Northern Ireland’s Marine Bill
22nd August 2012
Renewable heat incentive details announced
22nd August 2012

Bioenergy: An industry in flux

Turbines-&-Rapeseed A new REFIT price for biomass will help bioenergy but energy crop planting is down.

The Irish energy sector received a boost in February with the begining of a REFIT scheme for biomass technologies. The price support had been long sought by the industry and the Irish BioEnergy Association predicts that approximately 12 projects are ready to commence following its introduction. 310MW of renewable electricity capacity from biomass will become available from the new price support.

It has been a mixed year for the bioenergy sector. While the new REFIT scheme was welcomed, energy crop plantings have declined this year due to an upturn in agriculture and farmer satisfaction with alternative crops.

“There’s definitely a supply shortfall coming if we don’t start planting more energy crops or more dedicated biomass for energy,” says the association’s president Tom Bruton. He says that the temporary suspension of the bioenergy crop planting grant scheme last year damaged the sector.

Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte has promised a national bioenergy strategy later this year. It is being developed in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine and SEAI. The Minister has said that it will “underpin rural job creation, economic growth and regional development” whilst optimising the sector’s contribution to Ireland meeting its electricity, heat and transport targets.

A positive development for the sector has been the increased talk of reviving a sugar industry. Such a move, if it happened, would involve ethanol production. Beet Ireland, a group interested in reviving the industry, and the Irish Sugar Biorefinery Group, have both appeared before the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine to discuss their support for and analysis of its viability.

Beet Ireland predicts that an ethanol production capacity of 56,000 m³ could be provided at a sugar and bioethanol plant requiring 1.8 million tonnes of sugar beet. This equates to 57 million litres of biofuel in petroleum consumed every year in Ireland.

The possibility of growing and processing sugar again in Ireland has increased following the European Commission’s declared intention to end the sugar quota system in 2015.

Bruton believes that for Ireland to meet its 10 per cent transport target such initiatives will help alleviate reliance on imported biofuels. Currently, 4 per cent of transport fuels must come from biofuels, however, the new Renewable Energy Strategy 2012-2020 contains a commitment to consult with stakeholders on the planned increase in proportion.

“Every other country has its renewable energy targets too and they are all in the same situation,” says Bruton on reliance on imports for renewable heat or transport sources.

The industry has claimed that under the current rules no distinction is made between imports and indigenous biofuels. This eliminates any incentive to source local biofuels, as imports are cheaper.

For Bruton and the Irish BioEnergy Association, public sector procurement of bioenergy heating systems rather than oil heating is a necessary measure to encourage the sector. The association estimates that the State spends approximately €300 million per annum on oil heating (the National Procurement Service does not have a figure for state spend on heating oil). Energy supply contracts for biomass heating, it believes, would be more effective in incentivising the domestic sector than alternatives such as a renewable heat incentive (due to be introduced in Northern Ireland).

In February, Bruton’s association produced a report on the economic benefits from the development of bioenergy to meet the 2020 targets. Supported by SEAI, it concluded that over 3,600 permanent jobs could be created. The country’s energy import bill of €6.5 billion would be reduced by 75 per cent. €1.5 billion in biomass processing infrastructure and equipment would be required to deliver the output to meet the targets.