Climate change minister casts long shadow over Irish solar hopes

The Irish solar PV landscape is dotted by merely a handful of installations, but in recent months has held tightly on to the hope that its strong potential would soon be unleashed by appropriate policy support from government.

That dream, however, appears to have been dashed this week following comments made by Ireland’s Minister for Communications, Climate Change and Natural Resources, Denis Naughten. The politician, speaking at the Energy Institute annual dinner in Dublin on Wednesday, told Ireland’s solar industry not to expect much in the way of further subsidy support for PV.

"While I do see a place for solar in the energy mix, we cannot have a situation where a new support scheme leads to an excessive increase in people’s electricity bills through a higher Public Service Obligation levy," Naughten said.

Various industry bodies have eyed Ireland’s largely untapped PV market expectantly in the past few months, with U.K.-based renewable energy advisor echoing forecasts by IHS Markit that suggest Ireland could develop at least 3 GW of solar capacity quite easily, based on calculations of its PV pipeline.

However, aware of the growing clamor for more solar in the Republic, Naughten stressed that the current solar power application pipeline was sufficient to provide "winter levels" of energy, which amounts to more than 4 GW and would, if constructed, replace all other sources of renewable energy generation, including wind.

Ireland’s Renewable Energy FIT (Refit) is a government levy on household electricity bills that currently costs the average home around €70 per year. If all of the solar projects in the pipeline were completed, Naughten worries that the levy would "be a multiple of €70", maybe as much as four times that amount – which are simply untenable charges for households, he said.

"Large levels of early speculation can send poor signals to society and State bodies that facilitate delivery of projects," added Naughten. "This type of unchecked speculation could, in fact, be significantly damaging to what is an industry in its infancy in this country.

"Therefore, I cannot see the significant volume of proposals for solar energy in Ireland being supported in the short term."

Industry experts have expressed concerns that such roadblocks against solar could be forthcoming in Ireland. IHS Markit’s 3 GW calculation – based on applications to develop projects – has always come with the caveat that certain restrictions could apply.

"The development of the Irish solar market is open so long as we do not know the details of the announced incentive schemes," IHS Markit senior solar analyst Susanne von Aichberger told pv magazine. "The industry expects auctions for large-scale PV systems to start in 2018, and with a 4+ GW pipeline, Ireland is certainly on the watch-list."

In a research note published in August, fellow IHS Markit analyst Josefin Berg tracked Ireland’s 3 GW solar pipeline, but warned that follow-through for many of these projects was contingent on the introduction of large-scale solar incentives. "If an attractive scheme comes into place, a wave of construction activity can be expected," Berg wrote.

Naughten’s words appear to have poured cold water on those hopes, despite Ireland being one of only two EU Member States not expected to reach its emission reduction target by 2020. Renewables in Ireland supply around 25% of the country’s energy, but a further 15% penetration is required if Ireland is to meet its obligations.

In 2017, more than €100 million will be steered by government towards lowering carbon emissions, and part of that funding will be used to create a Behavioral Change Unit, designed at educating people on the benefits of greater energy efficiency and wider adoption of clean power resources.

However, the Department of Energy recently stressed that "gas and oil will remain an integral element of our energy system".