In their book, ‘The Menace of Atomic Energy’,published nearly 50 years ago, Ralph Nader and John Abbotts revealed to readers that the person most responsible for developing American nuclear reactors, Dr Alvin Weinberg, admitted he would prefer solar energy if its cost could be brought down to less than 2.5 times the cost of nuclear energy.
In 2020, the International Energy Agency (IEA) declared solar electricity the cheapest in history: at least four times cheaper than nuclear.
Solar panels can be installed quickly, with minimal disruption to nature. The embodied energy used up in panels and end-of-life disposal remain concerns but diminishingly so.
In Germany, plans to open a nuclear reprocessing plant at Wackersdorf in Bavaria were discontinued in 1989 because of major public protests. The experience converted former lead nuclear exponent Dr Franz Alt to the benefits of renewable energy (RE). Alt coined the phrase, “solar panels for peace”, echoing President Eisenhower’s 1950s slogan, “atoms for peace”, referring to using fissile nuclear material for civilian electricity production not weapons.
The monstrous consequences of accidents or conflict occasionally remind us that nuclear production poses a persistent security threat.
Decentralised energy independence based on 100 % clean renewables is the alternative.
Extremely Positive Incentives for Change (EPICS), regulatory changes and financial incentives to reduce and capture carbon, are recommended by Lonergan and Sawers in their book ‘Supercharge Me’.
Over 99% of energy in the world comes from the sun. If the sun stopped shining, Earth’s temperature would soon drop to -150 ⁰ C and eventually -270⁰ C. Lighting fires to reach ambient temperature would exhaust fossil fuels within days. Solar energy sustains life. It remains abundant everywhere.
The remaining 1% of energy, over which most wars are fought comes from oil, uranium, gas, and coal.
A great piece last year in the excellent Low-Tech Magazine explores the evolution of solar power.
Ancient humans made use of passive heat from the sun to dry materials, light fires, and grow plants, while monuments like Newgrange and Stonehenge that stage solstice alignments suggest ritualistic devotion.
In the Victorian era, Charles Fritts’s thin selenium wafers covered with semi-transparent gold wires (1881) produced PV effects. George Cove invented a solar thermoelectric generator, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1905, with a strong photovoltaic effort, largely forgotten.
Einstein identified the photoelectric effect in 1904, and bandgap theory emerged in the 1930s, associated with Felix Bloch and others.
The modern solar cell debuted in 1954 at the prolific US Bell Labs. It had a 6 per cent conversion efficiency, a rate which has been nudged up ever since.
Current Power Supply in Ireland
Included in EirGrid’s Shaping Our Electricity Future report published in November 2021 is a chart showing assumed renewable generation capacities for Ireland by 2030.
One third of the 1,500 mega-watts (MW) of solar energy is expected to come from microgeneration projects, to be connected to the ESB distribution system. A special category for community-owned projects now attracts particular support. Eirgrid acknowledges “a new era for communities investing in their long-term energy needs”.
According to Dr David Meredith of Teagasc: “The first Renewable Electricity Support Scheme (2021) included seven community projects and it will be important to learn from these in terms of good practices in order to develop appropriate models and supports that benefit rural communities in the future”.
Perhaps the solar sector is finally being taken seriously. In 2020, the National Just Transition Fund (JTF) awarded a total of €20.5 million in grant-aid to qualifying projects. The categories funded were: business development; education; training and upskilling; development of co-working and enterprise hubs, renewable energies (RE), and retrofitting.
Representative groups like the Micro-Renewable Energy Federation (MREF) are now asking that VAT on solar PV panels and their supply and installation for private homes and public buildings be reduced or eliminated.
Additionally, Planning exemptions for solar panelsare expected by June, meaning planning permission will no longer be required for larger solar installations across residential rooftops, farm buildings, schools, community centres and a range of commercial buildings.
How to go solar
The website of semi-state body SEAI (Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland) provides information on solar technologies, including those supported by grants, especially promoting Electric Ireland’s Superhomes retrofit scheme, whose website furnishes case studies.
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) could fund renewable energy initiatives on farms.
In February 2022, the Irish government launched the National Retrofitting Scheme, widening the range of supports available to households to improve their energy efficiency. For homeowners, there are three main dimensions to the scheme: individual energy upgrade grants offering up to 80% grant support for insulation and heating, deep retrofit grants offering up to 50% of the cost, and free energy upgrades for those at risk of energy poverty. A state-run low cost loan scheme is also being developed.
In ARC 2020’s report Rural Ireland on the Move, launched at Cultivate’s recent Feeding Ourselves2022 conference in Cloughjordan, Dr Olive McCarthy explores a just transition to energy efficiency for low-income households. She notes that provisions of the National Retrofitting Scheme and related low-cost loans fail to adequately support low-income households in achieving greater energy efficiency and lower costs, according to research conducted by the UCC Centre for Co-operative Studies and North Dublin Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS). On that basis, they fall short of the Nevin Institute’s just transition criteria. While most households surveyed showing environment consciousness, for those with little disposable income, qualifying for aids was too onerous. Even free retrofitting had limited appeal.
A just energy transition cannot happen without other tailored measures, such as one-on-one advice. McCarthy concluded: “The introduction of Community Energy Advisors, as recommended by the Saint Vincent de Paul in its submission to the Climate Action Plan 2021, will greatly help in reaching households that are least able to avail of existing schemes. Consideration of how to support those living in rental accommodation will also be crucial”.
The policies aren’t good enough.
Representing a broad diversity of solar industry interests, the Irish Solar Energy Association (ISEA) views solar as a significant opportunity, which could be generating 20% of Ireland’s electricity by 2030. This prediction is much higher than Eirgrid’s.
The ISEA fears that Ireland’s policy framework for renewable electricity is prohibitive.
Promote widespread solar take-up, ease planning restrictions for rooftop solar and ensure that the provisions for the non-residential sector in the Microgeneration Support Scheme are properly implemented
“The costs of connecting to the network have increased. With economies of scale, these changing costs are encouraging larger solar projects to be developed at the utility level…The policy for residential customers to sell back to the network and the extreme swings in electricity prices are prompting a huge interest from citizens in generating their own power. To capitalise on that interest, Ireland should ease the planning restrictions for rooftop solar and ensure that the provisions for the non-residential sector in the Microgeneration Support Scheme are implemented and fit for purpose”.
Better information: don’t buy from retail
An EU Directive proposed, in March 2022, to empower consumers for the green transition through better protection against unfair practices and better information. After the British Competition and Markets Authority found that 40 % of green claims made online last year amounted to greenwash, it wrote up a Green Claims Code for businesses, and guidance for customers.
Mainstream upgrade schemes, like the above-mentioned Superhomes promote relatively expensive equipment and service frills, suited to time-poor cash-rich buyers.
Retailers typically make over 50% profit, even factoring in expenses including royalties and wages.
DIY is cheaper: simply fixing no-fuss panels to accessible surfaces like walls, garden fences, sheds and roofs.
A Dutch political party is campaigning to have free PV fitted on buildings, with priority given to low-income homes. Demand for such schemes will almost certainly soar, given forecasts of fuel poverty ahead even in wealthy Western countries.
A Shining Example
“Since the 4th of March, my little farm is power neutral”, boasts Juri Hertel, talking to Village. “We feed the same amount of electricity into the grid as we take from the grid”.
Juri lives in one of Ireland’s first solar houses, located outside Youghal, Co Cork. At least 50% of their purchased thermal energy comes from solar thermal (TS) collectors, laid out over a decade ago in two rows near their pond. The Chinese manufacturer still uses images of Juri’s installation for advertising.
PV panels are now more common and cheaper than ST, and, critically, include a range, ideal for balconies, that can be just plugged into a socket, often with no need for additional plumbing or electrical work.
Juri insists that the basic plug-in PV-panels, weighing about 6- 20 kg depending on the quality, can be installed by anyone who can lift them. A vertical wall installation generates some 30% less power but fitting two of them is still cheaper than a roof installation. Expensive ones come with meters that can be linked to smart phones for monitoring.
Micro PV prices start at around € 0.80 per Watt of potential output. That is about €250 per 300W panel including the inverter, a bit of cable and a plug to connect them to the grid.
How to do it
As of January 2022, these grid-connected micro-photovoltaic panels can be registered using the simplified registration system, which involves completing the 2-page “Microgeneration registration” form and returning it to the ESB. No other permissions or registered installers are obligatory for production below 6kW — about twenty panels*.
Smart meters, mostly found in fuse boxes, can measure generation on which payment calculations are based, although the interruption of smart meter roll-out coincided with very low usage of them.
Already – before registration system – 22-60.000 users
In 2021, it was estimated that anywhere from 22,000 to 60,000 Irish households have acquired micro-PV panels, unregistered, and absent smart meter connection, justifying the term ‘Guerrilla PV’ as such users are known in Europe.
“My local installer was a bit angry when I asked him if he sells them”, jokes Juri. The plug-in micro-pvs are transacted outside the heavily-subsidised RE market, in which installers can take up to 70-80% of the total price. Two installers typically charge €2,000 – €4,000 for two hours’ work. For many people this is too expensive, whereas €250 once-off is as affordable as a smart phone for most households.
6kW DIY is permissible
Juri participated in last year’s public consultation on microgeneration. He called for DIY installations to be accepted, a suggestion subsequently approved, with up to 6 KW allowed by DIY in Ireland, though it is little publicised. By comparison, Italy allows DIY installation of up to 1kW; the Netherlands and Germany 0.6kW, and Portugal just 0.1 kW. The scope to easily retrofit energy in this way can greatly assist those who are cash-strapped, or renting.
Just two plug-in panels per average person/household save about 20% of grid power consumption, reducing bills by about 15%.
Amortisation takes about 5 years, compared to 15 or 20 years for non-DIY panels.
According to Juri, some manufacturers are unhappy though they admit that such decentralised supply is cheaper and better than centralised supply.
Buy in North
Juri buys his panels in the North from BHC. They have a 30-year manufacturer
warranty (Solarwatt, made in Germany) and cost about € 150 with potential for 300W+ output each. Prices can triple for identical panels from the same manufacturer in Dublin though no doubt many will think it socially preferrable to buy locally.
Juri sources inverters online, from Hoymiles or other suppliers and notes that postage costs can be the decisive factor.
Plug-and-play, register, and forget
“In short”, says Juri, “unless you want to route through an intelligent ‘smart meter’, just plug-and-play, register, and forget. It’s that simple!”.
Other Solar Incentives: Blaze or Twinkle
Beyond its attraction as a target in the event of invasion, centralised electricity generation makes the grid unstable, and an unstable grid makes power supply unstable. Ireland with its already very centralised supply has a very high System Average Interruption Duration Index (the indicator of supply reliability), much higher than countries with a decentralised supply like Denmark or Germany.
Power monopolies reinforcing their own dominance pose major threats to economies — a heated election issue recently for France, where proposed expansion of nuclear capacity seems to be ill-advised.
In England, Preston’s model of ‘community wealth building’ seeks to keep business benefits local.
Ireland has agreed an 80% renewable electricity target, up from 70%.
The only capacity increase it has suggested to meet this is for solar. Officials now want that sector to supply up to 2.5GW by end-decade, instead of 1.5GW.
Onshore wind’s goal of around 8GW, up from 4GW-plus online today, has not changed.
There is also a commitment for increased energy storage deployment.
Ireland’s maximum electricity demand for the foreseeable future is about 5 GW at any time. Constructing new power plants with 1 GW output each is being discussed. This would overload an already over-centralised system, requiring more money for cables and interconnectors, meaning reduced flexibility, but higher grid charges.
One generator could not compensate for another breaking down. For geographical reasons, islandscan especially benefit from dispersed power. In so many respects, the superiority of decentralised supply is being verified by study after study. It seems that large-scale generators tend to destabilise energy systems at great expense, in contrast to small-scale micro-generators which stabilise them virtually cost-free. And this microgeneration can be done independently of ‘support’.
Micro PV means independence from burdensome or mistaken government and market forces.
Chronic above-average prices are predicted in the UK due to its large nuclear power plants and a lack of onshore RE power plants. Since Ireland’s electricity supply is linked to the UK grid, power price increases there are felt here.
Catching some Rays for Peace
EU reliance on Russian energy undermines the European Commission’s ambition to get consensus on oil sanctions because of the Ukraine invasion. Playing a strong hand, Russian energy giant Gazprom announced gas supply cuts to Poland and Bulgaria over their refusal to pay in roubles, upping the global currency war stakes.
The Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) recently warned that, “the current cascading crisis in Ukraine makes it positively clear that we must invest in a secure, reliable, resilient, decentralized, democratic, and 100% clean and renewable energy system. Energy independence and climate change are both issues of national security”. Ending this dependency is urgent both on environmental and peace-and-justice grounds.
For Future Generations
At an Intergenerational Conference in Cork in 2019, the keynote speaker was President Michael D Higgins. He spoke about the link between economics, ecology and ethics, saying there have been many “Gretas in the past, who were completed ignored”, and he referred to a “moral imperative on everyone to change their lifestyles, so that a “new ecological-social paradigm” can emerge to address climate injustice. Look up outside for one splendid solution.
- Correction: The first paragraph of the ‘How to do it’ section above has been corrected post-publication as follows: “No other permissions or registered installers are obligatory for production below 3 6kW — about ten twenty panels.” Closer perusal of a key ESB document released in December 2021, entitled Conditions Governing the Connection and Operation of MicroGeneration confirms that Irish citizens can install up to 6 kW home microgeneration without requiring any other permission except to register. The relevant sections are: Forward, i. Scope on page 1, and 4.2 ‘Implementation of ‘Inform and Fit’ Process’, on page 13, both of which authorise DIY energy “…not exceeding 25 A single phase (c. 6 kVA) or 16 A per phase three phase (c. 11kVA) …”‘.