Ann Fitzgerald: ‘Our government must do more to encourage uptake of solar electricity’


Ann Fitzgerald: ‘Our government must do more to encourage uptake of solar electricity’

Solar energy panels
Solar energy panels

Our girls have found a new screen to look at and it’s a struggle to drag them away.

Thankfully, it’s a good screen, as far as we are concerned.

It’s the monitor for our new solar photovoltaic (PV) system.

The monitor shows pictorially how much energy is currently being generated, how much is going to the battery or from it, and how much is flowing to/from the grid. The figures are constantly changing.

The energy generated first satisfies any electrical demand in the house. Any excess goes to the battery, then heating water in the immersion. If there is any more left, it goes to the grid.

The kids are not the only ones who are mesmerised by it. We too check it every time we pass by.

It has also made us more conscious of our energy usage. In fact, it has actually started to change our behaviour.

Perhaps the best way of explaining this is by way of the following remark by my dear husband, as he walked into the kitchen one day last week:

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“Sorry, honey, I can’t do the ironing you scheduled for me (as if!), because the sun has gone in.”

So, to make the best use of the system, we are learning that heavy-use appliances should be used during daylight hours and also sequentially.

This is not always possible but it’s a good aspiration.

We did consider thermal panels, which heat water. But the house has been added to at different times so there are a few different ways of heating water which are not integrated.

Solar PV produces electricity, so can be used to power anything electrical.

The downside of this is that either the energy has to be used when it is being generated or stored for use at another time. Electricity is not easy to store, and batteries are expensive.

The PV panels take up a fair bit of roof space. From an aesthetic point of view, we were hesitant to put them on the house so were lucky that there is a shed nearby with the same south/south-east aspect.

We had two reasons for installing solar power: to reduce our electricity bill and, perhaps more importantly, to reduce our environmental impact.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) is offering grants of €700 per kW of installed power, up to a maximum of 4kW, plus €1,000 for a 2.4kWh battery, on houses built before 2011. The cost for a 3kW system would be in the region of €7-8,000 (less the grant).

Our job was done by a Tipperary-based company SolarCo. We went for a 6kW, plus the battery, which cost almost €11,000, and qualifies for the full grant of €3,800.

So it’s not cheap. The financial return on thermal panels is reckoned to be about six years, those on PVs about twice that. We’re promised that maintenance is minimal.

But there is an even bigger barrier to the widespread uptake of solar energy technology, as any excess electricity not used in the house is currently exported to the grid for free.

In the UK, by contrast, ordinary houseowners can make a nice few quid out of selling their excess. I personally would be happy just to be able to get credit for the excess produced.

A recent report from the European think tank CE Delft found that almost half of EU citizens could produce almost half of the EU’s energy by 2050.

But our government is slow to take action.

However, a private members’ bill, the Microgeneration Support Scheme Bill 2017, has put forward by Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley.

It would allow households, farms and community groups to receive payment for excess power they generate from renewable energy sources.

I’ve heard that it will be next year at least before its enacted.

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