After a slow start, Ireland’s renewable electricity story is likely to be a successful one.
Currently, well over one-third of the country’s electricity needs is generated from renewable sources and the industry is quietly confident of hitting our 70% target by 2030.
This is largely due to the natural competitive advantage we enjoy when it comes to wind generation capacity.
Under the climate action plan, the Government is targeting 70% renewable energy generation in Ireland by 2030.
The target is for 8,200 megawatts (MW) to be generated by onshore wind farm developments, an almost doubling of existing capacity of 4,200MW.
Delivering these onshore wind energy targets in the climate action plan is estimated to generate €2.7bn of investment over the next 10 years.
It will also create thousands of new jobs and could be worth €550m per annum to the Irish economy.
The numbers were published in a new report by KPMG, which was commissioned by Wind Energy Ireland, with support from Bord na Móna, Brookfield Renewables, Coillte and Statkraft Ireland.
This investment will be partially supported by Ireland’s flagship Renewable Energy Support Scheme (RESS), which sees renewable electricity developers compete for 15-year Government-backed support.
RESS is designed to deliver maximum value to the taxpayer by pitting developers against each other in an auction to achieve the lowest economical support price for their renewable electricity.
RESS-1, the first in a series of auctions in the scheme, was held last year and saw 82 onshore wind and solar farms secure support.
By design, the scheme favours large developments, which can avail of economies of scale and those which have significant financial backing.
The scheme therefore makes it impossible for single farm-scale wind turbines to compete for support, thus ultimately eliminating farmers who are exploring renewable energy opportunities from availing of the scheme.
If we look to our neighbours north of the border, we see the legacy of policies which were designed with farmers and small businesses interests at heart.
It’s hard not to look on with envy as standalone wind turbines are a common sight across Northern Ireland (NI), many of which are located next to or near farmyards.
Past NI policies, such as the Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation (NIRO), while having its fair share of critics, did guarantee 20 years of secured prices for small-scale wind, solar PV, hydro and combine heat and power plants.
As a result, farmers could confidently invest in renewable technologies on a small scale with the knowledge that a return on investment was secured.
Government falling short
Ireland’s renewable electricity policy falls short when it comes to small-scale projects in comparison to NI which now generates nearly 50% of its electricity from renewable sources.
While our current wind energy strategy will deliver significant results for the country in terms of reducing our emissions and increasing volumes of renewable electricity on the market, large-scale developers and semi-State bodies such as Bord na Móna, Coillte and the ESB stand to gain the most.
While the upcoming micro-generation scheme, which will incentivise the generation of renewable electricity on a micro-scale (sub-50kW) is welcome, it doesn’t go far enough in the opinion of farmers.
With the exception of land leasing and micro-generation, farmers won’t have the opportunity to diversify their income streams and play a meaningful part in meeting our renewable electricity goals in the near future.
An opportunity in RESS
One thing that is clear is that agriculture is in for major change over the coming decade.
RESS has a budget of between €7.2bn and €12.5bn and will run to 2025. The first auction took place last year with more to come, including a dedicated offshore wind farm auction.
If the RESS can be tailored for a dedicated offshore wind farm auction, can’t the same be done with a dedicated farm-scale wind turbine scheme?
Farmers are hungry to step up their contribution to tackling the country’s climate challenges.
But it is foolish to expect a farm business to drastically change their current business model without a viable alternative option.
Farm-scale renewable wind turbines are part of the answer to this, allowing farmers to reduce their emissions while also generating a viable alternative income.
Instead of designing a scheme to hand billions in State aid to developers and semi-State bodies, share the pot with Irish farmers and allow them the opportunity to invest in renewables.
If not, then it looks like the Government’s plan for a green new future will leave a lot of farmers in the red.