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The European Commission released a report in 2017 that showed Ireland has a higher potential for biomethane production per capita than any other EU member state. This is due to its grass-based rural economy.

RGFI commissioned KPMG to produce a Business Case for Biomethane in Ireland and a Cost Benefit Analysis including the wider economic benefits of biomethane. The KPMG report presents a realistic and sustainable approach to developing a thriving, renewable gas industry focussed on agriculture and the use of biomethane to meet heat demand in residential, commercial and industrial use. The report shows a benefit cost ratio of 1.26 to 2050 i.e. there is a good long-term return on the investment.

Anaerobic digestion is a mature technology, tried and tested across the world. More than 17,500 AD plants are already operating in Europe and France currently builds a new AD biomethane plant every 4 days.

Major agri-food, drinks and biopharma companies are committed to developing an indigenous, renewable gas industry as a means of reducing their carbon footprint, in line with mandatory requirements and compliance with new regulations from 2021.

Gas Networks Ireland (GNI) has committed to fully decarbonising its gas network by 2050. Ireland already has a national network of gas pipes and related infrastructure in place.

Capital investment is required to develop a scalable, renewable gas industry, which would then be self-sustaining.

In line with EU sustainability criteria, certain feedstocks will be significantly prohibited for use in the production of biomethane going forward, such as the use of energy crops. This means that Ireland’s renewable gas industry will predominantly rely on feedstocks which are considered to be wastes, such as food waste, and manures, or residues (produced as a by-product or in addition to a main process), such as sequential crops, excess grass silage produced from increased soil productivity and portions of feed or food production not suitable for human consumption. Ireland is exceptionally well positioned in this regard due to the scale of our grass-based agriculture.

Current gas demand which could be met theoretically with biomethane feedstocks:

  • Up to 3% of natural gas demand could be met from the food processing sector.
  • 70-80% could be met using a mixture of grass silage (available in excess of livestock requirements) and manures.

Other potentially large resources to increase biomethane production include sequential and rotation cropping, and in time the biological methanation of renewable hydrogen at scale.

All this combined with expected future technology efficiencies means Ireland could in theory achieve 100% biomethane as a direct replacement to natural gas consumption.

However, just because a feedstock is theoretically available does not always mean it will be useable in reality. Constraints such as the cost of feedstock, location and willingness of parties to supply the feedstock as well as other competing uses means that what is more likely to be achieved is somewhat less than this. In respect of what experts believe is actually achievable in Ireland:

  • The European Commission suggest a target of 13 TWh (~23% of gas demand) would be achievable by 2030.
  • SEAI suggest up to 28% of current gas demand could be produced as biomethane.

Ireland’s first purpose-built central gas injection (CGI) facility was developed in 2019 in Cush, Co Kildare, where locally produced biomethane is being successfully injected into Ireland’s gas network as a demonstration facility – the first its kind in Ireland.

Gas Networks Ireland’s Green Renewable Agricultural Zero Emissions (GRAZE) project received €8.5m from the first round of the government’s Climate Action Fund. It will support the installation of the first connected central grid injection (CGI) facility on the transmission grid near Mitchelstown, Co Cork, for biomethane and a grant scheme to support circa 74 compressed natural gas vehicles. When fully operational, this CGI facility will provide enough energy to heat 54,000 homes. Local farmers, working co-operatively, could transport renewable biomethane from their on-farm AD plants to this central injection point.

By mid-April 2020 GNI received over 100 preliminary enquiries for direct grid injection from proposed AD plants into the national gas grid.

Approximately 75% of enquiries related to agricultural organic materials and by products processing through anaerobic digestion.

Gas Networks Ireland (GNI), through their EU funded Causeway project, in collaboration with the National University of Ireland, Galway, are developing a gas transport re-fuelling network for Ireland with 70 compressed fast filling gas stations. They are promoting compressed natural gas and biomethane for trucks, vans and buses.

Compressed natural gas and biomethane for trucks, vans and buses, can offer both commercial savings to the operator and reduced carbon and particulate emissions. These vehicles account for 4% of Ireland’s transport vehicles but produce 30% of all emissions associated with transport. Other technologies such as electric are currently unproven to accommodate large driving ranges and weight requirements. This means that biomethane is currently the only real sustainable option commercially viable today.

Biomethane can also play a role in domestic and light goods vehicles, which is common practice across mainland Europe. However, as government policy for this sector is primarily focused on electrification it is not envisioned that biomethane will play a major role without a change in government strategy.

Another interesting application for biomethane in transport is to support decarbonisation of our tractor fleet.

New Holland’s biomethane powered T6.180 tractor

While there have been a number of concept machines over the years, New Holland has been a leader in developing biomethane-powered machinery. Its biomethane-powered tractor, the T6.180 scooped the 2020 sustainable tractor of the year award at Agritechnica.

The tractor is fully powered by upgraded biogas (biomethane) produced on farms. According to New Holland, the biomethane-powered T6 has up to 30% lower running costs when compared to diesel. In the field the T6.180 tractor produces 99% less particulate matter in comparison to the equivalent diesel tractor, while CO2 emissions are reduced by a minimum of 10% and overall emissions by 80%. The tractor units are expected to be commercially available in 2021.

Capital costs. Renewable gas has to be produced from organic materials and has high capital and operational costs. To encourage initial growth of the industry, the socialisation of the cost of biomethane production is generally accepted. Other key requirements are a declared policy position from government to support biomethane production, capital grants, EU funding potential, access to low cost funding and private equity investment.

The above measures would facilitate the renewable gas industry to mature and drive competitiveness and efficiency to reduce the cost of producing biomethane within the next 10-15 years.

For AD developers and private investors, the main obstacles are investor certainty and confidence in government support and policy measures, the funding of projects, reliability of the feedstock, and ensuring connection to the grid.

Developing renewable gas projects can take a number of years, so committed, long-term investment is essential.

RGFI is working, in a consultative and constructive manner, with its members, key stakeholders in industry and funding and government to develop the framework to take this forward.

Political support. Renewable gas is a well-established, mature industry across the world and mainland Europe. However, it has not been supported to date by policy in Ireland. Clear and declared policy support and direction for a renewable gas industry in Ireland will be the most important enabler to the future growth of the sector.

Acknowledgement of wider benefits of renewable gas. Renewable gas is a low-cost option to decarbonise when compared against other decarbonisation alternatives, such as electrification of heat and transport for example, but it is more expensive than natural gas (a fossil fuel) which is the comparator to which it is most generally considered. In order to fully understand the overall value of renewable gas as an indigenous industry, and on demand, carbon neutral fuel, better acknowledgement of the wider economic benefits is needed.

Positive externalities exist such as security of supply, dispatchability, rural regeneration and job creation, decarbonisation of energy and agriculture, circular economy principles and better use of waste streams as well as positive air and water quality impacts. When taking consideration of this, Renewable gas offers an extremely cost competitive option.

Scale and setting will always be considered in planning applications. However, the benefits in developing a circular economy to benefit rural Ireland, reducing GHG emission, and soil carbon sequestration, will also be taken into account. A good business and operational plan also strengthens planning applications, demonstrating the alignment with government policies for rural Ireland, Foodwise, Harvest 2025 and the European Green Deal strategy and Farm to Fork initiatives.

Planning applicants will be required to address any potential issues which could arise, such as noise, odour, traffic management, land bank or safety concerns, in line with best practices. An Appropriate Assessment for the proposed AD plant, expanding to ecology, hydrology, archaeology and any other requirements, should be included to support the application.

RGFI can provide advisory support for members in respect of planning application requirements.

AD plants are highly regulated and related planning permission is only given when the planning authority is satisfied that appropriate mitigation measures are in place to reduce noise and odour risks.

Anyone developing an AD plant should facilitate a public consultation with the local community and key stakeholders from the outset to address any concerns, provide information and demonstrate the socio-economic benefits to all concerned.

In the case of an optimum sized 20GWh AD plant, fed on slurry and grass silage, approx. 2% of land within a 10km radius, or c.445 hectares would be required to supply feedstock. This would have little or no impact on the amount of land used for food production. RGFI is promoting anaerobic digestion as a complementary technology to existing farm practices. Even if the renewable gas industry grew to its maximum potential in Ireland it would have no significant negative impact on food production.

Slurry will be one of the main feedstock sources in Irish anaerobic digestion plants, in combination with other organic materials and by products. In exchange for slurry management, farmers will be able to access bio-fertiliser organic soil improvers to fertilise the land. This high-quality fertiliser is free of pathogens and high in available nitrogen, with greater absorption into the soil and which, over time, increases the fertility and productivity of the land. Approximately 16,000 tonnes of slurry would be required per annum for a 20GWh plant.

Other farm wastes or residues which are available on site, or in close proximity to the site, can supplement and reduce the need for slurry and grass.

Farmers must ensure that the biomethane they produce will adhere to the sustainability criteria set out under RED II. As a rule of thumb, this typically means that in the region of 37% or more of the plant’s feedstock must come from manure or similar feedstock to ensure compliance. Other factors that can impact the sustainability criteria are set out in the section on the Green Gas Certification Scheme.

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