Getting it right on renewable energy

Above, the biomass project at Mitchels Boherbee in Tralee

A group concerned about the impact of pylons are impressed by an innovative biomass project, writes Claire O’Sullivan

WHAT started off as a Co Cork community uniting to stop their landscape being dominated by 150ft pylons has now morphed into a think-tank of concerned citizens who seek a greater say in their country’s energy future.

Clonmult-Lisgoold Against Pylons was formed at the end of last year when householders in east Cork became aware of the then €500m Gridlink project to build 280km corridor of pylons from East Cork to Wexford to Kildare.

One of the then possible routes was through Dungourney, Clonmult, Lisgoold and Leamlara. And as they queried the project — vital to maintain the stability of the country’s electricity supply — they grew concerned about industrial scale wind energy and how turbines and pylons will impact on their communities.

“We have European renewable energy targets to meet but these are focussing enormously on using renewables in electricity and particularly on wind, with too little emphasis on the use of renewables in heat and transport which are major contributors to greenhouse emissions,” said Wayne O’Halloran, a member of the group. “And yet, according to the Department of Agriculture, a recent COFORD study estimates up to 1.45 million cubic metres of wood fibre will potentially be available as biomass for the renewable energy sector by 2020, increasing to 1.81 million cubic metres by 2027.”

The anti-pylon group still has a role to play but they also formed the Cork Renewable Energy Group as more communities in Cork and Waterford got involved.

As part of its research, the new renewable energy group travelled to an award-winning biomass project in Tralee. The project, promoted through the former Tralee Town Council and Kerry County Council, secured over €1m this year in grant funding from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland.

In recent years, Tralee Town Council had installed a woodchip-fired district heating system at a new sheltered housing project for the elderly at Mitchels Boherbee. All the woodchip is sourced locally.

Now, the 1MW district heating project had been extended to serve 17 low carbon houses, 42 retrofitted 1930s houses, the county library, a primary school, a convent-daycare centre and a total of 56 apartments.

As part of phase two, the project should be extended to a third of the town’s population and a 15MW heat and power plant will extend heating to Kerry General Hospital and the local health offices.

Furthermore, the local authority is continuing extensive insulation and window and door replacement on public housing in the area.

“We were so impressed by what we saw in Tralee,” said Liam O’Brien of Cork Renewable Energy Group.

“Why can’t the country replicate, what is happening in Tralee, in other towns? It’s creating jobs in forestry for farmers, in construction, in mechanical engineering, it’s creating guaranteed Irish jobs.

“By the time the project is finished, it hopes to displace up to 3.5 million litres of oil which costs over €2.8m and up to 90% of the money generated from the biomass project will stay in the county.”

But SEAI chief executive Brian Motherway says it’s not that easy.

He agrees the Tralee project is “fantastic”: a case study in efficiency, local authority innovation and in using “local resources to meet local demand”.

However he says wind energy is still the cheapest way to make electricity in this country. “The reason wind is growing more than any other renewable in this country is because it is cheaper. We fully support biomass and it makes great sense in areas where there isn’t a natural gas supply, like Tralee, but we have to make sure that the mixture of renewables is right. We need all types of renewables but biomass energy costs more to produce and the equipment costs more,” said Mr Motherway.

“Look at Aurivo Co-op in Roscommon, which doesn’t have access to natural gas and which, after a investment of €5.25m in a biomass facility, says it will recoup its set-up costs in energy savings within five years.” The project is also cutting its heavy fuel oil consumption by over 70%.

Mr Motherway says biomass can make a lot of sense in industry and in new apartments and educational campuses but it won’t be economically sound in all settings.

He also says biomass district heating is easier in new builds. Scandinavian countries like Denmark, he points out, have long enjoyed district heating systems but that was because the systems had been devised on greenfield sites.

But assistant energy officer at Kerry County Council, Adam Stack, said a variety of renewables can feed the one district heating system: Solar, heat pumps, whatever works best at a particular time.

“Retrofitting is more difficult for biomass but if there is a plumbing system for oil fired heating, we can tap into that. If the former heating system was storage heating, it’s more difficult but not all impossible.”


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