‘No roof left uncovered’.

That’s the call to action of the Irish Solar Energy Association (ISEA) as it works towards Ireland’s Climate Action Plan target of having 8GW of solar energy capacity by 2030.

Until recently, both the slogan and the target might have seemed wildly optimistic, yet new figures suggest a corner has been turned.

At the end of 2021, EU countries had an average of 354 solar photovoltaic (PV) watts per capita. In Ireland the figure was 27 – lower than every country bar Latvia and a long way adrift of leading luminaries such as the Netherlands (815) and Germany (706). Like all of our sustainable energy targets, we were a very long way from where we need to get to.

Fortunately, Ireland seems to have switched on to solar in the past two years – perhaps not surprisingly given the dramatic increase in energy bills for commercial and residential customers alike – and the volume of installation is growing exponentially.

According to a new report issued by the ISEA (Irish Solar Energy Association) Ireland had solar PV capacity of 680MW at the end of June 2023. That figure is still one of the lowest in Europe, but it is clean energy that is sufficient to meet the electricity needs of more than 144,000 homes each year and prevents more than 200,000 tonnes of carbon emissions being pumped into the atmosphere each year – the equivalent of a car driving 1.4bn kilometres.

In response to the ISEA report, a spokesperson for grid operator ESB Networks said: “By the end of 2023, ESB Networks forecasts almost 1 GW of solar will have connected from domestic rooftop to utility-scale solar projects. This makes the solar industry the fastest growing renewable power source in Ireland.”

So where is this solar revolution taking place? The answer is everywhere – on the rooftops of 60,000 residential homes, supermarkets, hospitals, and manufacturing facilities; on land owned by businesses, and in the fields of dedicated solar farms.

Solar can play an important role in making data centre facilities more sustainable – be that from solar panels onsite at a data centre campus or as part of the mix of renewables that come with a grid connection.

Of course, grid connections for new data centres in urban locations are few and far between these days, which makes the third way in which data centres can utilise solar energy the most effective and efficient for all energy consumers.

Direct line power – also called private wire – allows large energy users such as data centres to connect directly to the source of renewable energy generation. Private wires are effectively localised electricity grids which bypass the national grid. They are common in the UK and in many EU countries but in Ireland the 1999 Electricity Regulation Act states that solar and wind farms must connect to the national grid to distribute their electricity. This needs to change.

Ireland has a national grid capacity of approximately 7GW and Climate Action Plan commitments to bring more than 20GW of renewable wind and solar energy onstream by 2030. Private wire provides a sensible solution to ease pressure on the grid, encourage investment in renewables, and smooth the transition to a greener economy.

Speaking on a recent episode of Power & Responsibility – The Data Centre Podcast, Conall Bolger, CEO of the ISEA, stressed the importance of legislation to facilitate private wire.

“In the current reality, what happens is a data centre gets connected to the public network, a renewable project gets connected to the public network,” Mr Bolger said. “The timelines for those things happening is contingent on how the network can deliver – can they build a connection, the planning processes and all those things around that.

“What the direct line would involve is essentially you’re removing the connection to the public for the renewable generator and it’s going straight into the large energy user… it speeds up the deployment and helps with the construction cost – so you’re going to be building less infrastructure.

“For the data centre, you’re actually getting true additionality in terms of the power because when someone says, ‘where’s your power coming from’, you literally point at the cable that’s linking you to the solar farm.”

Echelon Data Centres’ DUB20 facility in Arklow, Co Wicklow, lies within 25km of almost 1GW of planned or operating renewable energy generation. Less than 50MW of that is solar – yet it is the quickest and easiest form of renewable to install.

Direct line or private wire power is the best way that data centres can support the growth of solar, or any form of renewable energy, and ensure significant benefits for society and the environment.

Full Podcast

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