The Irish Solar Energy Association has said electricity bills will be kept higher than necessary for longer than necessary, because of delays in the roll-out of renewable energy that are entirely in the control of state agencies.
Meanwhile, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland has said the cost of installing rooftop solar panels has increased by about a third in the past year, as demand is surging.
Last week, the Government removed all planning restrictions on the installation of rooftop solar panels throughout the country, with the exception of a small number of exclusion zones related to airports.
So, what is happening right now?
The solar industry in Ireland is booming. Year-on-year the number of domestic solar installations being installed has almost doubled.
The commercial rooftop solar business is also growing.
To date, the Sustainable Energy Association of Ireland has funded about 15,000 homes to install solar PV panels, as well as around 600 businesses.
Altogether, that is 120MW of solar power – which is a lot. Out of that 120MW, about one third was installed this year alone.
This shows how quickly the industry is growing, and how busy it is getting at the moment.
Are the SEAI grants worthwhile?
The SEAI says its solar panel grant is attractive. Currently, it covers somewhere between 20% and 30% of the cost of a rooftop solar installation. It also helps to effectively reduce the amount of time it takes for one’s investment in rooftop solar to pay off.
Fergus Sharkey of the SEAI says investing in a typical modern rooftop solar installation (with six 400kW panels) would take in the region of 7-8 years to pay off at today’s high electricity prices. Typically, such a system would cost about €6,000 to install before the SEAI grant, and about €4,000 after the grant.
It would save a household about €550 per year between the generation of free electricity costs, and some payments or credits for the surplus or unused electricity exported back to the national electricity grid.
If a household opted instead for a bigger system, say double the size with 12 panels, a storage battery would normally be required to store the power so that it can be used in the home. This would add between €2,000 and €4,000 to the cost of the project, and extend the length of time required for the investment to pay off to between 10 and 11 years.
As an alternative, surplus electricity could be trickled into an electric vehicle which can now be charged from the solar panels.
Is it a big job to get solar panels installed?
No, they say it can be done very quickly. This is one of the big attractions of rooftop solar.
“It has curbside appeal,” says Mr Sharkey, “It’s something you can show off to your neighbours and your friends. Yet it can be done in a day. There is a little bit of work around your electrical cabinet but nobody is really going into your house. Somebody pops scaffolding up and then, within a day, they’re done, it’s generating electricity and it’s highly visible.”
“You will have an app on your phone and from that you can see the electricity your system is generating and how much of that you are using. That all makes it very attractive.”
What about people who are not home all day and do not have battery storage? Is it worth their while investing?
The advice from the SEAI is to install a smaller system if you are not going to be home all day. By that they mean about five or six solar panels.
Even if you are not there all day, the SEAI still expects a household will use 60-70% of the solar power generated while at the same time (now) qualifying for a payment between 14-21 cents for every unit of surplus electricity that trickles back, or is “exported”, to the national electricity grid.
What about the technology? Is it improving?
Yes, for sure.
Solar panels have improved in two ways.
Firstly, they are becoming more energy dense. Three or four years ago each panel would have produced about 250W of electricity. Nowadays, they’re up to 400W, so you get a lot more energy produced from a smaller surface area.
The second improvement is that they are becoming more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity. This helps to increase the amount of energy generated, and reduces the payback time for a rooftop solar.
Is now a good time to invest?
The best time to invest, according to experts, was probably last year. Because since then, there has been a very significant increase in demand and this has driven prices up by about 30% year-on-year.
There has been a very big increase in the number of installers working in the industry. The SEAI said that they have gone from having about 18 registered rooftop solar installers when they started their solar grant scheme in 2017, to having about 220 registered installers today.
However, the level of demand is so great that some people are having to wait six months before an installation can start. Others can’t even get an installer to come and give them a quote.
“Giving people the opportunity to produce their own electricity would allow us to reduce their electricity bills not just over the next six months but over the next 25 years”
Mr Sharkey says it is a good time to install solar PV if solar is the right measure for your home. If one’s house is “old and cold and draughty”, then he says solar PV isn’t a measure for them. People could instead focus on insulation, and improving their heating system, and ideally replacing big fossil fuel boilers and open fires with something clean like heat pumps or a biomass heating system.
Either way, his advice for people is to shop around because there is still a lot of value to be had, particularly with smaller local installers.
Dr Paul Deane of University College Cork recently produced a report for the Irish Solar Energy Association, which found that the orientation of the rooftops on more than one million homes in Ireland was suitable for the generation of solar energy.
But not all homeowners can afford the very significant near-€6,000 investment required for a simple system. Dr Deane argues that 100% grant funding for solar power should be provided for families in receipt of fuel allowances.
“Giving people the opportunity to produce their own electricity would allow us to reduce their electricity bills not just over the next six months but over the next 25 years. That’s the kind of thinking we need to be looking at when we are going through a very deep energy crisis,” he said.
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