Over the past five decades, global energy usage has changed considerably, from the development of nuclear commercial power reactors in the 1960s to the continued increase in oil and gas. The usage of coal continued the steady growth seen from the mid-1800s until the more recent emergence of some renewable technologies as a real alternative. Change has been driven by increasing global demand, market pricing and technological improvements. Even with significant advances in energy management and efficient technologies, the planet uses more energy today than ever. As our appetite for energy increases and fossil-fuel resources are finite, it is evident that a solution is needed. Industry stakeholders and energy commentators concede there is no panacea, but rather the answer lies in contribution from all available energy resources, supplemented by ongoing technological development. It is a global issue that requires a global solution. Ireland needs to play its part. In 2009, Ireland was set renewable-energy targets for 2020. Below we can see how we as a nation were tracking in relation to these targets in 2015.

2020 2015
Overarching 16% TFC 8.60%
RES-E 40% 22.70%
RES-T 10% 5.20%
RES-H 12% 6.60%

Ireland's primary energy requirement

The below table breaks down Ireland’s primary energy requirement and from this we can see the energy requirement for fuel has increased by 40% from 1990 to 2014. The role of renewable energy within this has increased considerably, albeit from a very low base: 168 ktoe (1.8%) in 1990 to 1,021 ktoe (7.7%) in 2014.
Total Primary Energy Requirement (ktoe) Share %
1990 2014 1990 2014
Coal 2,085 1,262 22.0% 9.5%
Peat 1,377 768 14.5% 5.8%
Oil 4,422 6,249 46.6% 47.1%
Natural Gas 1,446 3,721 15.2% 28.0%
Renewables 168 1,021 1.8% 7.7%
Wastes -- 63 0% 0.5%
Elect. Imp -- 185 0% 1.4%
TOTAL 9,497 13,270
SEAI Energy in Ireland 2015, Martin Howley, Mary Holland and Dr Denis Dineen (December 2015)
The renewable energy contribution to gross energy across the same period is illustrated in the table below. It can be seen that, although solid biomass, which accounted for 105 ktoe in 1990, increased steadily to 304 ktoe by 2014, its percentage share contribution fell from almost 63% to below 30%.
Renewable Contribution to Gross Energy (ktoe) Shares %
1990 2014 1990 2014
Hydro 60 61 35.7% 6.0%
Wind -- 442 0.0% 43.3%
Solid Biomass 105 304 62.9% 29.8%
Landfill Gas -- 39 0.0% 3.8%
Biogas 2 13 1.4% 1.3%
Biofuels -- 112 0% 11.0%
Solar -- 12 0% 1.2%
Geothermal -- 38 0% 3.7%
Total 168 1,021    
SEAI Energy in Ireland 2015, Martin Howley, Mary Holland and Dr. Denis Dineen (December 2015)
In 2000, the renewable energy contribution from wind was 21 ktoe. The impact of government incentives on a chosen renewable energy technology can be seen, as wind increased 2000% in the following 14 years. There is significant scope for growth in our indigenous solid biomass sector with a government-backed Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme. The industry expects an announcement on scheme details in early 2017, on foot of ongoing communications with the Department of Communications, Climate Change and Natural Resources. In line with the Bioenergy Plan published by then minister Alex White, Minister Denis Naughten, on 26 October 2016, publicly reiterated the importance of an RHI, recognising the scope for industry growth in the biomass sector as well as the critical role solid biomass will play in helping Ireland to reach its target of 12% of final heat demand from renewable sources in 2020 (6.6% as at 2015). The obvious benefits of such a scheme would be:
  • Abatement of any potential EU member state penalties for target shortfall;
  • The emergence of an indigenous energy sector;
  • Creating employment of potentially 3,600 full-time positions;
  • Employment within the wider rural community;
  • Displacement of imported oil and gas – potentially 3,500 ktoe by 2050 (SEAI Bioenergy Roadmap 2010-2050);
  • Associated reduction in emissions and economic benefit;
  • Additional plantation of energy crops.

Overcoming challenges in using biomass

What about the fuel? There are already a number of established producers, distributors and suppliers in the solid biomass fuel sector already, with Clearpower Ltd as one of the most recognised. Coillte, as the largest forestry owner/operator in the country, will continue to supply a stable wood flow for the biomass industry with incremental supply coming from private forests. This is as a consequence of changes in legislation, grant aid and support of private afforestation since the 1990s. Coford predicts that, by 2030, the net realisable volume will be over 6 Mm3sob. Coford states that private forestry will represent almost half of this realisable volume. In 1986, public forests accounted for over 300,000 ha, while there was only 100,000 ha of private land equivalent. By 2012, there were 380,000 ha under private forestation which had plateaued in 1998 at around 400,000 ha. However, Coford has recommended that an annual afforestation programme of 15,000 ha be implemented for up to two decades to provide long-term sustainable supply of wood fuels beyond 2020. Although the use of biomass for generation of heat and power (on an industrial/commercial scale) is a real alternative, it is not without its challenges. There is a perception that biomass can be unreliable and what we say is, like other fuel systems, if the overall plant is not designed, installed, operated and fuelled correctly then there will be problems. It should be stated that unregulated and spurious operators within any sector have the potential to cause reputational damage. The establishment of industry accreditations like the Wood Fuel Quality Assurance scheme and an equivalent for installers would go a long way towards protecting against ‘unqualified’ activity. However, when risk of non-performance is addressed through experienced design and project management (from conception to commissioning), as well as carefully managed operation coupled with ongoing fuel quality management, biomass is a reliable, low-cost alternative. The risk of system underperformance can be managed in the form of a heat contract, where the user is supplied heat through a heat meter. It is the operator’s responsibility to operate and optimise the primary heat supply. Similarly, offering a guaranteed operational uptime can offer security to the end user that their heat supply will continue uninterrupted. This offering is delivered effectively by a small number of providers operating in the sector but as the industry matures, these service offerings will become more readily available. Against the current backdrop of global oil prices, the case for capital investment in biomass is a difficult one. The duration of the recent oil price ‘low’ has been unprecedented, mainly due to over production. In October, OPEC signed an accord limiting oil production to 700,000 barrels per day. Oil prices have been increasing slightly in anticipation of this and it is expected that this will continue in the coming months. The RHI scheme design will need to overcome initial market inertia, as well as counterfactual fuel offering. Early adopters of RHI in other jurisdictions have benefited most as RHI rates have decreased as the number of installations increase.

Benefits of biomass for heat and power

The benefits of biomass for heat and power are not only evident in a ‘straight line’ price comparison, but also when operational budgeting is considered biomass, not fully commoditised (yet), is not as vulnerable to exaggerated market fluctuations as oil or gas. Clearpower Ltd, established in 2002, has been active in the Irish and UK biomass market, designing, installing and operating multiple commercial and industrial scale biomass systems. In 2012 Clearpower Ltd was acquired by DCC PLC, a FTSE 100 company headquartered in Dublin. DCC PLC employ over 10,000 people across 15 countries in a variety of sectors and last year recorded revenues in excess of £10 billionn. Clearpower operates within DCC’s Energy Division alongside Flogas Ireland, offering biomass and solar photovoltaic solutions. Combining renewable energy with the existing offerings of liquified petroleum gas, natural gas and electricity, Flogas aims to be Ireland’s leading provider of total energy solutions. As part of Ireland’s solution to a global issue, there is a role for solid biomass both in power and heat generation. How this is delivered depends largely on policymakers, with timing almost as important as content at this stage. With 2020 looming, expediency is needed. Published policy will need to be cognisant of existing and future market sensitivities. Industry stakeholders (design to operational) will need to facilitate further expediency in project delivery. Experienced operators in the sector will be critical in accurately and effectively delivering projects, ultimately transforming a fringe industry into a mainstream one. This is already being done in the UK and for decades previously in Europe in the form of Municipal Biomass Power and District Heating; there is little requirement for re-invention. If you have any queries regarding the above content, please feel free to contact us. Author: Tom Sheehy, Clearpower Ltd: 01 462 5000 or tomas.sheehy@clearpower.ie