Last month the IFA held a seminar on solar energy, on the back of which the CEO of one of Ireland’s leading renewable energy firms has repeated calls for farmers to “be open to the opportunities for renewable energy on their land – but to approach any agreement with caution and due diligence”.
Michael Bradley, CEO of Solar 21, an Irish renewable energy firm explained, “ESB Networks, which connects power generators to the national grid, received 329 solar applications in 2015 compared to two in 2014 and anecdotal evidence suggests to us that the majority of these are coming from or on behalf of farmers.
“However, the risk for farmers is that they could sign up to long-term deals sometimes without knowing all of the facts.
“There are a number of factors that farmers need to consider before signing an agreement in relation to renewable energy on their land, whether that’s solar or wind. Many should obtain independent specialist advice before signing any undertaking.”
However, by way of a brief introduction Michael said farmers should consider the following differences between the use of solar and wind energy initiatives on their land:
Solar parks allow dual usage – grazing of small livestock, growing crops; Solar will provide a steady index linked revenue stream that is not affected by economic cycles – changing costs of meat and milk; Solar projects can be rolled over at the end of the term to a new project; Solar offers returns that beat forestry; Wind projects are currently facing considerable push back in Ireland; Wind turbines require reinforced foundations; however solar project usual operate under the ‘leave no trace’ idea. All equipment is dismantled at maturity of the project; Changes to local taxes (rates in Limerick) by county councils can make projects unprofitable and put companies that run them under pressure; Operation and Maintenance crews will need to access the project for repairs, servicing etc. sometimes at out of office hours. This has to be agreed with the farmer especially if the land requires access via the farm house/yard.
Experts at Solar 21 say that the solar proposition is growing in Ireland but we need more certainty from the Government.
Michael contends, “It is incomprehensible that there is no plan to establish a Feed In Tariff for solar energy producers. How does the government expect renewable energy to be viable on a large scale without incentives to level the playing field?
“In addition, a streamlined planning permission process needs to be in place in order to facilitate renewable developments so that solar and biomass projects don’t get snared in the courts like wind projects have.
“Ireland has the know-how to invest in Irish solar farms and biomass plants but it is not going to happen without government support. Investor uncertainty is one of the key obstructions to renewable energy globally.”
Solar 21 say that from an agri-business perspective the development of Solar on farmland is an attractive proposition.
Farming can continue between and underneath the solar PV modules by: Grazing small livestock such as sheep and free ranging poultry; Cultivating high-value fruits and vegetables, or non-food crops such as lavender; Sowing of wildflower seeds and bee-keeping.
In addition, Solar PV panels are mounted on supporting structures and metal frames are anchored by driven or screw piles causing minimal ground disturbance and occupying less than one per cent of the land area used. The remainder of the infrastructure occupies less than five per cent. Therefore around 95 per cent of the land has to be available for vegetation growth.
Photovoltaic panels contain no moving parts and solar releases no emissions, soil or water either. Construction is 100 per cent reversible after the lifetime of the project and the land can be restored to its original use.
The layout of rows of modules and the width of field margins should anticipate future maintenance costs, taking into account the size, reach and turning circle of machinery and equipment that might be used for ‘topping’ (mowing), collecting forage grass, spot-weeding and re-seeding.
The depth of buried cables, armouring of rising cables, and securing of loose wires on the backs of modules all need to be taken into consideration where agricultural machinery and livestock will be present. Cables need to be buried deep enough to avoid the risk of being disturbed by farming practice.