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The rise of rural solar farms: A new gold rush meets the wild west of runaway developments

A battery of new solar farms planned for Co Meath has led to sparks flying among locals who are divided on the benefits and negative effects on nature and biodiversity

Twenty years ago Paul McCue decided to move his young family from Mulhuddart in Dublin to the countryside in search of a quieter life.

They settled for an isolated labourer’s cottage in a townland called Fidorfe, near Ashbourne in Co Meath. It was all they wished for: a quaint traditional cottage with a red door in a wonderful bucolic setting.

“We would sit in the garden during the summer and watch pheasants and rabbits pass by,” said McCue.

All that changed two years ago when work began on converting the farm next door into a solar farm.


Over the following months, the cottage was gradually surrounded by photovoltaic (PV) panels, which generate electricity when exposed to sunlight, that stretched out as far as the eye could see in each direction. McCue’s cottage became an island in a sea of glass panels.

Now, he wants out. His house is up for sale but there have been few viewings. He believes people won’t buy as they are put off by the solar panels.

“I basically don’t want to live on a solar farm because I don’t know what health implications it could have for me and my family. It’s not a nice place to be,” he said.

Just before Christmas, Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan said the uptake of solar energy in Ireland had gone “gangbusters”. He was not exaggerating. Only two years ago, Ireland had the lowest watts per capita output of solar energy in the EU — 50 times less per person than the Netherlands.

The Government’s target was to achieve 2.5 gigawatts (GW) of solar power by 2030. One gigawatt of solar power is enough to generate about 750,000 homes. From 2022, solar PV power stopped being a fringe technology and became a central plank of the State’s renewable policy. The target for 2030 was quickly increased to 8GW, or enough to provide electricity for over six million homes.

“Solar is still growing exponentially at the global level,” said Dr Hannah Daly, Professor of Sustainable Energy at UCC. “China commissioned as much solar PV last year as the entire world did in 2020. The costs are still coming down. They’re still improving efficiency and lowering the cost of panels. Ireland is one of the last countries in Europe to really take solar seriously. Luckily, we can catch up very quickly because it’s such a modular, scalable technology.”

Conall Bolger, chief executive of the Irish Solar Energy Association, says that during the June bank holiday last year solar PV provided a hard-to-believe 18 per cent of all Irish electricity. In 2023 700 panels a week were being fitted on the roofs of homes. He says there are 2,700 potential industrial projects in the pipeline plus hundreds of planning applications for utility-scale projects. If granted permission, this would mean large solar farms spring up countrywide.

It is all dizzying. Bolger says that if Ireland does not meet its 2030 targets it won’t be for the lack of projects.

“We would kind of share the Government’s view that 8GW is the kind of the quantum where we want to be by 2030,” says Bolger.

If there is a bit of a gold rush feel to the push to embrace this new technology, some critics say there is also an element of the wild west.

Individuals and groups have objected to solar farms being located in their communities, in Cork, Offaly, Laois, Kildare and Meath. Grounds for objection include visual intrusion, glint and glare from the panels, an adverse impact on biodiversity, complaints about too many farms in one area and the loss of premium arable land.

Unlike in the United Kingdom, there are no ministerial guidelines for the development of large-scale solar farms in Ireland. These would set out rules on location, size, density and other conditions. Critics say this has left them at a disadvantage when objecting to projects because of an absence of criteria.

Government sources concede that there will be delays to setting out the guidelines, saying that they will be drafted as part of wider Coalition policy around land use, but that has been bogged down by conflicting views within Government over contentious issues such as rewetting and afforestation.

Meath has become the focal point for debate about solar farms in Ireland. There were 44 planning applications lodged to Meath County Council for large solar farms, of which 31 were granted. Many are clustered around two towns: Ashbourne (16 projects) and Ratoath (six).

In many cases, international players, such as the Norwegian State-owned energy command Statkraft, lease the land for up to 40 years paying a yearly fee to the landowner. For many, it is more profitable than farming.

“Ashbourne has become the solar capital of Ireland,” said Fine Gael Cllr Alan Tobin who supports the projects. “In my opinion, it is fantastic because of the dividends and benefits to the community. Something like 8,000 acres [3,237 hectares] is in planning. That’s a small percentage when you look at Co Meath overall,” he said.

Bolger puts it into a national context.

“To meet the 2030 targets [for large solar farms], you’re talking about 25,000 acres under lease. That’s in the context of 12.8 million acres of agricultural land. It’s about 0.2 per cent,” he said.

Tobin and Bolger separately argue that visual intrusion can be remedied by the planting of hedgerows. They say that the transfer of use will encourage biodiversity and the environment — allowing arable land to return to pasture will reduce carbon emissions. Farmers can still utilise the land for pastoral use, such as grazing sheep. Tobin also says that large solar operations pay a dividend to the community worth several million euro over time. He struggles to see a downside.

But others do. They include Independent Cllr Gillian Toole who is concerned about the large clusters of solar farms around her home village of Ratoath and around Ashbourne.

Lorna Lyons, who farms next to a big solar project in Ratoath, is also concerned. They question why so much of the best arable land in Ireland has been given over to solar farms in a small area.

“It’s now in excess of 6,000 acres of grade A agricultural land around Ratoath,” said Lyons who has campaigned against some projects.

“That is 1,200 Croke Park stadiums. That’s incredible to me, in this area alone. It’s cheap for the developers to get on to the grid here. My biggest gripe is that it is not good for biodiversity; nor is it environmentally friendly. You simply cannot change the purpose of 6,000 acres of land without affecting the biodiversity.”

Toole is concerned about the visual impact of field after field of glass panels.

“The signs for Co Meath say Ireland’s Heritage Capital. Heritage is also a visual heritage, as well as built heritage. As you come into the county from the south the visual heritage is no longer the tillage fields or the green pastures,” said the councillor.

Lyons and Toole cite UK guidelines on solar farms which stipulate that large ground-mounted solar PV projects should “ideally utilise previously developed land, brownfield land, contaminated land, industrial land or agricultural land preferably of lower classification, avoiding the use of ‘best and most versatile’ cropland where possible”.

If that applied, they say, none of the projects in Co Meath would go ahead.

A Government source disagrees.

“We need industrial-scale solar, and it makes sense to do that in the sunnier parts of the country, which is where the better land is and better grids. That’s the reality. The west side of the country makes more sense for wind. It’s horses for courses,” said the source.

Daly from UCC believes the drawbacks are far outweighed by the benefit of a cheap and quick technology that has already delivered astonishing results.

“I can see where [the critics] are coming from. If there’s this kind of blanket coverage of solar PV, that might not be very attractive,” she said.

“At the same time, it’s displacing nearly a billion tonnes of CO2 [carbon emissions] every year. Some of the biodiversity impacts of solar farms can be positive as well as the land is not used for intensive agriculture. It’s a double win. We need to do careful research to make sure it’s not negatively impacting land.”

She and Bolger agree that solar will be a vital component of the renewable energy range, but will not rise much above 15 per cent overall.

Paul McCue’s situation might be an outlier but that doesn’t make his situation any better.

“That was my home,” he said. “All I see now is a house. I feel they have taken the home away from me.”

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