Author: Dr Brian Motherway, chief executive, Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland A report published earlier this year that suggests converting the Moneypoint generation station from coal to biomass would solve Ireland’s renewable energy issues is misinformed and risks creating false hopes. The report, prepared by UK consultants BW Energy for the Rethink Pylons campaign group, argues that this one action would enable Ireland to meet its 2020 renewable energy targets at a single stroke. It also claims it would allow us to abandon our plans for investment in wind energy and transmission infrastructure. Unfortunately, the reality is not that simple. That is not to say that biomass does not offer significant benefits for Ireland. It can and is already making a difference. Biomass is organic material used as energy – generating heat or electricity, or indeed fuel to power vehicles. Ireland’s richest biomass resource is wood, sourced from the cultivation of high-yielding trees like willow and poplar, or from the thinnings and residues of forestry land, and also from other wood products such as boards and construction materials. We have a rich biomass resource in Ireland and, used right, it can bring great benefits to local communities across the country. We at the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland want to see the sector grow rapidly, and we believe it can. 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. Take Tralee, a town like many others across in Ireland where people are spending money to keep their homes warm and their businesses operating. All of that money leaves the region to pay for imported fossil fuels, making other countries rich. Like all parts of Ireland, there is a strong desire in Tralee to create local jobs and bolster local incomes. So, the people of the town, led by Kerry County Council, are doing something about it. They started by insulating homes to reduce heat loss and make them easier to keep warm. They then built a biomass-fuelled district heating scheme, delivering heat and hot water directly to homes, offices and a local school. Now, homes are warmer, cheaper to run and have lower carbon emissions. And with the fuel sourced locally, all the money stays within a few miles of the town, supporting the area’s forestry sector. They even use the ash from the boiler as a fertiliser in the school garden. Now that’s sustainability. There are many other communities using local ingenuity and resources to control their own destiny – like the Aran Islands with their target of energy independence by 2022, or Dundalk’s international recognition for its wide-ranging energy innovation activities.

New approach to sustainable energy

[caption id="attachment_17754" align="alignright" width="342"]Dr Brian Motherway, SEAI Dr Brian Motherway, SEAI[/caption] Actually, it is a simple equation: a combination of energy efficiency and renewables to divert money away from imported fossil fuels and spend it instead on local jobs, local technology and local energy resources. This approach to sustainable energy is already benefitting the Irish economy by more than €1 billion every year, retaining money that was previously lost to other countries. This is a very different approach from the suggested conversion of Moneypoint from coal to biomass, a proposal supported by groups opposed to electricity pylons and wind turbines in the mistaken belief that all our renewable energy goals can be met in fell swoop. It is easy to see why it would be attractive to be able to take one simple action and suddenly solve all of our problems – meet our targets, save money and avoid the need for new infrastructure. Unfortunately, things are rarely so simple. Look at the data and you see that this is certainly the case here. Indeed, the conversion of Moneypoint to biomass has been considered a number of times over the years, including actual trials of small amounts of biomass in the station. However, the technical and economic challenges have proven far greater than some would have us believe. The existing Moneypoint plant cannot use biomass as a fuel. To allow for combustion of biomass, a full redesign and rebuild of much of the station would be required. This is expensive, probably hundreds of millions of euro more expensive than is being suggested. To get a sense of what that cost might do to electricity prices, we can look to the UK, where a recent conversion to biomass of a coal plant required significant financial support to make it viable. Each unit of energy from the new UK plant is guaranteed a price of the equivalent of 13 cents, almost double the 7 cent price offered to wind energy here in Ireland. Wind energy is cheap in Ireland; that is why we are using it. Would switching Moneypoint from coal to biomass help Ireland meet its climate and energy targets? Biomass is best used to generate heat because we can get twice the energy from the same amount of biomass, rather than just turning it into electricity. People seem to forget that we have a target for renewable heat as well as one for renewable electricity. If we divert all our potential heat resources into electricity it will simply make meeting our other targets harder, if not impossible. And speaking of diverting all our resources, how much biomass would Moneypoint consume? The answer is that it would take far more than Ireland’s entire biomass resource, that would require over 300,000 hectares of land – the equivalent of covering every square inch of counties Wexford and Carlow with willow. Assuming this is unlikely, we would have to import very large amounts of biomass from different parts of the world. At what cost? It’s very hard to say, prices are very volatile, resource availability is hard to predict, and so we would be exposing ourselves to a new degree of uncertain import dependence for our energy needs.

Energy issues to the fore

It is positive that energy issues are being discussed and that ideas are being put forward. Public consultation is currently under way in the development of new energy policy, and so debate and new ideas are certainly welcome. Too often, people are simply against things without facing up to the harder challenge of what the alternative might be. So all new thinking is welcome, but in this case, looking at the detail, it seems based more on wishful thinking than hard science. Possibly this is because it seems that some who argue for this particular proposal are not driven by a fondness for biomass so much as a distinct lack of fondness for another – wind energy. The proposal emanates from a call to cancel the current roll-out of wind energy in Ireland, despite its measurable success. Right now, the cheapest way for Ireland to generate clean electricity is using wind. It is already one of the biggest single contributors to greenhouse gas reduction in Ireland and has saved us close to €1 billion in avoided imports of fossil fuel in the last few years. We should keep exploiting wind in the right way and add the benefits of exploiting biomass in the right way on top of that. Ireland is rich in clean energy resources of many kinds, and these are the resources of the future. There is no magic fix or no one winner energy source – we need them all. Wind and biomass both have a place in Ireland’s energy future.