We all know that we can make hay when the sun shines (provided there is grass available), but ever-improving technologies make the concept of converting solar power into electrical energy a very viable proposition.
The technology is not new, having been developed initially by NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency in the USA, many decades ago. However, innovation and mass production have made solar power in the form of electrical energy a commercial reality. A pilot programme on converting solar energy into electricity is ongoing on a Kilkenny farm. The farmer in question, Cathal Moran, would be familiar to the many farmers who attended last year’s IGA Summer Dairy Tour. He has agreed with Elgin Energy to install a set of photovoltaic (PV) panels on his farm with a view to establishing their electrical conversion efficiency and the role that PV cells can play in providing electrical power on
a dairy farm. Cathal outlines his initial experience: “These are ground-mounted panels, though they can be installed as roof-mounted units. The overall scale is relatively small and the fact that they are on the ground made their installation very simple and straightforward. The intention is that farmers will use the electricity produced to power their energy requirements in their dairy operations.
There are two main electrical peaks on a dairy farm, There are two main electrical peaks on a dairy farm, coinciding with morning and evening milkings. Solar energy production runs through the daylight hours, so it misses out on providing electrical power for one portion of the peak usage. The idea is to match, as far as possible the demand and the output, allowing for the divergent peaks of use. At the moment there is a lot of monitoring of energy production in the pilot project so that the most efficient means of using the energy can be established. It strikes me that, to maximise usage, there may have to be battery back-up.”
No return for surplus production
At the moment there is no means of being recompensed. At the moment there is no means of being recompensed for solar energy produced, over and above what is used on the farm. Surplus production goes back into the national electricity grid without any payment. That is set to change in the future as the ESB is now in a transition from carbon based electricity production that will see a total changeover to renewable energy production by 2030.The understanding is that surplus energy production from micro production units will be bought by the utility. This developing scenario may take some time to become the norm but there is every likelihood that the concept of the farm as an energy producer and utiliser with any surplus being supplied into the grid for a fee, is nearer reality than many realise.
The science behind solar technology
The science behind solar technology Michael Moore, project Manager with Elgin Energy, explains the science behind solar electrical power:“There are two types of solar energy production, one is solar thermal and the other is solar photovoltaic, which converts solar energy into electrical power. The thermal models use tubes to heat water while the PV units use the energy from the sun and convert it into electrons which turn into electricity.”
Bright future for solar energy
Michael is very positive about the emerging solar energyMichael is very positive about the emerging solar energy production sector: “The Swiss and Germans have been using PV technology since the 1970s. In the intervening time it has spread across the world and has been brought to China where mass production of PV cells has made solar a very commercial and viable energy source. Since 2010 the cost of PV panels has dropped bywell over eighty percent. It’s on that basis that it is now economically viable to deploy solar PV in climates like economically viable to deploy solar PV in climates like Ireland, the UK and northern Germany. There has been a huge roll-out of solar PV in Germany over the past few years. That is primarily down to the reduced cost of producing these PV cells.”
While the pilot project on Cathal Moran’s farm is a small. While the pilot project on Cathal Moran’s farm is a smallscale experimental unit, there are already large scale units developed by Elgin and other energy companies in operation, with Michael Moore highlighting large scale commercial solar installations operating in NorthernIreland, with the firm intention of further projects being developed in the years ahead.
Over the last few years, Michael says, there have been. Over the last few years, Michael says, there have been government supported schemes for the installationand operation of solar PV’s in other countries. That, he insists, is similar to all new technologies that require‘kick-starting’: “There has been a guaranteed price forthat electricity. Currently, in Ireland, there is no means by which electricity from PV can be sold back to the Grid. But for the likes of Cathal and others, there is a longer term view. This is a twenty to thirty-year timescale. The cost of the electricity that is being produced on the Moran farm, for instance, will be the same cost in twenty to thirty years’ time. Historically, energy costs have increased over time, with fluctuations up and down during any given period. That upward trend is due to the vagaries of fossil fuel prices, production and availability. It would be great if there were to be government support and incentive but we see that over the coming years solar produced electricity will be a viable proposition.”
This is technology that is constantly developing andThis is technology that is constantly developing and improving as the Elgin Energy representative outlines:“There are two aspects to this. One is the cost and howthose costs have reduced in recent years. The expectation is that those costs will reduce further. A standard panel previously would have been 160 Watts. In the next two years that standard panel will be 300-400 watts. That means there will be more power for every square metre, while still erecting the same number of panels. So the unit cost of power, along with the labour required to set it up,is set to fall significantly.”
The recent heat wave in Ireland meant that Elgin’sThe recent heat wave in Ireland meant that Elgin’sexpectations of electricity production on the Moran farm were vastly exceeded. There is a need for daylight for solar energy production.
However, strong sunlight is not a necessity: “Our aim, However, strong sunlight is not a necessity: “Our aim with the solar project on Cathal Moran’s farm is to look in greater depth at the electrical requirements in the dairy industry, particularly in the peak milk production period running from April through to October. That’s when the energy requirement is greatest. That also coincides with the longest daylight hours.”
Battery technology catching up
As an aside, Michael Moore notes that battery power. As an aside, Michael Moore notes that battery power is developing apace with solar and wind power: “Newtypes of battery have at least the potential to be game changers in the storage of surplus energy from renewable energy sources.” If battery storage technology develops sufficiently in the short to medium term then solar and other renewable power sources will become the norm, casting aside, at last, our dependence on finite fossil fuels to power the planet.