Farm Ireland

Friday 19 January 2018

With Kyoto kicking in, opportunities abound in biomass production

Why did Bord na Mona import 180,000 tonnes of biomass here last year?

Boatloads of almond shells from Spain, cocoa husks from Nigeria and palm kernel from Malaysia being imported into a country where the trees and grass grow for at least 10 months a year. It beggars belief.

The reason is that Ireland has signed up to Kyoto agreements obliging us to switch power plants such as the one in Edenderry from burning 3,000t of peat a day to a "renewable" energy source.

The theory is that burning a tonne of forest thinnings or willow will release as much carbon into the atmosphere as burning a tonne of peat.

The difference is that the tonne of woodchip soaked up the equivalent of a tonne of carbon while it was being grown, making it a carbon neutral source of energy.

We also get to leave some of our wonderful bog habitats intact for future generations to appreciate.

But the real value of powering our lights and our kettles with biomass is the huge opportunity it presents for the Irish agri-sector by offering it a guaranteed outlet for 400,000t annually of energy crops grown on farms around the country.

The latest results from the state-run farm advisory service, Teagasc, would appear to confirm that the opportunity is still alive and well.

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A 0.9ha plot of marginal land in Teagasc's Oak Park farm has yielded a massive 22 tonnes of willow each year since harvesting began in December 2010.

That's worth nearly €1,000 when it's trucked to the power station in Edenderry. Take away transport and harvesting costs, and you're left with close to €500/ha.

Ok, transporting woodchip from Kerry to Edenderry won't make sense, but there are over 30,000ha of farmland within 100km of the power plant.

There are also some additional spraying and fertiliser costs, but nothing that €100/ha wouldn't cover.

The Government has attempted to incentivise planting by offering a 50pc planting grant, so your initial set-up costs are covered after about five years. At that stage, every tonne you sell is money in the bank, for sod-all input in either time or money each year. And once established, willow crops will keep producing for decades.

In fact, growers can double their returns by going one step further than lumping all of their crop into the power station. While the likes of Edenderry will provide a fail-safe outlet for any amount of crop for years to come, they are bottom of the heap in terms of high return customers.

Growers could double their returns by securing a local user with a large biomass boiler.

These are springing up all over the place as hoteliers, hospitals and businesses realise that biomass can halve the unit cost of their heat.

Some of the biggest are just getting going. Connacht Gold is due to commission its massive 8MW woodchip burner later this spring. It'll need 30,000 tonnes of biomass to keep it going.

More importantly, from Connacht Gold's point of view, it will cut its energy costs by €1m a year and reduce its carbon emissions significantly.

So the question that is bothering me is, why is there only 1,000ha of willow planted in Ireland at the moment?

Bear in mind that a huge chunk of the 4.5 million hectares of farmland here operates on a loss-making basis.

Most drystock farmers couldn't afford to keep the lights on in their houses, let alone their sheds, were it not for the cheque in the post from Europe.

Yet, here we have an enterprise that will return a minimum of €500/ha, and allow farmers to still collect their subsidy payments from Europe.

"We've spent probably €50,000 a year marketing this idea to farmers over the last three years," says Bord na Mona's biomass manager John O'Halloran.

"And I've put my heart and soul into trying to get to the target we set of 5,000ha of willow being grown here.

"But we have barely 200ha currently in the ground."

"It's breaking our hearts here in Bord na Mona to be creating jobs everywhere else importing so much biomass from around the world.

"Our own study concluded that 5,000ha of willow being grown here would create 400 jobs in propagation, growing and harvesting that would effectively be guaranteed for 15-20 years."

The absence of real political leadership from any of the farming organisations has not helped, according to the Bord na Mona man.

Teagasc echoes his comments.

"There is definitely a good outlook for the sector, with the International Energy Association predicting oil prices to double by 2020.

"And more and more big businesses that don't have the option of using natural gas are looking to install big biomass burners to save energy costs," says Teagasc's renewable energy specialist Barry Caslin. "It's probably a fear of the unknown as much as anything."

He also believes there isn't enough infrastructure in place to give farmers the confidence to get involved in this long-term investment. "We need co-ops and local entrepreneurs to look at organising harvesting, storage and drying capacity," he said.

"There are probably loads of industrial units all over the country that would require minimal investment to make this happen."

Irish Independent