Dáil debates

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

3:00 pm

Photo of Michael D'ArcyMichael D'Arcy (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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Question 50: To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if, in view of the fact that the applications received under the bioenergy scheme 2009 have been largely for miscanthus grants rather than willow, he will re-allocate unspent funds originally set aside for willow for the take up of additional miscanthus applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11920/09]

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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Perhaps the Minister of State will read out the reply this time.

4:00 pm

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Dublin North, Green Party)
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My Department is implementing a number of measures set out in the National Bioenergy Action Plan to increase the share of bioenergy derived from the agriculture and forestry sectors. The measures include a bioenergy scheme to stimulate production of miscanthus and willow feedstock for use in the bioenergy market. The cultivation of willow and miscanthus has been relatively undeveloped in Ireland primarily due to high establishment costs estimated at €2,900 per hectare. The bioenergy scheme aims to kick start production of these crops by grant aiding the costs of establishment. Under the scheme, farmers can qualify for an establishment grant equal to 50% of the costs of planting willow and miscanthus. The maximum payment rate is €1,450 per hectare up to a ceiling of 30 hectares per applicant.

The scheme is being operated on a pilot basis up to end 2009. Since its launch in February 2007 it has generated much interest from farmers. During the first two phases, the Department provided for the planting of 3,000 hectares. The actual area planted came to 1,800 hectares. The third phase was launched in December 2008 providing for planting in 2009 of 900 hectares of miscanthus and 900 hectares of willow. As in previous years, the allocation was split evenly between both crops. Overall, 271 applications were received to plant 1,850 hectares of miscanthus and 360 hectares of willow. Pre-planting approvals have been issued in respect of the 900 hectares of miscanthus. In view of the shortfall in willow applications, my Department has reviewed the ceiling for miscanthus and agreed to issue additional approvals subject to respecting the overall 1,800-hectare ceiling for the bioenergy scheme 2009. These approvals will issue shortly.

My Department and Teagasc continue to work with stakeholders to maximise the potential to grow willow and miscanthus in Ireland. In 2008, Teagasc published a farm diversification manual providing detailed technical advice to farmers on growing willow and miscanthus. Together with Teagasc and Sustainable Energy Ireland, my Department co-funded an educational DVD Willow and Miscanthus — from Field to Furnace. The Department has also made available best practice guidelines for growing willow and miscanthus under the bioenergy scheme.

Additional Information not provided on the floor of the House.

The guide provides advice to growers on planting and harvesting operations to maximise crop yield and improve the economic viability of the crop.

The bioenergy scheme has ignited considerable interest among farmers in growing miscanthus and willow. It has helped bring some scale to the sector and raised awareness of the potential to grow these crops under Irish conditions. Overall, the area planted should exceed 3,500 ha by end 2009. I believe there is significant potential to develop miscanthus and willow planting in Ireland. My Department will carry out a comprehensive review of the bioenergy scheme in mid-2009 to include an assessment of the need for a further scheme.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply and welcome the Department's decision, albeit somewhat belatedly, to reallocate the proportion of the 900 hectares not taken up in respect of willow planting. I wish to ask two supplementary questions of the Minister of State.

Has the Department conducted an analysis of the reason take-up in respect of willow planting is not similar to that in respect of miscanthus planting? It may be that willow planting is less attractive owing to cost and the lead-in time in terms of harvesting, which is longer. In this regard, if we move from a pilot phase to an established grant aid scheme for these green energy crops, will the Minister of State consider increasing the incentive for willow, which has great potential as a green energy crop? Will the Minister of State consider moving the scheme from a pilot phase to the introduction of a broadly available grant scheme? Also, has he considered the reason willow has not been availed of to the same extent as miscanthus?

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Dublin North, Green Party)
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I appreciate the Deputy's welcome for the flexibility that has come to bear on this issue. On willow, there is no doubt but that the lead-in period is a disincentive for people seeking a quick return, which miscanthus can represent. Given the three year cycle willow planting represents a difficulty arises for farmers in terms of pay-back. An issue that may perhaps need to be further promoted is that with willow comes other possible farmgate income, which working with local authorities, has shown to provide additional income for farmers. There may be a need to tweak the scheme to provide an extra incentive in respect of willow and a need to further communicate other income streams that willow may bring with it. In essence, the feedback we are receiving suggests the lead-in period is the reason more people are not taking up willow.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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In terms of the market for both products and the derivation of by-products from willow and miscanthus, has the Department undertaken a study in regard to market viability? Also, does the Minister of State envisage this scheme to be a long term sustainable scheme, sustainable in the sense of it being maintained as a scheme?

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Dublin North, Green Party)
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The sustainability of a scheme is primarily based on its ability to continue without grant assistance. That is the essence of sustainability of any scheme. That being said, it is hoped we will be able to continue to support what is necessary to grow the bioenergy sector in Ireland. Teagasc is currently undertaking studies in this area and is prepared to give a time of business adviser to farmers to plan what might be a new venture. Most of the farmers showing an interest come from a cereal farming background from which similar equipment, disciplines and growing techniques can be brought to bear. Teagasc, rather than re-inventing the wheel, is also taking note of UK studies in this area, which show that with improved varieties and better farming techniques yield in the bioenergy sector can be increased up to 30%.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I call Deputy Andrew Doyle on a brief supplementary.

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Dublin North, Green Party)
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It is hoped this can be followed through in practise.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Will the Minister of State accept, on foot of what Deputy Sherlock said, that in isolation miscanthus or willow will not survive? There currently exists a Cabinet working group on climate change and energy security. There is a need for us to tie all of this into one package. Bord na Móna and the ESB are examining this issue. Private landowners must be part of a critical mass that will allow this to be sustainable as part of an overall renewable energy policy for the country otherwise this is but a holding exercise which will not be sustainable long term.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I call Deputy P.J. Sheehan on a brief supplementary.

Photo of P J SheehanP J Sheehan (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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I cannot understand the reason emphasis is being placed on willow-miscanthus planting rather than willow-coppice planting. Some 12 months ago, the main issue, as far as forestry was concerned, was willow coppice planting, which is an ideal tree in terms of green energy production. I do not understand the reason for the fall-off in respect of willow-coppice planting. Perhaps the Minister of State will explain the reason this is happening.

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Dublin North, Green Party)
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I will attempt to answer the questions asked by Deputies Doyle and Sheehan. I agree with Deputy Doyle that this issue must be addressed in the round. That is the reason there is interdepartmental co-operation on the matter. It was predicted, in terms of my briefing here today, that we might end up speaking about greener home schemes, heating programmes and so on. There is a list we could cover in terms of variable overlapping and interdepartmental responses to the challenges of energy security and climate change, of which this issue is a small part. However, the Government is determined to grow this sector given our very low base in terms of bioenergy in this country.

The €6 million allocation in grant assistance has gone to 13 projects under the stimulus programme for this area. This, it is hoped, will give rise to further opportunities in co-operation with Teagasc in regard to the production of biomass at the Oak Park crops research centre. Along with supporting existing practise, research is being undertaken as we need to, as Deputy Sheehan stated, broaden our work in this area. We are speaking in this regard of coppicing for which willow, along with other tree species, is suitable. While we are talking about coppicing, we are also looking at other areas. Research is being done in the case of bamboo, for example. That has not been covered yet, but it may well come on stream if it is shown to produce a good return. We all know that Ireland is good at growing trees. We need to explore this area further.