Farm Ireland

Friday 23 March 2018

Keeping renewable returns in the sector

A domestic offset market will help profits develop the industry

CASH IN HAND: Teagasc specialist Barry Caslin says renewable crop projects can be a success if participants know their markets.
CASH IN HAND: Teagasc specialist Barry Caslin says renewable crop projects can be a success if participants know their markets.

Barry Caslin

OVER the past 18 months to two years we have had quite a lot of new legislation coming through, primarily being led by the Renewable Energy Directive 2009/28 EC.

By 2020 Ireland has to achieve a 16pc share of gross final energy consumption from renewable sources. There is a requirement that 10pc of our transport fuels must come from a renewable source by 2020.

The 16pc target will be met by implementing a combination of targets from the energy white paper on renewable heat at 12pc by 2020 (currently less than 3.4pc), renewable transport fuels at 10pc by 2020 (currently less than 2.4pc, mainly imported) and renewable electricity at 40pc by 2020 (currently less than 14pc and mainly supplied by wind).

Every EU country is required to submit a National Renewable Energy Action Plan (NREAP) to Brussels by June, highlighting the current level of renewable energy usage and possible policy actions of bridging the deficit from the required target. The Irish NREAP will essentially outline to the EU what policy actions and measures the Government will put in place to help us achieve the 16pc target by 2020.

Under the Renewable Energy Directive, Ireland is also required to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 20pc by 2020. The climate change bill administered by the Department of the Environment is all about getting a strategy in place for Ireland to achieve our 20pc national reductions in GHG emissions. The climate change bill is at the public consultation stage. Questions must be asked, such as how will agriculture be accounted for if the targets are to be achieved? And how will Ireland avoid EU fines?

The land-based sector will be the main area which will bring forward feedstocks for bioenergy, so understanding methane and nitrous oxide is actually more important than understanding carbon dioxide, bearing in mind that methane is 23 times more potent and nitrous oxide is 296 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Fifty-eight percent of all nitrous oxide emissions in Ireland come from the land-based sector, so it's a really big issue.

Currently, Ireland produces around 80m tonnes of CO2/year. Agriculture accounts for about 27pc of this, due to the fact we have large dairy and beef industries and export 75pc of what we produce.

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Ireland is producing enough food to feed around 20m people worldwide, which translates into our agricultural sector having a large carbon footprint. Around 40pc of the emissions attributed to agriculture originate directly from the natural function of the rumen in cattle and sheep, which produces almost 8m tonnes of CO2/year.

We have to take indirect land-use-change consequences into account and the possibility of on-farm offsets. This is very important in terms of where future feedstocks for bioenergy will come from, because the process of growing biomass feedstocks needs a sequester, but at the moment the calculators used to identify whether a feedstock is a carbon sink or source only recognise emissions.

We need to recognise that, within the life cycle of a product from the farm, there are also things on the farm that sequester carbon -- and it also allows for renewables within that process to be recognised alongside the emissions. We need a carbon accounting methodology that is a hybrid of the two.

Going forward, all farms will have an on-farm carbon balance sheet, and product leaving that farm will be part of the gross emission and not the net emission. The reason this is important is that suddenly it is a new driver for getting bioenergy crops grown on livestock and arable farms. If you can offset your emissions from livestock with new bioenergy crops next door to it, then that's certainly one of the tools you can use to drive a new bioenergy industry.


One of the things of big interest to politicians is job creation, which will be significant if the EU targets for renewables are to be achieved.

In Ireland we have very little biomass, with only 9pc of the land mass covered in trees. We know we can grow biomass. It's also possible to use a crop of willow as a biological filter for organic waste, primarily tertiary water. We have the Water Framework Directive coming down the tracks, which aims to bring water quality up to standard. So can you use energy crops for cleaning dirty water or using organic sludges as a fertiliser for willow crops?

Carbon sequestration is fraught with difficulties. In particular quantification and verification to IPCC standards requires a lot more research as we're currently working off UNFCCC Tier 1 land-use factors. The question we need answered is, does biomass sequester carbon? The answer using tier 1 is yes, if you displace arable, and no, if you displace pasture. This doesn't account for the woody biomass underground, but we can't count that for the inventories at the moment. Before talking about carbon credit schemes, etc, we need to know the following:

  • Do biomass crops sequester soil organic carbon relative to pasture/arable and what are the values in tonnes of carbon/ha?;
  • Quantify the below-ground inventories;
  • What is the capacity of different soil types to sequester carbon?

It's very important to look at the life cycle analysis when looking at a low carbon strategy -- reducing emissions but delivering on food security. If you are going to take land out of food production, let's back some winners and distance ourselves from some of the losers.

Work carried out by Teagasc's Gary Lanigan in publishing the sequestration underneath a growing crop of willow estimates that for willow between 1.8-2.7t CO2/ha/year gets sequestered in the soil and does not get taken off site. The figure for miscanthus is 2.8-4.1t CO2/ha/yr.

When you look at the cycle you can produce a bioenergy feedstock back into the bioenergy industry with an overall offset and not an emission, even after combusting the fuel. It's very important when you look at this and everything that's going on in Ireland at the moment that we're looking at the cost per tonne of CO2 abatement, and the first low carbon technology is energy efficiency -- and that's why we need to look at energy efficiency first and renewables second.

Land use change to energy crops will result in reduced fertiliser inputs, increased CO2 into root biomass and other GHG inputs, which will be restricted, such as annual ploughing, cultivation, liming and herbicide application.

A company may decide to take an internal approach to cut its carbon emissions by 10pc next year, 5pc of this may be due to increased efficiencies and 5pc could be bought on the national carbon market.

We need to incentivise Irish businesses and organisations to go down the renewable route and to be rewarded. The climate change bill has been talked about but nobody seems to understand its workings.

The concept of a domestic offset market should be supported because emissions reductions achieved through it go to the national inventory.

Domestic offset markets keep the money within the industry and it goes directly from the polluter to the evader. In contrast, carbon taxes are only as good as the government that spends them. Such taxes may not be spent on developing the renewable sector. The capital expenditure for a biomass fuel is five times higher that that of oil or gas, which is a big issue. Secondly, it's important to get our base heat loads up high enough to 70pc, 80pc or 90pc load factors -- and at that we are already competitive with our oil competitors.

lCASE STUDY: Omagh Leisure Centre in Northern Ireland installed a 500kW boiler in September 2008. During the first 12 months it ran for 1.7MWh's. Thirty percent of the cost was the design of the project and the payback for the facility is 2.4 years. The biomass boiler running on willow chip displaced 160,500 litres of oil at €0.54/l, which equated to €86,760/year in oil savings.

The willow woodchip to replace the oil cost the college €46,470/year, giving an annual saving of €40,290.

The leisure centre cut its carbon emissions by 410t/year. Ireland has just introduced a carbon tax of €15/t, and if you add that it would save an additional €6,000 on that project alone.

What we're seeing now, with carbon pricing coming through into the heat market, is a lot of people looking at how they can engage in biomass. Our biggest issue is the capital expenditure of these projects. The Omagh project had a 92pc thermal efficiency on the usable heat from the biomass boiler.


A successful biomass development needs three things:

  • A joined-up supportive policy framework;
  • A competitive marketplace -- if you don't know where the market is you should not start;
  • Well-designed installation with reliable technology.

If you remove any one of these elements, your biomass project will not be successful.

Irish Independent