The first large-scale ground-based solar electricity generation park on the island of Ireland has opened in Co Antrim.
The 30-acre solar farm at Crookedstone Road, which cost £5m (€6.45m) to build, produces up to 5MW of power from 20,000 photo-voltaic panels.
It can produce enough electricity to power 1,200 average houses, but instead provides 27% of the power needs of nearby Belfast International Airport to which it is directly connected under a 25-year agreement.
That equates to a carbon emission saving of 2,100 tonnes a year, the equivalent of taking 469 cars off the road, Belfast based developer Lightsource Renewable Energy says.
Lightsource says it worked closely with ecologists in planning the park, which features native hedgerows, wildflowers and bird and bat nesting boxes.
Dozens of similar farms are planned by Lightsource and other solar power developers for locations north and south of the border.
The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland says solar energy could become an important part of the renewable energy mix here.
Chief Executive Jim Gannon said as the efficiency of panels improves and the cost of manufacturing comes down, larger scale projects are starting to become viable.
“I think we do have lower levels of sunlight than other places where you would have seen solar take off in the past,” he said.
“But the increases in efficiency of the technology see daylight being more important perhaps than sunlight would have been and if you have certain projects at certain scales in certain locations, it certainly can again form part of the mix”.
Renewable energy target set by EU
As part of targets set by the EU, Ireland must by 2020 have 16% of its overall energy mix coming from renewables, or potentially face heavy fines.
According to the Irish Farmers’ Association, around 6,000 acres of land in the Republic has been optioned by landowners to solar park developers, with a view to them building similar facilities on them.
The association says it generally welcomes solar farms because they will help Ireland meet renewable energy targets and they provide a new income stream for members.