Crowds of farmers descended upon 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 and renewable energy options.
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.
However, when it came to other technologies discussed, such as biomass, biomethane and commercial renewable electricity projects, farmers left with many unanswered questions.
Rooftop solar makes sense
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.
Stubbornly high electricity prices, the removal of the need for planning permission, and generous grant aid make it an attractive option for farmers wishing to produce their own electricity to use on the farm and in their households. Payback periods of 3-5 years are now common for solar PV systems, which many at the show called a ‘no-brainer’.
The restriction on battery size in the Solar Capital Investment Scheme, which only allows batteries half the size of the solar PV system to be eligible for grant aid, was called into question however. This rule hinders farmers from storing excess renewable electricity for future use, undermining the purpose of the scheme.
The importance of understanding your farm’s actual energy use to develop tailored energy-saving and renewable systems was again highlighted.
Farmers who spent over €10,000 on energy are eligible for a free SEAI Energy Audit, but it was noted that diesel use would no longer be considered in this threshold calculation. Among other opportunities discussed during the day were land leasing options for solar farms and the development of energy communities.
There was a lot of discussion about our national targets for biomethane, which will require the development of 150-200 modern anaerobic digestion (AD) plants to be built by 2030. Three separate sessions focused on this topic.
While there was much interest from farmers, it was clear that there was a distinct lack of understanding on the developing AD model in Ireland and a lack of direction from the Government on how to develop that model.
The intensive maize/crop fed AD plant model, which produces biogas for electricity generation, was once viewed as the emerging model for Ireland by some farmers but it is now considered obsolete. Throughout Europe, we are seeing a shift away from this AD business model.
Instead, Ireland is developing a different approach where AD plants are supplied with animal slurry and grass silage to produce biogas. The biogas is then upgraded into biomethane as a replacement for natural gas.
In this new model, all emissions linked to grass production and the transport of slurry are carefully measured and accounted for to ensure the gas is sustainable.
AD plants following this model will be large in order to avail of economies of scale, with build costs ranging from €10-€15m per plant. Depending on the size, they would require 1,000-2,000ac of grass silage and thousands of tonnes of slurry. The role that farmers will play in these plants was a hot topic.
While there are a number of plants working their way through planning which are being developed by farmers, there are also several large, multinational businesses currently putting plans in place to develop dozens of large-scale AD projects in Ireland.
In most cases, these companies are backed by funds with access to hundreds of millions in capital. It remains very unclear where farmers will fit into the ownership models of these plants and if they are just destined to become suppliers of feedstock, as well as users of digestate.
In this scenario however, farmers will still hold a degree of power if they decide to not supply feedstock or take digestate, as pointed out by Teagasc’s Dr Maurice Deasy.
All were in agreement that the industry will not take off without State support, similar to the wind and solar farm sectors. However, it was also suggested that any State aid provided for an AD project above a certain scale could be dependent on allowing the community to invest in and own a share of the project.
While this may cause its own challenges for developers, it could be the blunt instrument needed to ensure that farmers have a real stake in this new industry.
Does small scale work?
There was a lively debate over whether small-scale, farm-based AD plants are viable. Small-scale plants, which are based on farms and only use the slurry or grass silage from that farm, have a place in Ireland. However, the economic case for these plants is currently challenging as are the planning and regulatory requirements.
An emerging technology from the UK-based Bennamann, which captures fugitive methane from slurry stored in a tank or lagoon without the need to build an AD plant, also drew a lot of interest from farmers.
A new service soon to be launched by Kildare-based Green Generation also promises similar opportunities. Again, however, the business case for both systems has yet to be proven in Ireland.
Competition for land
The conversation around AD competing for farmland 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 conversations with farmers throughout the day, none of the attendees at the biomethane sessions left convinced.
As per government targets, this technology will soon become a significant part of farming, and it’s only natural that some farmers would feel threatened by it. Attendees heard that the pressure is firmly on agriculture to reduce its emissions and to do so, new tools are needed.
AD is one of those tools, and substantial research is currently underway in Teagasc to support this with concrete data. According to the latest MACC publication, meeting our 2030 biomethane targets could potentially save nearly two million tonnes of CO2e annually. We again heard confirmation that the Biomethane Strategy Group is on target to publish its biomethane strategy in Q3 of this year.
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 and is seen as a key policy for AD.
However, there have been no new 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 to natural gas or oil, the feeling is that there still aren’t enough incentives to either grow the biomass or use it on the farm.
The author, Stephen Robb, is currently involved in a family/community proposal for an anaerobic digestion facility in Co Donegal.