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29th October 2014
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29th October 2014

Blue is the colour

Professor Brian Norton Ireland’s grey skies do not detract from the potential of solar power, according to DIT’s Brian Norton.

Professor Brian Norton, President of the Dublin Institute of Technology, told delegates attending the Energy Ireland conference that the large number of cloudy days ‘enjoyed’ in this part of the world should not be regarded as a deterrent where the application of solar technologies is concerned.

Making the point that the current technologies can deliver energy capture from the sun in a very efficient manner, he added: “The reality is that the cloud does not filter out the blue end of the spectrum, which contains the highest energy wave lengths. And, as a consequence, solar technologies can be considered to be viable options when it comes to assessing the renewable energy drivers for this country moving forward.”

Norton explained: “The general public is not fully aware of just how important solar power can be in terms of meeting our overall energy requirements. It is a proven technology, with a history stretching back over many decades, and Ireland is a centre of international research in this field.

“Solar can be used in a wide range of domestic and industrial energy applications. It is an extremely flexible technology and can be used to complement other energy sources. Moreover, it can be used at a macro-industrial scale, from an electricity generation perspective, or at the level of a single household.

“The good news is that there is a wide range of solar energy applications that can be successfully used in Ireland. In fact, we have the same potential to capture sunlight as is the case in a number of central European countries, including Austria. When assessed in the context, the potential role for solar technologies in this country becomes much more apparent. This is the base from which we can build for the future.”

The applications of grid-connected photovoltaic (PV) technology are wide-ranging. Moreover, they require very little maintenance. Using the electricity produced by the PV system directly in a building instead of purchasing electricity from the grid is referred to as offset.

A solar collector is a device that captures solar heat and transfers it to heat water most commonly for sanitary hot water production, or in cases where a building has a very low heat demand, then often for both space heating and hot water. Larger scale active solar thermal technologies can also be used for cooling and steam production. Steam produced in this way can be used to drive turbines for electricity production. Active solar heat technology produces heat for heating either water or air.

Prospects

Professor Norton confirmed that there is a global oversupply of PV at the present time with China being the main manufacturer. Over the past number of years, the market had been characterised by a very high degree of volatility.

He commented: “The history of the sector, internationally, should not overshadow its future potential here in Ireland. Demand for PVs is currently high in the EU, Japan and China. The growth in the use of the technology in Japan can be linked directly to the recent Fukushima power plant incident. At the present time, the share of PV generated output in the EU, when assessed as a percentage of total electricity generation ranges from 1.0 per cent in the case of France to almost 6.0 per cent for Italy.”

The use of PV generated electricity in Ireland remains extremely low. However, Professor Norton did point out that Irish lighthouses are now powered in this way. Delegates were informed that solar technologies have the potential to significantly reduce Ireland’s reliance on fossil fuels.

In 1997, Samsoe won a government competition to become a model renewable energy community. At the time Samsoe was entirely dependent on oil and coal, both of which it imported from the mainland. An offshore wind farm comprising 10 turbines (making a total of 21 altogether including landbased windmills), was completed, funded by the islanders. The people of Samsoe heat their homes with straw burned in a central heating system and they power some vehicles on biofuel which they also grow. Now 100% of its electricity comes from wind power and 75% of its heat comes from solar power and biomass energy. An Energy Academy has opened in Ballen, with a visitor education center. Solar panels are also used in heating and hot water production along the biomass plant. “We have all seen how volatile oil and gas prices can be,” he commented. “The adoption of solar is one way of hedging against inflation, where energy costs are concerned. What’s more, the actual systems used to harness the power of the sun are extremely robust. For example, a PV has an estimated lifetime of twenty-plus years. This, in turn, makes the estimated 17-year payback for the range of solar technologies available today a more than feasible option.

“Another attraction of solar is the fact that the systems put in place can be easily maintained and repaired, should anything go wrong,” he added.

One of the big drivers mitigating against the greater uptake of solar power in Ireland at the present time is the cost of installation.

“Contractors’ charges are far too high,” Brian Norton stressed. “In Ireland today, the expected installation time in a standard domestic context is around two days. However, in Australia the time required to carry out the same job is a fraction of this. If solar power is to gain a further foothold within the Irish market, then the issue of excessive installation costs must be actively addressed.”

According to Professor Norton, another key challenge confronting the solar electricity generating sector in Ireland is the cost of the required grid connection.

“There are a number of issues which government must address in this regard,” he further commented. “These include the development of a grid which is able to accept electricity from small embedded generators. Companies working in the field also need access to a stable feed in tariff. And overarching all of this is the need for government to actively promote the greater utilisation of solar power in this country.”

Application

The most common application of the sun’s thermal energy is solar water heating. Solar panels, generally located on a south-facing roof, transform solar radiation into heat. The heat produced during the day is stored in a large hot water cylinder, so that it can be used at any time.

Not surprisingly, Brian Norton also envisages the growth of solar heating systems in Ireland. “We know that solar water heaters can provide continuous hot water, with back-up, for 160 days in the year,” he confirmed. “And as time progresses, this option will become a lot more efficient and financially attractive. Technological advancement will ensure that this is the case.”

Conference delegates were left in no doubt that solar power has a ‘bright’ future in Ireland. The technology is suitably advanced to allow it take its place amongst the other renewable energy options now being developed. And while the market will help deliver a proportion of this growth Brian Norton made it perfectly clear that government must also play a key role in allowing the sustainable development of the sector.

He stated: “A glimpse into the future is now being provided courtesy of this island’s first solar farm, which will be located outside Downpatrick in Northern Ireland. This is a 5.1MW project, centred on 22,000 ground-mounted solar panels. The installation will provide power for up to 1,500 homes for the next thirty years. The total investment is €7.6 million.”

If this project is shown to be sustainable, it should act as a role model for other initiatives of a similar nature.

“While solar is a proven technology, we are still only scratching the surface in terms of what it can deliver for the future,” he said in conclusion, “but we need good regulations to allow all of this potential to be harnessed. There are still too many obstacles in place which prevent the further uptake of solar technologies.”