- Eco Electricity
Ireland ’s reliance on fossil fuel sources for electricity generation places the whole country on unstable ground as these limited resources dwindle. Although even homeowners have the option of generating electricity independently using renewable energy resources, realisation of this potential is being seriously undermined by no option of selling electricity back into the grid, as Andy Wilson, Energy Spokesperson for the Mayo Eco Builders Group describes.
In 2001 the European Union adopted the Electricity Production from Renewable Energy Sources (RES) Directive, which set a target of 20% of electricity to be produced from renewable sources by 2010. Rather than have the same targets for individual member states, national targets were based on a number of different factors such as resource potential, existing infrastructure, the cost of developing the resource and also the current levels of production of renewable energy.
By most criteria, Ireland lay near the bottom of the league table. In 1997, only 3.6% of electricity came from renewable sources, compared with the European average of 13.9%. We were set a modest target of 13.2% of electricity to be generated from renewable sources by the year 2010. With only five years left, we are no nearer to attaining t his target than we were when it was first set. Although the amount of electricity produced from renewable sources has gone up slightly, the total amount of energy we are using has risen in tandem. The best case scenario would seem to be about 6% of energy from renewable sources by 2010. Given that Ireland has an enormous potential for renewable energy, our lack of progress in developing this resource is nothing short of embarrassing . Of the fifteen pre accession EU states, only Belgium , Finland and Luxembourg produce less electricity from the wind than Ireland . In spite of the fact that the potential for wind energy is actually much greater here in Ireland than it is in Denmark , the Danish manage to generate twenty times as much electricity from wind as we do in this country.
So far, almost all the investment and research into developing our renewable energy resources has gone into large scale projects such as multi megawatt wind farms. While such projects are essential if we are to tap into our huge wind energy potential here in Ireland , it would also be fair to say that so far they have not delivered. The problems are both many and complex:
Preferential treatment by the State towards ESB owned or part owned wind farms has seriously discouraged initiatives from the private sector. Insensitivity to environmental and local community concerns has given wind farms a very bad press. Ambiguity and confusion about State policy in relation to renewable energy has led to a number of perfectly reasonable planning applications being turned down.
Furthermore, owing to infrastructural deficiencies, the ESB grid network is incapable of accommodating any additional generating capacity from many of the locations where large scale wind farms would be suitable.
Unfortunately, even with the best will in the world, it will be a number of years before all of these problems are addressed. There are, of course, alternatives to wind energy. There is massive potential for wave energy and for under sea turbines located in tidal streams but these technologies are still in their infancies. Electricity could also be generated from biomass; from waste products such as sawdust or from regularly coppiced plantations of fast growing willow. But, in this author’s view, the contribution from biomass towards electricity generation is going to be negligible for at least another 15 years
One problem which is often cited is the question of the fluctuating supply provided by renewable energy sources. At times there will be a surplus of power while on other occasions there will be a shortfall. There needs to be the capacity within the National Grid to absorb such fluctuations. The solution lies in having an instantaneous back up source of electricity which can be brought on line or switched off as required. In Denmark, where over twenty percent of electricity is generated in large wind farms, the back up comes in the form of hydro electricity imported from Norway and Sweden. In Ireland, our options at present would appear to be more limited, so this would suggest some continued reliance on fossil fuel power stations, until such time as alternative ‘on demand’ supplies of electricity are available from biomass or other non fluctuating renewable sources.
One further point which needs to be acknowledged is that the price we pay for our ‘cheap’ fossil fuels bears no relationship to the real environmental price tag they carry, in terms of global warming and catastrophic climatic change, pollution of our air, land and seas, resource depletion and so on. If we could put an economic price on all this, fossil fuels would be many times more expensive and the alternatives would suddenly be a lot more attractive!
Small Scale Production
Solutions however, don’t always have to be big. In fact there is a lot to be said for decentralising electricity production. Transmission losses from long distance cables linking large power stations with distant cities are considerable, as are the resources required simply to produce the cables and string them across the landscape on massive pylons.
The potential for the production of electricity from small solar photovoltaic (PV) installations and from domestic sized wind turbines is often under estimated. Almost every single house could have its own PV panels built into the roof and many homes have potential for electricity generation from the wind too. Indeed, in theory, it is possible for a significant proportion of all domestic electricity requirements to be met by home production.
There are a number of factors which have impeded the development of small scale renewable technologies: short sighted or inflexible planning and building regulations, the initial high financial outlay in setting up the PV array or small wind turbine, and a disappointing lack of interest from within both the manufacturing and construction sectors . The Government itself could do much to remedy these difficulties, by encouraging investment in renewable energy technologies, offering grants or tax incentives for householders interested in installing PV panels or small turbines, and by giving clear directives to planners to support planning applications for small scale renewable energy projects.
At the moment, there is no opportunity for small scale producers of electricity to connect to the National Grid, purely because the ESB is not interested in facilitating such a move. In most other western European countries, such a connection is routine and no more difficult or complex than having a meter board installed in one’s house. In the UK , for instance, it is possible for the smallest of wind turbines and solar panels to be connected to the National grid. Furthermore, the UK is considering changes in building regulations which will make it obligatory for all new homes to have solar PV or solar thermal capability. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has proposed that these changes come into effect from the beginning of next year. Of the pre accession EU15 countries, Ireland is alone in having no contribution to the National Grid from solar PV.
The Benefits of Domestic Production of Electricity from Renewable Sources
A south facing solar PV array of 22m² will deliver some 2 MWh (2,000 kWh) for electricity per annum. If every house built in Ireland during the last two years had such an array, this alone would deliver some 300 GWh (0.3 Billion kWh) of electricity per annum or in other words 1.2% of Ireland ’s current total electricity requirements. It is realistic to expect that 2-4% of Ireland ’s total electricity needs could be met by domestic solar PV by 2020. In the longer term, however, this contribution could be considerably higher.
In 1998, the LT1 Energy Research Group reported on a study they had carried out to see whether the European Union could meet its energy needs with only a minimal input from fossil fuels. The scenario they looked at assumed that only 5% of our energy requirements would be met by fossil fuels, and that nuclear power stations would also be phased out. The remaining 95% of our energy requirements would be met by energy from renewable sources, namely solar, wind, biomass, hydro and geothermal. The target date to achieve this objective was 2050, because it was felt that it would take this length of time to make a relatively smooth transition to a society based almost entirely on renewable energy sources. Although living standards would remain constant, it was estimated that the actual amount of energy consumed per capita would fall by almost two thirds. This would involve a profound and radical restructuring of society, something which could not possibly be achieved without widespread popular support.
If we assume the LT1 scenario outlined above, that our national energy requirements will be reduced by almost 66% and that society will be gradually restructured to maximise the use of renewable energy, domestic solar PV could eventually provide in excess of 10% of our total electricity requirements.
A small unobtrusive wind turbine of 2.5kW rated output will deliver some 4-10 MWh (4,000-10,000 kWh) per annum. This is considerably more electricity than is used by many households: in a recent survey carried out in the Westport area, I found that domestic electricity requirements (for households with children) ranged from approximately 1.2-9.6 MWh (1,200-9,600 kWh) per annum. In Ireland , we have several hundred thousand rural dwellings and even if only twenty per cent of these had their own small turbine, this would contribute another one per cent to our total electricity requirements. The potential, however, is far greater.
The largest installation which could connect to the National Grid at mains voltages would have a rated output in the region of 15-20 kW. A wind turbine of this size would have a rotor diameter of eight to ten meters and would probable require a mast some fifteen meters high, or roughly twice as high as a standard ESB pole. A turbine with a rated output of 15 kW will deliver up to 65 MWh (65,000 kWh) per annum. A turbine of this size would meet the electricity requirements of a number of households. If these turbines were installed countrywide at an average density of just one turbine per km², this would deliver some 2 TWh (2 Billion kW) of electricity per annum or in other words about eight per cent of our total electricity requirements!
The realistic contribution turbines in the domestic range will make towards Ireland ’s future electricity requirements is hard to estimate as it will depend on many different factors. In the end, it may come down to the level of incentives on offer to the general public, and to the degree to which domestic sized installations are promoted. While the large turbines used in commercial wind farms are often cited as giving a greater return of energy per unit cost, this may not be the case when all external factors are properly considered. The commercial turbines are not without their problems and unlike the domestic installations, they require an elaborate and expensive infrastructure of power lines, sub stations and so on. It would seem prudent to develop renewable energy at all levels: large; medium; and domestic.
Nationally, domestic wind turbines could provide anything from less than one per cent to in excess of four per cent of our total electricity requirements by 2020. In some favourable rural areas, the percentage of local electricity requirements which is met by domestic wind turbines could approach 100%.
The Campaign for Grid Connect
Over the last eighteen months, I have been involved in a campaign to obtain grid connection for domestic installations which generate electricity from renewable sources. This campaign is purely focussed on installations which are small enough to connect to the National Grid at mains voltage, or in other words, installations with a rated output of 20kW or less. The reason for this is that there are no technical difficulties to overcome in order to achieve connection.
The preferred metering arrangement is one known as net metering. This is the name given to a system in which a consumer who both exports electricity to and imports electricity from the grid only pays for the net number of units used. In the event of more units being exported than imported, the consumer receives payment for the balance from the utility company, in this case the ESB. All that is required is a domestic electricity meter capable of running both forwards and backwards. Alternatively, a twin metering system may be used, with one meter for electricity sold to the Grid and one for electricity purchased by the consumer during times of no wind or low levels of solar radiation. There are absolutely no technical difficulties to overcome. This latter point cannot be emphasized enough.
With the notable exception of the Green Party, interest from the main political parties in the Campaign for Grid Connect has been slow to materialise. More recently, however, there have been some encouraging signs and a meeting is to take place with officials from the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to discuss our proposals in detail. The proposals cover a wide spectrum of initiatives and include an extensive appendix which details costs, generating capacity, environmental impact, safety and other pertinent issues. The principle proposals are, in summary:
1. The Obligation of the Utilities to Provide Grid Connect on Demand and the Provision of Net Metering (subject to a maximum rated output of 15kW)
There should be an absolute obligation on the part of the ESB and its successors to provide grid connect for any small scale producer who wishes to supply electricity generated from renewable sources to the national grid. Such a connection should be provided by the utility at a cost no higher than the fee charged to connect a domestic user to the grid, and should be free in cases where a domestic mains supply is already in place.
This is a basic minimum requirement. Cost to the State: effectively nothing. Gains: promotion of renewable energy; CO² emission reduction; employment in the renewable energy sector.
2 Low or Zero VAT Rates for Domestic Installations
This is not a new idea. In the UK , customers installing small turbines at a new house can claim back all the VAT. Customers installing a turbine at an existing dwelling pay VAT at the lower rate of 5%. The standard VAT rate in the UK is 17.5%.
Inthe Republic of Ireland a number of goods and services are zero rated for VAT. These include medicines, seeds, books, children’s goods and many other items and services. It is proposed that a new zero VAT category be introduced in the Republic to cover domestic turbines (both wind and hydro) and solar PV installations up to a rated output of 15kW.This category, if desired, could be extended to cover all small scale renewable energy appliances, equipment and services within the domestic sector.
One alternative to the zero VAT rate would be income tax credits. However, there is no guarantee that this option would equally benefit all those who might wish to generate electricity from small scale renewable sources. We would have concerns that income tax incentives would only be beneficial to the well off. The zero VAT rate proposed above is a more equitable arrangement.
3 Capital Grants
There are a number of different grants available in the UK which domestic customers and community groups can avail of. Grants are up to 50% of capital and installation costs for domestic customers and up to 100% for non profit making community groups. The grants cover small wind turbines, small hydro electric schemes and solar PV panels. Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Italy also have programs which support domestic PV installation. In most cases installation must be carried out by accredited installers in order to qualify for the grant. It is proposed that a 50% grant to cover capital and installation costs be introduced in the Republic of Ireland, subject to a maximum grant of €20,000 per application.
We are proposing that €10 Million should be initially earmarked for grants. We also propose that a further €30 Million is to be made available at a later date, possibly 2008, if the scheme is running satisfactorily. The average size of domestic grant (per application) is likely to be in the region of €5,000-10,000.
4 Planning Directives
At the moment local planners are often indifferent or even hostile towards domestic planning applications which include arrays of solar panels or small scale turbines. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this assertion. Too often, planners have a very narrow and conservative outlook when it comes to planning applications which deviate from the so called ‘vernacular’, with the result that innovative designs which use energy from renewable sources are turned down or never even get to the application stage because applicants are too disillusioned to proceed with their application.
In real terms, the environmental impact of an array of solar PV built into a house roof or of a small wind turbine on a ten meter pole, in extremely minimal. In the case of wind turbines, however, there should be strict guidelines in relation to noise. Furthermore, it is proposed that environmental impact assessments be carried out for all installations involving turbines with a rated output of greater than 6 kW or PV installations with a rated output of greater than 5 kW.
Given that the Government has stated on numerous occasions its commitment to promoting energy from renewable sources, it is important that this commitment is reflected in clear planning guidelines and directives.
5 The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD)
This EU Directive was originally due to come into effect in January 2006. This now seems unlikely. We are proposing that the system of evaluation adopted by the EPBD takes into consideration the proportion of domestic energy requirements which are met by energy from renewable sources. Thus, a building which relies on fossil fuels for heat or electricity should be given a lower or inferior rating than a similar building which uses energy from renewable sources.
6 Promoting the case for Domestic Production of Energy from Renewable Sources
It is proposed that Ireland adopt a proactive approach with regard to small scale generation of electricity from renewable sources, similar to the approach in countries such as Germany and the UK. Over one hundred thousand domestic roofs in Germany were fitted with solar PV panels in the last three years alone. This would equate to approximately five thousand roofs in a country with the same population as Ireland. In Ireland at present however, it is unlikely that even two hundred householders have PV panels, never mind five thousand. There is a great need to educate the public, both of the importance of reducing our dependency of fossil fuels, and of what alternatives are available.
We are proposing that issues pertaining to the environment in general and to renewable energy in particular, are given a much higher priority rating within the education sector. Detailed proposals will be made to the Department of Education and to the appropriate teachers’ representative bodies in due course.
7 Training and Certification
Ireland has a huge potential for developing renewable energy. This potential, however, will not be realised unless we have the necessary expertise within the ranks of the labour force. As the renewable sector begins to expand, there will be a growing need for consultants, installers, and skilled technicians to service the growing demand. At present, the few skilled and technically competent people who are operating in this sector are either self taught or have received training outside Ireland. It is vital that appropriate training is provided here in Ireland, both in the universities and technical colleges as well as on a part time basis in adult education classes such as those provided by VETOS, VEC, and FAS and so on.
The development of skills and expertise within the renewable energy sector is something which Ireland will ignore at its peril. In the years to come, this sector will be our most valuable asset, of greater long term value than either the IT sector or tourism. Once the realities of fossil fuel depletion begin to bite, it is likely that most of the tourist sector will cease to exist. Much of the IT industry, in the meantime, will have relocated in China and other parts of the Far East.
Of equal concern is the growing evidence that unscrupulous cowboy operators are jumping on the renewable energy bandwagon. Words like green, renewable and sustainable are being cynically exploited to take advantage of an unsuspecting general public. We would welcome the introduction of a system of certification which can be applied to all people working in the renewable energy sector.
The Campaign for Grid Connect has concluded that there are no technical, logistic or financial reasons why Grid Connect and Net Metering cannot be implemented almost immediately, once the appropriate measures are put in place. The whole procedure is so straightforward and so simple to implement one can’t help but wonder why this campaign is even necessary in the first place. We feel that the ESB have been less than helpful in this regard and somewhat out of touch with what is happening in the rest of Europe . We are the only pre accession EU country not to be feeding electricity from solar PV and/or domestic turbines into the grid. It is important that clear directives are now given to the ESB to facilitate the grid connect process. We are proposing that the target date of 1 st November 2005 is set for the realisation of Grid Connect and Net Metering.
With the inclusion of a package of supporting measures in the form of capital grants and zero VAT, we believe that the proposals we have put forward represent an extremely effective way not only to promote renewable energy in Ireland , but also to involve the wider public in the process. In the long term, the importance of getting the public on board with regard to renewable energy cannot be over estimated. Both with the tax on plastic bags and the banning of smoking in the work place, the Irish public have demonstrated a concern for health and environmental issues. We believe that this concern can also be mobilised to embrace renewable energy.
Andy Wilson is Energy Spokesperson for the Mayo Eco Builders Group and describes himself as a ‘Bioclimatic House Design and Renewable Energy Consultant’. In addition to advising people on how to design and build energy efficient houses, he is also involved in the actual building of a ‘low environmental impact’ house in the Clew Bay area of Co. Mayo.
Andy has recently completed a study into the environmental impact of housing. The study, ‘The Real Cost of Building, Heating and Running and Servicing Your Home’ will be published in the near future. One of the most interesting findings is that far more energy is used to produce and process the food we eat, and to satisfy our domestic transportation needs, than is used to construct or heat our homes.
References and further reading
The Whole House Book, Borer and Harris
Renewable Energy: Power for a Sustainable Future, Boyle
Before the Wells Run Dry: Ireland’s Transition to Renewable Energy, Douthwaite (ed)
Green Building Bible 2nd Edition, Hall
(Ed)Introduction to Architectural Science: The Basis of Sustainable Design, Szokolay
The Party’s Over: The Fate of Industrial Societies, Heinberg
LT1 Research Group: Long Term Integration of Renewable Energy Sources into the European Energy Sector
Renewable Energy Sources into the European Energy Sector
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