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Interest in Bioenergy but setbacks for Liquid Biofuels

There is now more interest in liquid and solid biofuels due to factors such as oil price spikes, the need for increased energy security, and concern over greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. The Teagasc National Bioenergy Conference, which is taking place today, Wednesday, 20 April in Tullamore, Co. Offaly, heard an update on developments in the liquid biofuels industry in Ireland. Teagasc bioenergy specialist Barry Caslin pointed out that four biodiesel plants are currently ‘mothballed’ in Ireland, while four pure plant oil production facilities are also ‘mothballed’. These production plants, which have a combined capacity of 60 million litres, were established with the assistance of grant aid, but are being squeezed out of production by cheaper imports of biofuels from outside the EU.    


Economists in the Rural Economy and Development Programme in Teagasc, along with bioenergy specialists from Teagasc Oak Park, examined the economic case for the growing of biomass crops in Ireland. This analysis included a comprehensive comparison of the potential costs and returns of these crops with the costs and returns from conventional agricultural production systems. Using data from the Teagasc National Farm Survey for conventional agricultural systems, a Discounted Cash Flow (DCF) investment analysis for willow and miscanthus was conducted.


Dr. Fiona Thorne, economist with Teagasc, said: “In terms of converting land from conventional agricultural systems, it seems that beef farms appear to be the most likely farms to convert to biomass production based on comparative economics. However, due to the level of risk involved in growing a novel crop such as biomass, widespread adoption by cereal farmers is unlikely unless we see cereal prices of around €120 per tonne or lower. At current market prices for conventional agricultural commodities, a 10% to 15% price increase for biomass crops would be necessary before cereal farmers would consider switching.”


Teagasc researcher Dr. John Finnan outlined the latest research on harvesting the energy crops, miscanthus and willow, which are grown to produce biomass. He advised growers to harvest earlier to minimise losses in the field. The ideal time to harvest miscanthus is in March, while willow is best harvested in late autumn or early winter. He warned that late harvesting increases losses which can be significant and can reduce both the profit for the farmer and the quantity of CO2 captured.


Teagasc researcher Dr. Gary Lanigan spoke about three environmental benefits from shifting to biomass production, namely enhanced carbon sequestration, displacement of nitrous oxide emissions and substitution of fossil fuel emissions.