There was a renewed interest in renewable energy at this year’s Balmoral Show. From solar to wind, biomethane to geothermal, there was something for everyone. This article brings you some of the highlights from last week’s show.

Farmers feel left out of solar PV grants

There was no shortage of interest from farmers in solar PV at the show. Indeed, there was also no shortage of solar PV suppliers in attendance, most of which were located in the new sustainability-village tent.

Matt Jess of Start Solar explained that the main reason why farmers were enquiring about solar PV was to save money.

Much of the interest was coming from high-energy users such as pig, poultry and dairy, less so from lower-energy users he said.

Jonathan Morton of Irwin said that many farmers asked him about grant aid. Currently, only non-farming businesses can avail of a grant for solar PV through Invest NI. No grants are currently in place for farmers, unlike the Republic of Ireland (ROI), where farmers can avail of a 60% capital grant. Joanna McHale of Surge Renewables echoed the same sentiment, with many farmers inquiring about grants.

While solar PV panels are VAT-exempt in Northern Ireland (NI), she explained that farmers become less interested when they hear there are no grants available, saying the farmers feel left out compared to other businesses.

Is there a difference in solar PV price between NI and ROI?

One thing that became apparent was the difference in payback periods quoted by the solar suppliers when compared to ROI.

Most solar PV suppliers stated that farmers could see payback periods of around three years without grant aid. However, in ROI, farmers are achieving paybacks over the same period, even with a 60% grant included.

I drilled down further into the figures with the providers, each of which used a reference electricity price of around 33p/kWh. Admittedly, that is high they said. Other said the cost for the panels is coming in around £900 per kilowatt, lower than many of the quotes here in ROI.

However, all said that labour was the biggest factor in the price difference, noting that the cost of labour in ROI is higher than in NI. Nonetheless, panels do appear to be cheaper in NI than in ROI.

Gas operators confident about NI biomethane

From left: Samantha Trimble of Evolve, Paul Stanford and Lisa McCarthy from Firmus Energy and Iain Hoy Phoenix Natural Gas.

The operators of the NI distribution gas network, Firmus Energy, Phoenix Natural Gas, and Evolve, presented a united front by attending Balmoral together in one tent.

Their stated aim was to increase awareness around biomethane and encourage responses to the ongoing biomethane request for information. We visited the stands to see what kind of interactions they had with farmers.

Iain Hoy, network developer with Phoenix Natural Gas, explained that while Northern Ireland doesn’t have an explicit target for biomethane yet, the operators believe a target of one terawatt-hour (TWh) is achievable by the end of the decade.

A 2022 study by Queen’s University and AFBI estimated that there is enough animal manure and grass silage in NI to produce over six TWh, which is more than 80% of its gas distribution network demand.

A biomethane action plan with a roadmap for achieving the rollout of biomethane production, whether from NI’s existing anaerobic digestion plants or from new-build plants is now needed, explained Iain. Lisa McCarthy and Paul Stanfield from Firmus Energy explained that, similar to ROI, many companies will need decarbonised gas to reduce their emissions, and biomethane will play a big part in this.

This was echoed by Samantha Trimble of Evolve, the first gas operator to have biomethane injected into its network in Dungannon, Tyrone.

Securing planning permission and the lack of a support scheme were highlighted as some of the biggest challenges facing the sector.

Despite this, all three operators were confident about meeting the development of biomethane. The request for information aims to gauge the levels of interest from potential biomethane and feedstock suppliers to help map out the network’s infrastructure needs and can be filled out by scanning the QR code.

Land leases available for wind, solar, and battery projects

Farmers could also learn about the opportunities to lease land to developers for solar farms, battery energy storage systems, or wind farms at Balmoral.

Two developers were present, RES and Strategic Power Projects. Strategic Power Projects, who sponsored the sustainability village tent, have a big pipeline of projects in NI but were keen to talk to farmers in suitable locations about further projects, explained David Porter, Strategic Power Projects Development Director.

Eligibility criteria

We also caught up with Ellen Cross and Ben Crawford of RES, who were there to talk to farmers. RES also has a pipeline of projects in development in Northern Ireland. They said that the criteria for sites really depend on the project.

For solar farms, for example, typically 200-300 acres are needed on sites with slopes no greater than 10 degrees. High and consistent wind speeds are needed for sites for wind farms. Good grid access is vital for any project.

Typically, sites are leased from farmers for 42 years. Farmers can avail of a long-term rental income source over that period.

Typically farmers could expect around £1,000 per acre per year for a solar farm, £5,000 per MW for a wind turbine, or £1,200-1,500 per MW for a battery storage energy system. Again, these are highly dependent on the site. One issue flagged, however, is that the same relief for solar farms does not exist in NI as it does in the ROI, so landowners have to consider the implications for farm succession plans before entering into a lease.

Stormont goes geothermal

The 45kW wind turbine was on display at the event

GeoEnergy NI, a new project aiming to demonstrate the potential of geothermal energy in NI, gave attendees a virtual reality experience into the ongoing work in Stormont. The feasibility study is examining the potential to provide low-carbon geothermal renewable heating and cooling systems for several buildings on the grounds of Stormont Estate.

This location has been chosen because it sits on top of an aquifer with good shallow geothermal potential for both closed-loop and open-loop geothermal systems. The same aquifer lies under Belfast, Lisburn, Antrim, and other large towns in NI.

The project will involve the drilling and testing of five boreholes: four hydrogeological bore holes around 250 metres deep, and one bore hole that will be cored to a depth of 500 metres.

A renewed look at wind

We caught up with Linda Boon of Reingineers, which instals and maintains wind turbines. These turbines come in 45kW and 80kW models, and Linda believes they will prove a hit in NI. She explained many of the farmers talking to her were looking to instal turbines for their own use, with few looking to export the power. A 45kW turbine will cost about £135,000 plus VAT and pay for itself in eight to 10 years.