Former IFA secretary general Pat Smith is back at the head of an industry group. With Heat Merchants chief executive Alan Hogan, he co-chairs the Micro Renewable Energy Federation (MREF).

It was formed after officials told farm and domestic renewable equipment suppliers that they were not heard in a Government consultation process dominated by large wind and solar farms developers.

“When the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland tells you that your sector has no voice, you can’t ignore this message,” Smith told the Irish Farmers Journal. Within days, around 30 companies, including Smith’s own Meath-based Local Power, officially formed MREF and submitted a position paper to the Department of Climate Action. The federation now claims 50 members on the island.

'Ignored by policy'

“We are a voice not only for the micro-renewable industry but also for the thousands of farmers, businesses and households that would want to produce electricity and contribute to meeting the country’s renewable targets, but are ignored by policy,” Smith said.

While successive Government papers have called for community involvement in renewable energy production, current suggestions are to let neighbours of big wind or solar projects buy into them. Smith warns of the complex corporate governance issues associated with this approach.

“Wouldn’t it be simpler to help people produce electricity directly and reduce their own bills?” he asked.

Solar panels and batteries

According to him, 500,000 homes, 70,000 farms and 50,000 businesses have roof space suitable for solar panels, and the cost of such projects is lower than out-of-date Government data would suggest. Combined with ever cheaper batteries, he thinks solar is the way forward, including on farms, where electricity could be stored for milking times.

Smith said the public service obligation levy charged to all electricity customers will rise by €100m to €500m this year.

He suggested ringfencing these additional funds to support 250MW of new rooftop solar capacity for self-consumption every year. This is equivalent to several large wind farms and would not require complex connections to inject the electricity into the national grid.

The IFA has made the same proposal in its own submission to the Government’s consultation. “We’re delighted in MREF that the IFA has come forward with similar policies,” said Smith. “Irish farmers are ideally placed to help the country meet its renewables targets.”

While a dispute between him and his former employer remains before the courts – he won’t comment on this – their views on renewable energy are aligned.

I’m here only to help meet a need

On a personal level, was Smith itching to return to the helm of a lobby organisation?

“Absolutely not,” he said, adding that his new role is voluntary. “I’m here only to help meet a need at this point in time.”

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The Dealer: Pat Smith re-energised by renewables