Bioenergy could generate 3,600 full-time jobs and €430m annually for the Irish economy given the right incentives, say industry experts.
Those attending Wednesday’s Teagasc National Bioenergy Conference 2012 in the Hodson Bay Hotel, Athlone, Co Westmeath, heard that €1.5bn will be invested in biomass processing infrastructure and equipment from 2012 to 2020.
Some 55% of this will be spent in the country, with the remainder being imported plant and equipment. Almost €430m would be spent annually on operating these facilities, creating almost 8,300 work years and sustaining 3,600 full-time equivalent jobs.
However, Teagasc bioenergy specialist Barry Caslin would like to see stronger state support to build on the sector’s recent solid progress. With Ireland’s 15c per kwh Refit tariff delivering around half of Britain’s 28c/kwh equivalent Roc support, many southern farmers are still hesitant to invest too heavily in growing biomass crops such as miscanthus, willow, and whole crop wheat.
Mr Caslin said: “There is definitely a market there if people can be convinced that the return per hectare is comparable to conventional agriculture products. This involves a 20-year commitment, so farmers won’t get too deeply involved without some guarantee on income.”
Many Irish farm co-ops are already gearing up to change their transport from heavy fuel oil to biofuel. Agri-food heat and waste will be closely inspected by the EU, notably the co-ops’ new giant milk driers, set to churn out powder for the soaring infant formula industry.
Biomass and biofuel can play a key role in helping Ireland meet its EU commitment to source 16% of total final consumption of energy from renewables by 2020. But the experts gathered in Athlone yesterday agreed that stronger incentives will be needed to ensure adequate buy-in from Irish farmers.
Mr Caslin said: “The south of Ireland could comfortably have 250 farm-scale anaerobic digestors, but they would need to be charging a ‘gate fee’ for taking in food waste to make it viable.
“When you calculate the cost of growing crops like maize, grass silage and whole crop wheat, it comes to the equivalent of 10c per kwh. The maintenance cost is around 4c/kwh. Given the 15c Refit tariff, that leaves just a 1c margin.”
The need for a greater bioenergy incentive will come starkly into view in 2015, when Ireland will be obliged to displace 30% of its peat-generated power and replace it with renewable energy.
Ireland’s energy import dependency presently stands at 90%. Ireland currently spends €6.5bn per year on imported fossil fuels sush as coal, oil, and gas.
“By making the necessary investment we could reduce our import dependency by 7.5% which would lead to a reduction in Irelands import bill of €488m per year along with the job creation potential,” said Mr Caslin.
“If Ireland fails to meet its renewable energy targets, the European Court of Justice can impose a range of fines on Ireland. These could be as high as €40m per annum plus a lump sum fine. The minimum is €1.5m.
“The potential gains from investing in bioenergy are considerable.”