The Government’s flagship National Biomethane Strategy is mere weeks from publication. The strategy, which has been in development for months by a cross-departmental group, is expected to lay out the roadmap to building 140-200 large-scale anaerobic digestion (AD) plants by the end of the decade.

After a month of touring the country, the Renewables Roadshow has gauged attitudes toward AD, and the results have been interesting.

In some cases, we encountered farmers who were bitterly opposed to AD, citing the thousands of acres required to supply agricultural plants as a threat to farming.

On the other hand, there is a cohort of farmers who are in favour of the industry’s rollout, either to get involved with project development or to supply a plant.

Arguably the largest group of farmers consisted of those who are unaware of how the industry is developing and what it means for them.

You could hear the gasps in the audience during the AD case study sessions when the millions required to build and operate an AD plant were presented to them. Many of these farmers feel that AD is out of reach and not a realistic option, which presents a big problem for the Government’s plans to develop this industry with farmers at its core.

Divide opinion

Across Europe and Northern Ireland, where an industry is established, AD does not replace farming, rather, it is just another type of farming. So why does the prospect of an AD industry divide opinion so much here?

Perhaps it’s because of the scale and speed of development that is needed. In many countries, we see the gradual development of smaller AD plants, many of which are farm-based, before building towards larger-scale biomethane plants. In Ireland however, in order to meet climate action targets, we’ll need to see the rapid development of large-scale, commercial plants scattered across the country in a short space of time.


Arguably, the most vocally critical sector against AD has been farmers and representatives from the dairy sector.

Based on both public and private feedback received during the roadshows, the dairy sector’s concerns primarily revolve around competition for land and the shift from using land for food to using it for energy production. Indeed, some dairy farmers have been actively opposing projects in parts of the country.

However, data from the Teagasc Fleet project, presented on the night, indicates that dairy farming will remain more profitable per hectare than AD.

Even though AD couldn’t compete with the rental prices a dairy farmer might pay for land, it’s important to note that very few developers actually intend to rent land to produce feedstock. Instead, they will seek agreements with farmers to supply the plant.

However, there is a risk of competition for land for nitrates, as an AD plant will have to find farmers to use and sign for the digestate. Therefore, it makes sense for a dairy farmer to export at least some of their slurry to an AD plant and take back what they need in the form of digestate. The EU is proposing to make changes to facilitate this arrangement on derogation farms.

Regarding the use of land for food production, Ireland’s land use has always been diverse. Not long ago, hundreds of thousands of hectares in Ireland were used to grow flax for the textile industry, and oats to fuel an army of horses, which were needed to do much of the farm work. An AD sector will create more market choices for farmers and, as was reiterated at the roadshow, just because the market exists, it doesn’t mean you have to supply it.

At its core, AD is viewed by the Government as a tool to enhance the sustainability of food production. Whether it’s capturing methane from slurry before it’s spread, or reducing the use of chemical fertilisers through digestate, AD will play a crucial role in lowering emissions from food production.

With many of Ireland’s food processors struggling to address their scope three emissions (the emissions generated from their suppliers), every available tool is essential to help the entire food industry decarbonise.

New market

Many conversations I had after the conference involved farmers with a genuine interest in getting involved in an AD project or developing their own. These farmers, including those from tillage, and the pig sectors and those considering retiring from dairy, seem less willing to speak up in public compared to those opposed.

They are interested by the new opportunities this emerging industry might offer, but are frustrated by the lack of details. As no new biomethane plants have been built yet, it’s challenging to provide concrete information. Although developers are seeking expressions of interest for feedstock contracts, no contracts have been officially issued.

The recurring theme is clear, these farmers are seeking something new. They are dissatisfied with their current farming operations and are looking for a new farm business opportunity, either through supplying a project or building one.

Does opposition stop a plant?

Does every farmer in the country have to buy into an AD industry? Generally not, as there will always be as many farmers in an area who want to work with an AD plant as those who don’t. But general support certainly helps, especially when trying to secure planning permission. Farmers who are opposed to a project can submit an objection to an AD plant, but that won’t guarantee a project won’t go ahead if it is to be agri-centric.


The vast majority of farmers won’t be in a position to build or operate a plant themselves, given the scale of investment required. If we want farmers to have skin in the game, then it’s time to use the successful cooperative model already in existence. Every cooperative should be progressing with at least one demonstration AD plant for their members. Now is the time for cooperatives to step up and show leadership.


If the reactions of farmers at the roadshows are anything to go by, the message about the benefits of AD to agriculture are not reaching the target audience.

With a multitude of AD plants currently in the planning stages, this industry will likely be established quicker than many think. However, to get farmers on board, a robust communication strategy is essential , as is a plan to allow farmers to have an ownership stake in the industry. This is another element that needs to be addressed in the upcoming biomethane strategy.

The author Stephen Robb is currently involved in a family/community proposal for an anaerobic digestion facility in Co Donegal.

Key points

  • Anaerobic digestion is dividing opinions in farming.
  • Some see it as an opportunity, other see it as a threat.
  • No new biomethane plants are built yet.
  • The industry will have to win over the hearts and minds of farmers.
  • Cooperatives need to play a role in getting farmers involved in AD plants.