The supports farmers receive for growing biomass crops used for generating heat must be boosted if farmers are to enter that element of the renewable energy sector in significant numbers, according to Irish Bioenergy Association (IrBEA) executive officer Noel Gavigan.

If these supports come forward, farmers could see more opportunities presented to them to grow crops, such as willow, Gavigan told the Cavan leg of the Irish Farmers Journal Renewables Roadshow.

Existing supplies can be sourced from byproducts from the forestry sector.

“There have been previously biomass crops [grown in Ireland]. Now there have been problems with that as you know,” the IrBEA officer said.

“Other countries seem to have done it very well and some of the energy crops are getting very good markets here in Ireland, we are taking about willow, in particular.

Existing sources of bioenergy include forestry sector byproducts. / Peter Thomas Keaveney

“But there is a need for more support if we are going to look at people growing material like that on a short rotation basis.

“So, there’s plenty of material out there through thinings, through residues, through biomass. There is a lot of potential there for both energy crops and byproducts from forestry.”

Little focus so far

One of the reasons for there being so little take-up of biomass so far in Ireland’s push to green the energy sector is the narrow fixation of some policymakers on electrification driven by renewable electricity, Gavigan stated.

“Europe likes biomass. The International Energy Agency is saying that 20% of all the world’s energy should be coming from biomass by 2050 and that’s a massive modification of where we are now,” he told attendees at Cootehill.

“But there is a perception among some political analysts who would like to see everything electrified, whether it is vehicles or it is heating, but biomass is able to carry its own weight.”

Farmers using biomass

On the opposite end of the bioenergy supply chain, farmers with high heat demand, such as pig and poultry farmers, could stand to benefit from switching to burning biomass to generate the heat their farm needs.

“Very generous” incentives can be drawn down through the Sustainable Energy Association of Ireland’s (SEAI) Support Scheme for Renewable Heat (SSRH), the meeting heard.

Pig and poultry farmers can avail of supports for switching to biomass boilers under the SSRH scheme. / Philip Doyle

The scheme has a potential total budget of up to €300m over 15 years, but less than €20m has been committed since it opened in 2019.

Only 25 farming-based projects have received funding under the SSRH so far, despite biomass boilers being well-suited to many farms’ machinery and space availability, the IrBEA officer commented.

Gavigan cited the example of a poultry farm in Monaghan which switched from kerosene to woodchip under the 15-year SSRH support scheme, with the expected payback period on the capital investment needed for the boiler standing at a little over five years.

Another poultry unit in Limerick which availed of the scheme to switch from kerosene to woodchip will receive 15 years of supports and see the cash outlay of purchasing the boiler clawed back in less than four years.

Given that much of the State’s forestry estate was planted at a time when trees will be harvested over the coming years, it is anticipated that biomass supplies for these boilers will be ample to satisfy the rise in demand brought on by farmers and commercial premises availing of the scheme.

Improved reliability

Responding to a question from the floor put by Finbar Reburn of Cootehill, Co Cavan, on the reliability of boilers after some reports of poor prior experiences of their use in domestic settings, Gavigan stated that issues had cropped up in the past with installment procedures.

“The design now has been that well defined that those problems are not there anymore, but it is down to the install,” he explained.

“That’s the one thing we would say, you have to have it put in properly.”

Check out this week’s Irish Farmers Journal for more coverage of the Renewables Roadshow and you can also come along to the Athlone Springs Hotel on 30 April to attend last installment of the roadshow to find out more.

Doors open from 6.30pm and the event will start at 7.30pm, running until 10pm.