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Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action debate -
Tuesday, 5 Jul 2022

Anaerobic Digestion: Discussion

Apologies have been received from Deputy Devlin and Senators Higgins and Pauline O'Reilly. This meeting is to discuss anaerobic digestion and the bioeconomy in general as well. I welcome our witnesses, some of whom are familiar faces and are welcome back and some of whom are new to this committee. From Cré, I welcome Mr. Percy Foster, chief executive, and Mr. Tony Breton, chair. From the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, I welcome Mr. Tim Cullinan, president, Mr. Paul O'Brien, chair, and Ms Geraldine O'Sullivan, environmental policy executive. Also with us is Dr. Ciara Beausang, who is a postdoctoral researcher in this area. She is very welcome. From Renewable Gas Forum Ireland, RGFI, I welcome Mr. PJ McCarthy, chief executive officer, and Mr. JP Prendergast, chair.

From the Irish BioEnergy Association, IrBEA, I welcome Mr. Seán Finan, CEO, and Mr. Noel Gavigan, technical executive.

As usual, before we begin, I will read a note on privilege. Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or to otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in regard to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative they comply with any such direction.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members they may participate in this meeting only if they are physically located on the Leinster House complex. In this regard, I ask members joining us online to confirm, prior to making their contribution, that they are on the grounds of the Leinster House campus.

I invite Mr. Breton to make his opening statement.

Mr. Tony Breton

I thank the committee for the opportunity to present on behalf of Cré. By way of an introduction to Cré, which is the Irish word for "soil", we were established in 2001 and we are a non-profit association of public and private organisations dedicated to growing the biological treatment sector in Ireland. Cré supports the use of composting and anaerobic digestion, AD, to produce high-quality outputs, assists with the delivery of the Government's waste diversion and bioenergy strategies and targets and promotes the creation of sustainable indigenous jobs. To date, our members have processed over 3 million tonnes of household and commercial brown bin and garden waste.

For context, in February the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, issued part two of its sixth assessment report. It emphasises the urgency of taking immediate and more ambitious action to address climate risks. Referring to the patchwork of pledges and ad hoc mitigations undertaken to date, the report states that "half measures are no longer an option". Systems change is now demanded, in the form of “transformation and system transitions in energy; land, ocean, coastal and freshwater ecosystems; urban, rural and infrastructure; and industry and society”, or, in other words, systemic change across the board. To achieve this, it notes that "A sustainable bioeconomy relying on bioresources will need to be supported by technology innovation and international cooperation and governance of global trade to disincentivize environmental and social externalities". The circular economy is based on three core principles, that is, “to eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials and regenerate nature”, underpinned by a transition to renewable energy and materials. Achieving this is a question of design and a willingness to accept and deliver systemic change.

While much of the discussion here is likely to concentrate on the inexplicable failure of successive Governments to provide enabling policy in the area of renewable energy, specifically anaerobic digestion, the most often overlooked aspect of AD is its potential role in redesigning our food systems. For a circular economy and bioeconomy to succeed, there is fundamental need to consider the full circle of activity. In the case of the bioeconomy, it all starts and ends with the soil. It is from the soil that crops are grown and without healthy soils there are no crops. The gold standard for agricultural digestion, using crops and manures, that I am aware of, is Biogasdoneright in Italy. The principles of the Italian system are such that they cannot be ignored when we consider other inputs such as biowaste from brown bins, industrial sludges or commercial food wastes. The system there is designed around soil health and maximising carbon sequestration while minimising other potential environmental impacts caused by inappropriate digestate and land management.

In the UK, which is often seen as a leader in food waste digestion, the dash for gas has, regrettably, led to some unintended economic and environmental consequences. The early deployment of incentives, against a background of not having a policy on food waste collection in England, has forced many wet AD facilities to operate at near zero or at negative gate fees as plants become desperate for feedstocks. This is a perverse situation where the waste generator, that is the polluter, gets paid. The environmental impacts from whole digestate mismanagement include increases in ammonia and other greenhouse gas, GHG, emissions from storage and spreading, microplastics and soil compaction from injection. Today, the UK Government is being forced to rethink digestate management and the industry is seeking alternatives, including pelletisation and composting of digestate.

Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and Germany, to name but a few countries, take a different approach to that of the UK and the composting of digestates from municipal biowastes is the norm. These countries have similar household biowaste collection systems to Ireland, and in that regard they have either reconfigured existing in-vessel composting facilities or have new-build dry AD systems which, while potentially comparable to biogas yield compared with their wet equivalents, are much more capable of handling the combination of wet food wastes and the more lignocellulosic garden wastes. Dry AD systems will always have a composting phase, whereas wet systems outside of Italy typically do not.

What all these countries have done, and which Ireland fundamentally has not, has been to decide to strategically support anaerobic digestion or indeed the wider biowaste industry. It is true that Ireland has legislation on food waste collections, and we welcome the plans to expand this further, but as shown in our most recent market report, just 15% of waste food is organically recycled in Ireland and almost 50% of the collected biowaste is exported. While still counting towards Ireland’s recycling figures, it seems illogical to be exporting our organic feedstocks and nutrients to other jurisdictions, and this is before we consider the missed opportunity for jobs and local environmental benefits.

It is not just our feedstocks and nutrients being exported. Last week, we heard of a new €30 million grid connection hub for biomethane in Cork. While this is welcome, one member of our association asked me why we are building a biomethane hub connection in an area where there is no biomethane product and no production facilities have planning permission. This member applied to Gas Networks Ireland, GNI, for a grid connection a decade ago. All the permits and permissions are in place, but it has still not been possible to get a gas grid connection, even though the facility is on the grid and all that is required is 1 m of pipe. As it cannot connect to the grid, this facility is currently limiting its generation of biomethane. Additionally, while this member is considering markets for bio-carbon dioxide and thus creating more local jobs in a deprived rural area by expanding production, the facility is currently being forced to sell its biomethane at a low value into the market. Ironically, it appears it is exported to Northern Ireland, where it is used in low-efficiency combined heat and power, CHP, systems because that is where the incentives bring the highest value.

It is commonly agreed that this biogas-to-CHP approach is not the future and that there is an urgent need to move out of the use of gas derived from fossil fuels for heating and to provide low-cost and potentially carbon-negative solutions for heavy goods vehicle, HGV, transport fuels, such as bio-compressed natural gas, bio-CNG, and bio-liquified natural gas, bio-LNG, from biomethane. Beyond fuels, biomethane has potential in the chemical industry as a source of methanol or hydrogen. The point is that AD is proven as a technology. As biogas production and scrubbing technologies improve, so do the market opportunities. The second, and equally important point, is that for biowaste, at least, anaerobic digestion and composting must be considered as complementary not conflicting approaches.

Talking to our members while preparing for this meeting, several themes arose. These included: planning delays, where it can take more than three years to gain consent; delays in the context of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, where it can take more than two years, at least, to get an industrial emissions directive, IED, permit; uncertainty, be it over feedstocks, as noted above, or concerning biomethane supports; feedstock quality, as brown bin waste typically has at least 10% contamination; the lack of a national standard for digested biowastes; concern over market distortions; and an urgent need for a pragmatic biowaste policy.

Looking at the global picture, it is clear that anaerobic digestion is being deployed outside Ireland with speed and sometimes with haste by ignoring the wider soils and environmental aspects. This technology has a relevant role in energy, nutrient and food security. As a nation, Ireland has the base point which most countries are missing and that is a clear direction on food waste collection. What appears to be lacking is the courage to join the dots of the bioeconomy circle to take biowaste from soil to biomethane and back to soil.

I again thank the committee for the opportunity to speak today. I invite the committee members to visit an integrated anaerobic digestion and composting facility here. The facility composts biowaste, while the anaerobic digestion treats wet commercial sludges. The biogas produced is used in a CHP engine and is upgraded to biomethane.

I thank Mr. Breton for that opening statement. We go now to Mr. Cullinan.

Mr. Tim Cullinan

I thank the committee for the invitation to address it.

Climate change is arguably the greatest challenge facing the world today, with farmers very much on the front line. Irish farmers understand that they have a unique role to play in meeting the climate change challenge and are committed to playing their part in reducing greenhouse gas, GHG, emissions. However, it must be done in a fair and balanced way.

The Government commitment to reduce Ireland’s GHG emissions by 51% by 2030 has implications for all parts of the Irish economy. Achieving the reduction target set proposed for agriculture, of between 22% to 30% by 2030, will be extremely challenging for the sector. Setting an emissions reduction target of higher than 22% would have the potential to devastate the sector. Achieving a 22% emission reduction will be extremely challenging, but is achievable for the sector based on potential mitigation measures outlined in the Climate Action Plan 2021. Such a target would recognise the technical challenges associated with monitoring, reporting and verifying emissions reductions in agriculture, as well as the timeframe required for adoption of new technologies. It would also recognise the sector's unique ability to support other sectors of the economy to offset emissions through on-farm renewables, such as anaerobic digestion, AD. The development of a sustainable indigenous AD biomethane industry offers significant potential to support the transition to a low carbon energy system, as well as supporting the achievement of agriculture’s climate targets.

AD is a controlled process where biomass is used to produce renewable energy in the form of biogas and organic fertiliser. Agricultural biomass feedstocks for AD include slurries, silage, grass and food processing wastes. AD technology can be applied at a range of scales, depending on the amount of biomass available. Systems can range from small farm-based digesters to large centralised anaerobic digesters, CAD, supplied with feedstocks from several sources. The biogas produced can be used to generate heat, electricity or both. The energy produced can be used on the farm, while excess electricity or heat can be exported to provide additional revenue, increasing the sustainability of the farm business and reducing on-farm emissions. In addition, the biogas can be upgraded to biomethane, which can be injected into the natural gas network or compressed into containers for use as a fuel in other applications, such as road transport. Biogas is the only fully dispatchable renewable energy that can assist in addressing our electricity, heat and transport renewable energy targets. While the digestate that remains is rich in nutrients and can, after further processing, be used as an organic fertiliser. This reduces the requirement for inorganic fertilisers and the associated emissions from its production. Therefore, AD offers a significant step towards a more sustainable farming system. It can contribute towards the reduction of emissions, particularly those in livestock, thus helping to meet emission targets; the production of organic fertiliser, reducing the need for chemical fertilisers and reducing the wider environmental impacts of producing 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.

Ireland’s adoption of renewable technologies at farm level is well below the European average. In 2018, Ireland ranked 23rd out the EU-27 countries for generation of renewable energy from agriculture, producing just 2.6% compared with the EU-27 average of 12.1%. Farmers want to be central players in Ireland’s energy transition. They recognise the opportunities offered by renewable energy to produce energy for their own use but also to diversify their farm income by selling excess energy to the grid, thereby enhancing the sustainability of their farm business. AD is a natural fit for Ireland considering our large livestock industry and the availability of manures. Given the mounting pressure to decarbonise the agriculture sector, coupled with the continuing pressure to meet our renewable transport and heat targets, AD provides a real solution.

As stated previously, the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 sets a legally binding target of a 51% reduction in emissions by 2030, relative to a baseline of 2018, and net-zero emissions no later than 2050. One of the proposed measures in the climate action plan to achieve the proposed emissions reduction for agriculture is that agricultural feedstocks will contribute to the production of 1.6 TW hours per annum of indigenous sustainably produced biomethane for injection into the gas grid by 2030. In addition to reducing emissions in agriculture, agricultural-led AD can contribute and support other sectors, including the electricity sector, to transition to low-carbon energy sources to meet the its emissions reduction targets. Among the most important measures for the electricity sector to meet its target is to increase the proportion of renewable electricity to up to 80% by 2030. While AD plants have been rolled out across Europe at significant scale over recent decades, its deployment in Ireland has been very limited to date, with only a handful of commercial scale AD plants developed. Around 19,000 AD plants are in operation around Europe, producing 167 TW hours of biogas. There are many challenges to developing a sustainable indigenous AD sector. Targeted supports will be needed to support rural areas and farming communities in building AD plants for biogas production if the climate targets are to be achieved.

The ambition for scaling up AD and biomethane production in Europe has further increased since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has massively disrupted the world’s energy system and has led to soaring energy costs. In May 2022, the European Commission published the REPowerEU Plan to rapidly reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels by fast forwarding the clean transition to achieve a more resilient energy system.

Sorry, Mr. Cullinan. We have limited time, and I see that your statement is quite lengthy. Perhaps you might skip the EU bit, and go on to the IFA's policy asks. That will get to the nub of the issue.

Mr. Tim Cullinan

Scaling up the production of sustainable biomethane to 35 billion cu. m by 2030 is a key element of the plan. To increase the capacity of biogas production in the EU and promote its conversion into biomethane, it is estimated that an investment of €37 billion is needed over the period to 2030. This investment will enable the introduction of measures to address the main barriers to increase sustainable biomethane production and provide additional incentives for establishing biogas and biomethane partnerships to stimulate the renewable gas production.

AD and biogas production has been identified in the EU methane strategy as a cost-effective method to reduce methane emissions from agriculture and waste sectors, while simultaneously generating an additional revenue stream for farmers as well as an opportunity for development and investment in rural areas. Reducing methane emissions in agriculture is essential to reaching our 2030 climate targets and the 2050 climate neutrality goal. Agricultural emissions stand at 37%, with methane emissions accounting for over 60% of these emissions. The strategy recommends that to achieve deployment of AD, co-operation with and among farmers and local communities is vital. Further incentives will be required to support the collection and use of organic manures as well as the use of digestate as a sustainable organic fertiliser.

If the Government wishes to employ the immense potential of AD to reduce emissions, efficiently returning nutrients back to the land and producing sustainable indigenous biogas, while reducing the carbon footprint of agriculture, the barriers to adoption need to be removed. Ireland lags well behind our European neighbours in biomethane production, and urgent action is required to incentivise and support farmers and rural communities to deploy the technology in order to reduce emissions and support Ireland’s transition to a low-carbon energy system.

AD technology involves significant capital investment, and substantial ongoing operating costs. Therefore, if the potential offered by AD is to be realised the following key policy requirements need to be addressed. We must develop a national biomethane strategy so that farmers have confidence to invest in AD. We must introduce a renewable heat obligation scheme with attractive subsidies as soon as possible to support the wide-scale deployment of AD production.

This will give greater certainty and security of revenue for farmer-led projects. We must provide capital grant funding to support the adopted national biomethane strategy and meet the climate targets. We must also introduce a biomass mobilisation scheme to support farmers to co-ordinate, mobilise and establish a sustainable feedstock supply chain for the AD plant. In addition, we must streamline current regulations to support the development of AD plants, especially small scale on-farm AD plants.

I ask Mr. Cullinan to conclude very quickly.

Mr. Tim Cullinan

Farmers want to be central players in Ireland's energy transition. They recognise the opportunities offered by renewable energy to produce energy for their own use, but also to diversify their farm income by selling excess energy to the grid or network, thereby enhancing the sustainability of their farm business. The single biggest barrier to meeting the climate action targets is the financial vulnerability of many farms. Financial vulnerability has a large impact on the ability of farmers to adopt more sustainable practices, as it limits their ability to test new practices and stifles innovation due to financial constraints. Creating a viable alternative revenue stream for farmers is vital if the sector is to reduce emissions without negatively impacting the rural economy. Agriculture is a major part of the solution to climate change and with appropriate supports can continue to innovate and support Ireland's transition to a low-carbon and climate-neutral economy.

I thank Mr. Cullinan. I am sorry for interrupting him and for rushing him but we have limited time. We will make sure the full statement is included in the record of the debate. Members have the full statement in front of them as well and they can refer to it throughout the proceedings. I invite Dr. Beausang to make her opening statement.

Dr. Ciara Beausang

I thank the Chair and the committee for the opportunity to present today. I am a research scientist in the field of environmental sustainability. I undertook my PhD in University College Dublin, where I examined the environmental impact of implementing anaerobic digestion in Ireland. All views contained within this statement are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect those of my wider researcher colleagues or associated organisations. My comments today will focus on the key issues relating to the environmental impacts of biogas production in Ireland. This research has been published in international peer-reviewed journals and is openly available.

Often when the environmental sustainability of biogas is discussed, it is in the context of greenhouse gas mitigation. However, there is now a consensus that biogas production itself may result in greenhouse gas emissions. It is important therefore that this risk is assessed in determining the overall policy approach. One of the most important factors to consider is the raw material from which the biogas will be produced. In Ireland, the most readily available resource for biogas is grass silage, as outlined in reports from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and Gas Networks Ireland. Co-digestion of grass silage with animal manures such as cattle slurry is likely to be the main way biogas is produced nationally. There is a risk that using high shares of grass silage may have negative environmental impacts. The conventional thinking was that additional grass silage for biogas could be produced by increasing fertiliser application. However, in my research I modelled the environmental impacts of digesting different proportions of grass silage and cattle slurry for biogas production and found that using high shares of grass silage may have negative environmental impacts. While this approach avoids competition with feed production, the results showed that this can lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions when higher proportions of grass silage are digested due to the additional fertiliser that is required. The impact arises from both the production of the fertiliser itself and the emissions that are released when it is spread on land. As a result, alternative approaches need to be considered to provide surplus grass silage without relying on additional inorganic nitrogen fertiliser. Preliminary research by Teagasc has shown that incorporating legumes such as red clover or the use of multi-species swards has the potential to increase yields without the addition of inorganic nitrogen. This would improve the sustainability of biogas produced from silage and should be promoted, provided that other potential impacts, such as carbon loss and herbicide use during reseeding, are minimised.

The second issue I want to raise is methane leakage from biogas plants. The main component of biogas is methane, which is a powerful shortlived climate pollutant. When methane leakages occur due to increased biogas production, these can contribute to global warming and reduce the environmental benefits. Quantifying methane emissions from biogas plants is becoming a significant topic of interest for the scientific community. The rate of methane loss assumed in life-cycle assessments of biogas is relatively conservative, with many studies assuming a loss of 1% by default. In my research, I used a value of 2.4%, which was the average rate of emissions for 13 agricultural biogas plants in Denmark. As methane loss may be the largest contributor to the carbon footprint of biogas production, it would be important that biogas plants in Ireland monitor, report and address methane losses.

Finally, there is a potential risk of burden shifting occurring if other environmental impacts are not taken into account. The material remaining after anaerobic digestion is known as digestate and can be used as a fertiliser. Digestate has been shown to have higher levels of ammonium compared with the organic substrate going into the AD process. As a result, there is a risk of increased environmental impacts from acidification due to the emissions from digestate application. This is a concern, especially as Ireland continues to breach its emissions target for ammonia under the national emissions ceilings directive. Appropriate digestate management will be critical, including the use of low-emission slurry spreading, LESS, for digestate application.

The scientific research suggests that we need to promote a cascading use of biological resources in the bioeconomy. The research project, Biorefinery Glas, has demonstrated the potential of biorefining to create a variety of products from freshly harvested grass. These products include feed for animals and the remaining grass whey can be used for biogas production. This approach can improve sustainability through diversification into the bioeconomy and makes the best use of environmental resources.

I thank Dr. Beausang for her opening statement. I will go now to Mr. P. J. McCarthy of Renewable Gas Forum Ireland.

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

On behalf of RGFI, I thank the Chair, Deputy Leddin, and the members for inviting us to address the committee today. Renewable gas, biomethane, is produced when organic materials, such as animal slurry and crop residues, are broken down in an oxygen-free environment, such as in an anaerobic digester. RGFI is a not-for-profit industry forum which aims to work with the Government and decision makers on a consultative and constructive basis, with the purpose of establishing suitable market conditions to enable the growth of an indigenous, AD biomethane industry. Our membership includes people from academia, AD operators; community organisations, shippers and industrial gas consumers with high thermal demand for manufacturing and processing, such as the agri-food processing sector, the drinks sector and transport. As the lead partner for REGATRACE, the Renewable Gas Trade Centre in Europe, in Ireland, since 2019 we have collaborated with key public and private stakeholders to develop an agreed vision and roadmap for AD biomethane in Ireland, that will inform the REPowerEU plan. Today, we are asking the committee to support the development of a scalable and sustainable indigenous anaerobic digestion biomethane industry, which we have demonstrated can provide significant environmental, social and economic benefits to the national bioeconomy and the circular economy, all aligned to the European Green Deal, the farm to fork strategy, and REPowerEU as well as the Government's stated climate actions, and energy security requirements.

The European Commission announced in March 2022 that it will accelerate the roll-out of renewable gases in its plan to move Europe towards independence from Russian fossil fuels by 2030, and to respond to rising energy prices, storage,and security of supply. The EU target for biomethane production by 2030 will increase to 35 billion cubic metres, bcm, which is 350 TWh, from sustainable feedstock, such as agricultural biodegradable materials. RGFI, as a board member of the European Biogas Association, EBA, has been lobbying for an increased ambition and security of supply across Europe for many years, with recent intensified talks in consultation with the European Commission and national governments. The measures within the REPowerEU plan, could gradually displace up to 155 bcm of fossil gas use, which is equivalent to the volume of gas imported from Russia in 2021. The Commission proposes to work with member states to develop a national biomethane plan and identify the most suitable projects to meet those objectives. RGFI was recently appointed chair of the EBA's National Associations Platform, which is a member of the biomethane industry partnership, a new joint secretariat with the European Commission on AD biomethane.

In this capacity, we will continue to represent Irish interests.

Ireland lags well behind other EU member states as it does not have policy and legislation to support the establishment of an indigenous biomethane industry. In recent years, RGFI has worked with industrial gas consumers to develop an integrated business case on biomethane in Ireland, achieving stakeholder and Government recognition, as well as policy and legislative support for biomethane, biofertiliser production and the carbon farming initiatives.

With our grass-based agricultural systems and ready availability of sustainable feedstocks such as animal slurry feedstocks, Ireland is particularly suited to the production of sustainable biomethane and biofertiliser. Recent research carried out by Teagasc has confirmed the availability of between 2 million and 4 million tonnes of sustainable feedstock for AD biomethane and shows how a move to mixed-species sward pastures can further improve the sustainability of renewable energy values and deliver environmental benefits. We estimate that there are 735,000 ha of under-utilised permanent pasturelands available to grow incremental sustainable agricultural feedstock to supply an indigenous and sustainable AD biomethane industry in Ireland.

Momentum is gathering in Ireland to embrace sustainable indigenous biomethane and related biofertiliser production. This is a zero-carbon product that can be used, within a new policy and legislative framework, to meet decarbonisation targets in difficult-to-decarbonise sectors such as thermal demand, agriculture and transport.

We see evidence of strong industrial consumer demand based on collaboration. An example of this is Project Clover, an industry-led dairy industry collaboration on AD biomethane, biofertilisers and carbon farming, with other sectoral representation from transport. Project Clover has reached the conclusion that sustainable agricultural feedstock, AD biomethane, biofertiliser production and carbon farming utilising best practices in compliance with the renewable energy directive, the Paris Agreement and IPCC guidelines on monitoring, reporting and verification is the only commercial, practical and technically feasible and viable way for the industry to decarbonise its food production and thermal demands for manufacturing and processing. Project Clover members have stated their commitment to work closely with farmer producers, developers and key stakeholders to develop a national AD biomethane network of AD plants utilising sustainable agricultural feedstock and management of animal slurries. The proposal is to develop a number of AD plants that would pilot the use of sustainable forage, such as multi-species swards and animal slurries, and develop the commercial proposition for biofertiliser production and carbon farming based on standardised principles. Project Clover would be central to the development of a related AD charter underpinning biomethane, biofertiliser production and environmental and social sustainability principles.

Mr. McCarthy's written statement is lengthy. I ask him to touch on its most important points and conclude as soon as he can. We will publish the full written statement to the committee website.

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

I appreciate that. Recent work has determined that, with appropriate Government policy and legislative supports, AD biomethane utilising sustainable agricultural feedstock has the potential to replace natural gas in a way that is technically feasible and commercially viable, with associated biofertiliser benefits. This would reduce emissions by approximately 700,000 tonnes per annum by 2030, utilising the aforementioned methods. It would, at the same time, provide farmers with a diverse and reliable income stream, support the development of a circular bio-economy and rural economy and develop opportunities to diversify incomes.

Our policy ask is for implementation of article 23 by 2023. That would see the introduction of a renewable heat obligation, RHO, scheme to socialise the cost of biomethane production. Members of the RGFI and the Project Clover industry-led collaboration have been proactive in urging the Government to introduce an RHO as early as possible and welcomed the opportunity for public consultation in October 2021. A Government announcement on an RHO is expected this year but timing is of the essence, given the imperatives in respect of sustainability and energy security requirements.

Subject to Government approval, RGFI and Project Clover have secured €24 million in funding from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, subject to commercial terms and conditions, to help develop this project. However, capital funding supports are necessary to support sustainable agricultural feedstock and the roll-out of those target plans. The industry is ready, willing and able to play its part in the proposed integrated business case for biomethane and support the transition to carbon neutrality. However, the right market conditions to support a scalable and renewable agri-based biomethane industry are essential if we are to remain competitive and sustainable.

We are asking the Government and the committee to provide declared policy support for the long-term strategy and a roadmap for a national biomethane strategy, implement the renewable heat obligation scheme by 2023 with a mandatory target and allocate capital funding of €24 million for pilot projects to 2025 and capital funding for full roll-out to 2030. In addition, we are seeking consultation on the optimum economic and environmental benefit structure of a national carbon farming initiative.

I thank Mr. McCarthy. I move now to Mr. Finan and Mr. Gavigan. I note that they, too, have prepared a lengthy statement. I ask them to address its critical points. Obviously, we will publish the full statement to the committee website.

Mr. Seán Finan

On behalf of the Irish BioEnergy Association, IrBEA, we thank the Chairman and members for the opportunity to present to the committee. The association was established in 1999 as the representative body for the bioenergy sector on the island of Ireland. Our membership spans the sustainable bioenergy sectors of biomass, biogas, biofuels, biochar, energy crops and wood fuels. Our biogas biomethane members cover the full supply chain, including farmers, feedstock suppliers, developers, technology providers and energy users. IrBEA is an active member of the European Biogas Association.

Anaerobic digestion technology is a proven technology used worldwide at different scales. The potential feedstocks in Ireland are many, including but not limited to slurry and farm wastes; grass and silage, including clover and multi-species swards grown without chemical fertiliser; food waste; green horticulture waste; organic residues and wastes; sludges; meat and dairy processing residues; and other wastes. Anaerobic digestion can be deployed at different scales. Our membership spans the different scales possible, from micro scale, which involves the processing of domestic food waste to produce biogas for cooking use, to small scale, which takes place on farm or at a business premises where it offsets an existing fossil-based demand. IrBEA’s work at this scale is being advanced through the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine-funded European Innovation Partnership small biogas demonstration programme project. This project is providing a capital support to three farmers to build three biogas plants on their farms utilising on-farm wastes and feedstocks. These projects are currently at the planning process stage and will soon move to construction. There are interesting developments arising from the learnings from the project.

At a medium-to-large scale, or co-operative style, feedstocks are sourced from many different suppliers, with the energy output supplied to a grid or distribution network either on or off grid. This scale needs an ongoing support in the form of a tariff or obligation scheme etc. to be economically viable.

Biogas production is mainstream across Europe, with more than 20,000 operational AD plants in the EU and several million across the world. Favourable policy measures are driving the development of the industry across Europe. France is currently commissioning three to four biomethane plants per week and Denmark has a policy whereby a percentage of its slurry resource must be diverted to AD. Those are only two examples of policy measures in the EU. Ireland is far behind its EU counterparts in terms of policy development, with approximately 20 AD plants currently in operation here.

In 2017, a European Commission report entitled Optimal Use of Biogas from Waste Streams: An Assessment of the Potential of Biogas from Digestion in the EU Beyond 2020 identified that Ireland had the largest potential for growth in biogas production. Anaerobic digestion complements existing strategies such as the farm to fork strategy. The recent REPowerEU report sets a target of 35 billion cu. m of biomethane by 2030. There is a significant opportunity for Ireland to contribute to this and a dedicated Irish AD policy is required to maximise the opportunity. However, the gap between the cost of production and the market return has closed in recent times with the increase in fossil gas prices. This cost gap must be bridged through policy, support, incentives and measures.

The lack of progress in developing the industry is a missed opportunity for Ireland Inc. The technology has many benefits, including energy security, decarbonising our dairy processing and co-operative sector, decarbonising transport, electricity and heat, providing alternative farm enterprises, reducing emissions from agriculture, potentially reducing the size of the national herd through farmers instead producing grass which is fertilised by digestate, digestate displacing the use of chemical fertiliser, enhancing biodiversity, developing the circular and bioeconomy and improving water quality.

I will hand over to my colleague, Mr. Noel Gavigan, who will outline aspects in further detail.

Mr. Noel Gavigan

Last year, the 40by30 report published by Renewable Energy Ireland identified that as much as 39% of Ireland's heat demand can be met with biogas, solid biomass, and liquid biofuels.

The report further identified that Ireland could completely decarbonise its heating needs with existing indigenous resources. The challenge, however, is to mobilise those sources and direct them to their most suitable use. Last year we commissioned MaREI to conduct a report entitled Transport in Ireland: A Pathway to Halving Emissions. It demonstrates that Ireland could achieve a 51% reduction in transport emissions using a combination of electric vehicles, biomethane in particular, bioliquids and some efficiency measures.

In terms of climate change, biodiversity and sustainability, particularly with regard to what anaerobic digestion and biogas can contribution, these are low carbon and sustainable alternatives to fossil gas when produced in line with the renewable energy directive and its criteria, which is important. These are most suited to replace fossil gas in industrial heating, dispatchable electricity generation and transport fuels. Digestate from biogas production, which has already been mentioned, will reduce the need for chemical fertiliser, particularly when it is used in a circular economy scenario of recycling food waste and waste from brown bins. It has already been identified that we are doing only a small proportion of that. We can recover those valuable nutrients back to agriculture and the energy from the same material.

Digestion and digestate can be used to manage on-farm waste such as slurry and farmyard manure, allowing farms to efficiently recycle their own nutrients, as well as producing some energy on-site. That is something we are championing through the small biogas demonstration programme on-farm. On-farm digestion offers an in-house method for farms to decarbonise an operation while maintaining current food production, which is an important criterion. Where a farm opts to produce grass for use in a biogas plant, the farm is displacing a certain level of livestock production, thus reducing emissions from livestock and contributing directly to decarbonisation of our energy system. It is important that a biogas industry based on grass would not lead to direct competition in feedstock with the dairy sector, driving up costs for both sectors.

On policy discussion points, with regard to public perception, there is a need with any new development for public awareness of technology. We can see European examples of biogas plants located next to residential areas in villages with no issues arising. In Ireland, we have seen some biogas plants welcomed by the public and others meeting sustained objection based on local opposition. There is a need for local government to better understand the benefits of biogas and be able to support positive developments of these vital technologies.

It is not feasible to consider replacing the entire supply of fossil gas with renewable gases at this point or in the near future. Long-term policy must consider conserving the renewable gas we produce for specialist tasks like dispatchable power generation, transport fuel and high-end heat uses. It is therefore imperative that we decarbonise our gas supply as much as possible and consider reducing gas usage by displacing it with other low-carbon and renewable options, such as solid biomass heating and district heating for the domestic sector.

Current policy measures, such as the support scheme for renewable heat, provides incentives for solid biomass and biogas. However, this support scheme must be grown and expanded to assist with meeting 2030 decarbonisation targets. The biofuels obligation scheme was set up in 2010 and to date it has provided the largest portion of decarbonised transport in the State. This scheme should be expanded as a successful project to ensure that renewable gas-powered vehicles are encouraged and deployed, particularly for heavy goods vehicle and bus fleets where direct decarbonisation options are often quite limited. Biogas and biomethane provide an excellent opportunity in this respect.

Planned policy measures like the proposed renewable heat obligation must be put in place immediately. We encourage rapid transition from fossil fuels to indigenously produced renewable fuels and we encourage the committee to progress and encourage the launch of this obligation. We thank the committee for the opportunity to present today and look forward to answering any questions the committee might have.

We have just over two hours remaining in our meeting so may I get agreement that members will take two minutes to ask questions? I will allow latitude on this if necessary. Is that agreed? Agreed. We have many guests so I ask them to be as brief and as succinct as possible in their answers to members.

I am delighted we are having this session and the more I learn about anaerobic digestion, its technology and benefits, the more I believe firmly that it must be part of our future and something we roll out on a greater scale. The IFA has mentioned the potential of decarbonising agriculture and the challenges the sector will have in reaching emissions targets and I really see this playing a key role. There will also be a role in hospitality if we think about the smaller anaerobic digesters using organic matter such as food waste etc., and they could produce enough gas to cook with.

I have a Bill with the Bills Office that has the full backing of my party for introduction to Parliament. It is about introducing an anaerobic digestion strategy or policy, and it would put a time limit on the Minister introducing such a strategy. There are two reasons to introduce it. The first is to ensure we speed up the rate at which we look at this technology but it is also about having a discussion around anaerobic digestion, as we are having here, and the role it could play. As Dr. Beausang has said, this should be done in a sustainable way and we should mitigate against risks.

I have some quick-fire questions and I will try to target them at particular people so we can get quick responses. Mr. Finan and Mr. Gavigan mentioned a French example. Compared with somewhere like Germany, how many medium to large-scale anaerobic digesters do we have in Ireland? Do they have those figures to hand?

If anybody else wishes to contribute on a particular question, he or she can raise a hand or indicate to me or the clerk.

Mr. Noel Gavigan

It depends on how a biogas plant is defined but, operationally, there are in and around 15 of what we would consider a traditional type of biogas plant. They can be arranged in different ways and there are many sewage treatment plants, which would add another 20 or 30 plants. In Germany they are approaching 10,000 plants. It is a considerable and large industry there. The UK is second and Denmark is third in terms of numbers. There are approximately 4,000 in the UK and approximately 3,000 in Denmark.

That explains the regular comment that Ireland is lagging behind in rolling out this technology.

In Timoleague, where I am from, there is a plant that has an almost co-operative approach, with farmers bringing in waste material from piggeries and chicken farms etc. The gate fee is waived and it works really well, although it had its own challenges in getting up and running. The operators of the plant estimate that over ten years, they have saved approximately 1 million tonnes of carbon emissions, which sounds very impressive. Will the witnesses indicate any tangible way for us to understand savings in carbon emissions from anaerobic digestion technology? What percentage of those emissions savings would be from the agricultural side with respect to mitigating methane emissions and what percentage is from this being an alternative renewable form of energy?

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

We have done some studies around that with Project Clover and broken the integrated business case into three particular work streams. One deals with anaerobic digestion and biomethane and the others are biofertiliser and carbon farming. We have a conservative estimate of carbon savings at 700,000 tonnes per annum by 2030. That was done by KPMG and commissioned by Renewable Gas Forum Ireland on behalf of industry.

To answer the question specifically, the size and scale of the anaerobic digestion plant is important. Scalability is important. We are looking at the 20 GWh anaerobic digestion plant, some of the size and scale across Europe matches that. The focus is on delivering this competitively. The emissions allocation would be approximately a third to agriculture and two thirds to energy.

As matters stand, that is a conservative figure. Much more could be achieved and needs to be pursued. We can expand that. We are looking at anaerobic digestion, AD, biomethane in a biorefinery. We can have protein extraction at the front end and biogenic carbon dioxide, which is currently not in our figures. There are other methods and bioproducts, such as bioactives, biostimulants and carbon farming, which we feel is a real opportunity that Ireland needs to pursue, where the farmer will be central, will be rewarded and we can measure it.

I know other witnesses may want to speak but that comes to my next question. I guess that is an important question for the IFA. Mr. McCarthy said it would be one third agriculture and two thirds energy. In essence, many of the feedstocks and inputs to anaerobic digestion would come from agriculture. Do the witnesses feel like a greater proportion of the emissions savings from the technology should be apportioned to agriculture to meet emissions targets?

Mr. Tim Cullinan

Absolutely. That is critical. If two thirds are going to industry with only one third going to agriculture, we need to remember that all of this is derived from agriculture, whether it is the production of the crop, feeding the anaerobic digester, or using animal manure coming from food production in Ireland. It needs to be rebalanced. If the primary producer is doing the work, more of the emissions reduction needs to be attributed to the primary producer. That is important. The Deputy mentioned the savings earlier. There will be substantial savings in emissions from the production of chemical fertiliser and transportation into this country. There would be substantial savings from developing an inorganic fertiliser in this country.

Absolutely. I agree. It is another big benefit of the technology. My final question is for Dr. Beausang. I thought it was vitally important that we had at least one statement to point out the potential risks. There are risks with all of these technologies. We cannot turn a blind eye to them. In doing so, Dr. Beausang also presented possible solutions like multi-species swards. I have one point which has already been touched on. Burning the produced gas to generate electricity or such will have associated emissions, like with burning any gas to create energy. In her work, has Dr. Beausang covered the emissions from burning gas to produce energy?

Dr. Ciara Beausang

Maybe clarification about the renewable energy directive is needed. Biomethane is produced from biological resources. The emissions, such as carbon dioxide, when the biomethane is combusted are not counted under the renewable energy directive. There is no source of emissions at that stage of the life cycle. More important to the consideration of emissions would be the processes leading up to the production of that biomethane, such as grass silage that uses fertiliser as an input or the processes from the AD plant and potential methane losses. Those areas are the largest contributors to the carbon footprint of the biomethane that is produced, but given that it is a biological fuel, no emissions are counted from the point of combustion.

I thank all the witnesses for their responses. If those risks are mitigated against by displacing the leakage in the process, does Dr. Beausang believe that AD is a potentially sustainable technology that can lead to the decarbonisation of agriculture and other industries?

Dr. Ciara Beausang

There are potential solutions to all the risks I highlighted. It has been mentioned today that Ireland has lagged behind in this area compared with Europe, but there are great lessons to be learned from how it has been applied in Europe. If all of these areas are addressed, sustainability could be enhanced.

I ask Mr. McCarthy for some clarity on the 700,000 tonnes. Is that the volume of gas or carbon dioxide that would be displaced?

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

Carbon dioxide.

That is two thirds energy and one third agriculture.

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

That report was concluded in May last year. Things have moved on since then. There is now an opportunity to capture biogenic carbon dioxide. Some of the figures and savings that are not included in that figure relate to the carbon farming opportunities and the further reduction in emissions. A key aspect is using biofertiliser commercially. Significant carbon dioxide savings are not included in that figure. That needs to be noted and understood. It is still a substantial figure. There is a danger that we might strive for perfection from the beginning. It is important to look at best practices and innovative technologies and then to adapt those into the system.

It is an annual figure.

Mr. P.J. McCarthy


I thank the witnesses. I will start on a similar theme to Dr. Beausang relating to sustainability. Following from the last question on the role of anaerobic digestion, the use of biogas, and which sectors they would be useful for, do those include sectors which are hard to decarbonise or heating homes? We hear that those are not included. I am interested in her perspective on that. In her research, she mentioned silage as a feedstock. Has she looked at other feedstocks? Does she think there is a different between that and the type of mitigation that might be necessary? I welcome that she is saying there is a sustainable path forward and potential opportunity here.

I ask our other witnesses to speak on the level of interest from potential providers. Are farmers and producers are interested in this? They are the key enablers to make it happen at scale. They have addressed some related issues, so do not have to repeat what they said. Would they like to add anything else about the renewable heat obligation, RHO, or the support scheme for renewable heat, SSRH? What has been their experience to date of engagement with the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Environment, Climate and Communications and Enterprise, Trade and Employment? What are they hearing that might explain why we are outliers in this area?

Dr. Ciara Beausang

I thank the Deputy for his questions. The first question was about the route and ways in which biomethane will be used. As an environmental scientist, when I assess the technology, I come with a neutral perspective. I am not trying to prove what the policy direction should be one way or the other. I am assessing the technology in a neutral way and looking at what the data show. It is important to consider using biomethane in sectors which are hard to decarbonise, as has been outlined. Heat and transport are the routes that should be followed. One can consider the uptake in Europe compared with Ireland. In Europe, the main pathway for use of biogas was previously electricity generation. When I looked at that in my own research, it showed that as we further decarbonise the fuel mix in Ireland, the electricity pathway is less favourable for biogas. That would point to using biomethane to replace fossil gas. That is where I see biomethane fitting into the relevant sectors.

I considered other feedstocks in my research. I looked at other animal waste, such as poultry litter. Managing poultry litter sustainably is another option that showed good results. I also considered waste from the horticulture sector and diverting some to anaerobic digestion.

My focus and emphasis would be on grass silage, because it is the largest resource that has been identified. In terms of the percentage that it can produce for biomethane, it is the most readily available resource. It also presents a few risks. That is why the focus needs to be on producing it in a way that is sustainable, with minimal inorganic nitrogen fertiliser.

Mr. Seán Finan

I will respond to a few of the Deputy's points. There are many different uses of biomethane and biogas. The uses are dependent on the economics of it, from the point of view of the costs and the return. There is potentially off-grid and on-grid use for biomethane and biogas. There is more value to be gained from the resource by using it in the transport sector rather than for heating. It depends on the individual economics.

On feedstocks, we see a broad mix of feedstocks being used. Again, it comes back to the economics of it. Different feedstocks come at different costs. We have done quite a bit of work on the different costs of various feedstocks. That has an impact on the actual support requirements, depending on the type of feedstocks that are used. Biogas and biomethane are currently used mostly in the generation of electricity. There is some injection taking place, which is being done by one of our members. However, the support mechanism that has delivered in the past is for renewable electricity. A lot of the biogas being produced at the moment is being used to produce renewable electricity.

On the level of interest, we have received lots of interest from many different stakeholders, including farmers who are willing to grow feedstocks, people who are willing to develop facilities, developers, and technology providers who have technologies and are wondering why Ireland is not advancing in the industry when we are seeing growth in other markets. We have also received interest from energy users. Transport companies are interested in getting their hands on biogas and biomethane. There are also thermal users who want renewable gas as well.

On key enablers, planning is one of the big ones. We have a lot of experience around the planning process through our European Innovation Partnership, EIP, project. There is very little awareness at a planning authority level as to the different types of scales of industry that are possible. There is a lack of knowledge about what the technology actually is and what it does. That is replicated amongst the public and our local political representatives. There is a lack of understanding as to what the technology is, what it does and what it can do.

On the Deputy's last point on our experience and engagement to date, we have engaged with the Department of Transport, the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on the development of the sector. Going back to a previous question asked by Deputy O'Sullivan, the one challenge that we face is that when we go to one Department, we are told that the benefits relate to the area of responsibility of another Department and we are asked why the Department should have to fund an industry that will bring benefit to another sector. I think we need a whole-of-government approach. Many Government Departments must come together to create the strategy that is required to mobilise this industry. The policy paper we produced with Cré highlighted that seven Government Departments will significantly benefit from this industry. I will not name the Departments, but there is a broad range of benefits to be gained from the industry. We are engaging with many Government Departments and officials. We have had very good engagement, but we want to move that to the next stage in terms of putting policy in place that will drive the development of the industry.

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

In 2019, through the collaboration with industry-led initiatives, and recognising that the Government has significant tasks across sectors in looking at solutions of decarbonising, we looked at the opportunity of what industry could do by way of coming up with solutions. We engaged with KPMG. We did a full economic assessment of AD biomethane in full compliance with the Public Spending Code, first to inform policy in Government around the opportunities, options and support schemes and obviously to advise on the size and scale of AD plans. It is important that we focus on the industry's need to be competitive and aligned with our European counterparts on the cost of producing biomethane. From then, the interest has been significant both at industry and gas consumer level, and more importantly, in the agrifood production sector. Operators in the sector are looking at their scope 1 and scope 2 emissions, which AD biomethane will significantly reduce. The sector has already implemented many of the recommendations on energy efficiency that have been brought to bear with current policies. Operators are looking at the scope 3 emissions, in particular, because there is a significant carbon footprint attached to that category of emissions. We are dealing with a very well-educated, commercially-minded agriculture sector and specifically the beef and dairy sectors. Everybody is realising that there are challenges and that we need to move at pace. In particular, under article 23 of the renewable energy directive, member states must seek to implement the obligations that we have promoted under the renewable heat obligation scheme. It is our opinion and belief that entering into a public consultation is probably not the best use of our time. It is included in the renewable energy directive as an option to exercise. We should have exercised it a lot sooner. We should not be consulting and over-consulting. The policies have already been drafted and consulted upon at a European level. It is a missed opportunity and we need to move our timelines on a bit quicker. The support mechanisms are designed so that it is not an enduring subsidy regime requiring Exchequer funding. The industry has come up with an integrated business case that is complementary to all farm disciplines. There is no question of giving up one discipline over supplying into an AD plant or a contract to supply. They mechanisms are being designed to look at diversification, but will retain some of the core principles, obviously. Our experience across Government Departments is that they have been very engaging and our engagement has been constructive. The Departments are overwhelmed. If we have any feedback for the committee, it is that more resources need to be provided to the Departments. They have a lot of work to do. We work closely with our colleagues in the Departments in bringing forward these solutions and in trying to make them as easy and implementable as possible.

Our key ask of Government is very simple. The cornerstone is the RHO scheme. We are asking for 50% capital grant funding. We must get the industry to an adequate level of maturity. We also need to accelerate the process and ramp it up, in line with the REPowerEU Plan. The four key dimensions to realising that include feedstock mobility, which is relevant to our feedstock and pasture lands. The second dimension is planning. I do not need to go there. We need to resource local authorities and communities and inform and educate them. We must also resource up our planning system. The third dimension relates to the market conditions. We must look at what we need to do to debunk some of the regulatory barriers that we are facing right now and how we can do that. Lastly, there is the funding dimension. We are fortunate to be in a position to work closely with Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF. It has agreed in principle, subject to terms and lending conditions, to fund 50%. We have the anchor fund. There are a number of other funders that want to get involved. We have looked at €200 million. That can be a roll-up facility. The important thing is that the farmer is central to all of it. We are looking at end-to-end funding over a 15-year period.

Mr. Tim Cullinan

One of the Deputy's comments was interesting. He said that farmers are always looking at new initiatives. This has been around for quite a while. I do not know if I want to welcome Deputy O'Sullivan's initiative in bringing a Bill forward around this. As has been mentioned today, we are dealing with so many Departments in the area, which is slowing down the process. We need a Bill and legislation coming through the Houses of the Oireachtas that is going to speed up the process, if we are interested in doing it. On the feedstocks, we need to be careful about using grass. We need to take into consideration where we are in the world today. There is a war in Ukraine and there is huge concern out there around food security. We need to strike a proper balance.

Because of where Ireland is, ours is an excellent country for producing food, and we do not want to lose sight of that. It is very important. Deputy O'Rourke mentioned sustainability. That is very important, but there are three legs to that stool. The economic leg is very important for primary producers and farmers. We understand absolutely our environmental obligations. If going into this process will improve what we are doing about the environment, that is very important. There is also, however, the social aspect to all this. It is very important we bring the people in rural communities, not only farmers but also people living in rural communities, with us. There has been a huge drive for people to come back to live in rural Ireland. We have seen all that has gone on since Covid, and that is very important as well.

If you do not mind, Chairman, my colleague, Mr. O'Brien, would like to say a word as well.

Mr. Paul O'Brien

I thank our president and thank you, Chairman, for the opportunity to speak to the committee. I am the farmer in the room, and the reality is that we farmers would be key stakeholders in any future AD industry that emerges. Farmers are looking for alternatives. We have to be viable in the future. We will still have bills to pay and children to put through college. As an industry, we need to make changes but we also need to be a part of any future potential. I see this as certainly an avenue for farming and an opportunity for farmers to engage, not so much in a passive income stream but as a key driver in helping to decarbonise the economy. Finances coming back to our industry that will be redistributed through global communities are positive. From the farming aspect, it is very important there is honesty in the system such that we know that we will be dealing with companies that will pay us and that the money can be distributed back. Ultimately, however, the question is whether farmers believe that this is an opportunity for them. Most farmers who contact me would like to see at least whether this is viable. Fundamentally, we need to be given avenues or opportunities in the future to be able to see once and for all whether this can be considered part of our future. Other farmers in Europe are key to this. They all see this as one of the most valued parts of their farming business. I stress once again, from a farmer's point of view, that all we are looking for is options. This is a big opportunity for us if it is conducted in the right way and in a way that protects everybody along the supply chain.

Mr. Percy Foster

In response to Deputy O'Rourke, regarding engagement with stakeholders, I have been involved in this industry for the past 15 or 16 years, and over the past year there has been significant engagement from additional stakeholders my colleagues have mentioned, namely the end users of fertiliser and materials in the horticulture industry. Recently we had a meeting attended by a farmer, Keith Swan, from BASE Ireland. He is growing 60 ha of wheat using a combination of compost and ammonium sulphate from digestate. He is able to do so without using any chemical fertiliser. Overall, in the past year I have seen huge interest where we can produce more locally based fertilisers not only in the farming sector but also in the horticulture sector, where people are looking to use peat replacements. There is a lot of interest in being able to compost dewatered digestate and to use it in the growing media sector as well. In Ireland, as well as producing biomethane for heat and transport, there are huge opportunities to produce locally based fertiliser, not only in the agriculture sector but also into the horticulture sector, where in the current situation our practices are unique compared with those of other countries, where there is a demand for peat alternatives.

I thank all the participants for their thoughtful presentations. I have been a supporter of anaerobic digestion for a long time and have wondered aloud on many occasions why we in Ireland have not advanced more quickly, considering the very positive benefits from anaerobic digestion. The reality is that other countries have been way ahead of us. That gives us an opportunity. Our weakness is probably our strength at this stage, the weakness being the fact that we are not really on the radar and the strength being that technologies have advanced. I think all the witnesses have identified new and emerging technologies in this area. From the committee's perspective, they are giving us a lot of information. I do not think there is any diversity of views, but the witnesses are representing different areas. Maybe they need to come closer together with a pitch, but that is for themselves. The response will have to come from the Government and from the Oireachtas to some extent.

I will throw out a couple of questions to whomever wants to take the ball. In the witnesses' considered opinion, who do they think is doing this really well? What country is doing it better than any other? It may be that some countries are doing some elements of it better than others. If so, maybe the witnesses will share that with us.

As for the response from the Government, I am taken particularly by what Mr. Finan said. It is often a problem with issues like this. There is a reason this has not happened. I do not wish to speak critically of the Government at all, but Departments tend to concentrate on what they have to do and nothing else because they will be rewarded for what they have achieved and criticised for what they have not achieved, unlike politicians, who will be criticised anyway for everything, regardless of whether it falls within their remit. Perhaps there is a message for us in whatever response we give to the Government. It may be that a certain Department takes a lead role and absolute responsibility for this area because of its importance and benefit to all and because of the diversity of where the actions need to happen. I suspect that would be the Department with responsibility for climate change because it has so many tentacles, and many Departments now have climate change officers with responsibility in that regard.

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

I have an answer to Senator Dooley's first question as to who is doing this well. The French are doing it extremely well. They are rolling it out at three or four AD plants a week. That success is down to collaboration between government, agriculture and the French equivalents of the IFA's farming representative groups and Teagasc. That has been achieved and the OECD has noted that the French are well ahead of their decarbonisation targets in agriculture. The second very good example is in Italy, where biogas is done right. That was referred to earlier. Italy is focusing on the transport sector. While those are good examples, we need to understand that Ireland is unique. Some 92% of our land mass is in pasture. We have a population of approximately 5 million. We do not have the same sustainable feedstocks our European counterparts might have or do have.

Will Mr. McCarthy repeat that to me? We do not have the sustainable-----

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

I was referring to industrial waste, commercial waste or household waste, so it is population-----

It is primarily agriculture where our-----

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

Exactly. That is where the study from the European Commission highlights that the biogas potential in Ireland per capita is the highest across Europe. We have the ability and the feedstock. The Commission is aware of how we can produce sustainable biomethane, so it is up to us now to design the solution. That is what we have been doing in our engagement with industry and the Government on that integrated business case. There is something in it for everybody.

Mr. Seán Finan

I thank Senator Dooley for his questions. I will come back on the one about where this is being done well. As Mr. McCarthy highlighted, we can take lessons from each of the countries that have an industry in that the policy varies slightly across member states in which this is used. There is a big focus on transport in Italy. Denmark has a policy on mandating a certain percentage of slurry to go into AD facilities. We could take a number of lessons from various EU member states and apply them here in a policy that would move us forward.

Following on from the point made about multiple Government Departments benefiting from a sector, from a leadership point of view it would be really good if the Department of the Taoiseach were to take on this as a strategy to drive it and to bring all the players together because it is cross-governmental-----

I know, but I can assure Mr. Finan that something like that will not happen. Everyone thinks that if a policy is given to the Taoiseach's office, it gets energy, but-----

Mr. Seán Finan

It is just a suggestion. It is a matter of ensuring there is action.

There are many options. As regards who could take a lead on it, the agricultural sector would certainly benefit significantly, as would the energy sector. There are other Departments that might not benefit as much but there would still be a significant contribution around water quality, jobs, employment and enterprise. A huge variety of Departments would be of strong benefit to the sector.

Mr. J.P. Prendergast

We are all saying the same thing but in different ways. This is the circular economy. This is where we start from beginning to end. As things develop, you develop more product and more opportunities. For the integration of projects like this under the RESS auction for communities, for example, co-operatives are starting to redevelop and re-establish. It is presenting an opportunity to the farming communities on a co-operative scale to redevelop and re-establish themselves. When we look at this, we have to look at the overall picture of the impact it has, not just the individual parts. It is the circular part of how the whole thing joins together. From that point of view, it is not just about agriculture but also about finance and employment. For that reason, there is opportunity for additional rural regeneration. We should also consider that, not just for the farmers but for the locations and the future of agriculture with energy going forward.

I ask the witnesses to be as brief as they can because other members want to come in.

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

The climate action plan recognised biomethane as zero-emissions gas. The delay is in implementation. We need to accelerate and move quicker. Two key sectors account for most of our emissions, namely, agriculture and transport. There are over 100 actions in the climate action plan on agriculture. A takeaway from today is that we should concentrate for the next six to nine months on three areas: AD biomethane, carbon farming and forestry. That is it.

Mr. Tony Breton

The EPA's latest report stated that Ireland produces 1 million tonnes of food waste a year. A lot of the discussion is about grass but biowaste has a relevant role to play. Regarding where the best practice is, with co-mingled food and garden waste collection in a brown bin, the best place to look is in places like the Netherlands, Austria and Germany, where they are reconfiguring their existing infrastructure, keeping the jobs that are there and putting dry AD plants in. There is a difference between dry and wet. Basically, if it is pumpable it is a wet AD and if it is shovellable it is a dry AD. However, both types still produce biogas. There is a myth that you cannot get gas from solids and garden waste but you can. If the committee is looking for the best practice, it should look to the Continent and places like the Netherlands. Even Italy has a combination of food and garden waste compost.

Mr. Percy Foster

Mr. Breton mentioned Italy. We went on a tour to Italy a few years ago and I remember visiting a very interesting plant there. I think it was called Bioman. It was taking in biowaste materials in the region, digesting the material and then post-composting the digestate. It was extracting struvite from the process and then using the biomethane for both the company cars and the vehicles that collected the biowaste in the region. The composted material was used in horticultural greenhouses built at the plant as well. It was a very interesting plant. It was very circular in operation but a big part of that was that is had security of feedstock supply and further plants. That is an issue as we do not have that security in Ireland. Where plants have security of feedstock and the right supports from the Government, very innovative things can be done in addition to the existing processes.

This is related to Senator Dooley's question about what countries are doing it very well. There has been a good discussion on the risks. Maybe different guests will give different answers as to which countries are doing it well. On the risks, what have we seen across Europe? Who has gotten it right and who has gotten it wrong? There is the local environmental impact, the leakage and the greenhouse gas impact.

Dr. Ciara Beausang

From a European perspective, one area where there may have been oversight is the methane leakage. There is a good research project from the German Biomass Research Center on this. It has engaged with industry to look at the sources of leakages and what the potential mitigation options are. It is an area of oversight. There has been more research done on it in the scientific community and the industry is now starting to engage with it. Ideally, it would be implemented from the get-go in Ireland that plants have to monitor, measure and address any new potential sources of methane loss.

I know others want to come in but I want to be fair to members who have been waiting. I call Deputy Bruton, who is in his office.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations, which were very worthwhile. What I am picking up from what they are saying is that we need a strategy but that strategy seems to have a different hierarchy. I would like to probe how that needs to be structured. Not utilising waste that would otherwise go to landfill is a terrible missed opportunity. The low collection rate and the contamination rate are serious. Replacing local heat needs with locally delivered AD is a very high priority because it avoids all the wastage in delivery by electricity. It seems to be a different issue if supplying into the grid. Would it be different for large commercial operators versus a single farm or a couple of farms? Would they need a completely different support regime? Is that what people are advocating? Could there be a subsidy for establishment and sale at the going price on the grid? Would that do or would we need the 15-year commitment to a high price? How does this area compare to other renewables we might source? We have heard that wind is the big opportunity for Ireland. In the context of farming, if this is a displacement of dry stock that was relatively unprofitable and is a huge methane gain from society's point of view, how would the farmer gain from that in a regime of this sort? Do we need a specialist regime that recognises farmers growing biomass for AD and reducing their herd? They would have to get a very different deal from something that is done separately. If so, how do we create a framework that rewards those farmers who switch to another type of enterprise?

The Deputy might help me out by directing the question at a specific witness.

I was thinking Mr. Finan might know more about the farm situation because of IrBEA's three on-farm projects. The first speaker from Cré might be best placed to answer the wider question as to how we approach the small versus the large.

Mr. Seán Finan

The two parts of the Deputy's question are linked. We break up our work in this area into two distinct scales. There is what we call farm scale, which is similar to what we are covering through our EIP Department-funded project as we offset the fossil energy usage on the farm by farm-generated feedstocks. The animal by-product regulations govern a lot of this area from the point of view of what we are allowed to bring into a farm, access routes and various other things. Our project is very specifically dealing with farm-generated waste used to produce biogas and that biogas being used to offset existing fossil usage. That fossil usage could involve kerosene used for heating, the generating of renewable electricity through a CHP unit or producing fuel for the farm equipment and vehicles.

It is a circular approach in that you are offsetting chemical fertiliser usage, improving the overall carbon sustainable footprint of the farm and utilising the waste that exists and potentially adding value to it for further nutrient recycling.

We break our work into what we call farm-scale and medium to large-scale areas. Regarding the first part of the question, there is a very distinct difference in the support requirements at what I have described as farm-scale compared to medium to large-scale. It is very clear from our work that the farmer needs a capital grant to offset the initial construction of the anaerobic digestion facility on the farm. The farmer's payment is generated through offsetting his or her fossil fuel bill over a period of time. If you take that to the next level in terms of the medium to large-scale facilities, and these plants could be located on a co-operative-style farm where there could be a number of farmers supplying to it or a site independent of a farm, the role of the farmer in that case is more about supplying the feed stock or a wide variety of feed stocks. The farmer would be paid for that feedstock and the energy output would go to a grid. It might be used locally or it could go to a grid to displace heating or transport energy usage. To answer the first question, there is a very distinct difference in the support requirements across the different scales and a very distinct difference in respect of farmer involvement across the different scales. A framework that would combine all of that is the carbon farming framework. If farmers are going to look at the economics and determine that growing feed stock is a better option, and as a farmer I understand the outlook of farmers on this, they make a business decision as to whether it will be more economically viable to grow feed stock or carry livestock. The framework that ties all of that together is the carbon farming framework in terms of creating a benchmark for carbon levels on farms and putting a value on the various different elements that can contribute to increasing that stock. Reducing the number of animals is an option but that is up to each individual farmer. It is about whether the economics stack up better for the production of feed stock as an alternative. It will be down to an economic decision by the farmer. I hope this answers the questions about the different scales and the distinct differences in terms of support requirements.

The medium to large-scale support requirements are an ongoing support in our opinion. Our members are giving us that view. There are very few models across Europe where at a medium to large scale, capital support has worked or has been deployed. It is mostly all in the form of ongoing support through an obligation scheme and an exchequer support in some European countries but the levels of capital investment are significant at a medium to large scale. We are not aware of any significant capital support schemes across the EU to any great extent at the medium to large scale.

Mr. Tony Breton

If we look at biowaste across Europe in terms of a typical anaerobic digestion site, it is in the region of 40,000 to 50,000 tonnes. There are large ones such as the one wet anaerobic digestion site in the UK that has 100,000 tonnes while there are other facilities within and outside Milan that have 300,000 tonnes. For here, probably the best option is to have a series of relatively small-scale sites catering for 40,000 or 50,000 tonnes. This way, you have the economies of scale to make the operation work. You do not see waste anaerobic digestion sites below 30,000 tonnes because the economics do not stack up. I am talking about waste here. I am not talking about grass. To make the economics of a waste anaerobic digestion system work, you need to make sure what is coming in enables a valuable product to emerge and you understand what is coming out of the back end. The UK went very hard on wet anaerobic digestion without any consideration of what was coming out of the bag. When you look at where the digestate market is in the UK, according to the last Waste and Resources Action Programme figures, it is at minus £8 per tonne. This relates to waste processors paying farmers to take their digestate even in today's market. It is about making sure the system is in place to deliver not just the energy but the renewable fertilisers and the compost ready for soil health, for which you must have a market. If you cannot develop the backend market, you are just creating another waste problem.

Mr. Tim Cullinan

We need to be realistic here as well. We have a population of 5 million people give or take in Ireland. We have to look at the amount of waste being produced and possibly still going to landfill. That is one area. That will not fuel biogas plants across the country so there is a limited amount of waste that would be available and then you move on to animal manure. Again, there is a limited amount of that. We have a wind strategy and solar. As regards generating electricity, we are far better off working on that strategy. With anaerobic digestion, we need to look at biomethane and generating. There are two areas where this would be very beneficial. Number one is transport fuel while the other is in heating. We need to draw a line there. This is the way we need to go because it comes back to where it was discussed earlier. If we are using anaerobic digestion to generate electricity, 50% of your output is going to go in heat. If you are trying to transfer that heat from rural Ireland to a local town or village, you will have a massive loss. This is very important.

The Deputy mentioned livestock farmers moving from livestock to producing bio-gas. That would be a massive change in policy. Looking at the world today where food security is very important, we are one of the most efficient countries in the world at doing that. We can have a balance here. There is a role for all of this but we are excellent at producing food in Ireland. Regarding emissions, it is very important to remind ourselves of the excellent work done by Teagasc that clearly demonstrates that bovines grazing grass in one of the few countries in the world that does this - we along with New Zealand are top class at doing this - produce up to 30% less methane. That work is ongoing and it is very important that we keep a very close eye on that.

Ms Geraldine O'Sullivan

In respect of carbon farming there is huge potential to look at the mechanisms it can add to decarbonisation on farms. A number of schemes are operating in Europe, particularly the carbon and biodiversity, CarBi, scheme in France, which looks at measures that can be introduced at farm level and outcomes, be that a reduction in output, and pays the farmer for that. The climate action plan contains a 1.6 terawatt proposal. We need to sit down and examine whether it will be a mixture of smaller on-farm operations or a mixture of community-based operations, how we are going to set up those supply chains and the barriers to achieving that because we have that obligation and a relatively short period in which to get those plans in place based on what people have said here today.

There is an urgency that we decide to get that plan and get the detail to understand, as has been discussed here, the barriers and find the solutions and that we do that in the most sustainable way possible.

There have been concerns. It was very interesting to hear Dr. Beausang say she identified potentials there, which we are using already within agriculture, be it LESS for the digestate and also we are doing a lot of work on soil improvement without the increased use of fertiliser. That comes into that carbon farming element of it. We have a target here now and we have identified biomethane as a potential source to solve some of this. We need to get a plan in place and give farmers the confidence to invest within it. I do not see anybody changing at this moment in time. We have had a lot of false hopes when it comes to on-farm renewable energy over a long period of time. We need to get a plan in place. We need to provide confidence within the sector. We need to increase understanding of it and we need to put the financial model associated with that behind it.

I thank Ms O'Sullivan. Mr. McCarthy may go ahead.

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

I thank the Deputy for the questions. I agree with what was mentioned earlier on. Optimum scale is important. We did this through an independent advisory, KPMG, back in 2019 to understand what the optimum scale was for AD biomethane plants in Ireland. The 35,000- to 45,000-tonne is the optimum scale.

It is important that whatever we are doing, we are doing it in collaboration with the key stakeholders and agencies. Dr. Frank McGovern mentioned a number of years ago in the public domain that whatever we do we need to ensure it is measurable. My only observation is you have a threshold and a sub-threshold. As a nation, we have a burning platform for Government and that is emissions reduction, we have a burning platform for industry emissions reduction and the farmers are stuck in the middle and they have a burning platform of emissions and carbon reduction. With what we see here, it is important to understand that whatever we do is measurable. The integrated business case looks at this.

The Deputy mentioned capital funding and other examples. Italy is looking at 40% capital funding for the AD biomethane plants and it has a subsidy regime it is looking at that is very similar to what we have promoted in the renewable heat obligation scheme, RHO. The RHO is the cornerstone of our key ask of Government, with 50% capital funding. There is provision in the national development plan, NDP, for 50% funding for the pilot project, so it is within the Government's policy already to have that 50% funding. We need to look behind that figure. It is an NDP to 2030 so why are we not rolling this out for the remainder of the target, under project clover, which is 2.5 TWh from 125 AD plants?

Without drawing too many comparisons here, agriculture and transport are pillar industries in this country. They account for two thirds of the emissions. For the cost of rolling out 125 AD plants, which is €1.5 billion or call it €2 billion and we have €1 billion in capital funding. Look at the capital funding we are putting towards deep retrofit and look at what we can achieve in agriculture and transport if we put our minds to it and look at the economics of doing that 50% capital funding. There are examples out there already happening in Europe. For the capital expenditure, it is capital funding of 50% and for the operating expenditure, that is, the ongoing running costs of an AD biomethane plant, that is where the RHO comes in as a contract for difference between the cost of production of biomethane and your other costs that are there, and there are a number of measures.

What numbers are we talking about there? What is the quantum of capital expenditure?

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

It would be 50%.

I know about the 50% but give me the global number.

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

On the global number, again we are going back to the market to test the market, considering the supply chains at the moment. Going back nine or 12 months, the funding for the 125 AD plants was in the region of €1.5 billion, so allowing for increasing costs we are saying €2 billion and 50% of that is €1 billion. It would be significantly going towards achieving that conservative figure of 700,000 tonnes but it would be scalable industry that would address agriculture and transport, which are two of the areas that are most difficult to decarbonise in this country.

We need to be moving quicker and the question is why are we not. The framework is already set out with the renewable energy directive II and the Paris Agreement, so we do not need to reinvent the wheel. We are suggesting a number of measures and one of the key measures is an AD charter that stitches in that we collaborate with all parties and key stakeholders, act responsibly to the environment and that there are no negative environmental consequences to what we are doing. Let us measure that. We measure that through carbon farming and the measurable, reportable and verifiable, MRV, guidelines set out in the Paris Agreement. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. It is already there. We need to design it and address and we have looked at that through the work we are doing in project clover.

Okay. I thank Deputy Bruton. We go now to Deputy Bríd Smith, who is also joining from her office.

I apologise to the Chairman. I was just about to send him a text because I have to do an interview at 1 p.m. I will ask the question and listen back for the answer. I thank all our guests for the presentations. I put it to all of them that while the technology works, would they agree that simply supporting the sector with this technology is no substitute for actually cutting the usage of methane and carbon in all areas. We want to support local, co-operative use of this technology but it should not be in order to boost or maintain the dairy herd or pig herd at the current level. There is a report from America I read that says "... anaerobic digesters are solving problems only created by large-scale factory farming in the first place, problems that are avoided in more sustainable systems ...". There is a role for it and it should be supported, but not as a substitute for other measures that may help us to reduce our emissions, especially of methane. I ask our guests to comment on that. Unfortunately, I must leave to do an interview now but I will look back at the record for the answers.

I thank the Deputy. I guess it is an open question to all our guests. Mr. Cullinan wants to go first.

Mr. Tim Cullinan

I thank the Deputy for the question. We all agree the technology works. That has been long established now. My role is representing farmers and I have said consistently this morning that food security is what is very important at the moment. Obviously, if this is going to reduce emissions it is very welcome as well. We take the environmental challenge very seriously within our organisation and our members do as well. There was a direct question there about boosting the herd or maintaining the herd. We are not discussing the herd here at all. What we have been working on consistently is the amount of methane emissions we have to deal with. We have a roadmap on that. Farmers have done a substantial amount of work already in dealing with the emissions. They are willing to do a lot more. As I already said, the science is evolving and that is very important. That is our clear view on the emissions.

Okay, very good. I thank Mr. Cullinan. Mr. Gavigan wants to come in on this.

Mr. Noel Gavigan

I am quite in support of the previous speaker in terms of agriculture as it stands in Ireland. Our units of production are one of the lowest in Europe for carbon emissions in both beef and dairy terms. I do not see anything but advantage to using biogas to deal with waste materials that are currently being produced and it provides a much more economical and efficient way of recycling those. Also, a vast quantity of the material we are looking at using is waste material collected from everyone's house. This is brown bin waste and food waste. Although there are lots of strategies to reduce food waste and they have been ongoing for over a decade and there was involvement up to 15 years ago, it is still being produced. We are going to see some reduction in that, we think, but it is not something we are going to see eliminated by any means. There is always going to be brown bin waste.

We need to have an efficient and environmentally friendly way of not just dealing with that waste, but also recycling those nutrients, which are valuable now, if we are to have a true circular economy. That material will be in place.

We want to improve efficiency in the overall economy and reducing demand for gas and all other forms of energy is something that we are all trying to do. Energy prices have increased to a high level over the past while and will remain at that level for some time. Any approach that we can make to reducing demand is being taken, but we still need to replace that energy with low-carbon sources.

Mr. J.P. Prendergast

I will make a follow-on point to that. In the past two or three years, we were involved in a green gas certification process dealing with the production point of origin. One of the opportunities that this has presented in the past two years has been in district heating, in that we can now have rural Ireland supporting projects in larger cities and towns where biomethane rather than gas is used. There would not just be the regeneration of gas, but also the carbon credit associated with it. Rather than considering just the hindrances posed by biomethane, let us also consider the opportunities it presents in the overall picture.

Does Dr. Beausang wish to reply?

Dr. Ciara Beausang

Yes. I thank Deputy Bríd Smith for her important question. We cannot continue as if it is business as usual. One of the key priorities will be addressing and reducing our energy demand in the first instance. Under the climate action plan, the target for biomethane is 1.6 TWh by 2030. As far as I understand, that constitutes 3% of our current natural gas supply. If demand for natural gas increases, that percentage will diminish further. It is important that the wider context of energy demand reduction and the need for decarbonisation be considered.

Biomethane will form a relatively small percentage of decarbonisation. What will be equally important for decarbonisation will be other renewable gases like hydrogen. In the roadmap produced by Gas Networks Ireland to 2050, the other key components in decarbonisation will be hydrogen, as well as carbon capture and storage relating to fossil gas. All of these components have a role to play in achieving the targets when biomethane is included.

Mr. Tony Breton

There is a target within the waste framework directive to reduce food waste by 50%. However aspirational that target may be, residences, households, citizens and businesses will always create food waste, so we will always have organic waste with which to deal. Our members do not deliberately generate food waste, so in terms of organics, it is a bit of a red herring. We are not there to generate waste. AD, combined with composting, is the perfect solution for the organics that we produce and will continue to produce.

I thank the witnesses for attending. At this stage of the debate, most of the questions have been asked. The Chairman and Deputy Bruton asked the questions to which I was predominantly looking for answers. To recap, what are the best examples of jurisdictions that we can learn from? One of the key priorities for this committee is to learn about this process and its advantages in our collective efforts to reduce carbon emissions. One of my main concerns in learning about anaerobic digestion in recent years has been the experience of Germany over the past decade or so, which saw the diversion of food crops to anaerobic digestion facilities. I do not believe that is still happening, but it begs the question as to what the critical mass for this sector is in Ireland.

My next question is on the technical side and may be best suited to Dr. Beausang. Are there different types of anaerobic digestion? Are there competing means of producing energy from biomass? If so, have studies been done on which would be the most appropriate for the Irish market?

I will next make a general comment rather than asking a specific question. It is clear that we need a policy to be produced on biomethane yesterday. We have been talking about it for the entirety of the current Dáil, whose term has been more than two years, and a number of years prior to that, yet we still do not have a policy. We are missing an opportunity. I would hate to see this being delayed further by a lack of policy production on the part of the State. It is incumbent on us as a committee to make that clear in any observation we make to the Department. If any witness wishes to make a comment on these remarks, please feel free to do so.

Mr. Noel Gavigan

I thank the Deputy for his questions. He referred to the missed opportunity. Developing biogas in Ireland has been something we have been advocating for since our organisation was founded more than 23 years ago. The Oireachtas has published reports on this as far back as 2010, so the issue has been examined. Now is the time to move forward, and to do so rapidly. We have run out of time. The timing could not be – I will use an unfortunate term – better than it is now.

Senator Dooley raised an interesting point. We are all aware that politicians will be criticised regardless of whether they do something right or wrong. There is also a fear within the Civil Service of doing the wrong thing. For a number of years, we have seen significant stagnation in policy development. To be fair to the people in various Departments and other State organisations whom we deal with often, there is a major fear of doing the wrong thing. We need to alleviate that fear a little. A considerable amount of regulation with very complex rules is applied to the various support schemes just to try to alleviate the fear of making even the smallest of mistakes. Maybe we need to consider how to address that issue in future. It has led to a great deal of stagnation in our consideration of the technologies and options for use in decarbonisation.

The Deputy's first question was on food versus fuel. Where biogas in Ireland is concerned, most of the material from farms is grass based. Grass is a particular crop that we are considering. Most of Ireland's grasslands are not tillable ground, so they cannot be replaced with a direct food crop. Obviously, one can feed animals on them, meaning that grass is a material that only has one food-related use, that being, animal production. This means that the impact of grass is much less.

We are living in a climate where we are facing severe decisions in the winter ahead. Fuel and heating are critical parts of life in this part of the world. We all must be cognisant that fuel poverty is an issue currently and will likely be a considerable issue this winter. From that point of view, there is a valid debate to be had on food versus fuel, but fuel also has critical importance.

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

As some of the Deputy's other questions have been answered, I will pick up on his question about the critical mass needed in Ireland. Through industry collaboration by Gas Networks Ireland, GNI, Devenish and KPMG, they have established that there are 768,000 ha of underutilised pasture lands. For clarity, this excludes hillsides, special areas of conservation, SACs, and areas of high biodiversity value. The optimum scale of AD plant that we are promoting, which is 20 GWh, would require slightly less than 500 ha of land to supply the sustainable feedstock.

If we do the maths, we can see there is an opportunity to pursue 9.5 TWh of biomethane production from the sustainable feedstock and available landmass. This is before we even consider other innovative technologies. A national network of anaerobic digestion biomethane plants would be complementary to biorefineries and the biocircular economy. A national network of anaerobic digestion plants would also provide the additional opportunity of pursuing biohydrogen. With regard to critical mass we will hem ourselves in if we look at this as having one dimension. We have a significant opportunity to push ourselves to go even higher with complementary technologies. MaREI has produced figures showing that we could produce as much as 18 TWh of renewable gas in this country before we really tap into hydrogen at scale. Along with being an exporter of renewable electricity to Europe there is a significant opportunity for Ireland to be a net exporter of renewable gas in the long term if we do it right.

Earlier, in response to Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan, Dr. Beausang mentioned that the carbon dioxide produced from burning biogas is not counted because it is a carbon-neutral fuel source. Is this likely to remain the situation? If so, it sounds as though there will be opportunities. If it is likely to change, it poses a risk to the sector. Is this something on which Dr. Beausang can enlighten us?

Dr. Ciara Beausang

My understanding is this is the situation since the recent recast of the renewable energy directive in 2018. There is another iteration of the directive coming quite soon. I am not aware of any change to how the fuel will be considered at that point in the life cycle. I will reiterate that while the emissions are not counted from that particular point of combustion, it does not mean there are no associated emissions at other stages of the life cycle. We would see emissions counted for any fertiliser input, for the energy the digester itself requires and for the methane losses that occur. It is not to say there are zero emissions. There are emissions associated with it. In the preliminary research I have done on grass silage the emissions I have found for silage produced with multi-species swards and legumes were between 20 g of carbon dioxide equivalent per megajoule. If we were to look at grass silage produced from perennial ryegrass with a high nitrogen input we would be looking at approximately 30 g to 40 g of carbon dioxide equivalent per megajoule. This accounts for the whole life cycle. This is what the figure would be, although the emissions from combustion are not included.

The methane that is generated inadvertently and is leaked is part of the count.

Dr. Ciara Beausang

Yes, it would be included in the figure I mentioned. Taking grass silage as an example, considering the various types of forage used, it would be between 20 g to 40 g of carbon dioxide equivalent per megajoule including all of the life-cycle.

Mr. Tony Breton

I will follow up on this and come back to the complementary-competing issue. If we look at where the UK is with its digestion industry today one of the big concerns the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs now has is with regard to ammonia, nitrous oxide and other emissions coming from digestate spreading. This is because of the way that Department went on a dash for gas. If we look elsewhere in Europe, where composting and digestion are seen as complementary there are not as many issues. This is because, and I will keep repeating this point, we need to get the right things back into the soil. By combining digestion and composting or pelletising the digestate, and doing something with the digestate other than spreading it whole, the systems will be brought together better.

I asked a question to Dr. Beausang about alternatives in the overall debate on anaerobic digestion. Mr. Cullinan also wants to comment.

Dr. Ciara Beausang

I would not see much competition between various energy applications with regard to the feedstocks we are speaking about for grass silage or food waste. It does indeed look to be the optimum application from an energy perspective. Where there is potential for more conflict is among the various products that can be produced, particularly with regard to producing grass silage from the land and the various applications it can be used for. It goes back to promoting a cascading approach in the bioeconomy. The value of biological materials in the first instance is as feed. Next is extracting various chemicals and proteins from them. Going down the order, anaerobic digestion is on a lower tier. In this regard the prospect of biorefining is a very good option. The technology means that grass can be crushed using an extruder to produce two different products. There is a juice and fibre. The fibre can be ensiled and fed directly to cows. The juice can be heated to create a protein concentrate that also can be used to feed animals. The residual grass whey left over can be used for anaerobic digestion. This type of approach is good to avoid the conflicts we have seen in feed and fuel debates. It is one that needs to be implemented when considering anaerobic digestion in the bioeconomy.

Mr. Tim Cullinan

I thank the Deputy for the question. The Deputy's first comment was on the experience in Germany of crops going to anaerobic digestion. There was an initiative in the 1990s or early 2000s to grow crops to generate energy. The initiative was taken on by the German Government at the time. We see where we are in Europe now and it is very important that we reflect on it. A new proposal, the REPowerEU plan, is being launched by the Commission to repower the EU. There is an important debate to be had on growing crops to produce energy and to produce food. We have a limited land resource. There is a balance. We can do both. We have grasslands in Ireland. As I have already said on numerous occasions, we are an excellent country at producing food. There may be some extensive farms that can produce more grass. This is also important.

An issue I would like to raise, although perhaps it is slightly off the agenda, is that we are in a critical situation throughout the world because of the Russian war in Ukraine. There is concern about supply in the short term. The proposals we are speaking about will not be initiated before the end of the year. My concern is whether we will have enough energy, gas and oil to keep the lights on over the coming winter. This is very important, particularly for the Deputies and Senators present. It needs to be raised in the Houses of the Oireachtas to ensure we can keep the lights on over the coming winter. It is a very important point. My colleague, Ms O'Sullivan, would like to make a quick comment.

Ms Geraldine O'Sullivan

I want to speak about best examples and learning, particularly with regard to the mobilisation of biomass and supporting the establishment of energy supply companies that are farmer-led and the benefits this can have in rural communities. We have not been very good in this country at embracing the rural benefit of bioenergy. We often focus on wind and solar because you do not have to deal with the supply chain. The supply chain offers huge benefits to our economy and our rural economies. There are great examples of how we can set up these supply chain mechanisms and ensure we maximise the benefit to farmers and rural communities. It has been shown this can create multiple layers of employment at various skill levels. This has a social benefit for rural economies. As well as looking at anaerobic digestion technology, the systems used to feed into the plants are very important.

Mr. Percy Foster

Going back 11 or 12 years ago, when the Minister, Deputy Ryan, was a Minister in the Department of Communications Energy and Natural Resources, everybody was looking at developing the renewable energy feed-in tariff, REFIT 3. There was considerable nervousness around numbers and impacts. To allay that fear-----

Did Mr. Foster say "nerves"?

Mr. Percy Foster

I said "nervousness".

Sorry, I did not hear.

Mr. Percy Foster

There was nervousness about the large numbers involved around AD. To allay that nervousness, the Department put a cap on the support of 50MW. Unfortunately, the supports were not at the right level to support an AD industry and we stagnated for ten years and of those 50MW, 35MW were reallocated to different renewable energy. We could learn from that, in that there should be a situation in which we just get off the fence. We could support AD on a phased basis where there could be an annual review, which could look at whether this level is right, or too high, and what the overall impact is on the greater economy. Let us get off the fence and start on a phased approach with the AD industry. Everybody agrees that we wish to develop industry that is sustainable, both economically and environmentally.

What is the biggest barrier to this? Is it feeding into the grid, local objections to planning, or ignorance of this process? I put myself into the final category. I remember seeing campaign signs, ten or 15 years ago, around various parts of rural Ireland. I am pretty sure one of them was in west Cork. I certainly remember them in Mayo and Roscommon which would be on my route to Louisburgh where I have been going for 25 years. Is ignorance one of the biggest barriers? If one looks at the number of plants and amount of megawatts generated in other jurisdications, versus any attempt to generate electricity by any initiative of any farmer or landowner here, one is met with indifference by the grid, because one cannot feed into it. Regardless of any ambition 11 or 12 years ago, we still have that barrier today.

Mr. Percy Foster

Public engagement at the very start is key to all development infrastructure. I know that when one of our members was developing a facility, the member had widespread public engagement at the start to explain what it was proposed to do and to allay any fears locals had. I remember him speaking at a local community event with farmers looking to develop a biogas plant. I was there to explain the science and the basics around AD. Many people had a misconception about AD being an incinerator or otherwise and of there being many negative impacts. They were not educated enough.

Overall, the public can understand a wind turbine. It is wind. Blades turn around. Biogas is a bit more complicated to understand. There is a lack of knowledge about what biogas is. There are other factors, such as feedstock security supply and making sure there are clean feedstocks available. The industry needs to be developed sustainably. Let us start off with a cohort of plants and learn from that, but also have a review mechanism in place, to look at that and develop it going forward.

Mr. J.P. Prendergast

I will make a point on the community aspect. Government has done it very well, through SEAI, under the the somatic cell count, SCC, scheme. The scheme has been very informative on the renewable energy sector. It could probably be extended to include the likes of anaerobic digestion and biomethane and their impact on communities. The model works very well and should be considered.

Mr. Noel Gavigan

I will clarify a few things. A question came up on how CO2 is accounted for. One tends to look at where the source of carbon is in renewable energies. Carbon from fossil fuels comes from a geological store and that is being released into the atmosphere. Anything that is cyclical has a different category. I will give the committee a base idea on that. The alternative to putting material back into a biogas plant, such as waste food, is composting or letting it break down during which the CO2 will be released anyway. The alternative to slurry is putting it out on land where the CO2 is released, as it is broken down in the soil.

Dr. Beausang said that the methane leakage would be captured in the accounting statistics.

Mr. Noel Gavigan

I will take methane separately. When one burns methane, CO2 is being produced, but it would have been released during the normal breakdown of the material.

One could argue that methane leakage is part of the natural process.

Mr. Noel Gavigan

One could.

I would not.

Mr. Noel Gavigan

Methane is released from slurry in store and landfills, which we are now capturing, as well. The production of methane is a natural process. Being able to capture that is always important. The figures coming forward are interesting. Some of the Danish plants average 2.5% leakage. Obviously that is lost revenue on a financial model. There is considerable interest in making sure methane is fully captured, both from an environmental and financial point of view. As the industry develops, it is becoming more aware of all the nuances that need to be sorted. Some of them are bigger than were originally intended.

Ammonia is a factor, but it is a very valuable fertiliser for a farm. It is regularly used in the form of urea. Being able to protect ammonia is important. Farmers are quite good at that. It is lost nitrogen which is probably the most expensive nutrient for farmers. As we develop that technology, of which there is spreading technology, such as by injection, that will capture far more ammonia than just top spreading. Technological advances have been made and they will continue to develop over the coming years.

With regard to connection to the grid and electrical and gas connections, there is development going on to get injection points. The electrical connections for any renewable plant, that whole policy is changing over time. We are becoming more and more open to seeing new connections from both biogas plants, but there is probably a need for an approach and policy direction, especially in our current environment in which we face shortages, that any connection that has a dispatchable power source should probably be considered as an emergency connection and be given priority to go back onto the grid. We need to start looking at where there is a source available and whether the normal processes, which can take several years to navigate, are still appropriate.

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

I do not disagree with anything that is being said by my colleagues who represent the industry. The planning process is quite protracted and we should be looking at including AD biomethane as a national policy and as a strategic infrastructure development, and having a dedicated planning process in order that we can move these quicker. Biomethane is a zero-emissions fuel. It is recognised as such in the climate action plan. It will help to deal with some of the fuel poverty issues, both on and off grid. We need to start moving a little bit quicker to reflect the seriousness of the situation.

Our gas is coming through the UK. We know the situation with Brexit and rationalising of energy and fuels, with gas and diesel being two such fuels. We will hit a serious winter of discontent. There is no guarantee we will get our gas supply or allocation from the UK. We have been flagging for a number of years, since we have been established, energy security and storage. We have a modern gas network. We already have good storage facilities. Importantly, looking at our long-term pricing strategies for renewable fuel, such as biomethane, can bring stability.

Most of the questions have been answered. I thank the witnesses for their detailed contributions. Some of my fears have been allayed by listening to them, especially around the need for an annual review. A red flag for me is that we would go down the road of what happened with incineration in other countries, in that they are now having to import the stock to feed the incinerators. One does not want to see us go too big on AD and then have a situation where we are not addressing waste reduction, which is also part of our circular economy strategy. Whether our food-waste reductions of 50% are aspirational, like all of our targets, we want to hit them because we have no choice but to do so.

There is always going to be food waste, but we want to reduce it. It is similar with our biodiversity targets and forestry targets. I have concerns about how much of that is factored into the risk assessment and as to how much we see AD. The witness said 1.6 TWh but then mentioned 18 TWh. What is a sustainable percentage for AD to be fulfilling if we are to meet all those other targets we want?

The other concern relates to the silage. University College Cork, UCC, said that the fodder shortage we saw in 2018 is twice as likely to happen now because of climate change. If we have a crop failure for silage and we are short of fodder to feed the livestock, and obviously the preferred option is to feed the livestock and not feed the AD, where will the feedstock come from? Will it have to be imported into the country to feed the AD if we become dependent on it?

Those are my concerns. There is no doubt that this is part of the solution, but we do not want to fall into the situation where Nordic countries are having to import waste to feed incinerators.

I have a question for Dr. Beausang. The SEAI heat study is feeding into much of the policy formulation at present. Does she think it has taken account of the risks she has flagged regarding methane leakage?

Mr. Seán Finan

I will take a couple of the questions. The Senator mentioned the 1.6 TWh. We see that as a very conservative target in the medium term. However, we are starting from a standing start in terms of the deployment of an industry. In 2019, IrBEA and Cré worked jointly on a policy paper which set out a roadmap for how that could be mobilised. We were very clear, and Mr. Foster has mentioned it in previous contributions, that it has to be a phased approach where we start by building 20 plants and see what happens in terms of how that could be deployed, what challenges that is raising and what issues are arising, and then be able to address those in the next phase in the further roll-out of the industry. There is huge ambition being talked about for the industry, but it is our firm belief that we must start at a level which allows the concerns to be alleviated through the roll-out of an industry. We agree with the phased approach, which is very clear in our policy paper. We also agree with the review mechanism by which one would learn from one phase for the next phase.

Regarding what is sustainable in terms of an industry, the SEAI heat study that was recently published refers to a 5 TWh biomethane figure. That is an increase in ambition beyond the 1.6 TWh. There is lots of potential for a significant figure way beyond that, but initially we are very clear in stating that it has to be mobilised on a phased basis by starting with a small number of plants, seeing what the lessons from those are and then progress to alleviate the fears that are raised.

The Senator's second point was about fodder and the shortage. Returning to our joint policy paper, which is currently being reviewed based on the economic situation in which we find ourselves and what the economic requirements are, the broad principles of that paper still remain. From a fodder perspective, we see the development of a biomethane-biogas industry in Ireland as being a strategic resource. If one looks at previous fodder shortages that took place in Ireland, generally a fodder shortage would only be for a few weeks depending on the particular situation, perhaps a drought or other circumstances. The fodder that came into the country for previous fodder shortages over a number of years came from the biogas industry across Europe because it had the reserves built up so it could release it at a point in time.

We see an AD industry as complementing the fodder industry from the point of view that the AD facilities would build up a supply of feed. That potentially could be sold back to the farmers in the times of shortage at the price they received for it. In the intervening period the biogas plants could look at alternative feedstocks in the form of glycerine or other products which would take them over the hump at that particular moment in time. Then when the fodder situation is alleviated, the farmers could again supply that feed back to the plant to build the reserve again. We would see a biomethane-biogas industry being very complementary to the agricultural processes and systems with regard to fodder. All that is outlined very clearly in the joint policy paper that we developed. That paper is currently being looked at to review and update it to take account of the current economic situation with pricing and also some of the policy developments that have happened in REPowerEU, farm to fork and other policies that have emerged since and with which we need to be aligned.

Mr. Tim Cullinan

Senator Boylan made an excellent about food waste. She is right that everybody is striving to reduce food waste and obviously that will put feed stock under pressure, and on her other point about silage, fodder and fodder shortages. Thankfully we do not have those events annually in Ireland, but it is something we have to be conscious of. That is why we must be very careful with the strategy on anaerobic digestion to find a balance here. I believe we need to concentrate on biomethane and generating either transport fuel or heat from biomethane. We must continue the strategy on wind and solar. They are very important as well because we do not need a feed stock to supply a solar panel or a wind turbine. It is about finding the right balance here. We need to take serious stock of what stocks will be available in the country into the future. It is an excellent point.

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

Senator Boylan asked relevant questions about the sustainability of the industry and what we can achieve. The studies that have been done between ourselves and KPMG and subsequently last year with Devenish and KPMG, with inputs from Teagasc, show that the 9 TWh to 9.5 TWh is sustainable. Reference to the 18 TWh is where one would look at complementary technologies to look at pursuing biohydrogen once there is a national network. I agree with what has been mentioned previously by industry representatives. Specifically, we have spoken to farming representative groups and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine about that opportunity. The quality of feed stock for the AD plant needs to be of a standard that would be equivalent to what one would feed a dairy herd or beef herd. We have proposed that as part of the AD charter and a national structure, 2% or 3% of the feedstock in storage would be made available as a backstop in the event of weather events or geopolitical events into the future. Consider the volumes here and the criteria for sustainability. There are 40,000 tonnes going into the AD plant, 20,000 tonnes of which would be sustainable feedstock, and 125 AD plants by 2030. That gives an idea of the volume of feedstock that would be readily available to support the dairy and beef sectors for sustainable food production.

Is the UCC report factored into the KPMG report? Is the fact that we are twice as likely to see fodder shortages due to climate change factored into that sustainability model?

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

It is factored into the recent sustainability of feedstock report from KPMG-Devenish. The report was commissioned by Gas Networks Ireland, GNI, and Teagasc and we are party to that study. Certainly, yes, that is sustainable. The MaREI report suggesting 18 TWh potential was a separate report. It was highlighting the opportunities that we can pursue with other innovative technologies we can add once we have a national network. We do not have to keep growing more facilities but utilise the existing facilities with innovative technologies.

There was a specific question for Dr. Beausang.

Dr. Ciara Beausang

The SEAI study, in terms of the feedstock resource, is sensitive to the need to produce grass silage in a sustainable way so it does take into account the potential of digestate for the production of grass silage. Regarding methane leakage, the report acknowledges that there will be a small amount lost in biogas production but does not specify the figure that is assumed in the analysis. I have tried to clarify that with SEAI. It would be useful to know its assumption in terms of average methane loss.

Continuing on the SEAI heat study, there is good analysis of the resource availability of grass silage and slurry, looking at areas of 5 sq. km. There is a distinction between looking at a catchment area of 10 km to collect the feedstock to supply a biogas plant, and a wider area of 20 km. That is also considered in the report. It is worth considering sensitivity analysis to see if there is a difference in extending that transport distance for the feedstock. For something like slurry, which is low density and has a low energy potential, ideally we want to restrict the distance it is transported and 10 km would be ideal. For grass silage, there may be potential to extend the distance but it would be good to look at the distinction between those two transport distances.

Dr. Beausang's figure for methane loss was 2.4%. Did I pick that up correctly?

Dr. Ciara Beausang

Yes. That was based on a Danish study and had an average value for 13 agricultural biogas plants, so it was a pretty good sample from the literature.

I am in my office. I thank the witnesses for the presentations. They were really interesting and the meeting was even more interesting.

I thank Dr. Beausang for her presentation. This is quite technical and I did not know a lot about it before the meeting so I ask her to indulge me, as a beginner, and talk about her research findings on the risk of the high shares of grass silage having a negative environmental impact. It is important that we are not afraid to look at new initiatives, but also that we make sure to investigate any negative environmental impacts they could have. Where might this fit into the agricultural sector? Despite the excellent work done by many farmers, some of whom have been before the committee, the broader sector can be beset by greenwashing. I would be interested to hear Dr. Beausang on that.

Dr. Ciara Beausang

My research looked at the sustainability of grass silage. That study looked at making more silage available by using additional nitrogen fertiliser. In that way, we had a surplus of grass silage and did not compete with forage for livestock. The main environmental burden comes from that additional fertiliser. It arises from the production of the fertiliser and the emissions from nitrous oxide when it is spread on the land. That is the main point of concern when grass silage is produced in that way. My study identified that as a potential risk.

There have been developments in the area since then. It is acknowledged that we will not produce that additional grass silage with additional inorganic fertiliser. It needs to be done in a more appropriate way. There are a number of ways to do it. The first is looking at different sward types. The research by Teagasc has been mentioned already. Looking at incorporating other plants with perennial rye grass, the likes of red and white clover, is a good way of increasing the yield without any inorganic nitrogen fertiliser. That way we are maintaining a surplus of grass and not competing with livestock production.

The other possibility which has good potential is to improve grass utilisation on farms. That involves improving the amount of grass ingested by cattle per the amount of grass grow. It has been shown that utilisation rates on some farms, particularly beef farms, are lower than what could be expected by research standards. If we were able to improve the utilisation rate by cattle, it would decrease the requirement for grassland and increase the available resource for alternative applications. In that way, we would free up more grass silage for additional use without inorganic nitrogen fertiliser.

Mr. Percy Foster

Senator Boylan brought up food waste prevention and we all support food waste prevention. It is very important. A recent report done by the Waste and Resources Action Programme, WRAP, in the UK looks at householders who had a collection system versus those who did not. It showed that where people recycled food waste to be used in compost and AD treatment, overall food waste generation decreased. By householders segregating their food waste, they see how much they waste and generate less, which is positive.

The circular economy Bill going through the Houses includes a support mechanism whereby incentivising charging would be introduced for the commercial sector, which we have in the household sector. When that is enacted, it will encourage businesses to recycle food waste more. About three years ago, RedC did a survey of 150 businesses, of which only two thirds recycled their food waste. In my opinion, that was down to the charging structure whereby residual waste was cheap versus recycling waste overall. When that Bill is enacted, it will encourage businesses to recycle food waste. It has all the benefits of helping businesses realise how much food waste they generate and try to prevent it. Also, by recycling food waste, which is wet and sloppy, you take it away from other recyclables, increasing plastics quality overall. When that legislation is enacted, it will be good for the economy and businesses.

We are hearing today there is a balance and an optimum approach to this. We are not hearing huge disagreement that there is an important role for anaerobic digestion in bioenergy. It is about getting the balance between economic opportunity and other factors. The social benefit Mr. Cullinan mentioned of bringing jobs to rural Ireland is an important consideration. The environmental impact is real and varies on how big you go, how you do it and your approach, whether you generate power at the farm or co-op level and put it into the electricity grid or generate gas and put it into the natural gas grid. There is the question around the economic opportunity costs. Big numbers were mentioned. Mr. McCarthy mentioned €2 billion. It might be the best place to put €2 billion but maybe there is a displaced economic opportunity there and that money might be better put in something else. These are all important questions. There are so many moving parts that I do not think we will figure out the optimum balance right here, but somebody has to.

On the modelling that would underpin the policy development around this, can anybody enlighten me as to the sophisticated modelling that is going on? There are so many moving parts and if we get one element wrong there could be an adverse impact. Does anybody want to broach that?

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

There are technological options for renewable heat, in particular. When we were considering our policy document, we considered the most economic use of biomethane. There are separate studies that examine all the different technologies for renewable heat, in particular, and acknowledge the role of certain technologies, including geothermal options such as air-to-water systems. Those technologies all have a role to play and are economically applied. The most economically advantageous use of biomethane is in thermal demand and heat. Transport must also be considered. If we are considering value for money, and assume a cost of circa €2 billion, it is like any other technology and policy in that we need to be in a position to be able to deliver. We have already missed our 2020 targets. We have seen indications this morning that we are on the road to miss the 2030 targets. As was mentioned earlier, the danger here is that we are looking for the position of perfection before we even start. The danger is that we will never reach perfection unless we start somewhere. By collaborating with the Government, industry and the farming representative groups, and developing an AD charter and alignment with European and national policies, we are acknowledging that everybody has a key role to play. What we are doing specifically with the integrated business case is taking the heavy lifting away from the Government. All we are asking of the Government is to provide policy support through the renewable heat obligation, RHO, and capital funding. We are not looking for enduring Exchequer funding.

We recognise there are challenges. We must collaborate with the academic expertise of Teagasc, MaREI and other institutions to design this correctly. They will guide the industry to ensure we eliminate or avoid any negative environmental consequences. We are never going to reach perfection before we even start is my point. I think that €2 billion and another €1 billion in capital grants is extremely good value for money when we can decarbonise two of the most difficult sectors, namely, transport and agriculture, and support our pillar industries in an agrifood sector that is exporting nearly €16 billion per year, employs 140,000 people and is the backbone of our rural economy.

Mr. McCarthy is arguing that we should get on with it and not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

Let us not let the grass grow under our feet.

Mr. McCarthy is also advocating for a good review system so we constantly look at the issue to see where we are getting it right and wrong. How do we get that review system right? Mr. McCarthy mentioned a number of academic institutions. The Environmental Protection Agency will be an important voice in all of this and will be monitoring the situation. If the Government takes the approach of investing, getting on and learning by doing, it also needs to be confident that the review mechanism is set up well enough to allow us to conduct refinements as we go along. Is that review system strong enough at the moment? We cannot move forward unless it is right.

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

That is a fair point. If we choose to pursue an industry-led initiative, led by the private sector, such as we are doing on biomethane, and come to the Government with key, specific requests without recourse to Exchequer funding, it is an opportunity for the Government to work with industry. When I say "industry", I mean the full supply chain. There are regulatory requirements for the pillar industries to report under the Paris Agreement. That filters down to the producers. It is in nobody's interests to greenwash, whitewash or misrepresent the position. We have moved away from the era of box-ticking exercises. We are advocating for measurement reporting and verification, which is the gold standard that keeps everybody honest. That would mean everybody ensures they produce net environmental gains. The economics will be a secondary consideration but these things are interlinked. Sustainable food production goes hand in hand with AD, the bioeconomy, biofertiliser and carbon farming. To answer the Chairman's question, annual reviews can be useful. Natural England in the UK is analysing whether any of its initiatives are showing net biodiversity gains. We are looking at the national biodiversity policy and strategy, and a nature positive system. Many lessons can be learned from other jurisdictions.

The projects must be reviewed, perhaps on an annual or two-year basis, and the net biodiversity gain assessed. That is already being done in the UK through Natural England. There are ways to stitch in a review process. There are ways to monitor and review. The danger is that we review too much. There is a five-year period of accounting for carbon farming. I suggest we start with a five-year review in that regard. Such a review would examine the scientific net gain of carbon in the soil. If we do that, our soil quality and health will improve, as will our biodiversity, air and water quality, and our sustainable food production. There is a danger that we are going to get stuck in the mud without saying we have an overall plan. We can consider reviews, and have done so.

The RHO has an annual review mechanism that considers a contract for difference and the cost of energy production for biomethane. There are other already clear criteria and regulatory structures under the renewable energy directive, the Paris Agreement and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, guidelines. We are not reinventing the wheel. Let us not burden the industry with administration before we even start.

We are not reinventing the wheel but there are many moving parts.

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

I acknowledge that. It is relevant to have reviews.

I will follow on from what Mr. McCarthy has talked about. The reason I sought to introduce this Bill was because I see the advantages involved and the need to expedite this process, carry on with it and get going. At the same time, I would never advocate for diving into something head first without mitigation and examining the science. Mr. McCarthy recently said something interesting about the fact that 92% of Ireland is covered in pasture. Mr. Cullinan qualified that by saying we are the best and most efficient in the world, and the most sustainable in terms of our food production model. Within that 92% of pasture, some farmers can be very good at protecting biodiversity. Outside those special areas of conservation, SACs, and the mountainous areas we have talked about, there are some bits of biodiversity on farmlands that do not have the same protection. We hope that the agri-climate rural environmental scheme, ACRES, will go some way towards addressing that through riparian planting, mixed-species swards and wild bird cover, etc. What I am getting is that 92% is a lot. That leaves only 8% for everything else and those pure bits of biodiversity. That suggests an interesting question in respect of balance.

It seems to me that on pure waste alone, AD is probably neither viable nor sustainable. There needs to be an element of silage. Dr. Beausang referenced the technique whereby what is left after the process is divided into liquid which is still a viable feed. We need a bit more reassurance to ensure we avoid a situation whereby pasture expands further just to feed AD. We must retain the sustainable food production element that Mr. Cullinan has said is important.

The following relates to one of the main positives. Our guests might elaborate further on the circular economy. We sometimes forget about the importance of the circular economy in the context of AD.

He might touch on where that waste food goes, if it does not go to an AD plant. Where does the waste from a piggery go if it does not go to AD? In the Timoleague example I gave, there is a successful distillery and the waste grain is brought to the AD. Where does that go? That is a very important factor. The circular economy is so important because we are reusing these products. I know we are nearly at closing up time, but if Mr. Cullinan could just answer both of those questions, it would be great.

I apologise to Mr. Finan. I meant to bring him in on the last question. He may address the points if he would like.

Mr. Tim Cullinan

It is very important. This is a huge investment, so we need to be very careful. We all understand that we need to move forward and a new industry is very important for the sector. However, we need Government intervention as well. This is new for the vast majority of farmers. A number of farmers understand this. In the general scheme of things, however, it is a new system that we are asking farmers to get involved in. We will need Government intervention. There will have to be a proper grant structure. Again, it is very important and we would like to work with the Deputy on this Bill as well. It is very important that we bring the Bill forward. All the agencies coming together and working together would be very beneficial.

Again, the Deputy made the point on the circular economy. That is very important. One area that was not raised here today was what we will do with the back end of all of this - the digestate. It is a huge volume and it costs a lot to truck it out there as well. We need to be looking at the technologies in extracting the ammonia and perhaps using precision farming and applying that ammonia to the grassland. That is another area we need to look at as well. There will be a substantial cost involved in all of this. We have to map it out and see where it will bring us.

Mr. Seán Finan

To summarise, it is important to stress that the renewable energy directive sets a level of governance in terms of the roll-out of the sector. There are some very strict criteria that have to be met in terms of the output being classified as renewable.

The second point I would like to make is that mobilisation of an industry is the priority, and that is required through policy generation. Any country that has a successful industry has a policy landscape that supports that. It needs be focused on a phased approach, in that we start off with a small number of plants, learn from the challenges or opportunities that they bring and then work on from there. A key point for our members is that the support requirements need to match the actual requirements to make it economically viable. We have seen before where schemes were introduced and, as a result, there was not uptake or a development of facilities because the support requirements did not match the economic realities of the production costs. That is a very important aspect. In doing that and in developing our policy paper, we liaised with farm organisations, such as the IFA, the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, ICSA, the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, ICMSA, and Macra na Feirme. We talked to them at the time about the production costs required for silage. They were happy to support our proposal based on the costs we had put forward. That has totally changed now, given the situation with the associated costs. We also spoke with our members who are building these facilities. They have, at their fingertips, the actual operational maintenance cost requirements for these facilities. In the review of our document, we will be going about that consultation again and ensuring that what we put forward in terms of an update to that paper reflects what the requirements of an industry are. That is very important.

To answer the Deputy’s question, I just wish to say that the circular economy is a very important aspect. The spent grains probably would go to animal feed, if not used in a biogas plant. We have to be conscious of the cascading uses. The pig slurry would literally be spread on land. We are not harvesting the nutrient or energy output from that as a result of not putting it through an anaerobic digestion process. It is the same with slurry from a livestock system. If we can take the gas from that and add value to that in terms of making the nutrients more accessible when it is spread on the land, that is a win-win for the circular economy, the circular bioeconomy and the cascading principles, which were talked about.

All of these current feedstocks are being utilised from the point of view of the waste feedstocks. However, probably to fulfil that cascading principle, one can put all that through AD and still utilise it to what it is being used for now in a better and more resource-efficient capacity.

I will leave it at that. I thank the committee for inviting IrBEA here today.

Mr. P.J. McCarthy

We are highlighting that biomethane is one aspect, an output and by-product of the biorefinery. Pursuing the cascading principles, where you have those by-products or resource streams such as spent grain and other industrial residues or sludges, involves pursuing the maximum value of what can be extracted. We have some fantastic academic centres of excellence with University College Dublin, UCD, University College Cork, UCC, MaREI, and the National University of Ireland, Galway, NUIG. We are currently engaging with industry, for example on Project Clover, and asking what by-products or bioproducts is it looking for. We have very strong, healthy biopharma, biochemicals and food industries. For example, biogenic CO2 is an additional revenue stream. It is important that anybody embarking in this industry understands that the commercial responsibility and duty is to maximise and valorise every revenue stream possible with the principle of getting higher value products. It is not just about biomethane, biofertiliser or carbon farming; it is about protein extraction, biogenic CO2, bioactives and biostimulants. Very clearly, there are opportunities to engage directly with industry. Before we pursue on the industry at scale, we should engage, find out and establish from it exactly what products it is looking for on the market. Rather than going out and looking and creating a market, we have the technologies and expertise to extract those valuable bioproducts and give them to industry, such as bioplastics. Mr. Prendergast is working on a project here with BioWILL. They are looking at the by-product as an alternative for packaging, for example. Rather than boxing ourselves into one particular by-product, we need to be looking at everything. It is building an industry within an industry that supports our national bioeconomy.

Mr. J.P. Prendergast

Just to follow on from Mr. McCarthy’s comments, I would not be surprised if in the next ten to 15 years the word “AD” disappears and “biorefinery” appears. That is what you are doing. You will be transitioning to the optimisation of how you will extract from your process. From that point, if you use the continuation of that, it will present an opportunity not just with regard to existing employment, but also with regard to generating a new form of employment. As Mr. McCarthy said, there is a much broader aspect to this to understand. For that reason alone - the implication of what this has - I consider this as a new technology for biorefinery research, where you can extract down the road and generate a whole new economy.

Mr. Tony Breton

I will keep it very brief because I realise we are out of time. I do not want repeat everything that Mr. Finan said. We fully agree with it. If one looks at it from the waste side, it is there. We have the waste now. Can we just get off the fence and do something? With all credit to the strategy, we do not need to go through a Bill and then a strategy for biowaste. We have biowaste ready today. We just need the system to be able to put them into tanks and make the gas.

I will repeat the end of my presentation. If members wishes to come and see a plant that has integration of AD and composting, we more than welcome the committee.

I thank Mr. Breton for the invitation. We certainly will consider that. Since there are no other guests indicating to come in, I will start to wrap it up. I thank everyone for coming in today. We seldom have so many guests in the room, yet we got through a lot.

I thank our guests for their co-operation and for coming in at short notice. This session was not planned at the outset, but a number of members were very interested in hearing from stakeholders and academics in the area. It was good that we had the session.

As nobody has any more to say, I will adjourn the meeting until 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 12 July.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.10 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 12 July 2022.