Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Questions (64)

Brian Stanley


64. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his plans to consider introducing a support to develop biogas here as an indigenous source of renewable power. [14005/19]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Communications)

The question relates to biogas. The Climate Change Performance Index, CCPI, lists Ireland as one of the worst countries in the world in its attempts to address climate change. We know this and must accept it. We have a very valuable resource when compared to many other countries in Europe as there is potential for the use of biogas. What actions has the Government taken to utilise or stimulate that?

Biogas produced from anaerobic digestion has the potential to play an important role in Ireland's transition to a low-carbon future. In addition to helping decarbonise the energy sector by replacing fossil fuels, the production of biogas can also reduce emissions in the agriculture and waste sectors. The support scheme for renewable heat has been developed to support financially the adoption of renewable heating systems by non-domestic heat users not covered by the EU emissions trading system. The next phase of the scheme includes support for biogas heating systems. A formal state aid application to the European Commission was submitted last month.

In the electricity sector, the Renewable Energy Feed In Tariff, REFIT, 3 support scheme has supported the development of anaerobic digestion facilities via a high-efficiency combined heat and power tariff. This scheme is now closed for new applications. However, electricity output from anaerobic digesters will be eligible to compete for support under the forthcoming renewable electricity support scheme.

Biogas can also be purified into biomethane and then injected into the gas grid. The draft national energy and climate plan published last December includes the potential to support 1.6 million MW hours of biomethane grid injection by 2030. A key enabler for biomethane grid injection is the development of grid injection points. Gas Networks Ireland is currently developing Ireland's first injection point and the development of a second will be supported by the Climate Action Fund. The principal barrier to the development of biomethane grid injection is the significant cost differential between natural gas and biomethane. My Department continues to examine potential options to support biomethane grid injection, including how to fund this cost differential.

The first biomethane injection point is coming online, generating electricity and producing biomethane for the grid. It is operational near Athy. I went to look at a facility a couple of years ago that was very impressive. However, there are 8,000 of these in Germany and 600 in Britain, so we are only getting going at this. We need to complement intermittent sources of electricity. We know wind, wave and solar power is all part of the solution but on the coldest nights there is no sun and there may be no wind, so we need to bring in sources that can provide a base loading of power.

There is also the potential for a bio-fertiliser product from this. We had to go to the European Commission again this year seeking an extension of the derogation regarding the spreading of pig slurry. There is the potential to use this instead to make a bio-fertiliser that would be far more environmentally friendly. There is large-scale potential here. We in Sinn Féin have done much research into this and this has the potential to create up to 10% of our electricity supply. That is very realistic based on what is happening other countries. Will the Minister respond to that in particular?

There is no doubt there is a theoretical capacity here but as I pointed out in the reply, there is a very significant cost difference.

It is a practical capacity.

The difficulty is in selecting a roadmap to achieve decarbonisation over time, we must identify the route that would impose the least burden on people while creating the most opportunities. Work must be done to see whether various theoretical technologies can be converted to a reasonable cost-effective path. I absolutely agree there is potential in the area but the number of schemes under REFIT 3 was not very substantial. There is difficulty in bridging this cost gap but we are seeing new work emerge. In the Climate Action Fund I supported a particular scheme by Gas Networks Ireland that involved agricultural slurry specifically. This technology has great potential but we must ensure we adopt a roadmap where it can be cost-effective as well.

The Minister mentions cost but when we start anything new, there will be a cost differential and we recognise this comes from scale, expertise and everything else. This technology is already up and running in other European countries on a large scale. The lack of facilities for biogas in this State demonstrate a lack of effort to date to drive this on. The focus has been completely on onshore wind, which has limitations because it is an intermittent source of energy. We may also have reached our potential in that regard. We need to start displacing fossil fuels with energy that will be there all the time. Biogas must be part of that plan.

The Minister mentioned cost but the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland estimates there is potential to create up to 3,000 jobs over the coming decades with biogas. That is not just Sinn Féin's argument and it is an important figure to remember. There is also the matter of farm waste. If a group of farmers are to do this, they must include the likes of the fertiliser in the project. Bord na Móna is looking into it.

I can assure the Deputy there is no lack of vision in this area. We already have four schemes supporting this, including REFIT 3 and the new renewable heat scheme that will shortly have state aid. It relates to anaerobic digestion and it will go live as soon as we are in a position to make that happen. There is also the renewable electricity support scheme and the Gas Networks Ireland opportunities for biomethane in the Climate Action Fund. There is no lack of vision and there are avenues for this to be exploited. The scale will depend on cost competitiveness compared with other available options.