and indigenous peat. One of the key moves is to ensure that 70% of electricity comes from renewable sources by 2030.
While wind power will play a predominant role – it now accounts for over 30% of annual production – solar will also have its day.
Ground-mounted solar will play a big part, but small-scale rooftop solar will also have a future as the government moves to meet an EU deadline to support energy prosumers – those both producing for self-consumption and selling excess electricity back to the grid – by June 2021.
There is a long way to go to match the solar ambition of many of our European allies set in motion in the mid to late-2000s. While we possess one of the highest rates of private homes suitable for solar in the EU, we have one of the lowest levels in the bloc.
According to ESB Networks, the best available data indicates that there are around 30,000 domestic solar installations – just over 1% of household electricity consumers.
So what allowed other counties to excel, while Ireland languished in the background. While there have been supports for solar via grants and tax incentives, the key factor missing according to many experts who spoke to Noteworthy was a feed-in-tariff.
Financial support for microgeneration
In a nutshell, feed-in-tariffs provide a guaranteed, long-term payment for excess electricity you can’t use at home that is then fed back into the electricity grid for use elsewhere.
A more market-based solution where electricity suppliers develop deals for customers was favoured here for small-small solar after the energy regulator, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU), set out the grounds for microgenerators to sell electricity in 2007.
The system was not changed despite the findings in a detailed 2010 microgeneration report from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) released to Noteworthy that:
“It is not clear that the benefits delivered by small-scale generation technologies are rewarded via market arrangements.”
A recent EU survey of prosumers found that direct compensation was a key factor in deciding to install solar. Saving money on energy bills and benefiting from incentives are “still top drivers in most of the mature markets”, the survey found.
Ireland is no different. A 2018 SEAI survey found that the cost of installation and future financial benefits are key factors considered by potential solar installers.
This is reflected in the uptake of an SEAI pilot grant scheme launched in July 2018 that offers a one-off payment to support purchase of solar panels, covering roughly a quarter of the costs.
The latest data shows increasing public interest, with 71 applicants paid in 2018, rising to 1,827 in 2019 and 1,589 up to the end of July this year.
Feed-in tariff ‘the secret behind German success’
An SEAI review of feed-in-tariff options from January 2011 had already pointed to the important role of tariffs in increasing user interest, such as in Germany, whose system is often cited as the gold standard for a strong solar support model.
In the early 2000s, the Parliament introduced legislation to support renewable energy, including in a 20-year guaranteed solar feed-in-tariff that was the “secret behind the German success”, according to Hans-Josef Fell, the Green politician who crafted the law.
Fell, a former physics teacher, told Noteworthy that this allowed new smaller players to enter the market.
“Ninety-five percent of renewable investment in our state until 2016 was made by decentralised actors, new actors, by the people, by farmers.”
Dr Louise Fitzgerald, an Irish Research Council-funded researcher who has examined German solar policy as part of her work on sustainable energy transitions, said that the long-term nature of the tariff was “important as an enabler of citizen-centred energy transitions”, making solar accessible to people who didn’t have the funds to go it alone.
A key part of any energy transition journey, she said, is to “build pathways through the status quo” and that, in order to do so, “you need a relatively long timeframe” of guaranteed support.
“That was the key to the success of any transition in Germany because when you look at the data, overwhelmingly, the installations of renewable energy in Germany has come from private people, from citizen cooperatives, from smaller enterprises.”
Irish solar pioneers left in the lurch
Apart from the Electric Ireland scheme – due to expire soon – and new Glanbia support for dairy farmers, there are no direct export supports available to small-scale Irish solar installers and, therefore, very little incentive to install panels.
In addition, many homeowners with panels have meters installed with the capacity to measure the electricity exported, but don’t get paid for anything that spills onto the grid.
One of them is Siobhan Kinahan who recently made the decision to install panels and get an electric car with her husband from money left to them by his father after he passed away.
While receiving financial reward wasn’t a motivational factor for Roscommon-based Kinahan, she said that “one big gripe” she has is the lack of a feed-in-tariff as she often ends up exporting half of what she produces to the grid.
“I wouldn’t look at it as a return on investment but I feel that having gone through the expense and time of putting in a solar system, you should get something back from it,” she said.
Another example of an eco-conscious solar pioneer left out of pocket is Kenneth Keavey of Green Earth Organics who installed a large rooftop solar array in 2018 with support under an organic farming grant scheme.
The vegetable farmer told Noteworthy that it was a “natural progression” to produce clean energy to power the refrigeration system at the farm in Galway.
While easy to install the panels, Keavey raised a “point of contention” with ESB Networks over delays in installing his meter which meant that, for several months, he could not send his export readings to his energy supplier to offset against the farm’s electricity bill.
Despite this bump in the road, Keavey maintained that putting panels on your roof “is a no-brainer” but understands that the absence of a direct payment model will see most farmers staying away.
‘Appetite from farmers’ for action
Despite assurances from politicians and civil servants over the years, James Murphy, renewables chair of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) from 2014 to 2018, told Noteworthy that the government has yet to make any meaningful effort to meet the “appetite from farmers” to install rooftop solar.
The Tipperary farmer said that a feed-in-tariff would “let the steam out of the pressure cooker” that Irish farmers are working in as profit margins shrink in most sectors.
“It wasn’t just about renewable energy production [in other European countries], it was about supporting local communities and farming families, giving them an opportunity.”
There is now installation support for the 17,000 dairy and 2,500 pig and poultry farms dotted across the country under the Targeted Agriculture Modernisation Schemes (TAMS) for farm equipment. Glanbia also recently partnered with SSE Airtricity to offer dairy farmers an annual solar power export rebate.
The TAMS system does not appear to be working well, however, according to minutes of a meeting last November between the Department of Agriculture and the Micro Renewable Energy Federation (MREF) that represents solar manufacturers, suppliers and installers.
MREF pointed to a lack of interest in the scheme due to excessive paperwork and limits on size of the solar panels. TAMS data seen by Noteworthy shows that only 86 solar applications were received in 2019 and 2020, with 20 approved to date.
There are also grant limits under TAMS, with many dairy farmers using their allowance to buy expensive milking equipment, leaving them without enough allowances left to also install solar panels. This has impacted the Glanbia scheme.
The company raised its concerns with the Department at a meeting last July where its proposal for a separate funding pot for solar was refused as the rules for the scheme are set under the EU co-funded Rural Development Programme.
In a statement, the Department said that “the position remains that there is no provision for a separate measure for solar PV” but that changes were made to increase the limit on solar installation sizes for grant support.
Support system still to be decided
A draft discussion paper from the Microgeneration Working Group released to Noteworthy reveals that it is edging toward bringing in some form of support payment for microgeneration on top of market-based export payments for farmers, businesses and homeowners.
The draft from May 2020 concludes that a market payment is “the minimum that must be delivered through the Micro-generation Support Scheme” and that this measure alone is less attractive than the existing pilot SEAI grant scheme. The paper states that market-driven payment alone:
“…represents a low ambition, compliance driven scenario which is likely to substantially reduce the number of new retrofit installations of Solar PV due to the viability gap between the cost of the installation versus the remuneration and own-use retail electricity savings.”
The draft paper outlines a potential payment option for electricity generated by rooftop solar to go on top of the market-driven export payment, concluding that an economic and policy analysis must be carried out “in order to complete this section”.
The Department of Climate Action has since put out a request for tender for this work. It said in a statement that options will then be put forward in a public consultation later this year. It added that a “suitable support payment for excess electricity… will be available to all micro-generators by 2021”.
What is clear for the moment is that a system to record import and export data must be in place by next year in order to comply with EU law. Key to this is a complex €1.2 billion programme to roll out 2.4 million smart meters by 2024.
Meters rolling out slowly
The energy regulator launched the first phase of the smart meter programme in late 2007 and a positive cost-benefit analysis (CBA) in 2011 found that 80% of consumers could be equipped with a new meter by 2020.
Smart meters can communicate information over the 2G network and provide both homeowners and electricity suppliers with granular real-time data on electricity usage every 30 minutes that should ensure accurate market prices for exports.
While the concept is fairly simple, the route to the installation of the first meter is incredible complex and requires interaction with various stakeholders across a range of areas such as procurement, customer engagement and, importantly, information technology as the largest technology project in ESB Network’s history.
It is not surprising, then, that the road has been bumpy and that the programme was delayed in 2016 due to procurement and technical issues.
While the CRU outlined its general concerns to Irish media at the time, a memo to the Department of Climate Action in November 2016 released to Noteworthy reveals the regulator’s concerns in stark terms as it stated that the delay “would be expected to result in sanction / fines being applied”.
Benefits to consumers ‘delayed’ and ‘deferred’
The memo outlines delays in the upgrade of ESB Networks’ sales and information system to make them compatible with smart meters, as well as procurement and technical issues that led the regulator to carry out a “comprehensive re-plan”.
The regulator requested ESB Networks to submit updated plans by May 2016 but did not receive anything until August at which stage it “introduced alternative approaches from those previously agreed and understood within the programme”, the memo states.
“ESBN have proposed a four-year rollout programme for smart meters concluding Q1 2026… [and] a much reduced pre-deployment [of smart meters that] would impact the CBA by delaying the point at which a critical mass of meters was deployed,” the memo reads.
The regulator added that benefits for energy consumers “will be delayed and the opportunity to allow the consumer to boost energy efficiency and save money deferred”.
A second cost-benefit analysis was subsequently carried out in 2017 and a new phased approach agreed that would see the programme pushed back for completion between 2019 and 2024, including a tempered roll out of 250,000 meters by the end of 2020.
A heavily redacted version of ESB Group’s 2018 Risk Plan released to Noteworthy also outlines the ESB’s own concerns about the “reputational and financial risk” resulting from the potential failure to meet the 250,000 target by 2020.
The programme appears to largely back on track, however, and installations under the new phased approach did begin as planned in late 2019.
In June, the ESB board expressed satisfaction with progress to date. A recent internal audit report also found that there is “a robust and effective planning process in place” with a well-defined project structure, roles and responsibilities.
Despite this progress, the programme hit another roadblock recently, one that has affected us all, as Covid-19 halted installations between March and May this year.
An internal ESB email from 5 June 2020 released to Noteworthy states that installations have restarted in select parts of countries Cork, Dublin, Laois and Meath. The email states that 51,549 meters were installed by the end of May.
In an update to the ESB Board in June 2020, ESB Networks indicated that it will be liable to a penalty of €7.5m if less than 150,000 meters are installed by the end of 2020.
It said in a statement that it forecasts 200,000 meters will be installed by the end of the year. It added that it is confident that it can “absorb the shortfall over the remaining phases of the programme without affecting the overall timeline”.
Planning permission blocking progress
Many experts told Noteworthy that outdated planning regulations are another key blockage to rooftop solar.
While permission is largely not required in more mature European markets, Irish homeowners need planning where panels take up more than 12 square meters or 50% of the roof area. This essentially limits households to seven panels.
A recent analysis by the SEAI found that this only meets 35% of the average home’s electricity demand and even less in the home of the future with heat pumps and electric vehicles.
Any step above this threshold opens citizens up to the potential for legal action, as was the case with Asia Pasinska, who moved from Poland 20 years ago with dreams of a self-sufficient life in the countryside.
For now, the mother-of-three is living in a house in Gouldavoher Estate in Limerick that she bought in 2016 with plans to turn it into an energy efficient home.
The key component to her eco-friendly model, she told Noteworthy, were the 21 second-hand solar panels installed on her rooftop in May 2017.
Within a month, however, her plans hit a major snag after a neighbour complained and asked Limerick County Council to investigate if Pasinska was in breach of planning regulations. What followed over the next 16 months, Pasinska claimed, was like a “psychological war”.
‘I felt like a criminal’
Documents released to Noteworthy by Limerick County Council show various warning and enforcement notices, a series of back and forth emails with the Council in a bid to resolve the matter, a failed bid for retention permission and the removal of 14 panels that ended up sitting in her attic or under the back shed.
The case proceeded to Limerick District Court in September 2018 after she refused an offer from the Council to drop the case if she paid certain legal fees. In a statement, the Council said it is “normal procedure” to offer to withdraw a case where there is compliance with the enforcement notice and once legal costs are paid.
While she lost the case, she appealed her failed bid for planning retention to An Bord Pleanála. The planning authority decided in July 2019 that the 21 panel set-up was “in accordance with the proper planning and sustainable development of the area”.
While all 21 panels are now back in place, Pasinska said she “felt like a criminal” during the process, leaving her feeling “very low” at times. She ended up €7,000 out of pocket including a payment of €550 to the Council for legal fees, as well as the cost of installing a gas boiler against her environmental ethos.
“It’s a perfect example where the Irish law didn’t move fast enough with the development of technology. It’s just sad that it takes individuals like myself to question why there’s so many walls and hoops to hop over.”
Pasinska said she was buoyed by support from environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth, whose Deputy Director Kate Ruddock told Noteworthy that the planning system also disadvantages schools and community centres that need permission to install even one panel.
Ruddock worked with five schools last year to install solar panels and the cost of planning permission, she said, added around €2,500 to the final project costs for each school. “That’s a huge amount of cost and delay for anybody.”
The Department of Housing was tasked with re-examining the regulations by the end of 2019, with delays frustrating Ruddock who has been calling for change for years.
Waiting for action
Letters released to Noteworthy also point to growing frustration from the solar microgeneration industry group MREF. In August 2018, the group told the then Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy that the regulations impose an “unnecessary bureaucratic and cost burden on homeowners”.
In another letter in October 2018 to the then Minister of State for Housing and Urban Development Damien English, the group said that the Department’s reasoning for the current regulations are “totally inadequate”.
With little progress over the next year, the group told Minister English in September 2019 that its “members are very concerned at the lack of progress”.
“Our information is telling us that little or no work has being done on this issue to date,” the group said in the letter, to which Minister English informed the group in October 2019 that the matter was “being treated with the utmost urgency”.
Despite the assurances, notes from a meeting of the Microgeneration Working Group that same month reveal that the Department was clear that the end of year deadline would be “very challenging to achieve”.
While the draft regulations are not available, notes from the working group indicate that the Department will scrap the current limits for households and allow larger installations based on the size of the individual roof itself.
The Department also confirmed at the working group’s meeting in December that it intends to remove the need for planning for industrial and agricultural buildings – both currently need planning for solar over 50 square metres – as well as schools, community buildings and apartments, so long as the panel array is under 300 square metres.
Glint and glare bring new delays
The finalisation of the regulations, however, is currently held up over concerns with the potential impact of glint and glare from solar panels on aviation safety.
The Department has held discussions with the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) which proposed that local authorities develop safeguarding maps around airports and aerodromes within which anyone looking to put up panels would need to submit a glint and glare assessment.
The Department said that this would be “excessive”, according to notes from an internal meeting, with an exclusion zone based on plane approach and departure paths deemed a “more effective and reasonable” solution.
The IAA told Noteworthy it has “no specific or overriding concerns” with the Department’s proposed changes to planning rules for solar. It added that it continues to engage with the Department to “facilitate the most pragmatic and efficient solution to allowing these exemptions be operated with no detrimental impact on aviation safety”.
The Department put out a call for tender in August for guidance maps to identify areas close to airports and aerodromes where planning exemptions may not apply. It told Noteworthy that the regulations will “be ready in the coming months” but did not give a specific deadline.
Limits on the grid
Many people who spoke to Noteworthy have also pointed a finger of blame at ESB Networks for a perceived hesitancy to expand limits on microgeneration.
To be classed as a microgenerator, those on a residential connection can install a solar system with a maximum output of 6kW (around 20 panels). Those on a three-phase connection such as some farms and large businesses, can go up to to 11kW (around 45 panels).
This is relatively low compared to many EU countries with higher capacity caps closer to 50kW and up to 100kW in some cases. This limitation is important as, once you fall under microgeneration, you pass through a more streamlined connection process with no fees.
Anything above 11kW and you need to fill in a more complicated form, pay an application fee of over €750, and grid connections are capped at 30 offers per year.
While ESB Networks told Noteworthy that it has never refused a microgeneration connection, the SEAI deemed the limit to be “insufficient” at the MGWG meeting in January 2020.
This problem was highlighted back in January 2013, with the SEAI’s report on a series of microgeneration trials finding barriers “for small-scale generation projects which fall outside of the planning exemptions and ESB Networks’ micro-generation connection process”.
Change appears to be on the way, with the MGWG agreeing in December 2019 to a microgeneration definition that would see non-domestic limits increased to 50kW, while household limits will likely remain at 6KW, above the average household’s needs.
According to a May 2020 draft Working Group discussion paper, consumers acting together and renewable energy communities will also fall under the 50kW upper limit.
ESB Networks was not originally in favour of such changes, voicing concern at the working group’s meeting in September 2019 that increasing the definitions “would be a significant change” with potential impacts on the grid.
It told Noteworthy that it is fully committed to “actively supporting all Irish homes, communities and businesses in their choices and activities at this time of fundamental change in the energy sector”.
Technical concerns over solar
While changes to planning rules are more straightforward policy decisions, any change to export limits have technical ramifications and experts agree that ESB Networks have genuine concerns over the potential impact of lots of small solar installations connecting to the grid.
The electricity grid needs to maintain a balance between supply and demand of power at all times and this is challenged by renewable energy that does not provide the consistent and stable supply that traditional large fossil fuel power stations can.
The problem is compounded by our very high proportion of connections to one-off rural homes, a fairly unique problem in Europe.
While Ireland has received international praise for the grid’s ability to handle large quantities of wind power, there are still issues with rooftop solar that can experience sudden spikes in production that can fluctuate wildly over the space of a few seconds.
This can then send excess power out to the grid in a short period of time and cause voltage problems and the overloading of transformers, at which point protection mechanisms will kick in and people can get disconnected.
While agreeing that too much solar in the wrong place can cause grid issues, Technological University Dublin energy researcher Rene Peeren doesn’t agree with ESB Networks’ favoured solution to create a system where people are incentivised to focus on self-consumption.
In a March 2019 draft of its position on possible microgeneration supports, ESB Networks noted its preference that any financial incentives for exports over and above market value are “not excessive”.
Setting financial support too high, it said, could lead to “excessively rapid deployment” and people “installing oversized solar installations” to avail of the export tariff. Such issues, it said, “might require ESB Networks to place constraints on growth for technical reasons”.
Alternative solutions for the future
Peeren told Noteworthy that there is a better solution largely neglected in policy until recently – the creation of localised, digital smart grids where any electricity generated in that area is also traded and consumed locally.
The Dutch researcher was involved in a testbed pilot in Tallaght that won best research project at the SEAI Energy Awards in 2018 and aims to demonstrate that electricity demand and supply can be handled at the community level, create prosumers and build energy democracy.
By controlling supply and demand in a localised market, the system should manage the grid disturbances flagged by ESB Networks, he said, an idea echoed by chartered power engineer Dudley Stewart who runs MPOWER, the lead company on the Tallaght project.
Stewart pioneered this local grid idea and has pushed for policy support for over a decade, telling Noteworthy that ESB Networks’ “worst nightmares are coming” unless the grid system is redesigned in a way so that disturbances are diffused locally.
“[Generated electricity] goes to a central point owned and managed by a bunch of people who have established themselves together to have personal energy security and a clear view of what energy is going to cost them over time, while bolstering the system and getting paid for that and reversing climate change.”
Stewart is also involved in projects in Limerick and on the Aran Islands that Dara Ó Maoildhia of the Aran Islands Energy Cooperative said “ties the knot” in its goal to shed the islands’ reliance on mainland electricity supply from a subsea cable.
There are significant inefficiencies in the supply from the cable and more worrying, Ó Maoildhia said, is the potential repeat of the 2016 power outage during the height of the economically vital August tourist season after the cable was cut.
“So right there’s a really clear warning of what can happen,” he said, pointing to the importance of a resilient electricity system for the islands where there are already a number of solar panels installed.
Solar power, he said, has a “spearheading role” in the islands’ energy future, due to high community acceptance, ease of installation, and because solar produces more electricity during the summer when the islands face the energy-draining touristic season.
Lack of research funding
Peeren is hopeful that results from these projects will emerge in the next three years, revolutionise a smart localised grid system and allow for greater solar energy penetration.
While buoyed by the prospects, he expressed disappointment that the government has been slow to ramp up research despite findings over a decade ago that grid issues could be mitigated by clustering local generation to form a smart grid.
Solar was also left out of the final technology list in a major 2008 study to measure the ability of the grid to absorb large amounts of renewables as it was deemed too expensive at the time.
Dr Shafi Khadem of the International Energy Research Centre (IERC) in Cork is another disappointed researcher, pointing to a 2017 European Commission study that found Ireland was spending below the EU average for research and development on smart grids.
Khadem currently has a leading role in an EU project to examine countries where research has been historically low for smart grid and community-led renewables. Ireland is on the list.
While the project reports that we are progressing in areas such as electricity markets and flexible generation, the analysis states that Ireland “should take care” in certain areas including energy communities, grid digitalisation and non-wind generation.
“From the Irish point of view, I would say the policy or regulation is still not that supportive in this space… Ireland is far behind in this area. It’s really frustrating.”
You only have to look at Northern Ireland, Khadem said, where policy is more supportive for consumers to become prosumers. “They’re doing a lot. And we’re just sitting and watching.”
The Department of Climate Action said there is already significant research ongoing, including from the SEAI and EirGrid, as well as a climate commitment in the Programme for Government for a “transformational programme of research and development”.
Despite the policy pitfalls and ongoing delays in some key areas, public interest in solar continues to grow, as seen in the uptake of the SEAI pilot grant scheme.
Smart meter installations appear to be back on track and, earlier this week, the ESB secured a €150 million loan from the European Investment Bank to support the roll-out.
Documents from the Microgeneration Working Group show that, despite some significant policy kinks still to work out, there is an ambition to create space for homeowners, farmers and community groups to power a cleaner future for Ireland.
While rooftop solar is unlikely to reach the heights of wind power, various experts told Noteworthy that it can play a significant role in both keeping the lights on and ensuring a role for citizens in our renewable energy transformation.
“We have to get rid of the mindset that simply because it’s called microgeneration, it can only play a small role. It can play a very big role,” said TU Dublin’s Peeren, but, he added, only so long as we avoid the mistakes of the past and get the policy right this time around.
This investigation was carried out by Niall Sargent of Noteworthy. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers.
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