The solar sector in Ireland has been picking up pace, with stronger renewable commitments from the new coalition government formed between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Ireland's Green Party.
As power prices have picked up in Ireland, as they have throughout Europe, so too has the interest in solar PV in the commercial and industrial (C&I) sector.
Irish designer and installer of solar renewables and energy storage systems Solar Electric has been working in the C&I space since it was set up in 2012. In July 2021, it was acquired by Pinergy in a move that is set to boost its growth strategies, as it looks to keep up with growing demand.
Solar Power Portal caught up with Solar Electric’s sales and marketing director Robert Goss to discuss how the market is changing, helped by stronger renewable commitments that are going to help “take the lid off” C&I solar.
Solar Power Portal: What limitations has C&I solar faced in the past in Ireland?
Robert Goss: ESB limited single phase domestic [solar installations] to 6kW, which actually is quite generous by world standards, I think. And then in three phase installations up to 11kW are [permitted] on form basis. But after that, they want us to install a G10 relay and ask for their permission to do the installation. So it's costly.
In this country there are quite a lot of 10kW installations, but none between 10kW and about 30kW because of the cost of the G10 relay, and then it probably makes [economic] sense again at about 50kW.
So they've created a gap in the market where traditionally you'd have had chicken sheds or you'd have had convenience stores that would have had PV or whatever, which hasn't happened here because of that rule. And if you are going to export any of your electricity, they are somewhat difficult to deal with and they haven't been fantastically helpful.
Why do you think there has been this gap previously?
One thing is the natural engineers caution. An engineer, when faced with something which might happen, will assume that it will happen. So the perfect full on wind day with full solar never happens because wind tends to blow at different times, but they are going to make a cautious assumption about what will happen if there was high wind, high solar.
The system is designed like most electricity systems, to export out from power stations to people's premises [and] not to do the reverse. And certainly, when you're adding utility scale solar, which is happening this year, then finding a node which has got capacity has been a challenge. And that kind of thinking also stretches on to C&I jobs.
I suppose the most obvious example would be one of the big pharmaceuticals who is right next to the racecourse and has to shut down for a week in July to correspond with the Galway races because you can't move, they can't drive to work, everything is chaos.
So the question from the ESB naturally is, 'well what are we going to do with all this power that's surging back through the system?' But then what they haven't said is, okay, these are the inverters or these are the limiters or these are the products that we accept, we'll curtail export. So they could work with us a bit more and provide something which is a mutually agreed containment system.
How important has the recent Climate Action Bill been for the adoption of C&I solar in Ireland?
It gives teeth to the intention. For example, local government here have been talking the talk about PV for the five years since I've been here, and really only installed a few hundred kilowatts across various council buildings since. But now they’re going to be measured for local revenue, for example, so they're going to have to do something.
Interestingly, there's a fair bit of work around at the moment in paid consultation relating to that, so instead of going out to tender, they don't even know what they've got, so they need to do a bit of consultation to find out which roofs they've got and whether they can do the fire stations or whatever other council buildings are there.
What do you think will drive C&I solar adoption going forwards?
The biggest thing is electricity prices have gone up. Here, midsize businesses that were paying maybe 14 [euro] cent a unit, and they are now paying 19 cent a unit. And you know how payback works. Even if you've went from 14 to 16 cent, you could make a case at 16, where you can't at 14. Well, now we've gone to 19.
Take, for example, a standard 50kW PV installation. You might be able to install that for €900/kW. At 19 cent, you're getting towards a five year payback time. Really, you've got the attention of mid-size businesses then, and like everybody reading the news about climate and they are trying to do something better.
Then planning permission is the thing which we've been promised will be changed every year for the last three years. That the exemptions will be made larger, and they haven't been.
Have you found the conversations you've been having with people who have changed much as a result of the pandemic?
Yeah, [as an example] there are people quoting for an office block in the suburbs of Dublin, where I can't really get a consumption figure for 2022. There were 900 people in the office block in 2018. And if you go now, there's 100 people in the whole building. Now, we don't know what number of people [there will be in the future].
But then you have to figure out, well, what part of the load [do the people represent?] In that particular building, they've got some labs and some other stuff, which uses quite a lot of power to cool the environment and to create a stable environment. So 50% of it is probably related to the number of people on staff on site. And there's probably another 50%, which is just baseload.
So there's those sort of questions, we can't just make the assumption that 2022 consumption patterns will be the same as this year.
Then the other thing is electric cars. I'm dealing with an office furniture company near Dublin. And I turn up there, they've got at least half a dozen Teslas, and some other stuff like electric vans for local deliveries and things like that. As soon as people start installing that, then again, that's a natural addition to PV again. That's all linked with how people behave.