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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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Renewable energy: Options for farmers

In this article, Gary Haslem at CAFRE looks at energy management and possible options for farmers.

As energy costs and availability become more unstable and global policies continue to focus more on reducing our carbon footprint, interest in renewable energy generation is increasing.

By installing renewable energy technologies, agricultural businesses are well positioned to offset greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agricultural practices, reduce business energy costs and provide renewable energy for the wider community.

Here are two prime examples of renewable heat sources:

  1. Solar thermal panels;
  2. Air/ground source heat pumps.

Both solar thermal and air/ground source heat pump systems generate heat which you can utilise to heat water and/or air.

While you can use solar thermal panels to generate electricity, indirectly by producing steam to drive a turbine, it is less efficient than a direct electric generation by solar photovoltaic panels.

Industry guidelines would suggest that air and ground heat pumps have a lifespan of 10-15 years, while solar thermal panels may have a lifespan of up to 30 years.

Both air source heat pumps and solar thermal panel systems have the benefit of being quick to install with minimal disruption, as units are attached to existing infrastructure.

Ground source heat pumps require longer installation periods as large areas of landscape will be disrupted during the installation process. Once installed, there is minimal impact on the land.

For these reasons, solar thermal and air source heat pumps have a lower installation cost, with ground source heat pumps requiring additional capital investment.

Renewable electrical sources:

  1. Solar Photovoltaic (PV);
  2. Wind turbine;
  3. Hydroelectric generation.

These three systems are used to generate electricity. Solar photovoltaic uses semiconductors, while wind and hydroelectric turbines use mechanical action to drive a generator.

These electrical generation systems can be used independently, or in conjunction with an electricity grid connection.

This flexibility in installation allows these electrical generation methods to, potentially, power all electrical functions of the farm business.

All three technologies have a lifespan of up to 50 years.

Solar photovoltaic panels are typically installed on pre-existing; allowing them to be the lowest cost investment option.

Wind and hydroelectric turbines have longer planning and installation periods. Typically, the wind turbine itself only accounts for 60-70% of the total project costs, with additional costs including supporting infrastructure and engineering works.

In comparison, hydroelectric generation requires bespoke design which is needed to mitigate against local ecological disruption.

This usually requires a significant level of input from specialist consultants which leads to hydroelectric generation normally requiring the highest capital input.

Additional considerations for renewable energy implementation include:

  • Planning permission;
  • Maintenance;
  • Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) application;
  • Monitoring software;
  • Guarantees.
Planning permission

Planning requirements for the installation of renewable technologies should be clarified with the relevant planning authority.

Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) Application

Grid connection for your renewable energy generation is subject to a successful NIE application and is dependent on the size of the renewable generation system and whether your current connection is single or 3 phase.

Even if the installation is below the threshold for requiring NIE application and energy will not be exported, it is critical that individuals inform NIE so they can account for this energy generation and confirm the feasibility of your proposed installation, as export allowances are dependent on regional restrictions.

NIE have no involvement in purchasing contract agreements for exported electricity. Therefore, this needs to be agreed with an export supplier.


Renewable energy technologies, generally, require minimal maintenance, which you can achieve through annual servicing. The efficiency of solar panels is also maintained by annual washing in line with the manufacturer’s guidelines.

Monitoring software

A monitoring software platform allows you to easily identify production and consumption levels as well as technical and financial performance. Information can be accessed via computer or mobile apps by installers, maintenance staff, and system owners.

This maximises the system’s peration time by identifying and resolving faults quickly.


It is important that purchasers consider the available manufacturer, performance and installation guarantees and have a full understanding of what is covered under each guarantee and cover duration.

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