Crowds descended on Gurteen Agricultural College last week for the annual Energy and Farm Diversification Show.
With continued pressure facing Irish agriculture to reduce its carbon and environmental footprint, many farmers who attended the day were keen to learn more about farm diversification options.
A key theme of the day centred on renewable energy options for farmers, with a range of talks and demonstrations on anaerobic digestion (AD), energy policy, solar, electricity, biomass and community energy.
Without question, there are now real opportunities for farmers in renewable energy, mostly in the form of solar PV to displace the farm’s imported energy use.
Certainly, the feedback from members of the trade who were present on the day all reported strong interest and engagement from farmers.
This was reflected in the fact that there wasn't a single free seat available when talks on solar PV were held, with crowds having to gather outside the tent entrance.
The reason is simple - in the vast majority of cases, solar PV for self-consumption makes sense. High electricity prices, the removal of the need for planning permission and generous grant aid make it an attractive choice.
However, when it came to other technologies discussed - such as biomass, biomethane, commercial renewable electricity projects and larger-scale technologies such as offshore wind - farmers left with many unanswered questions.
There was a lot of discussion about our national targets for biomethane, which will require the development of 150 to 200 modern AD plants by 2030. Three separate sessions focused on this topic.
While there was much interest from farmers, there was a distinct lack of understanding on the developing AD model in Ireland and a complete lack of direction from the Government on how to develop that model.
While the intensive crop-fed AD plant model, which produces biogas for electricity generation, was once viewed as the emerging model for Ireland by some farmers, it is now considered obsolete. Throughout Europe, we are seeing a shift away from this AD business model.
All emissions linked to grass production and transport of slurry are carefully measured and accounted for
Instead, Ireland is developing a different approach, where AD plants are supplied with animal slurry and grass silage.
In this new model, all emissions linked to grass production and transport of slurry are carefully measured and accounted for to ensure the gas is sustainable.
The biogas is then upgraded into biomethane as a replacement for natural gas. The question of whether this can be done on a small scale was a hot topic, with some questioning the role farmers will play in larger-scale AD plants currently in planning stages.
Regardless of the AD model, all were in agreement that the industry will not take off without state support, similar to wind and solar farm development.
An emerging technology from the UK-based Bennamann, which captures fugitive methane off slurry stored in a tank or lagoon without the need to build an AD plant, also drew a lot of interest from farmers.
The conversation around AD taking up land was never far away, with several dairy farmers in particular highlighting this point throughout the day.
Notably, the idea that dairy farmers would export their slurry to an AD plant to help meet tightening nitrates rules was strongly refuted by one dairy farmer during the morning talk.
The dairy farmer instead argued that the derogation should be maintained at current levels. In conversation with farmers at the event, none of the attendees at the biomethane sessions left convinced.
Renewable heat obligation
There was also plenty of discussion around the much-hyped renewable heat obligation, which is due to be introduced early in 2024.
The obligation would make it mandatory for suppliers of fuels in the heat sector to ensure a percentage of their fuel was renewable, with biomethane being one of the most preferred options.
However, there have been no developments on this and there is little sign that a second consultation is imminent, as suggested. Some at the show have even suggested that the policy is parked for now.
Our stagnating forestry policy and challenging felling conditions mean that biomass supply may very well be challenged in the coming years.
Furthermore, the option to grow energy crops such as willow and miscanthus is essentially gone, even though willow works quite well in Ireland.
While the Support Scheme for Renewable Heat (SSRH) is helping to stimulate the demand for biomass and even though the figures are particularly favourable for using biomass compared with natural gas or oil, the feeling is that there still isn't enough incentive to either grow the biomass or use it on the farm, especially considering the push for electrification of heat and the available grant aid for such systems.