A collaboration between rural communities and energy suppliers in Ireland could be the key to meeting our 2020 renewable energy targets.
IFA renewable energy chair James Murphy said that there is “significant potential” to be unlocked from the farming sector to allow Ireland meet its 2020 commitments.
Many farmers across the country have been approached from solar development companies in recent months, Murphy said, and various offers containing a combination of exclusivity agreements, grid-connection contracts and option arrangements have been put on the table.
Speaking to the Irish Farmers Journal, he said that these projects have been developer-led for far too long. “We know the developers are going to make money. Now the communities need to be engaged, involved and rewarded.”
Certainty for landowners and extending the level of community involvement is necessary to drive renewable energy and the IFA is advising landowners to consider any approaches “with caution” before making any decisions.
“While solar energy production is well developed in other countries, it is very much in its infancy here. Farmers have to consider a number of issues before committing their land to any contract that is binding for a long-term project,” he said.
Murphy said that no applications should be accepted by any planning authorities unless the communities involved have been consulted and engaged with. Also, at least 25% of the project should be community-owned, he said.
“Communities must be at the centre of future renewable energy developments. This means that to be eligible for state financial support, all large-scale energy development companies must offer at least 25% of each project for community ownership, once built out. In addition, each year at least 1% of the turnover from these projects must be invested back into local communities to support rural regeneration and employment, whether it is to build a new running track, or a community centre. It should be the template for how developers deal with communities.
“I don’t think we need legislation for it. If these developers want farmers to sign a lease for 25 to 30 years, then they need to be prepared to involve the communities. I can’t see why they couldn’t see the benefits of it, when the community has an invested interest to buy into a percentage of the project,” he said.
The biggest single stumbling block for renewable energy in Ireland is Government policy, and their approach, Murphy said, with very little policy in place at the moment to encourage communities.
The IFA also sees a tariff of 17c/kWh, guaranteed for 20 years, as essential to securing farmer participation.
Best practice from Europe
Energy Co-operatives Ireland (ECI) is offering local communities the opportunity to take equity in developer-led energy projects in their area.
“Communities can now benefit directly from approved large-scale renewable energy projects, without taking any up-front planning, regulatory and licensing financial risks.
“Landowners too can benefit from rental incomes considerably higher than the national average,” said Cormac Walsh from ECI.
Speaking to the Irish Farmers Journal, Walsh said that, depending on the size of the project, rental income would be in the region of €900 per acre per annum, for an average 5MW solar farm of 25 acres.
According to Walsh, economics dictates what percentage of the community is involved in each project, but 25%, or just below, is what they are proposing.
“One of the key parts of this structure is that the community has the opportunity to buy into the project and a percentage also goes towards funding the co-op.
“This is the kind of model we would like the wind industry to adopt as well. We have learned from the debacle of the wind farms in the midlands. There was no community involvement there, turbines just went up and it was an insult to the locals,” he said.
At the moment, there is 2.1GW (1,000MW in 1GW) worth of solar projects, from farmers and local groups, booked into Ireland’s grid system. If 20% of these alone happened within the next few years, this would help Ireland reach its 2020 targets, Walsh said.
“We need to take the best practice from Europe. In Denmark, 20% to 30% community ownership was the norm when they started out years ago. If you went there today, they would say ‘why are we only getting 20%? We’ve been doing this for years, we know what we’re doing, we will own 100%’,” he said.
Ireland is only new to this, but in the short term, it could prevent the Government from getting a fine approaching €900m per annum if we do not meet our targets.
“It’s a no brainer from the government’s point of view.
“Unlike wind, solar can be done very quickly. A farmer has his land, he pays his grid access, gets accepted, planning takes three to six months, and in a 12-month period he has his solar farm up and running.
“We need the communities now to come forward and ask the questions, to understand, and ask ‘why aren’t we getting anything from this?’,” he concluded.