Brews, bangers and biofuels – Ireland’s bioeconomy looking up

March 18, 2018 |

With many people recovering from a weekend celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, we turn our attention to the land of saints and scholars, of legends and leprechauns…Éire, otherwise known as Ireland.

It’s not just about Irish beer, though it sure is a part of why some celebrate St. Patrick’s Day these days. How can you blame us when we have Guinness, Harp, Smithwick’s, O’Hara’s, Kilkenny, Murphy’s, and other tasty treats available?

But it’s also about whisky, as reported in the Digest in July 2017, and how Celtic Renewables puts whisky in the car and not just in the jar.

It’s about Cork County’s announcement that they are looking into using grass cuttings as biofuel to power homes.

It’s about Ireland’s research efforts through a €5 million (a little over $6 million), project funded by Science Foundation Ireland’s Research Professorship Programme, to develop bioreactors to convert livestock waste and methane emissions into biogas and biofuel. So eating all those bangers and mash will help contribute to the bioeconomy.

It’s also about Ireland’s plan to fully divest from fossil fuels and being the first country to do so, as reported in the Digest in January 2017. Parliament voted that the EUR8 billion Ireland Strategic Investment Fund must sell all of its investments in coal, gas and oil during the next five years. A member for County Claire called on the government to focus on investment in renewables as the country has only reached half of its 12% renewable heating goal for 2020 and is an opportunity for farmers to provide feedstock for biofuels.

The critics

Some aren’t so impressed with Ireland’s pace of embracing biofuels, however. James Cogan, industrial engineer with Ethanol Europe (EERL) – an Irish firm that operates Europe’s largest ethanol production facility Pannonia, Hungary, told AgriLand that he is “concerned that the Irish Government is supporting moves that minimise the use of biofuels at EU level.” He has been meeting with leaders in the Irish government to try and boost more support for biofuels to push the needle along faster, citing two big benefits – helping the climate and helping farmers.

According to AgriLand, “Ireland produces 17.5% of the biofuels that are used domestically; however, it is all derived from used cooking oil and animal fat. No Irish farmers are producing biofuels at present.” It doesn’t help that the current double-counting rule applies so they can use one liter of used cooking oil or animal fats and count it twice in the climate program.

One could argue that the biofuel Celtic Renewables is producing, is indeed produced from farmers, since the ingredients used for the whisky are produced by farmers. Without whisky residues, Celtic Renewables would not have biofuel. But we digress…

Colgan’s point is that farmers in Ireland have the capability to produce crops for biofuels, if only there was government support for them to do so. “Domestic EU biofuels are produced from crops grown by European farmers – mostly grain, beet and oilseed,” Colgan told AgriLand. “Tillage farming in Ireland has declined 17% in the last five years, which is an extraordinary thing. With proper support Ireland’s tillage farmers could see a reverse in this trend and processing of their crops at home.”

Colgan has some harsh warnings and told AgriLand, “With the climate crisis worsening, governments of the world will need to put on the table some wartime or draconian measures and start planning for proper curtailing of our use of fossil oil. Because at the moment it seems there is no political organisation in the world that is prepared to do that – including the Irish Government.”

The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow

We aren’t convinced of the doom and gloom outlook, as Platts reported that Irish biodiesel consumption grew 27.2% on the year in January, reaching a total of 12.85 million liters. Even better, biodiesel sales rose much faster than diesel sales in January — up 8.3% on the year to 262.3 million liters — and this resulted in a greater blending rate of 4.88% on a volumetric basis, up from 4.16% in 2017.

Not to mention, there is plenty of other good news with Cork County Council announcing that it may start using grass cuttings from verges and unused land as biofuel to power homes. With 12,600km of roads under its jurisdiction and having to cut verges on many of them during the summer, the council’s environment special purposes committee is looking into the possibility after Sinn Féin councillor Eoghan Jeffers said a project carried out in Lincolnshire, England, showed that using grass cuttings from that county’s 8,750km of roads provided enough electricity to power 4,500 homes a year and enough gas to power 1,100 homes. Jeffers requested the council to study the possibility of doing the same for Cork County.

Sinn Féin councillor Des O’Grady told the Irish Examiner that he was aware of a number of local authorities in England and Europe that had invested in special machinery which harvests verge cuttings for energy and “they can turn grass and weeds into energy. It can be profitable and, at the very least, cost-neutral (to the county council).”

In fact, a pot of gold in form of a grant worth EUR4.3 million was recently awarded to the Irish Bioeconomy Foundation for innovation and a piloting facility. As reported in Januay in the Digest, Lisheen Task Force and the Irish Bioeconomy Foundation (IBF) welcomed the announcement by Minister Heather Humphreys of the financial support through Enterprise Irelands’ Regional Economic Development Fund for the establishment of a Bioeconomy innovation and piloting facility at Lisheen Co. Tipperary. The facility will enable industry, entrepreneurs and researchers to scale technologies that convert Ireland’s natural resources to products of high value for use in a wide variety of sectors including food ingredients, feed ingredients, pharmaceuticals, natural chemicals, biodegradable plastics and more.

With that, we aren’t worried about Ireland. They’ve overcome many tougher challenges over their long history and we are convinced that the road will rise up to meet them, the wind will be at their back, the sun shine will warm their faces and rains will fall soft upon their fields.

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