Biomass in EU and Ireland

Robert Wilson: Growth of Biomass

Robert Wilson: Growth of Biomass

Biomass in the EU:

Throughout the world, bio-energy remains the biggest source of renewable energy.  In Europe, there has been a remarkable growth in biomass production and use.

The European Environmental Agency (EEA) states that  it can be assumed that biomass could account for two-thirds of the renewable energy target in 2020. For this to become reality biomass use will roughly have to double.

Two studies describe a two-stage pattern:

  1. In the short to medium run, available but partly unused biomass potential from waste, forestry, and residues can readily be tapped into.
  2. In the longer run, they agree that most of the genuine growth in biomass potential will have to come from agriculture (EEA study) or agricultural products (Impact Assessment of the Renewable Energy Roadmap).

On the other hand, Robert Wilson, a PhD Student in Mathematical Ecology at the University of Strathclyde in UK, has written a critical analysis of the growth of biomass and bioenergy production and states that “Physical realities  mean that it is implausible that bio-energy can provide anywhere close to the majority of the energy needs of affluent economies.”

Current situation in Ireland
The potential to produce more biomass in the island of Ireland is significant. Paterson’s Climatic Index (M3/ha) is an indicator of the growing potential for wood. The island of Ireland is rated at 10, which is significantly higher than most other European countries. The growing conditions for trees are ideal, with typical production capability two or three times that of mainland Europe.
Ireland was once densely forested, but large areas were cleared in the 16th to 18th centuries, and our levels of afforestation, 11% in the South and 4% in the North, are well below the EU norm (the only EU country with a lower level of afforestation is Malta). However, Ireland has not realised its potential to produce woody biomass to date, for several reasons. These include:
  • lack of incentives (particularly in Northern Ireland),
  • reliance on traditional land management,
  • the culture within agriculture and
  • the focus on food production.

However, Ireland has a rich biomass resource and, used right, it can bring great benefits to local communities across the country.  SEAI’s research shows that it has the potential to become a €200 million supply chain of local fuel within the next few years. This creates jobs – in growing, harvesting, transporting and using (read more).

Job question: 

The following infographic gives details of the potential benefits of biomass to the economy and to employment in Tipperary (Click on the diagram).  The figures could be extrapolated to the rest of Ireland!

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Future of biomass in Ireland:

A draft Bioenergy Plan was published by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources in October 2014.  In the forward, Minister Alex White states:

“The long term development of Ireland’s abundant, diverse and indigenous renewable energy resources is a defining element of this Government’s energy policy. Not alone is renewable energy of key environmental importance, it also provides real and sustainable economic opportunities for Ireland, both in terms of providing a secure, indigenous source of energy, and as an engine for job creation.”

Three high level goals, of equal importance, based on the concept of sustainable development, were identified in the Plan:
• To harness the market opportunities presented by bioenergy in order to achieve economic development, growth and jobs
• To increase awareness of the value, opportunities and societal benefits of developing bioenergy
• To ensure that bioenergy developments do not adversely impact the environment and its living and non-living resources

This Plan will undergo public consultation and Environmental Impact Assessment before adoption by Government.

Advantages of biomass
  • It is a renewable source of energy, which means that it will not run out as long as it is replaced, for example by growing more crops or trees, or increasing of livestock.
  • Although carbon dioxide is released when biomass is burned, the plants absorbed this carbon dioxide when they were growing.  However, additional carbon dioxide is emitted from farm machinery used in the process.
  • It can use waste materials to produce electricity.
  • It supports farmers because they can sell not just their crops for biomass fuel, but using animal waste as well.
  • Ireland has a rich biomass resource.

biomass image

Issues around the use of biomass to produce biofuels

Quoted from article “Biomass: the hidden face of the Energiewende” by Robert Wilson

“The expansion of corn ethanol and bio-diesel around the world has lead to a significant diversion of cropland over to biofuel production. Some commentators have referred to this a “crime against humanity,” a perhaps justifiable claim given the potential impact this has had on global food prices.

Similarly the environmental benefits of biomass are increasingly in doubt. The expansion of cropland to accomodate liquid biofuels production has almost certainly resulted in large amounts of de-forestation, and the carbon released during this has quite probably offset whatever emissions are supposed to be saved by the biofuels in the first place.

Environmental groups are also increasingly opposed to the large-scale expansion of bio-energy. A recent report from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace suggested that getting electricity from burning wood may be worse than getting it from coal. And there is now an ongoing argument between many British environmental groups and some renewables lobby groups over the issue.  Subsidies and mandates for liquid biofuels are also now routinely opposed by many environmental NGOs.”

In Ireland, given the relaxation of quotas for EU Member States, plans have been made to substantially increase our national herd (Food Harvest 2020).  Because of methane emissions by cattle as well as their wastes, there will be a real challenge for Ireland to reduce its agricultural carbon emissions under those circumstances.  The use of anaerobic digesters and production of biofuel will mitigate this increase in emissions and will be an important use of biomass, but it will not eliminate emissions.  At present, discussions are taking place on a more recent report (Food Harvest 2025) and attention is being brought to bear on this problem.

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