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Future of Energy Q3 2023

Brighter future for solar in Ireland: growth, challenges and opportunities

Production of renewable energy concept.
Production of renewable energy concept.
iStock / Getty Images Plus / Bilanol

Conall Bolger

Chief Executive Officer, Irish Solar Energy Association

With over 680MW (megawatts) of installed capacity, solar has demonstrated its importance in Ireland’s decarbonisation strategy. Persistent barriers to the deployment of solar must be lifted to guarantee a bright future for Ireland.

Solar’s recent growth in Ireland has been revolutionary. ESB (Electricity Supply Board) Networks recently stated that solar is ‘the fastest growing renewable power source in Ireland.’ From 0% last year, Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland statistics showed a day in May when solar provided 10% of the country’s electricity.

Successes in solar energy

This exciting progress was unlocked by two changes: (1) removal of barriers to rooftop solar and (2) a route to market emerging for utility-scale ground mount solar. Consumers are placing solar on their homes and businesses at an unprecedented rate. Domestic users are installing an average of 500 systems a week. Commercial players are installing not only at kilowatt scale but megawatt scale.

Complementing this rooftop growth has been the long-awaited flourishing of the substantial utility-scale pipeline developed by the solar industry. A key enabler has been the Renewable Electricity Support Scheme auctions. The growing confidence in solar’s potential was reflected by the Government increasing the country’s solar PV (photovoltaics) target from 1.5–2.5 gigawatts (GW) by 2030 to 5GW by 2025 and 8GW by 2030. Solar is not a fringe technology but a significant part of Ireland’s decarbonisation toolkit, alongside storage and wind.

Consumers are placing solar on their homes and businesses at an unprecedented rate.

Delivering infrastructure

The question is not whether solar will scale but how large an industry can be built in Ireland. To facilitate that growth, fundamental decisions need to be taken by the state. We must build the network to support a zero-carbon system — quickly. Building that grid will deliver the green electrons needed to shape and power the future clean economy of Ireland.

Planning remains a challenge. The system requires resourcing. For example, the national planning authority, An Bord Pleanála, is struggling to decide on solar planning appeals within the mandated 18 weeks; currently averaging close to 36 weeks, with some cases taking over 70 weeks. Approximately 90% of projects are successful in that process, which suggests something needs fixing.

Developing green economy

There is no pathway to a sustainable energy future that does not involve Irish farmers. Inconsistencies in the policy framework unnecessarily place these sectors at odds. For example, our taxation framework is not supportive of multiple land uses, such as growing food and generating solar in the same field. Ireland has among the highest-cost renewables in the world. We would welcome a review of the policy and state factors influencing those costs. We incur a higher price than needed for our energy transition. The future is bright for solar in Ireland if we grasp the opportunity.

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