Solar PV suppliers in Northern Ireland (NI) feel disadvantaged compared with suppliers in the Republic of Ireland (ROI) due to the lack of available grant aid for farmers.

This was the consensus among solar PV suppliers who attended last week's Balmoral Show.

Despite the demand for solar PV being at an all-time high from NI farmers, it still pales in comparison with south of the border, where farmers can avail of a 60% TAMS III grant towards the cost of a solar PV system.

This is limiting the viability of solar PV to farmers with high energy demand, such as pig, poultry, dairy and horticulture.

With electricity prices in NI still at 40p/kWh or more for many of these farmers, solar PV investments still make economic sense. Payback periods of three to six years are possible according to the suppliers.

However, farmers with smaller electricity demand are struggling to justify the investment cost of a solar PV system, with payback periods of up to nine years and more in some cases.

The Irish Farmers Journal recently spoke to four solar PV suppliers who were in attendance at this year's Balmoral Show.

Level playing field

Director of Greenfield Renewables Gary McConnell operates on both sides of the border. He said that while things are busy in NI, they are even crazier in ROI due to the 60% TAMS grant.

He stated that similar grants are needed for farmers in NI and even a 40% grant would be helpful.

He also called for a more streamlined process when dealing with Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) Networks to install solar PV systems larger than 10kW.

Sales executive with Future Renewables Richard Agnew expressed a similar view and called for similar grant aid to be introduced in NI. However, at this stage, any form of grant would be a help he said.

While the recent news on an exemption for VAT on solar panels was welcomed, it makes little difference to farmers who are already registered for VAT, said Richard.

Director of Surge Renewables Andrew Sands reported a massive interest in solar among farmers trying to find ways to save money on energy costs and become more energy independent.

However, despite the high interest in solar PV, the absence of grant aid is slowing down progress.

Andrew said: "It would be much busier if there was a grant for solar, but there is nothing coming."

Sales executive with Start Solar James Graham said that interest in solar has gone through the roof from high-energy users, particularly dairy farmers moving towards robotic milking systems.

However, James also expressed concern about the absence of a sitting executive, which is causing issues as there is no one in power to even start discussions regarding solar PV grants for farmers.

Export to the grid

Most farmers are interested in installing solar systems to offset their imported electricity rather than solely for exporting to the grid and getting paid.

There are several reasons for this, including the difficulties associated with the connection process.

If a farmer intends to install a system larger than 10kW, they must inform NIE and complete a G99 application, which can take up to nine months to secure approval.

Furthermore, farmers are only paid an export price of 17.6p/KWh for the electricity they export to the grid.

Considering the high costs of electricity, it is more economically feasible for farmers to use as much of the generated electricity on their own farms as possible.