Wednesday, 25 April 2018
23. To ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his plans to create an indigenous biomass industry in view of the fact that importing biomass for electricity production has been shown in studies to increase emissions; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that the power station in Edenderry, County Offaly, is using imported biomass and the ESB power station at Shannonbridge, County Offaly, plans to convert to biomass; and the further actions he will take to reduce emissions through carbon sequestration crops. [18026/18]
The issue of renewable energy is close to my heart. In 11 years' time, no more peat will be burned in power stations because of our international commitments. At best, though, we will only go a quarter of the way towards meeting our obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Under the programme for Government, we are supposed to reduce emissions by 20% by 2020. According to the EPA, however, the best case scenario now is 4% or 5%.
The programme for Government states, "We will support the transition of peat power plants to greater amounts of biomass, and we will work with industry to develop a sustainable indigenous supply chain." Where stands this commitment? The Edenderry power plant in north Offaly is importing biomass from the US. At one point, it imported biomass from Indonesia. The carbon footprint involved in transporting biomass all the way to Ireland makes a mockery of any attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental impact of burning palm oil husks from Indonesia and levelling forests in the southern US to feed energy plants in Ireland is crazy because it is causing an environmental disaster in those countries.
No more than is the case with Deputy Stanley, this issue is very close to my heart. I have a large personal interest in it. I should also declare two vested interests, those being, Lanesborough and Shannonbridge.
There has been significant progress to date in the use of biomass in Ireland. In 2016, 6.8% of energy consumption in the heat sector came from renewable sources. Of this, three quarters came from biomass. Biomass also contributes to renewable electricity production, including through co-firing at the Edenderry power station. In addition, bioenergy in the form of biofuels makes up the majority of the renewable energy used in the transport sector.
The draft bioenergy plan, published in 2014, establishes the broader context for the development of Ireland's bioenergy sector. It recognises that meeting the demand for biomass from indigenous sources could deliver significant economic and employment benefits and contains measures to stimulate and support the supply of Irish biomass. The plan highlights a range of supply-side and demand-side measures that are needed to release the full potential of the domestic biomass sector in Ireland.
Supply-side measures, such as support for bioenergy crops, fall within the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed. However, I highlight the recent significant increases in support under the forestry for fibre scheme that were made as part of the mid-term review of the forestry programme. These supports will provide an increased incentive for landowners considering planting forestry to supply the energy sector.
A key demand-side measure is the support scheme for renewable heat. I secured Government approval for this scheme in December and expect it to become operational later this year, subject to EU state aid approval. The objective of the scheme is to increase the level of renewable energy and reduce emissions in the heat sector. In addition, the scheme will open up new opportunities for indigenous biomass feedstock producers by incentivising opportunities for renewable heat technologies, including biomass boiler installations. I note that the scheme will include strict sustainability criteria covering the biomass supply chain.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
As operator of the co-firing power plant in Edenderry, Bord na Móna prioritises domestic biomass supply, with every domestic tonne of biomass displacing an imported tonne. I am informed that approximately 80% of the biomass supplied to Edenderry in 2017 was indigenous. Bord na Móna supports the development of the domestic biomass market via its bioenergy division, which works to mobilise the biomass supply potential of privately owned forestry, thereby providing further opportunities for sustainable indigenous employment.
The ESB operates the power station at Shannonbridge, known as West Offaly Power. I understand that the ESB plans to convert this plant to co-firing with biomass, along with the power station in Lanesborough, known as Lough Ree Power. While there may be a need to source some of the biomass for the stations internationally in the short term, the conversion of the peat plants to biomass over time can facilitate the development of domestic and local biomass supply chains. This is important in the context of the economic and employment aspects of the transition to a low-energy future, as set out in the national mitigation plan.
What I am trying to get across to the Minister is that while converting to biomass is great, we are only doing more damage if we are hauling it thousands of miles and levelling forests in other countries. I welcome that Bord na Móna has abandoned the plan to build a wood pellet plant in the US to feed plants in Ireland. Apart from the carbon miles on such imports, the environmental implications meant it would have been a crazy enterprise from day one.
Biomass must be grown in Ireland. There is an opportunity to do so on land that is not suitable for tillage. There are thousands of acres of such land across north Offaly, Laois, Westmeath and, I am sure, Roscommon. While travelling through that area down the years, I have seen land that is not good for arables but can grow willow and other crops that can be used to generate renewable energy and create employment. We must start creating a native biomass industry. The miscanthus scheme was a disaster and there were only four applications in respect of the willow scheme in 2015. What analysis has there been of which crop grown on marginal land is best for the sequestration of carbon?
What work is being done with Coillte, Bord na Móna, the ESB and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine? Farmers are burning straw and bushes all over the place, which is biomass. In addition, forestry thinnings are not being utilised properly. We need to join up those pieces and start to utilise biomass in a native industry, in addition to getting farmers on marginal land to grow willow and other crops for renewable energy.
First, 80% of the biomass used in Edenderry in 2017 was from indigenous sources. The objective is that the biomass in Edenderry, Lanesborough and Shannonbridge will be from indigenous sources. The supplier of the biomass to those three plants, and one of the major suppliers in the country in relation to the support scheme for renewable heat, will be Bord na Móna BioEnergy, which is a joint venture between Bord na Móna and Coillte.
To clarify, willow will not grow on marginal land so as to provide any type of yield. Deputy Durkan will confirm that for me. He is a far greater expert on the subject than I am. Willow will only grow on arable land. We have a lot of land that was traditionally used for beet plants not just in Thurles, but also in Tuam, that could supply biomass.
The most successful crop to date for planting on marginal land seems to be eucalyptus. That is being piloted on marginal land by Bord na Móna at the moment. Sustainability is one of the conditions in Lanesborough, Shannonbridge and Edenderry, and in the support scheme for renewable heat and for Bord na Móna BioEnergy, and every possible tonne of cuttings and biomass that is available in Ireland is to be utilised before we would consider any imports.
Farmers are burning in fields all over the country. One can see the smoke blowing out over the road. It would be preferable to use cuttings for biomass to feed the energy plants.
I impress on the Minister to need to get moving. We have had trials with miscanthus and willow. I know willow will not grow on very poor land but land is available that was used for arable purposes that is close to boggy areas that will grow willow. I welcome the trials the Minister mentioned that are being carried out on eucalyptus. We must involve the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in addition to Bord na Móna and Coillte. The joint venture is to be welcomed but the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has a significant role to play. Farm waste must be utilised. We must move beyond a view that the only products coming out the farm gate is beef, milk or pork. There are many other products, including farm waste, and cash can be earned from utilising farm waste properly. I urge the Minister to talk to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine about the issue to see how we can best approach it because it is not best practice to burn biomass in the corner of fields.
I agree wholeheartedly with everything Deputy Stanley said. All of those engagements are taking place right across the board. Specifically on farm waste, Deputy Stanley is correct. Within the national development plan, there is a specific provision to look at utilising farm waste and the brown bin waste for use in biogas or biomethane plants that would supply district heating systems to towns. That has been done very effectively in Wales and there is no reason that we cannot do it here. We are engaged on the issue. A working group is examining district heating at the moment. We are looking specifically at the Irish Glass Bottle site in Dublin. We are also engaging with South Dublin County Council on its plans for district heating. The intention is to have a blueprint that could then be replicated elsewhere across the country using farm waste and domestic organic waste as the feed stock for such district heating systems.