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IrBEA conference: Emerald Isle reflections

With less than less than three years to 2020 it seems pretty certain that Ireland is not going to reach its cumulative European Union (EU) target of 16 percent from renewable energy sources (RES) by 2020. Bearing that in mind, one might have expected low attendance and an atmosphere reminiscent of a Hollywood movie “situation room” at the Irish Bioenergy Association (IrBEA) annual conference in Castleknock, Co. Dublin last Thursday. Wrong on both counts.

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Over 200 participants, hailing from both sides of the border, attended IrBEA annual conference. The atmosphere was one of constructive frustration, a problem-solving getting on with the task at hand.

There is a lot to get cracking with as, according to figures shown by Matthew Clancy, Programme Manager, Low Carbon Technologies, Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), the country was at 9.1 percent in 2015 of which over half is renewable electricity (5.5 percent) followed by renewable heat 2.5 percent) and transport (1.1 percent). These figures are undeniably far south of where the country needs to be unless, of course, some sort of (divine) intervention takes place in the meantime.

Gap analysis - figures shown by Matthew Clancy, SEAI, show that in 2015, Ireland was at 9.1% of its 16% 2020 target. Over half is renewable electricity (5.5%) followed by renewable heat 2.5%) and transport (1.1%).
Gap analysis – figures shown by Matthew Clancy, SEAI, show that in 2015, Ireland was at 9.1% of its 16% 2020 target. Over half is renewable electricity (5.5%) followed by renewable heat 2.5%) and transport (1.1%). Gap analysis - figures shown by Matthew Clancy, SEAI, show that in 2015, Ireland was at 9.1% of its 16% 2020 target. Over half is renewable electricity (5.5%) followed by renewable heat 2.5%) and transport (1.1%).

Pure conjecture – but what if the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) went for full biomass conversions of its coal- and peat-fired power stations (Moneypoint on torrefied/steam treated), livestock and dairy farmers rolled out farm-scale biogas, Irish meat industry majors set up biodiesel and biogas production at their processing plants and Irish distillers temporary switched from whiskey to fuel ethanol.

The latter three; the agriculture, food- and drinks industries are strategic export-oriented sectors that could do much to reduce the RES gap using existing resources while enhancing their market competitiveness. Tying in with the Irish Food Board, Bord Bia’s “Origin Green national sustainability programme, springs to mind as a way forward.

Time is something that various government regimes since 2009, when the EU’s renewable energy directive came into force, have seemingly squandered by squabbling over how the country might reach the various sub-targets without actually committing to anything tangible that could jeopardise re-election to office.

A shade unfair perhaps, it is by no means unique to Ireland that elected officials suffer from bouts of lip service and procrastination, a condition that tends to worsen closer to election time. Yet something as critical to any nation’s future well-being as (renewable) energy and its security of supply should not be subjected to the short-term whims of incumbent powers that be. And in a nation of poets and writers, drafting such robust policies that prevail over terms of office ought not to be such an onerous task?

We had a child when the first discussions about the 12 percent renewable heat target began. That child is already in primary school when we now have the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) out on consultation and will probably be a school leaver before anything is implemented, mused Tom Bruton, CEO, BioXL, in his review of the RHI consultation that was released last month.

Tom Bruton, BioXL, gave a short review of the latest RHI consultation document.

In all fairness, it is easy as a bystander to be critical and for the record, it should also be said that whilst progress appears to have been slow, it is nonetheless progress and in the right direction – a tripling of RES over the last decade, from circa 3 percent in 2005.

Clancy’s graph showed a steady 45-degree angle almost linear year-on-year trajectory without bumps through the 2007/2008 global finance crisis and the following period of austerity and hardship. Indirectly, the economic downturn is likely to have assisted by reducing total energy consumption offsetting the understandable lack of new investment over the same period.

The immediate pressing issue is how big this gap will end up being, in which sub-sector(s), whether or not something can or should be done about it and to what cost given that the country faces hefty post-2020 fines, estimated to be in the region of EUR 300 million per annum for non-compliance.

However, as Bruton suggested, there is not much point in overly dwelling on the fines at the moment given that it will be at least 2024 before the what, how much and paid when will be apparent. Bruton is right, much could happen between now and then and there’s no point in crying over spilt milk.

More to the point Clancy highlighted that bioenergy has seen significant growth over the period and that closing the gap to meeting the 2020 RES targets will largely hinge on mobilising more bioenergy from agriculture and forestry. Last week’s announcement by the European Investment Bank (EIB) that it approved over EUR 118 million in funds for developing the Irish forest sector is welcome news.

Getting presentations prepped, David Connolly, Aalborg University (left); Matthew Clancy, SEAI and Fergal Leamy, Coillte.

The largest forest owner on the island, state-owned Coillte secured EUR 90 million of this funding. Fergal Leamy, CEO of Coillte, said that the company has dealt with its biomass “identity crisis” – on the one hand owning and managing the national forest estate, the resource, while at the same time owning and operating a panel board industry-based on pulpwood. He acknowledged the role forest-derived biomass could and should play, not least in the proposed RHI, while stressing the need to maintain market balance.

Growth in biomass for energy needs to be in tandem with other forest product markets, Leamy cautioned alluding to the fibre demand for Coillte’s two board manufacturing facilities.

Also encouraging is that perhaps for the first time at an Irish bioenergy conference, presentations, discussions and post-conference bar banter generally focused on beginning with the end result in mind, the medium to long-term perspectives.

For instance, David Connolly, Associate Professor at Aalborg University in Denmark held a thought-provoking and very well-received presentation on just that. Connolly spoke of taking an “integrated systems approach” highlighting Denmark as an example.

Saying it with biomass, Padraic O’Neill, Deputy Director IrBEA (left) marks Teresa O’Brien’s decade of service with IrBEA where she works as Communications Manager.

Ireland may have been a slow RES starter but after what was seen and heard in Castleknock, there is cause for cautious optimism. There is no lack of biomass, biogas and biofuel projects in the works dotted around the island as graphically illustrated in the Irish Bioenergy 2017 map that accompanied the conference programme.

The current situation is what it is on the Emerald Isle and whilst initiatives like the proposed RHI or the recently passed Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill are indeed welcome, it was Clancy who most aptly summed up the conference sentiment when he remarked that “we don’t want a 5 year (biomass) industry, we want a 50-year industry”.

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