Calls are mounting for a biogas industry to be rolled out nationwide in a bid to bolster farm incomes and reduce Ireland’s agricultural carbon footprint.

Tonight (Thursday, December 13) on episode 15 of FarmLand, Sean Finan, the CEO of the Irish Bioenergy Association (IrBEA) urged the Government to develop policy and financial supports to bolster the sector as it believes biogas could sustain rural economies into the future.

The IrBEA is a representative body for the bioenergy sector on the island of Ireland – both north and south. Its membership is made up of representatives from the biomass, biogas, biofuels and energy crop sectors.

It is also involved at a European level with the European Biogas Association and Bioenergy Europe.

There has been a focus on other renewables and biogas is one that has definitely been put down the list of importance from a policy perspective.

“It’s our job as an association to do work and lobby to get biogas up onto the agenda,” said Finan, highlighting the success of biogas industries in other member states – particularly northern Europe.

“Biogas in other member states has been around for many years and the technology has been proven.

“Really, it’s a case now of needing support from Government in order for an AD (anaerobic digestion) and biogas sector to be developed here in this country,” he said.

Finan pointed to the opportunity for the Government to capitalise on the potential of biogas through the launch of the next phase of the Support Scheme for Renewable Heat – which is expected to be announced before the end of the year.

The Support Scheme for Renewable Heat is a Government funded initiative designed to increase the energy generated from renewable sources in the heat sector. The scheme is open to commercial, industrial, agricultural, district heating, public sector and other non-domestic heat users.

The primary objective of the support scheme for renewable heat is to increase the level of renewable energy in the heat sector. This will contribute to meeting Ireland’s 2020 renewable energy targets whilst also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The scheme is currently offering a grant to support investment in renewable heating systems that use the following technologies:
  • Air source heat pumps;
  • Ground source heat pumps;
  • And water source heat pumps.

The installation grant provides funding of up to 30% of eligible costs, to successful applicants.

“The support scheme for renewable heat is a scheme which IrBEA has lobbied for for a long time now and we’re hoping that it will be launched before Christmas. It is a very important scheme for the biomass sector and biomass heating.

“Obviously, the first phase is open which is for heat pumps, the second round would be regarding biomass systems and then we would hope that there will be a follow-on phase two regarding biomass systems and AD.

“A lot of our woodchip would come from our forestry resource that we have here in the country. A number of years ago we saw growth in the energy crop sector, but in recent years a lot of that energy crop has been turned back into conventional grassland because of the economics associated with it and its location in terms of its source and where it can be used,” he said.

Generating a competitive return

Finan cautioned that biogas appears to be overlooked compared to other renewable energy sources.

“It is probably down the ranking compared to other renewable energy sources, but it’s our job to make sure it gets up to the top.

There is huge potential for biogas; we have an abundance of feedstock available in the country.

“We are a grass-growing country and we are a very focused food producing industry. Obviously, we have a lot of animals – cattle, pigs, sheep – all the different sectors producing slurries, as well as grass, that can be used to produce biogas in a biogas facility.

“The enzymes would work on the feedstock to produce the gas and also to produce a digestate [material remaining after the anaerobic digestion of a biodegradable feedstock] that would be available to farmers to spread back on their land.”

Finan sees the potential at a number of levels from small-scale, less-intensive farms to large-scale, intensive enterprises – all of which, he says will help to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture.

The country’s agricultural sector is currently responsible for 33.3% of the country’s GHG emissions.

Large-scale digesters should be situated across the country with a number in each county and obviously, for an AD industry to grow and develop, everyone along the supply chain needs to make a return.

“As a part-time farmer myself I understand the farmer needs to make a return on that feedstock and that’s where support from Government is very important, because, any support in the form of a tariff would result in a lot of the money going back out to farmers and biogas producers to develop the economy at a rural level.

“We need to look at the multi-factorial benefits of AD and we need to make that case to Government where they don’t see it as investing a significant amount of money in a REFIT [Renewable Energy Feed-in Tariff] but that that money will actually go back to rural Ireland and to farmers,” Finan said.

Grass growth

The current vice-president of CEJA, the European young farmers’ organisation, and the former national president of Macra na Feirme, also highlighted the need to promote the additional production of grass at farm level to build the sector.

“There is huge potential to increase the amount of grass that is produced here through soil fertility and that could be used for an AD point of view without knock-on implications for fodder and livestock production.

“We’re not advocating for a reduction in the national herd we believe the feedstock can be produced from increased efficiencies and that is very important to point out,” he said.

The association also recently made a submission to the Government’s National Energy and Climate Policy plan which is currently being drafted. The plan is aimed at getting Ireland back on track to meet its 2030 decarbonisation and renewable energy targets.

Ireland is expected to significantly miss its target of a 20% reduction in non-ETS greenhouse gas emissions, on 2005 levels, by 2020.

Earlier this year, Ireland also committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions level by 30% on 2005 levels by 2030.

Under the EU Renewable Energy Directive (2009) Ireland is also committed to producing at least 16% of all energy consumed in the Republic from renewable sources by 2020.

Energy needs to be prioritised and we want to see a mainstream AD industry being rolled out within the country.

“We also want to see an energy crops industry being supported in a similar way to the forestry scheme where farmers are provided with a grant for the planting of forestry.

“We believe an adequate land use policy should be developed, we think that policy should look at all the land within the country and it should also set out where forestry can be developed countrywide,” Finan stated.