All I want for Christmas is a solar panel... says Kathriona Devereux

Imagine if governments around the world switched subsidies for the fossil fuel industry to instead fund people to put solar PV panels on their roofs, so says Kathriona Devereux in her weekly column
All I want for Christmas is a solar panel... says Kathriona Devereux

HOT TOPIC: Solar power plants will wean us off fossil fuels, says Kathriona Devereux

“LIT up like Las Vegas” is not a phrase that naturally pairs with the celebration of the birth of Christ, but as festive illuminations are draped on houses around the city, it is an expression that comes to mind regularly.

One of our Christmas traditions is to walk to the ‘Amazing House’ on Togher Road near the Lough. It is a top to toe extravaganza of twinkling lights and fun decorations and kids and adults alike love it.

Contributing to the charity bucket is more than a fair exchange for the joy it brings to my kids and the passing pedestrians and motorists throughout December.

I love spotting these Christmassy houses and marvelling at the work and effort that goes into making them so spectacular, but I also can’t stop myself wondering - what are their electricity bills like in January!

I once travelled to Las Vegas to cover a story about a new generation of power plant that was literally going to keep Las Vegas lit. Nevada Solar One is a concentrated solar power plant that was yet to start operation when I visited in 2006.

I was given a tour of the arrays by the aptly named site manager, Bob Cable. This power station uses more than 182,000 mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays onto tubes that contain a heat transfer fluid. The heat is then used to produce steam that drives a turbine to produce electricity.

These solar thermal power plants are ideally suited in parts of the world that get real hot in the middle of the day. The intense heat from the sun can power the air conditioning units that are needed to cool down humans from said intense heat.

Locating Nevada Solar One just a 40-minute drive from the Las Vegas strip was an economic and environmental no-brainer.

Solar power in the U.S has grown hugely since then and now powers the equivalent of 18 million average American homes using solar photovoltaic (PV) and concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP). It is estimated that putting PV panels on an area the size of Lake Michigan could supply enough electricity to power the entire United States.

A major study by the MaREI research centre in University College Cork and universities in the US,UK and India has analysed the role of solar technology in generating power and found “that rooftop solar PV can deliver enough power at a global scale to match our current yearly global electricity demand”.

Isn’t that incredible?

Researchers found that if just half the rooftops of the world had suitable PV panels installed, it would be enough to power the earth with electricity generated just above our heads. Battery and other storage solutions would be used to help bridge the night time.

Imagine if governments around the world switched subsidies for the fossil fuel industry to instead fund people to put solar PV panels on their roofs. Apart from the huge environmental benefits, it could also help the 800 million people globally who are not connected to electricity.

Back in 2006, on that solar farm in Nevada, I never imagined that solar farms were something that would feature significantly in Ireland’s energy future, but the cost of solar PV has fallen almost 70% since then and solar energy is considered an important renewable energy option here.

The MaREI researchers found that the 220 sq km of Irish rooftops could meet more than 50% of current total annual electricity needs.

The professional body Engineers Ireland recently announced the contenders for the annual Excellence Awards and a solar farm in Kinsale has been selected as one of the top five innovative engineering projects in 2021.

Dunderrow Solar Farm was developed by pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly Kinsale and is the largest solar farm in the country. 12,600 solar panels across 20 acres generate electricity equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of Kinsale town.

Eli Lilly uses its solar generated electricity to power its manufacturing facility and the solar farm will save about 2,350 tonnes of carbon emissions every year.

Incidentally, another Cork engineering feat, the Lower Harbour Main Drainage Project, is one of the other Excellence award nominees. This under-appreciated but hugely important project has stopped the equivalent of 40,000 wheelie bins of raw sewage from Ringaskiddy, Cobh, Carrigaline, Crosshaven, Passage West, and Monkstown being pumped into Cork Harbour every day (yikes!). The overall winner will be announced this Friday, December 10.

After hearing stories of someone who charged his electric car with his PV panels entirely for the year, or of others who are generating more electricity than they use overall, all I want for Christmas is a solar panel. It would be a very expensive Christmas present but maybe a chat with my bank manager next year is in order.

Costs vary depending on how many panels you put up but it will set you back about €8,000 for seven panels installed and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland grant takes €1,800 off, so just over €6,000 could see you powering your kettle and every other appliance with energy directly from the sun.

Considering that the average annual electricity bill is €1,270, then your investment could pay off in just a few years.

From next year, the government intends to help people sell their excess electricity back to the grid, further enhancing the appeal of investing in PV.

In time, having PV panels on our roofs will hopefully be as common as having a back boiler in the 1980s, .and the festive lighting of the future will be even more amazing, being partly powered by the sun.

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