The energy transition is definitely underway. Caroline O’Doherty writes in the Irish Examiner about how farmers are turning to lease their land to companies installing solar energy systems. Yet, the national farmers association raises a word of caution.
Farmers take a shine to solar energy, but IFA urges caution
The prospect of a financial return from the land without the slog and uncertainty of traditional agriculture sounds attractive, so solar energy companies haven’t had to shout too loudly to get farmers’ attention.
“There has been a phenomenal amount of engagement with farmers and landowners over the last 12 months,” says James Murphy, chairman of the Irish Farmers Association’s (IFA) renewables project team, who believes more than 6,000 acres are under some form of solar contract.
“There is a real income crisis across the sector, particularly in dry stock and grain, so an alternative like a renewable energy project will get looked at.”
IFA policy is to encourage farmers to investigate what’s on offer but to go in with their eyes open.
“Our attitude is, yes, by all means look at it, you’ve got to look at it, but be aware of all the facts and implications,” says Mr Murphy.
Energy companies make it sound easy. They lease the land for 20-30 years at a fee per acre per year — the going rate is €1,000-€1,200 — and return it intact at the end.
If sheep are your business, you may be able to retain grazing rights, as the panels are just high enough off the ground with sufficient spacing not to deter grass growth. What’s not to like?
“It sounds simple in theory, but many farmers will probably lose 50% of whatever they’re paid in tax, so that takes a lot of the gloss off it,” says Mr Murphy.
“There is a real need for any farmer who is approached by a renewable energy company to reach out to a good solicitor, or accountant, or the IFA, to identify the pitfalls and the questions that need to be asked. For example, who will be responsible for maintenance of the site?
“Some of the companies will say ‘we’ll give you €2,000 a year to maintain it’. Does that mean that, after five or six years, when there is lots of clumps of nettle and thistles, you’re going to be out on 20 or 30 acres with a strimmer?”
The length of the contract is something farmers need to be sure they can live with.
“Farmers are a lot more open-minded to longer-term projects that may not necessarily be the equivalent of striking the mother lode, but are going to be good, steady-income streams, but this is an intergenerational decision and they need to be absolutely certain that the whole family is aware of what is being considered here, because when you sign the contract, there is no easy way out,” says Mr Murphy.
“Some of these contracts have the option to run for another number of years at the end of the initial period, so you are talking about something similar to forestry. It’s a very significant decision for the family.”
A common objection to solar farms in Britain is that they take prime food-producing agricultural land out of production. Mr Murphy says that’s symptomatic of the failure of policy-makers to fully explain the rationale behind the push for solar.
“There is a lack of engagement with communities and a lack of real understanding of the need for us to diversify away from fossil fuels towards green energy sources,” he says.
“In our initial stab at developing renewable energy, the Government stood back and pretty much let the large developers develop large-scale wind projects and that’s where this culture of objection has primarily come from.
“As for this argument that the land shouldn’t be taken out of food production, well I’d point out that there’s no scarcity of food.”
The IFA says that when applications for access to the national grid are processed, developers who offer the local community a buy-in option should get priority.
“Also we’ve got to look at developing policy that would encourage communities to develop renewable energy projects ourselves, not to leave it to the developers,” says Mr Murphy.
The IFA is frustrated that no decision has been taken on State supports for solar.
“We need Government to come into this space with a bit of authority, bringing a bit of clarity and then we can move forward.”
The same dearth of policy is deterring rooftop solar installations, despite the fact that large agricultural buildings could hold panels sufficient to supply electricity to the farm, with excess to sell to the national grid.
“Access to the grid is a big issue here,” says Mr Murphy. “It’s more difficult for a landowner or farmer in Ireland to get access to the grid than larger, developer-driven projects. It’s a pity, because one of the exciting things about solar is that the technology is advancing all the time as they make more progress with batteries to store the excess energy.
“It’s quite conceivable that in the not too distant future, all the bigger farmers will have PV panels on their roof and they’ll have a runaround car, maybe a light jeep, and possibly a small tractor for doing the lighter work on the farm that will all be battery-powered. That’s an area we need to be looking at.”