Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Questions (58)

Eamon Ryan


58. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the assessment planned for the potential scale of anaerobic digestion as a new economic opportunity for farmers and a way of dealing with waste products; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14233/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

The development of anaerobic digestion will have a role in the new energy future and in the future of farming by way of providing income. We must, however, ensure it will be sustainable in every way and environmentally sustainable more than anything else. I am keen to hear from the Minister on the assessment he has made of the quantity of and the environmental side effects of the development of anaerobic digestion in order that we will not lead farmers up a cul-de-sac from which they must subsequently be withdrawn.

My Department recognises the potential environmental and economic benefits of using anaerobic digestion, including climate mitigation, water quality and air quality, as well as supporting diversification of income for farmers. Research suggests the biogas produced from anaerobic digestion could potentially play a significant role in the heat and transport sectors, in particular.

The anaerobic digestion industry in Ireland is at an early stage of development compared to the more established industry in many European countries. Potential for the growth of the anaerobic digestion sector in Ireland is strong, but it should be seen as a long-term development. The main support for the development of anaerobic digestion will be through the pending support scheme for renewable heat operated by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. The scheme will provide ongoing operational support for anaerobic digestion biogas boilers or biogas high efficiency combined heat and power heating systems.

My Department supports research, development and demonstration in this area. As recently as October 2018, two projects were approved for funding from the European Innovation Partnerships Initiative under the rural development programme. The Biorefinery Glas small-scale, farmer-led green biorefineries and the Irish BioEnergy Association's small biogas demonstration programme have each been awarded funding of over €900,000. In addition, my Department has a key regulatory role to play when using animal by-products as feedstock for anaerobic digestion. We encourage the use and recovery of these by-products in a safe and protected manner and look forward to the growth of the sector and the opportunities it can provide for rural Ireland to meet renewable energy and carbon and emissions targets. There are 12 anaerobic digesters producing biogas in operation nationally that are approved by and operating under licence from my Department. The capital costs of such anaerobic digestion systems are quite significant and challenges remain in the sustainable supply of various feedstocks for anaerobic digestion. My Department continues to work closely with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, the lead Department in this area, to ensure the supply of domestic fuels available in the forest and agriculture sectors will be mobilised to support green energy generation from a range of bioenergy technologies, including anaerobic digestion.

It is the last clause the Minister read where the challenge is in terms of feedstock. As well as looking at successes in other countries, there are areas at which to look which raise real concerns. North of the Border, in Northern Ireland, there has been a massive expansion in anaerobic digestion, which seems to serve certain self-interested industrial farming production methods with knock-on environmental consequences which are very serious. Research reports which I have seen show real concern about the availability of feedstock which would not if we, for example, used grass, kick into our ability to feed our national herd. We have had fodder crises in the last two years. There are potentially major knock-on consequences in the release of ammonia and the nature of the farming system one gets with this system. I come back to my key question; what assessment has the Department done of the environmental challenge of developing anaerobic digestion without developing a massive and polluting industrial farming system to go with it?

The issue is under active consideration in my Department and that of my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, in the context of the overall Government plan on climate change proposals. From our point of view, the concern is the very significant capital investment. In fact, I was looking at some data and note it can cost anything from €191,000 for a 4 kW anaerobic digestion, AD, plant to almost €4.5 million for a 500 kW plant. That is just the capital investment required and does not take into account issues around the supply of feedstock to sustain that and the renewable energy feed-in tariff scheme, REFIT, tariff that might be necessary. Supporting capital infrastructure, ongoing supports that might be necessary through a REFIT tariff, the availability on a sustainable basis of feedstock, either animal by-products or in other forms and how that might impact on the availability of feedstock for the national herd are all part of the complex matrix of issues that need to be deliberated. It is not possible at this stage to draw definitive conclusions other than to say that it is capital intensive and will have a significant ongoing cost. Whether it will be supported by the State or better use can be made of those funds in other areas of the climate change agenda is a matter on which the jury is currently out.

One of the recommendations from our climate report, which we have already agreed, is a national land-use plan to provide a strategy for how we use our land. Within that and by the end of the year or as soon as possible as part of our national energy and climate action plan, we should have an answer to the question of what the optimum level of anaerobic digestion is. That should be driven by environmental considerations first. While capital and other considerations are equally issues, they are not the key issue. We must ensure that if we are Origin Green in name, we are Origin Green in reality. We must not make the mistake that was made in Northern Ireland whereby certain types of production are increased massively, which may be harmful in other ways, just to get an anaerobic digestion grant out or to get capital projects over the line. We should run it from an environmental assessment first and that will need to be done by the end of the year in order to answer the question of what the optimum level should be to fit in with an Irish family farming system.

Any money the State spends on any initiative in the climate change area will be to deliver on the climate agenda and to achieve value for money. To put it another way, could the money available be spent on some other initiative in climate to deliver a greater dividend for us? That is the framework within which we are looking at it. We are considering capital costs, running costs, the availability of feedstock and what it delivers to reduce our carbon footprint. They are all in the mix. I await with interest the climate change report and I appreciate that a great deal of work has gone into it from all parties and colleagues. It will obviously form a very important part of the consideration. In particular, the Deputy referred to the possibility of a land-use policy in that context. I am less in favour of prescription and more in favour of encouragement. We have seen what is happening in Leitrim in the context of a land-use policy at the moment. People there are saying they do not want any more trees. A land-use policy might mean in some quarters telling people that they must engage in a specified activity on a specified soil type and on a different activity on a different soil type. I am not in favour of that. It is not fair to ask any particular community, as I have said several times, that on a particular land type, they must take all the trees while others get on with a different type of activity. It is not fair.