It’s been almost four years since Bord na Móna ceased peat harvesting and transitioned to wood energy. The decision to move away from peat to wood biomass is one aspect of the company’s drive to decarbonise the economy.

Wood and wind are the twin energy sources in Bord na Móna’s programme to ensure energy security and climate change mitigation targets.

The transformation to sustainable energy is apparent a few kilometres south of Edenderry, as 21 wind turbines loom on the horizon at Cloncreen Wind Farm.

Nearby is Bord na Móna’s Edenderry Power, where the challenge to convert the plant from unsustainable peat to renewable wood biomass is now complete.

The company invested €100m in the project, which is not only a major energy source, but also an important market for Irish forest thinnings and timber residues.

This was one of the reasons why members of the Irish Timber Growers Association (ITGA) visited Edenderry Power recently.

Tom Egan, renewable energy operations manager, and Joseph Spollen, biomass manager, outlined the process from biomass source to eventual heat generation and all the operations in between.

These include harvesting, haulage and log storage, while the ITGA members were treated to a tour of the boiler room and the control room, which is the nerve centre of the plant.

This is where energy is monitored and regulated between biomass and wind – both demand and delivery.

The advantage of biomass over wind and solar power lies in its capability to generate electricity and heat regardless of weather conditions.

On the day of the ITGA visit, the 136m diameter rotor blades on the Cloncreen turbines were turning, so the boiler was “on half load, as there is sufficient wind in the system”, explained Egan.

The technicians in the control room “can predict wind energy 10 days in advance with 98% accuracy,” he said, so when wind is non-existent, the plant takes over to ensure an even energy supply.

Biomass arrives in many forms to Edenderry, as explained by Spollen.

“Material includes small logs or pulpwood, brash (tree tops and branches), wood chips, sawdust and wood pellets,” he said.

“We like to keep a six-month supply of logs in the yard where they dry to 35% moisture content before chipping.

“At the moment we are sitting on two months’ supply of wood chips, but ideally we need three months’ storage.”

The recent prolonged wet period hindered the harvesting and delivery schedule, but with the improving weather conditions, storage capacity will be shortly back on schedule.

The advantage of the technology applied in Edenderry compared with smaller plants is its capability to take a wide range of biomass.

“We can take brash, wood pellets and all kinds of residual material in Edenderry, which adds value to your product,” Spollen told the ITGA members. He said this is a key to the success of Edenderry, as it provides a market for products with low value, or in the case of brash, no value.

Edenderry purchases 500,000t of biomass material annually, with 87% sourced in Ireland. The company would like to purchase all biomass from Irish producers, but its pricing system is fixed to retain competitiveness. This partially explains why some Irish pulpwood and wood chips – ideal for Edenderry – are being exported to the UK, where energy and wood based panel mills have a more flexible pricing arrangement. Current delivered-in price paid by Edenderry is €48/t, which adds over €20m to local economies.

Tom Egan outlined the company’s next goal, which is move from being carbon neutral to carbon negative. This involves steps to capture carbon at the plant. The company is also exploring solar energy on its land holding of over 80,000ha.

He outlined how the only waste in wood energy is the 2.5% ash after the biomass is burned. The plan is to reprocess the ash, which wasn’t possible in the past from non-renewable peat ash. Biomass – or biogenic – ash is derived from a sustainable raw material, so he hopes for a favourable response from the EPA in its reuse as a fertiliser or cement substitute.

In short

  • Edenderry purchases 500,000t of wood biomass material – 87% from Irish producers.
  • Delivered in price €48/t.
  • Logs dried to 35% moisture content.
  • Biomass includes low value small logs, chips, sawdust and brash.
  • Tom Egan (right) explains the biomass energy generation process at Edenderry Power. \ Donal Magner

    Timber prices on the increase, but private growers slow to sell

    Log prices are on the increase, but farmers and other private forest owners are not selling – according to two major sawmills. It is estimated from felling licence returns issued by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), that 3.05m m3 of logs should be available this year.

    The COFORD All Ireland Roundwood Production Forecast 2021-2040 maintains that net realisable volume (NRV) from private forest owners should be 2.4m m3 this year, gradually increasing to almost 3m m3 over the next five years.

    Log prices for small logs – pulpwood for board mills and wood energy outlets – have been strong over the past two years, but prices for medium to large logs – pallet to construction market – have remained weak during this period.

    From discussions with forestry companies and sawmills, there is evidence that log prices have been on the increase since January, but sawmills in particular maintain that private log supply remains low.

    So, if private forest owners have felling licences, why aren’t they selling? Sawmills maintain that if the timber is out there, it’s not being released to any great extent, especially by farmers with forests, while forestry companies maintain that many growers are still holding out for better prices.

    Small logs, for the pulpwood and wood energy markets are currently ranging from €20/m3 and €25/m3 (€26-€29/t) for standing sales. This means that a 12ha plantation with 10ha of good-quality spruce, yielding 60m3/ha, should receive at least €12,000 for a first thinning.

    Encouraging news

    The most encouraging news on log sales since January is the slow return of good prices for medium to large timber size categories in standing timber sales.

    While the sector still awaits real-time prices for timber, foresters and sawmills maintain that the standing price of medium-sized logs averaging 0.25m3 to 0.35m3 is now over €50/m3 (€58/t). Larger logs in the 0.4m3 to 0.9m3 size category are currently receiving prices between €65/m3 and €80/m3 (€75/t-€93/t).

    At these prices, the owner of a commercial net 10ha forest, carrying a volume of 4,500m3, could expect a price between €250,000 and €290,000 at clearfell, providing the crop has 80% to 90% large sawlog content.

    So should forest owners sell right now? They should certainly test the market because the interest is out there from sawmills – large and small – wood-based panel mills and biomass energy outlets.

    In short

  • Small log prices €20 to €25/m3.
  • Medium logs over €50/m3.
  • Large logs €65/m3-€80/m3.
  • Prices for medium and large logs increasing.