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Independent.ie

Friday 18 August 2017

The Government's biomass strategy is flawed

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Mayo Renewable Power chairman Gerald Crotty after laying the foundation stone for the new biomass power station on the former Asahi site in Killala, Co Clare. Photo: Henry Wills
Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Mayo Renewable Power chairman Gerald Crotty after laying the foundation stone for the new biomass power station on the former Asahi site in Killala, Co Clare. Photo: Henry Wills

Jimmy Burke

The Government continues to ignore the potential of the biomass sector to add a string to the Irish tillage sector's bow at a time when growers are facing serious viability issues.

Despite a slew of sustainable energy plans very little has been achieved. Documents that set targets for future bio-energy production are useless without a plan for everything from feedstock production to final energy use. While our current targets will probably be met, it will be mostly due to imports.

Instead of importing oil and gas with high energy density from remote and politically unstable countries, we will simply import much more bulky materials from countries that are equally remote.

For example, our National RE Action Plan assumes the use of up to 4m tonnes of biomass for energy purposes by 2020.

The restructured forestry scheme is already too late to contribute to the 2020 target.

Planting of crops such as willow and miscanthus would help, but an establishment grant scheme some years ago effectively failed due to lack of thought and support about how we were going to use it.

Foresight

Even though the long-term prospects are good, growers that planted these crops took a big risk and lack real markets due to the lack of foresight and joined up thinking.


Effectively it is also too late to have a big area of these crops in production by 2020. So you can imagine my dismay when I saw the Taoiseach being wheeled out last week to turn the sod on a €180m, 42.5MW woodchip electricity plant at Killala, Co Mayo.

It is hard to see the economic justification for such a facility as there is no local biomass supply that can support it and it will have to rely largely on imported biomass material.

Also, there is no significant heat demand in the Killala area to utilise the large amount of heat that will be generated in the burning of the biomass for electricity generation.

So any suggestion that the proposed plant should benefit from the Large Biomass CHP REFIT tariff of €125/MWh is questionable. Instead, it is likely to involve significant costs to the Irish taxpayer.

More targeted use of scarce financial resources could stimulate our own biomass supply chain with significant benefits to the rural economy.

There is already the capacity to utilise biomass in Ireland as the existing peat fired generating plants in Edenderry, Shannonbridge and Lanesboro are suitable for biomass firing, with minimal capital expenditure.

Last week, Bord Na Móna announce plans to cease peat harvesting by 2030.

The peat plants mentioned above have considerable remaining life and could provide significant national and local benefits, if converted to biomass firing.

This would provide CO2 reduction benefits while providing an alternative land use in the surrounding areas.

We have known this for a long time - yet we have largely ignored the significant opportunity that a native biomass sector could provide and look set to import most of the biomass that will be needed in the future.

Regrettably, there will be little added benefit for Irish agricultural sector unless we set in motion the necessary policies to make it happen.

Jimmy Burke is Professor of Crop Science and holder of the Agri Chair of Crop Science at UCD

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