EU asked to investigate Irish subsidy for biomass burning with peat

Published by Manus Boyle on

August 21st, 2018

An environmental NGO has asked the European Commission to investigative the Irish Government’s decision to subsidise large-scale biomass burning at its peat-fired power stations.  

In letters to the European Commissioner for Climate Action, Miguel Arias Cañete, and Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, Friends of the Irish Environment claims that the subsidy undermines Ireland’s commitments to meeting EU climate obligations. 

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 the plants in West Offaly and Lough Ree in 2019. However, Edenderry began receiving support through the PSO-funded Renewable Energy Feed-in Tariff (REFIT) in December 2015 for co-firing with biomass.

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.

However, FIE claim 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. 

The expert body concluded that the biomass subsidy for peat power plants is an “environmentally harmful” subsidy that is responsible for higher emissions levels at a “direct cost to the nation.” 

Wood Pellets Photo: Pixabay

Wood Pellets Photo: Pixabay

Carbon neutral?

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.

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.

In 2016, Bord na Mona outlined plans to invest in US-based wood pellet manufacturing in southeastern states in the US to secure a long-term supply of woody biomass for its Edenderry plant.

Earlier this year, however, it dropped plans for a €60 million wood pellet factory. It currently imports woodchip from Africa and plans to further enhance its “sustainable international sources of biomass,” with a focus on woodchip.

Both semi-states said that they intend to phase out imported biomass over time in favour of indigenous sources.

New Port Richey, Florida, United States Photo: Daniel Oines

New Port Richey, Florida, United States Photo: Daniel Oines

US concerns

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 sent last week. 

The letter was sent to raise concerns over plans for large-scale biomass burning at Ireland’s peat-fired power stations as they are viewed as a threat to southern US forests.  

The groups called on the Irish government to close its three peat-powered stations by 2020 and to stop subsidising co-firing with biomass because they don’t believe Ireland can produce enough biomass from domestic energy crops for industrial-scale burning at the peat stations. 

The end result will mean that plantations in the US will be the “most likely biomass source” for co-firing and future full biomass conversions in Ireland, the groups said.

“This would further increase forest degradation and conversion to monoculture tree plantations in a region that is the world’s 36th biodiversity hotspot,” the letter states. 

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Manus Boyle

Manus is an MA Journalism student at DCU. He has an interest in the environment, the outdoors and live music.