Ireland urged to avoid energy credits from Estonian biomass co-fired with oil shale

Published by Niall Sargent on

August 29th, 2018

Environmental organisations in 13 countries have urged the Irish state to refuse to buy renewable energy credits generated from burning wood alongside oil shale in Estonian power stations.

In a letter sent to the Government this week, 29 groups including An Taisce outlined Estonian plans to allow the state-owned Eesti Energia to co-fire millions of tonnes of woodchip at its oil shale plants.

Oil shale comes from mined rock that contains bituminous materials called kerogen. When heated during the refining processes the rock produce vapour and gas that is condensed and turned into oil.

The Union of Concerned Scientists describes it as an “expensive” energy source that is “substantially dirtier” than conventional oil and causes air, emissions and water pollution issues.

The letter from the environmental NGOs states that up to 50 per cent of biomass can be co-fired with oil shale in Eesti Energia’s 300-megawatt (MW) Auvere power station and at a 215 MW boiler at the Balti power station in the Ida-Virumaa region.

As woody biomass counts as a form of renewable energy under EU rules, the letter says that Eesti Energia plans to sell millions of euro worth of renewable credits from energy produced at these facilities to EU member states unlikely to meet their 2020 renewable energy targets, including Ireland.

Renewable energy targets

The EU’s target is to obtain 20 per cent of overall energy from renewable sources by 2020 across all member states. Under this target, Ireland is committed to produce at least 16 per cent of its energy from renewable sources. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, however, anticipates that Ireland could fall short of its 2020 renewable energy target even with additional policy measures.

Under the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive, member states that have met their own renewable energy targets such as Estonia can sell renewable energy certificates to states failing to hit their 2020 target.

The letter, however, warns Ireland off purchasing credits that would prolong “polluting, high-carbon oil shale burning” that already generates 80 per cent of Estonia’s electricity. As a result, the letter states, the Baltic country has the second highest per capita CO2 emissions in the EU.

Last year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) warned that Estonia needs to “move faster” to reduce dependency on oil shale that makes it the “most carbon intensive economy in the OECD”.

The NGO letter states that opencast mining and oil shale processing also has a health impact in the Ida-Virumaa region where people suffer higher rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease than elsewhere in Estonia.

Any decision to support the co-firing of woody biomass, according to Martin Luiga of Estonian Forest Aid, will also accelerate the “already highly destructive” scale of logging in Estonian forests. From 2000 to 2017, there was a 14 per cent decrease in tree cover in Estonia.

Logging is already “exceeding the regrowth of trees”, Mr Luiga said, with precious habitat for endangered species such as the flying squirrel being “wiped out”. “A large new demand for co-firing wood in power plants will make an already bad situation far worse still,” he warned.

Woody biomass carbon neutrality

The letter also argues that the climate impacts of biomass sourced from increased logging are “no better than those of fossil fuels” over a period of several generations.

EU rules state that the burning of biomass such as wood pellets is carbon neutral. The idea is that any carbon lost through felling and burning is recaptured and fixed back in the soil through replanting.

However, in reality, woody biomass can be far less efficient than fossil fuels like coal for each kilowatt-hour of electricity produced.

As fresh cut wood is almost half water by weight, more power is needed to burn it off.  This means more wood has to be burnt to produce the same amount of energy as fossil fuels.

A recent UK Department of Energy and Climate Change report found that energy needed to produce electricity from wood pellets will be “significantly greater” than for coal by 2020.

Even if forests are allowed to regrow, over 800 scientists told the European Union earlier this year, wood deliberately harvested for burning will “increase carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries”.

“Harvesting wood also properly leaves some biomass behind to protect soils, such as roots and small branches, which decompose and emit carbon. The result is a large ‘carbon debt’,” the letter states. This will occur even if forest management is “sustainable”, the scientists warn.

Biomass co-firing in Ireland

The environmental group Friends of the Irish Environment (FiE) has asked the European Commission to investigative the Irish State’s decision to subsidise biomass co-fired at peat-fired power stations.  

In letters sent to European Commissioners last week, FiE claims that the subsidy undermines Ireland’s commitments to meeting EU climate obligations. 

Both the ESB and Bord na Móna intend to co-fire with increasing amounts of biomass, including woody biomass and to convert them to burn 100 per cent biomass by 2030.

Peat, currently burnt at Bord na Mona’s Edenderry power station and two ESB facilities in the Midlands, receives state support to the tune of around €120 million every year through the Public Service Obligation (PSO) levy on electricity consumers.

PSO support for Edenderry expired in 2015 and is set to expire at ESB plants in 2019. However, in December 2015, Edenderry began receiving support through the PSO-funded Renewable Energy Feed-in Tariff (REFIT) for co-firing with biomass.

Train with milled peat for Edenderry Powerstation Photo: Peter Mooney

The plant is guaranteed a tariff price under REFIT until December 2030, and it is expected that the two ESB plants will receive similar support once they begin co-firing as planned.

FiE claims, however, that this is leading to significant increases in greenhouse gas emissions and increasing the price of biomass to home users, forcing them to use more fossil fuels. 

The group argues that the continued co-firing of biomass comes despite the recommendations of the Climate Change Advisory Council that the Government resources should not support measures that lead to increases in emissions. 

More than 30 conservation and environmental groups in the US have also voiced their concern over Ireland’s use of biomass in an open letter to the Irish government, ESB and Bord na Móna.

The groups call on the Irish government to close the peat stations by 2020, to stop subsidising co-firing with biomass and to refuse approval for ESB’s plans to convert its Midlands stations to biomass co-firing.

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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