Agriculture must focus on green energy opportunities

The recent Energy in Agriculture featured 30 talks, six demonstration events and 45 exhibitors — all focusing on the sustainable use and production of energy in the agricultural sector.

The first year of the one-day event, it brought 1,200 people to Gurteen Agricultural College, Roscrea, Co Tipperary.

The event was buoyed by the fact that it was a Department of Agriculture knowledge transfer event and the promise of clear, independent and consistent advice from the myriad of speakers across all the various technology areas.

The conference idea was the brain-child of the Tipperary County Council planning section, where they sought to engage the agri-sector as they developed a strategy for renewable energy in the county.

The other partners were Teagasc (Teagasc.ie) who are key experts in development of advice, knowledge and research in all agricultural matters and the Tipperary Energy Agency (tippenergy.ie), an agency of the local authority that was established to promote and develop sustainable energy in the county.

They sought to showcase the opportunities for farmers to invest in renewable energy production for improvement of profitability of their farms.

The conference was held in Gurteen Agricultural College, Roscrea, which, as a venue, was possibly the most appropriate as the college itself underwent a sustainable energy transformation over the last five years with an insulation and lighting upgrade, installation of biomass boilers to feed the campus district heating, and a willow plantation to grow their own fuel.

The campus also has a 50kW wind turbine to provide electricity to the campus.

The conference demonstrations and talks covered several key technology areas of solar photovoltaics, wind energy, biogas production, biomass (wood/ energy crops) for heating, zero energy pumps and water power.

In addition the speakers covered legal, financial, regulatory and technical topics across the whole energy area.

The event was established to give impartial, honest and useful advice on all topics including where government supports are and where they are expected in the near future.

I had the opportunity of giving a remark at the opening of the event and I took the opportunity to discuss the options for Ireland in decarbonising our energy and agricultural industries.

A renewable heat incentive was announced in 2014 by the then Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte to use a similar scheme to the UK and promote bioenergy from local areas to displace imported fossil fuel.

This was ably demonstrated in the college on the day, and in addition is in place at the three Tipperary County Council pools in Tipperary. Since the announcement almost three years ago, the industry has stopped, as no customers are likely to purchase a renewable energy heating system as they are awaiting a subsidy.

The low price of fossil fuels and the decreasing in the carbon price has ensured that there is little appetite without the subsidy. I asked Minister Naughton to ensure that the Renewable Heat Incentive is implemented as soon as possible.

UK, German lessons

I also think, when it comes to renewable electricity, we need to learn some lessons from our neighbours in the UK and Germany. Their farmers supply large amounts of solar, bioenergy and heat energy to their cities and towns, where our farmers, with the small exception of the farmers with wind turbines, are excluded from the production of energy from their lands.

Feed-in tariff needed

The opportunity is there for Ireland, but we need both the feed-in tariff and a deliberate push from government to both the CER in regulation and ESB networks to implement smart distribution grids to enable this transition to be cost-effective without large amounts of red tape and disincentives for the smaller producer. Large multinational-owned, foreign-funded solar farms without the opportunity for citizens and farmers to participate in the energy transition first, will repeat the mistakes of the wind industry that has fuelled so much divisive opposition.

There is clearly an opportunity for use of slurries, agri wastes and energy crops to produce bio-gas through anaerobic digesters. Gas Networks Ireland is supporting a number of pilot projects that use the gas directly for injection into the gas grid and for transport. Clearly an opportunity to support the management of slurries and nitrates while producing a high-value product should be taken.

As a final note, I would encourage all readers to re-think the place the Irish agricultural sector has drifted towards on the discussion on climate change.

We need to see rural areas and their agricultural industry as part of the solution to climate change, not just a contributor by ensuring that every farmer in Ireland produces energy in the form of electricity and heat and not just food.

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