Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Friday 28 July 2017

Ireland's slurry reserves could be the next frontier in energy generation

Biogas digesters could drive a lucrative new rural industry and also help us achieve our EU renewable energy targets

Anaerobic digester
Anaerobic digester
Ian Kilgallon
Galway-based Billy Costello bought his first pig farm in 1983 today, his family farms controls dairy and pig units in Germany, UK and Ireland.
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

In the scramble to cash in on solar panels, wind turbines, willow and miscanthus plantations, it seems that the millions of tonnes of slurry from our massive livestock industry have been overlooked.

But with just weeks to go before the Government finally launches its renewable energy feed-in tariff (Refit) scheme, Irish farmers could be looking at their slurry reserves as the next frontier in energy generation.

It's not before time, with just three years to pull the country back from the brink of fines stretching to the hundreds of millions. By 2020, Ireland is required to be producing 16pc of our energy requirements from renewables ­­- we will be fined a whopping €100m for every 1pc we go over this. At present we are at 8.6pc.

Due to the huge investment in wind and solar, we are already close to our target for electricity.

Paul Costello outside the €5m digester unit on the family's Co Kildare pig farm.The biodigester is like a giant cow's stomach with a massive bacterial colony that is fed 24-7 with a soupy combination of slurry and food waste.
Paul Costello outside the €5m digester unit on the family's Co Kildare pig farm.The biodigester is like a giant cow's stomach with a massive bacterial colony that is fed 24-7 with a soupy combination of slurry and food waste.

However, we've hardly made a start on heat, hence the concerted effort to roll out major incentives to turbo-drive investment in the area over the next three years.

The blueprints are already provided. Germany has reached saturation, with close to 8,000 biogas plants built on farms all over the country over the last 20 years.

If anything, the subsidies were too good - digester owners drove prices for land and conacre around their facilities through the roof in their bid to secure feedstocks. German banks loved the concept and were giving 100pc loans to developers.

One of those was Irishman Billy Costello. Along with his brother and sons, the Costellos run a large 3,000-sow unit alongside a sizeable dairy farm in the former East Germany.


He put up two digesters and has leveraged that experience to construct a third on his Irish pig farm at Nurney in Kildare.

The €5m unit is big enough to generate enough electricity to power 500 houses, and is a prime example of the potential for Irish farms to get a slice of the energy market.

Ian Kilgallon
Ian Kilgallon

The farm produces 75,000 pigs annually, but it has developed a second income stream from the gate fees it charges on the 23,000 tonnes of food waste that come through the farm annually.

This waste can be anything from slaughterhouse offal to beans and frozen pizzas - often perfectly edible with nothing more than a flaw in the labelling.

This is one ingredient for the soup that powers the digester, but it is the 16,000 tonnes of slurry that keeps the process on an even keel.

While some of the gas captured from the digester can be used on site by generating both heat for the piggery and electricity from a combined heat and power (CHP) unit, the real goal is to purify the methane and pipe it directly into the national gas network for large corporations to access.

Galway-based Billy Costello bought his first pig farm in 1983 today, his family farms controls dairy and pig units in Germany, UK and Ireland.
Galway-based Billy Costello bought his first pig farm in 1983 today, his family farms controls dairy and pig units in Germany, UK and Ireland.

Companies such as Diageo and Glanbia are some of the biggest gas users in the country, with up to 70pc of their energy requirements totally dependent on fossil fuel in the form of gas. However, corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals require these massive users to convert sizeable chunks of their energy use to renewable sources.

This is where the big opportunity for farmers lies.

Gas Networks Ireland are already in discussions with 12 separate farming entities, including one potential co-op in Claremorris, with a view to establishing digesters and purification plants to capture gas from slurry and pump it directly into the national gas network.

Currently there are only a handful of digesters operational on Irish farms.

In contrast, more than 70 farms in the UK have jumped on the biomethane bandwagon in the last 24 months. But both Britain and Ireland are way behind other northern European countries in the biogas stakes.

"Some Scandinavian countries such as Sweden have close to half of all their gas requirements sourced from renewable sources such as biomethane," said Ian Kilgallon (pictured below), the innovation and business development manager at Gas Networks Ireland. He already has plans for similar units across rural Ireland.

"We are looking to replicate the co-op structure that already exists in places like Denmark. This could be a new rural industry where several farms in an area collect gas from their slurry, pipe it to a local purification unit, where it is injected into the national network."

He believes the new Refit tariff due to be unveiled next month will allow farmers who are willing to invest €100,000-€300,000 in digester facilities to get a 5-7 year return on their investment.

Larger facilities that include purification plants would require investments of at least €1m.

Some of the added benefits of digesters include a lower pollution load in the resultant slurry digestate due to the removal of the most harmful greenhouse gases.

With agriculture accounting for a third of Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions, and the sector having made a multi- billion-euro bet on a massively expanded dairy herd, the industry needs to avail of every possible way of reducing its carbon footprint.

In addition, the nutrients in digested slurry are more available to the plant, and the removal of methane has the added bonus of massively reducing the odour levels associated with it.

And that's before taking account of the benefits of reducing the country's dependence on fossil fuel imports.

With all these environmental and financial positives, you'd be forgiven for thinking that biomethane is a no-brainer.

But, as with most things in life, it comes down to the money and whether the Government has the resources to finance a massive roll-out of a refit tariff.

However, there is an important alternative way of looking at the cost of fostering a domestic biomethane industry.

"We can either pay fines of hundreds of millions of euro to the EU or we can pay a fraction of that to farmers in a refit tariff that develops a native energy industry," states Billy Costello.

"Massive companies are operating in Ireland right now and they are under pressure to make greater use of green energy, and on the other side you have pig and dairy men producing methane that goes up in the air.

"It would also help farmers who are on less productive land, in that it would be added income for doing very little.

"It may even get to the stage where they are cutting poor silage for their digesters and that would be more viable than feeding it to their livestock."


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