Government support for bioenergy on farms and forest land has been re-emphasised but environmentalists question some of the technologies.
When she launched a revised Renewable Energy Action Plan in June, Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew encouraged farmers to invest in these new technologies, which could help improve energy security and the economy.
Joyce Rutherford from DARD’s Renewable Energy Unit gave an overview of what the plan involves at agendaNi’s seminar on bioenergy.
Its current document follows a previous plan, published by her direct rule predecessor, David Cairns, in January 2007. DARD has provided £9 million for renewable energy in the agriculture and forestry sectors since then.
The plan presents 15 practical actions which DARD will take to support renewables, mostly but not exclusively using bioenergy.
It firstly recognises that continued research and development is “essential to future success” in this area. A dedicated research programme is run by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), mainly at Hillsborough and Loughgall.
Its current focus is on biomass crops, such as willow, forestry residues and miscanthus grass, but the programme also looks at economics, emerging technologies, knowledge transfer and carbon foot-printing of renewable energy production at farm level.
The department also recognises that various elements of the supply chain must be “integrated, effective and efficient” to make sure that consumer demands are met.
Its supply chain development programme gives expert guidance and financial assistance to farmers and others interested in bioenergy. It is “critical” that potential investors understand their market and its dynamics including energy pricing and the various technologies available.
Two focus farms, outside Derry and Ballycastle, demonstrate how renewable energy and biomass work in practice, using willow.
Most of the skills and training work takes place at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (Cafre), which has trained 1,700 people in biomass production and utilisation, energy efficiency, and energy from wind.
Further courses on heat from biomass, anaerobic digestion, solar technology and micro-hydro generation are planned.
Over 2,500 people have also attended demonstrations at Loughry, Greenmount and AFBI’s Hillsborough site. Some of DARD’s own buildings at those locations are powered by renewables. More than 350 farmers, mostly in high-energy areas of agriculture, are currently assessing their farms’ energy use.
Money is limited but some finance is available through the Rural Development Programme’s Short Rotation Coppice Fund and the EU Regional Development Programme’s Biomass Processing Challenge Fund.
The latter funds the installation of biomass-fuelled technologies. Applications are now closed but £3 million was allocated.
In conclusion, Rutherford emphasised that DARD is keen to ensure that the agricultural community’s interests are represented. It will continue to carry out the plan and hopes to set up a small ‘external stakeholder group’ to advise the department.
The green question
Farmers are generally keen on bioenergy but the green lobby is more cautious and says limits should be imposed on its development. While the Green Party supports the use of bioenergy as part of the transition to a low carbon society, spokesman Steven Agnew warned that “all that’s bio isn’t green.”
He added: “Biofuels must be produced from truly sustainable sources, and the proportion of our energy that biofuels provide must be capped to avoid mass deforestation and rises in food prices.”