This decade is seen as pivotal for the development of anaerobic digestion (AD) in Ireland. In order to meet Ireland’s Climate Action Plan objectives, numerous government politicians have declared that anaerobic digestion will play a key part as Irish industry transitions. It is expected that the anaerobic digestion sector will account for 10% of the country’s gas needs by 2030. The ambitious targets need ambitious support. Agri Insider spoke with experts at the coalface, PJ McCarthy, CEO of the Renewable Gas Forum Ireland and Seán Finan, CEO of the Irish Bioenergy Association (IrBEA) to get their thoughts on the lay of the land.
There are a lot of opportunities and benefits that can be derived from a mature biomethane industry. It can contribute towards the reduction of emissions, the production of organic fertiliser, reducing the need for chemical fertilisers and the production of renewable electricity and heat for on-farm use, potentially creating an additional source of income from sales of heat, electricity or biomethane.
Sean Finan, speaking of the opportunities available to all farmers, said: “Biogas biomethane can be deployed at many different scales so there’s a big difference in what’s required in terms of support, what the feedstocks are and what the output can be used for. You can deploy it at a farm scale if farmers themselves are offsetting their own fossil fuel bills. Then, you have the medium to large scale, you could have large co-operative style plants where the farmers role in that case would be to provide feedstocks potentially. There’s lots of different opportunities for different scales and sizes of biogas and biomethane deployment across the country.”
PJ McCarthy outlined the holistic advantages of the sector. “The AD biomethane sector is one of the few technologies that can assist in decarbonisation across different sectors from energy to producing biofertiliser, reducing biogenic CO2 so it’s not just producing renewable energy. It’s producing bioeconomy products, biostimulants, protein extraction…so by supporting an AD industry, you’re also supporting sustainable food production.”
On the back of this promising narrative, the Government has announced a new target of 5.7TWh of biomethane to be produced from AD plants by 2030. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications (DECC) is currently developing a National Biomethane Strategy set to be released later this year. This objective entails having 200 anaerobic digestion plants in the country by 2030 according to Minister Eamon Ryan but this seems to be a moving target as the decade gets shorter.
The Irish Strategic Investment Fund has put in place a dedicated Biomethane Fund of €200m, and Renewable Gas Forum Ireland (RGFI) has made a submission to the Government for €100m funding to 2025. The government has recently allocated €3m in state investment in budget 2023 to help reach a target of 150 – 200 operational anaerobic digestion plants by 2030. It is widely reported that the biomethane industry needs anything north of €1.5 billion euro to reach our targets.
Time can be a problem. On average an AD plant has a lead-in time of three to four years. Money is also an issue. It is an industry that demands capital investment and support from the government to grow. As the building industry has also been caught by the inflation bug, start-up costs are difficult to forecast, but an average sized plant could cost €10m to build.
Many different stakeholders have claimed that the industry is promising but it will take significant capital investment. Seán Finan said: “There’s a lot of ambition in terms of biomethane but it’s not backed up by meaningful incentives, support measures and grants. That’s a source of frustration for our members and for many others involved in the sector as well.
“There is a lot of funding required but there is no commitment from a government perspective in terms of the volume of funding at the moment but without funding it won’t happen. If you look at renewable electricity, wind generation, that has all been supported by policy and incentives. Look at the solar which has taken off with grants through TAMS and you have the larger support schemes….all these sectors have seen dedicated funding or incentives.
“Biogas biomethane hasn’t got any of that and until it gets that it’s going to be difficult to see how the industry will grow and develop.”
Renewable Heat Obligation
It is widely accepted that Ireland has the natural resources to develop a functioning AD industry but compared with our European counterparts, Ireland is still lagging behind in developing the sector. One factor that will help to accelerate the industry will be the introduction of the Renewable Heat Obligation scheme, which will place an obligation on the suppliers of fuel that is to be used for heating to ensure a certain proportion of that fuel is renewable.
PJ McCarthy said: “It will have a significant impact for the simple reason that, in our work with industry, large gas consumers, the agri food sector and government between the last two to three years, since we did an economic assessment back in 2019 where we looked at the different options available with government to support AD biomethane….
“It became very evident that the scale of what we need to do around decarbonising our economies and sectors, the government will not have sufficient funds or ability to support all the renewable technologies. On foot of that economic assessment and in line with the European Renewable Energy Directive with the Commission’s preference, there we need to look at obligation schemes socialising the cost of renewables.
“For the AD biomethane sector, there’s a clear pathway. That pathway is the implementation of the Renewable Heat Obligation scheme that will look to support and socialise the cost of producing sustainable biomethane.”
What’s next on the journey?
The next step in developing our AD sector lies in the publication of the National Biomethane Strategy that is earmarked for a summer delivery. Speaking of the strategy, PJ McCarthy commented: “It is my understanding that there will be a public consultation on that strategy in the coming months. It will address all of the issues that are relevant to developing the industry, we’re very much involved at a European level with funding, innovation, permitting, planning, licensing, route to market, guarantees of origin and certification process. These are all being addressed around mobilising and fast tracking the development of the AD industry to meet our targets.”
Sean Finan wants more detail than ambition in the strategy, “It needs to contain significant detail in how the industry is going to be mobilised and if it doesn’t have the detail it wouldn’t be ticking the box from the point of view of a strategy.
He added: “I suppose the difficulty for biomethane is that the costings regularly change so you’re relying on a gas price. Gas price has dropped from what it was a few months back so that’s uncertainty for our members that want to develop these facilities. The other concern is around, what price is feedstocks and how much will have to be paid for feedstocks to incentivise production.
“Really what we need this strategy to do is to give market certainty, to give certainty to people that want to invest that there will be a business associated with them and they will be able to survive given those risks and fluctuations which will exist.”
Overall, anaerobic digestion is seen as a promising technology for managing organic waste in Ireland and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, challenges such as securing a reliable feedstock supply and ensuring the financial viability of anaerobic digestion projects remain for now.