Not only can bioenergy play a vital role in helping Ireland meet EU targets on climate change, but it also offers Ireland the chance to develop a reliable indigenous energy supply – reducing reliance on imported energy products, according to the irBEA
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Author: irBEA Management Committee 

Ireland, due to its island status and geographic location, is reaping the benefits of wind energy. However, the bioenergy sector has the potential to play a vital role in helping Ireland to meet the challenging targets set by the EU on renewable energy and climate change. In addition, it offers a more environmentally sustainable waste-management option, helping Ireland to achieve EU Landfill Directive requirements and reduce costs.

Moreover, given the scale of the country’s bioenergy resources, in the form of agricultural land, forestry and waste from municipal, agriculture and industrial sources, the sector also offers the opportunity for Ireland to develop a reliable and predictable indigenous energy supply, thereby reducing the country’s reliance on increasingly volatile and insecure imported energy products.

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MATURE BIOENERGY TECHNOLOGIES

Bioenergy is renewable energy that comes from materials derived from biological sources using a variety of different technology types. The following outlines the main renewable energy technologies currently being used in Ireland:

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1) Biomass heating is the generation of thermal energy using an organic material. It is estimated that the 2011 figure for domestic biomass boilers with an average installation size of 15kW doubled to 14,000 by 2020. Forestry-derived feedstocks, i.e. wood chips and pellets, are the main input for biomass heat-only facilities.

Biomass boilers are higher in capital cost than their fossil-fuelled counterparts. However, once in place, they can offer fuel cost savings of over 50 per cent when compared with oil. Woodchip and pellet-boiler technology has advanced greatly in recent years, with units now fully automated and highly efficient.

In addition, with the emergence of energy supply contracts, the user can now outsource the boiler operation entirely to experienced companies and simply pay for heat on a heat meter. 

2) Biomass combined heat and power (CHP) or ‘co-generation’ is the simultaneous generation in one process of thermal energy and electrical and/or mechanical energy. The ratio of heat output to electricity output and the associated efficiencies are largely dependent on the type of technology installed. While biomass CHP is not new in Ireland, new plant development is promoting innovation by Irish companies that are keen to develop and supply this technology worldwide.

3) Co-firing is the combined burning of bioenergy feedstocks with conventional fuels e.g. wood with peat. The Government has in place a target of 30 per cent co-firing at three peat stations by 2015.

4) Anaerobic digestion (AD) is the breakdown of organic material by bacteria in an oxygen-free environment. Farm, municipal or industrial-based AD plants process organic material in the form of waste organic material and/or purpose grown energy crops into biogas (which is compromised of carbon dioxide and methane).

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The feedstock is mixed, if required, and then placed in an airtight container (digester) along with bacteria. Depending on the feedstock and system design, biogas typically contains 55-75 per cent pure methane. The biogas can be upgraded to fossil (‘natural’) gas, which typically contains 70-96 per cent methane.

The liquid fraction of the remaining digested feedstock can be returned to the land as a fertiliser and solid fibre used as a soil conditioner. Biogas is often upgraded (purified) into biomethane, which can be injected into the natural gas grid or used as vehicle fuel.

5) Biofuels are fuels that are produced from living organisms through a carbon fixation. The term biofuel is generally reserved for transport fuels derived from living organisms. These will be very important to reaching the RES-T targets. Examples include bioethanol, biomethane and biodiesel.

The Energy (Biofuel Obligation and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2010 requires that fuel suppliers will have to supply an average of 4 per cent biofuels in their annual fuel sales. However, suppliers may import their biofuels and the obligation may not directly result in the generation of biofuels from primary resources in Ireland.

From the early days of oil seed rape, the development of biofuels has advanced into second- and third-generation biofuels, which can be produced from all types of raw materials, including wood. These new generation fuels are promising, as they often require as little as quarter of the land area previously needed to provide similar volumes of fuel.

6) Landfill gas can be collected and processed to be used as a biogas. Wells are usually dug into the landfill and the gas is collected through perforated pipes. The practice of landfill gas extraction is popular on Irish landfill sites, as the expulsion of the gas into the atmosphere is strictly controlled so it is highly efficient to extract the gas and use in for energy production.

The gas requires an amount of cleaning before being sent to the grid, which can be expensive. This gas can also be used on site, thereby offsetting the importation of electricity from the national grid. It is anticipated this source of gas will reduce over the coming years, due to more onerous landfill directive targets coupled with the Environmental Protection Agency limits on biodegradable content of materials into landfill.

BENEFITS OF BIOENERGY

In addition to the major impact the expansion of the bioenergy sector will have on the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it will also result in a number of much-needed positive outcomes for the economy in Ireland.

If Ireland is to reach the targets set out under RES-E, RES-H and RES-T, it is estimated that almost €1.5 billion in direct investment in biomass processing infrastructure and equipment will be required in the period up to 2020. Approximately 55 per cent of this figure would be directly spent in the Irish economy, with the balance being in imported plant and equipment.

Once the industry is fully operational, an additional €430 million will be spent on operating these facilities. This growth will also mean increased employment opportunities, with almost 8,300 work years generated throughout the domestic economy during the construction and installation of the various facilities required to deliver on targets.

As most of the facilities will be based in rural areas and most of the feedstock grown there, the opportunities for rural economic expansion is huge. A very significant proportion of the employment generated in both the construction and operation of the bioenergy facilities and infrastructure will be in rural Ireland.

The bioenergy sector can offer farmers and other rural-based businesses new business opportunities and provide alternatives to traditional farming activities. This will contribute to sustaining rural communities and help deliver more balanced regional economic development.

Security of energy supply is a critically important economic issue for an island nation such as Ireland. The production of bioenergy offers the opportunity to address energy import dependency (which currently stands at 90 per cent) and also to protect against volatile oil and gas prices.

The presence of a strong bioenergy sector in Ireland provides a valuable hedge against future energy price instability, as well as important security of supply benefits. Both of these will benefit Ireland’s competitiveness.

RENEWABLE ENERGY: DIRECTIVES AND TARGETS

Co-firing is the combined burning of bioenergy feedstocks with conventional fuels e.g. wood with peat

The bioenergy sector will have a large part to play if Ireland is successful in achieving the renewable energy targets set by the EU. The overall target for Ireland is to achieve a renewable energy share (RES) of 16 per cent of total final consumption by 2020. This has been broken down into individual targets, set out by the Government in the National Renewable Action Plan (NREAP):

  • Renewable contribution to gross electricity consumption (RES-E) of 40 per cent (1032 ktoe)
  • Renewable contribution to thermal energy (RES-H) of 12 per cent (523 ktoe)
  • Renewable contribution to transport (RES-T) of 10 per cent (420 ktoe)

In order to achieve these targets, all renewable energies will have to adapt and increase their capacities over the coming years, including bioenergy. The ‘Energy Forecasts for Ireland to 2020’ report assumes that in 2020 in Ireland, some 2 per cent of electricity consumption (52 ktoe), 3 per cent of energy for transport (127 ktoe in a non-imports scenario) and 9.6 per cent of thermal energy (421 ktoe) will be met by bioenergy.

The Government has specified targets of 30 per cent biomass co-firing at three State-owned power stations by 2015 and 800MW of CHP, with an emphasis on biomass CHP, by 2020. It is clear that bioenergy is expected to be a major contributor to reaching the above targets.

The ‘Energy Forecasts for Ireland to 2020’ report assumes that REFIT will be the main policy instrument to achieving Ireland’s RES-E targets; the Biofuels Obligation Scheme and the Electric Vehicles support measures will be the main instruments contributing to achieving the RES-T targets; and that domestic and commercial Government support measures will be reinstated or replaced by similar supports and will be the main policy instrument contributing to achieving the RES-H targets.

 The Irish Bioenergy Association (IrBEA) was established in May 1999 to promote the bioenergy industry and to develop the sector in Ireland. IrBEA is a non-profit organisation made up of 180 members, who elect a management committee which directs the Association’s activities.

Of the 14 members of the management committee, five are members of Engineers Ireland. The association has four subgroups in Anaerobic Digestion, Wood Fuel, BioFuels and Electricity. The overall aim of the Association is to promote biomass as an environmentally, economically and socially sustainable indigenous energy resource, and also to promote its non-energy related benefits.

The content of this article is extracted from the socio-economic study commissioned by the Irish Bioenergy Association & SEAI entitled The Economic Benefits from the Development of BioEnergy in Ireland to meet 2020 Targets, published in January 2012.

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  Author: irBEA Management Committee  Ireland, due to its island status and geographic location, is reaping the benefits of wind energy. However, the bioenergy sector has the potential to play a vital role in helping Ireland to meet the challenging targets set by the EU on renewable energy and climate change....