Opportunities for rural dwellers – electricity generation
These changes provide opportunities for those rural dwellers who can afford it to become involved at the individual home scale, at community level and as shareholders in the commercial generation projects.
Rural areas are, and will be, the site of most electricity generation and with the move to more renewables, the location of generation will often follow the resources to areas with most wind or potential for solar generation. This means that some rural dwellers are, and more will be, living in proximity to wind and solar farms and the infrastructure needed to transmit and distribute electricity from them. This has, on occasion, given rise to concerns from rural dwellers and difficulties in ensuring our electricity infrastructure is built in a timely manner. It is to be hoped that improved ways of consulting, planning and building such as EirGrid’s new strategy to 2025, new wind energy guidelines (the draft is published, consultation open to 19.02.20) and the new Renewable Electricity Support Scheme (RESS) will allow people living in rural areas to contribute to the planning and development of renewable electricity generation in their areas and to benefit from the investments in their locality (opportunities in the proposed RESS is discussed in more detail below).
At a small scale there are significant opportunities for rural dwellers to become involved in microgeneration. Installing solar panels for electricity generation or solar thermal systems for water heating are likely to be the best options but small scale hydro and wind may be installed where the conditions are good. More information about grants from SEAI for solar electricity (PV) is available here and information about solar water heating grant is here.
The microgeneration of electricity can be for ‘self-consumption’ purposes, with the electricity generated first going to power home appliances, electric heating systems (such as heat pumps) and to charge EVs. Electricity generated can also be stored for use later —perhaps after sunset in the case of solar— in batteries, including those in EVs or in other energy forms such as hot water and in heating systems. Finally, excess electricity generated can be exported into the national electricity grid. In many other places, Germany and the UK for example, the householder is paid for this electricity (there are a variety of possible mechanisms including a feed in tariff) but in Ireland this is not common policy (the exception being Electric Ireland which has a microgeneration pilot scheme for existing customers). The Climate Action Plan, however, commits to the launch of a finalised policy and pricing support regime for micro-generation (under Action 30) which will mean householders will be paid for the electricity they produce and do not use themselves. In future domestically generated electricity may be provided to other electricity users. Thus many rural dwellers who live in detached, unshaded houses, and who have capital to invest, are in a good position to become involved in electricity generation.
At a community level, there are also options for rural areas (and other places) to become involved in the Sustainable Energy Community (SEC) network. There are currently over 350 communities in the network with a target of increasing this to 1,500 in the Climate Action Plan. As well as householders the SEC can include a range of different energy users such as homeowners, sports clubs, community centres, local businesses and churches. Each community develops an energy use masterplan covering all aspects of energy use and resources. The focus is not just on electricity but on increasing the efficiency and sustainability of all energy use.
In order to increase local participation in electricity generation it is proposed that the new Renewable Electricity Support Scheme (RESS) will have a specific strand for projects with a majority community ownership and whose primary purpose is community benefit (environmental, economic or social) rather than financial profit. In addition to this option, every project developer will be obliged to contribute to a Community Benefit Fund at a rate of €2 per MWh every year (which could be more than €200,000 annually for a community from a 40 MW wind farm) and a community investment scheme (with a Renewable Electricity Participation offering of 5%) allowing people to invest in their local project (and more broadly where it is not fully subscribed locally). A key objective of the support scheme is to ensure more local involvement in generation projects (either community projects or as shareholders in projects developed by others) through these mechanisms. This scheme is currently in development and awaiting EU approval so some elements may change (see here for more information) but it should provide opportunities for rural people to share the benefits of the move to greater electrification and renewable generation in rural Ireland.