An Taisce questions sustainability of semi-state biomass co-firing trials

Published by Niall Sargent on

July 16th, 2019

An Taisce has raised concern over the potential environmental impact of woody biomass imported from Australia by Bord na Mona for use at co-firing trails alongside peat at ESB’s two Midlands power stations.

According to Bord na Mona, it will receive a shipment of 37,000 tonnes of sustainably sourced biomass from Australia as it assists ESB to conduct a series of biomass trials at its Lough Ree and West Offaly power stations.

Bord na Mona’s Edenderry plant is the only peat plant to currently co-fire with biomass, doing so for over a decade now. Last year, the plant reached a
41 per cent biomass co-fuelling rate, with 70 per cent of the biomass sourced in Ireland.

The ESB, subject to planning permission, wants to convert both stations to co-fire biomass alongside peat when the peat levy ends in December 2019.

The two plants with a combined capacity is 250MW will receive a total of €27.5 million this year under the peat Public Service Obligation (PSO) levy on electricity consumers.

Following the expiry of the Peat PSO scheme, the ESB can claim support for co-firing biomass with peat up to 30 per cent of plant capacity.

Bord na Mona’s Edenderry plant has availed of support through the PSO-funded Renewable Energy Feed-in Tariff (REFIT) since December 2015.

The ESB has already applied for permission to operate a peat and biomass plant at its West Offaly facility in Shannonbridge from 1 January 2021, the day after its current permission for the peat-fired plant expires.

An oral hearing was held by An Bord Pleanala in Tullamore in April after three national environmental groups raised concern with the plans that they say will prolong peat burning in Ireland. A decision from the Board is due this week.

According to Bord na Móna, it is developing a number of supply options for “carbon neutral commodity biomass” to generate renewable energy. The semi-state said that identifying secure and sustainable sources of biomass will assist with the Government’s planned transition to 70 per cent renewables on the electricity grid by 2030.

Wood Pellets Photo: Pixabay
Wood Pellets Photo: Pixabay

‘Not carbon neutral’

An Taisce, however, said that biomass is “only notionally classified as ‘carbon neutral’ under current EU accounting rules”.

The environmental charity said that all bioenergy used for power generation has a carbon impact and that “effective, good-faith implementation” of the Paris climate agreement will require proper accounting of all emission impacts.

“This will require that full audit of emissions in the cultivation, harvesting, and replanting of biomass crops or forestry or other by-products,” added the group.

“In addition transport emissions will need to be calculated and included, including international waters shipping which is currently excluded from national-territorial emission accounting systems,” the group said.

“The import of biomass from Australia is inappropriate in principle. Australia is continuing to mine coal and is facing major climate change pressures. The export of wood from Australia to avail of an EU renewable energy accounting rule is unsustainable.”

Woody biomass is currently classified as carbon neutral by the EU. The idea is that any carbon lost through felling and burning is recaptured and fixed back in the soil through replanting.

In reality, however, woody biomass can be far less efficient than fossil fuels like coal for each kilowatt-hour of electricity produced as more power may be needed to burn off the water content in wood.

Documents released to The Green News under Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations last year show that the ESB has previously carried out trials of biomass provided by Bord na Mona.

Biomass samples provided include sunflower husk from Eastern Europe and palm kernel shells from Asia, the latter of which Bord na Mona stopped importing in 2017 following an Irish Times investigation into the sustainability of the product coming mainly from Indonesia.  

In March, Bord na Mona refused to release data on its biomass imports for 2017 and 2018 to The Green News following an AIE request.

Information requested included the type of biomass imported, the country of origin, the amount imported and documentation to show that the biomass was purchased from certified sustainable sources.

Bord na Mona determined that the information requested is held by a subsidiary of the semi-state that does not satisfy the definition of the public authority set out in the AIE Regulations.

“Therefore, there is no obligation on [the subsidiary company] to provide information in response to requests made under the Regulations,” the decision reads. The same decision was reached following an internal review requested by The Green News.

Similar information from 2010 to 2016 was previously released to The Irish Times,with the paper finding that the semi-state was importing palm kernel shells from plantations in some of the world’s most biodiverse countries without knowledge of whether they have been sustainably sourced.

Following the investigation, Bord na Mona agreed to stop importing the product and would review the future supply of biomass “guided by the company’s sustainable business criteria”.

Train with milled peat for Edenderry Powerstation Photo: Peter Mooney

Lough Ree shutdown

The ESB’s Lough Ree station in Lanesborough in Co Longford is currently shut down for an indefinite period over issues around the temperature of cooling water released into the Shannon.

Following the closure last month, Bord na Mona planned to lay-off 70 permanent staff at its Mountdillon facility in Co Roscommon. This decision has since been reversed following discussions with the Bord na Móna Group of Unions last week.

An Taisce said that the “unsuitability” of the Lough Ree site for warm water discharge should require the “abandonment of an unsustainable project, both for continued peat burning and phased biomass import”.

“Instead of seeking to prolong peat cutting and unsustainable biomass Bord Na Móna should invest in a major local community supported energy efficiency programme for dwellings in the midlands, training employees in retrofitting and electric heat pump installation,” it said.

The ESB has previously told The Green News that the transition from peat to sustainable biomass at its Midlands stations is part of its “commitment to leading Ireland’s transition to a low-carbon future”.

Both the West Offaly and Lough Ree stations will use biomass with “proven generation technology to provide reliable and predictable renewable energy” to the grid, the semi-state said.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London