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Jennifer Whitmore: The lifting of planning rules for solar panels is welcome but long overdue

The Social Democrats TD says the government is behind the curve as it finally lifts restrictions on numbers of panels on a property.

Jennifer Whitmore Social Democrats

Updated Oct 4th 2022, 12:17 PM

TODAY, THE GOVERNMENT is expected to finally move to amend planning rules that restrict the installation of solar panels on the roof of homes, schools and businesses.

The new regulations will remove the existing requirement for planning permission to cover more than 12 square metres of a house, or 50 square metres of a business premises, with solar photovoltaic (PV) panels.

Some restrictions will remain in ‘solar safeguarding zones’ to eliminate the risk of glint or glare for aircraft pilots.

The changes are welcome but long overdue. The review of our planning laws began in 2019 – the same year Ireland declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. Yet, it has taken an energy crisis, three years later, to eventually spur the Government into action.

Restrictive planning laws

In effect, the Government has solved a problem of its own design. It has finally acted to amend its own very restrictive planning rules – something that was always in its own gift to do.

Planning rules have not been the only impediment to progress. For many households – even those qualifying for the maximum grants available through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) – the cost of having solar panels installed remains prohibitive.

Last year, just 4,078 homes received a grant to install solar panels. In total, it has been estimated that just 20,000 homes around the country have solar panels.

When you consider that there are two million households in the country, you begin to see how pathetic the Government’s promotion of solar energy has been. The snail’s pace of progress is impossible to justify.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Solar panels are the very definition of a no-brainer. Their widespread use can help achieve a more sustainable Ireland by future-proofing homes and businesses, making us more resilient to energy price and supply shocks.

Warmer Homes Scheme

The scale of untapped potential is significant. A recent study by the MaREI Research Centre at UCC found that around one million homes in Ireland are suitable for solar panels but do not have them installed.

If this were to change, and every suitable home in Ireland had solar panels, households would save hugely on their electricity bills – by as much as a third of the annual cost. Given the rising costs of energy in 2022, that could be up to €1,000. In our alternative budget, the Social Democrats called on the Government to realise this potential and commit to installing solar panels on 100,000 homes – free of charge – over the next two years.

We proposed an initial €200 million fund to provide grants to households to install solar panels. This would reduce household emissions and cut electricity bills by an average of up to 40% over the course of a year. The initial tranche would be targeted at low-income households, using the same eligibility conditions as the Warmer Homes Scheme.

As it stands, the Warmer Home Scheme, which is supposed to target those low-income homes most at risk of fuel poverty, do not qualify for any assistance when it comes to solar. This is separate from the huge waiting lists – currently more than two years – that exist for the scheme.

Meanwhile, the only grant support for households that want to install solar panels is €2,400 – which still leaves a huge amount for hard-pressed individuals and families to scrape together. The size of that grant should be doubled – to €4,800 – to try to bridge that gap and ensure money is less of a barrier for those who are eager to get the benefits of solar energy but can’t afford the upfront costs.

Funding is key

Funding could be eventually scaled up to a point where 100,000 homes and buildings per year are being fitted with solar panels. As part of this plan, the number of people trained to install solar panels should also be massively ramped up. Given that training can be provided in just a matter of weeks, there should be no obstacle to meeting targets.

The process would be a lot more efficient if housing estates were directly targeted by State-appointed installers who could fit out an area of similar houses in one go. The current system, whereby individual households apply for energy grants and source registered installers themselves, is far too cumbersome and slow.

There is also a strong case for local authorities to bulk-buy solar panels to allow households to avail of further savings through economies of scale. A standardised approach has the potential to cut costs by up to half. The installation of solar panels in housing estates could be carried out in parallel with programmes for schools, community centres and public buildings.

Environment Minister Eamon Ryan recently spoke about the “rooftop revolution” underway in Ireland. In reality, there has been a poverty of ambition from the Government when it comes to harnessing solar energy to help meet our climate targets and reduce energy costs.

This week’s long-awaited changes to the planning rules will help – but they are only part of the solution.

If we want to see a real “rooftop revolution”, then we need a radical change of approach and a much quicker and more efficient rollout of this technology.

Jennifer Whitmore TD is Climate and Biodiversity spokesperson for the Social Democrats.

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Jennifer Whitmore  / Social Democrats

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