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John Brosnan, Bioeconomy Executive

ICOS Bioeconomy Executive, John Brosnan, has been appointed by the EU Commission to a key expert group on carbon removals. The Expert Group comprises of around 70 members, securing a broad and equitable representation of independent experts and stakeholders from national authorities, public entities, businesses, industry, non-governmental organisations, certification bodies and research institutions in the field of carbon removals. John from Castleisland in County Kerry is one of three people nominated by COPA COGECA to the group.

The group will assist in the preparation and implementation of policy initiatives and related legislative proposals in the field of carbon removals, including carbon farming and industrial carbon removal initiatives;

The group will be charged with agreeing a framework for a toolkit to facilitate carbon farming on soils and forests and carbon trading. The discussions will extend to how measurement, reporting and verification will work for carbon farming, how this can all be certified and traded. The first meeting of the expert group takes place in Brussels on March 7th.

Meanwhile, ICOS commissioned a detailed survey among farmers on the sustainable activation of the bioeconomy. The aim is to elicit current farmer attitudes towards developing the bioenergy economy on farms and through co-ops. The results of the survey will be published in the coming weeks. Ahead of the survey details release, we sat down with John to talk about renewable energy and the role of renewables and bioenergy in the Irish farming sector:

John, how much renewable energy are we using in EU and Ireland as a percentage of overall energy use?

John Brosnan: There is certainly a growing focus right across Europe on renewable energy on the back of the surge in prices and market volatility which has followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago. Whilst our climate-led targets and ambitions were driving the switch towards renewables anyway, the economic fallout of the war has accelerated plans, it really is a lesson that rapid change will be driven more by economic and geopolitical factors than environmental ambition.

When we look at renewable energy, we tend to think of it in terms of electricity, however the ‘energy system’ really incorporates a lot more than electricity used to power our homes and industries. Energy is also used in transport, residential and industrial heat. That said, electricity is making up a larger and larger percentage of the energy mix as the drive to electrify cars intensifies. As recently as last week the European Parliament signed off on the ban on sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2035. Additionally, we are seeking to electrify in other areas such as home heating and in the industrial setting. That all means that not only do we need to meet our percentage targets in terms of renewables in electricity generation, but we have increasingly enlarged targets in real terms with the progression of time and the increase in overall electricity demand. Here in Ireland, according to SEAI the percentage of renewables in 2021 was 12.5%, significantly behind the European Union average where the overall renewables percentage stood at 21.8% in 2021 as reported by Eurostat.

Are there national and EU targets?

JB: Yes, there are targets both in terms of renewable energy and in reduction of emissions, the updated Irish Climate Action Plan seeks sectoral targets with a 75% reduction in energy-related emissions by 2030 and a 25% reduction in emissions from agriculture. The overall EU target is a 55% reduction in overall emissions by 2030 when compared to 2018, referred to as ‘fit for 55’. The revised Renewable Energy Directive (RED III) targets are for 45% renewable energy across the EU by 2030. The Climate Action Plan also targets up to 9 GW from onshore wind, 8 GW of solar, and at least 7 GW of offshore wind by 2030, 2 GW of this earmarked for green hydrogen production. The overall target is for 80% renewable electricity on the grid by 2030.

The target for biomethane is set at 10% of the country’s gas needs by 2030, or some 5.7 TWh, however it appears that this will only be incentivised by way of a renewable heat obligation or RHO, obligating an increasing percentage of gas to come from renewable sources and letting market forces rather than a guaranteed tariff create a price floor for biomethane. We await more detail in terms of supports and we are hopeful of more concrete and detailed announcements in the weeks and months ahead.

Is bioenergy and renewables the same thing?

JB: Yes and no, all bioenergy is renewable by definition as it originates from biological resources which can be regrown such as biogas from animal manures, grass and other crops or energy from the combustion of energy crops or wood waste. However, renewables are a broad church and also include wind energy, solar, ‘green’ hydrogen generated from renewable electricity etc, these of course do not have biological origins.

So, we have wind and solar energy. What are the other forms of renewable energy?

JB: Yes, we do have wind and solar and of course battery technology for storage of power from intermittent renewable electricity generation. Hydro power, or electricity generated by water-powered turbines comes under this heading as does the production of biogas and biomethane, renewable green hydrogen, biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel. We also have more novel fuels like syngas and synthetic aviation fuel (SAF), the latter two can be produced from biological resources which in those examples make them renewable.

Where does biomethane fit in to all of this?

JB: Biomethane has a key role to play in the decarbonising of not only our energy sector, but it can also contribute to reducing emissions in the agri-food sector and provide additional income to farmers. Natural gas is used to heat homes, to generate electricity in large centralised power stations and for industrial uses including the manufacture of artificial fertilisers. Gas is an efficient way to generate large quantities of thermal heat needed in many industries – including dairy processing. The natural gas we use today is fossil-based and is extracted. The more of that gas we can leave in the ground and replace with biogas the better for the environment from an emissions perspective, and it also makes us less dependent on imported gas. That is why we have the RePower EU initiative which seeks to reduce EU dependence on Russian gas and accelerate EU biogas production in the wake of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

We also have recent announcements on Government supports here for the Biomethane sector and an imminent renewable heat obligation (RHO) scheme to set minimum quantities of renewable gas in the gas network. Other EU countries have gone a different route, where direct feed-in tariffs have been awarded to developers of biogas facilities, that gives them the certainty they need to invest, to attract capital and debt to build and operate the facilities with predictable returns and payback periods. Feed-in tariffs would be very welcome here, as these are capital-intensive developments requiring an expected seven year payback. Most biogas facilities require ongoing refit after the initial 7-year period along with increased maintenance.

It is expected that biogas will be part of the energy mix for decades to come but hydrogen could play an increasing role from the end of this decade onwards as technology develops and the cost of producing, storing and transporting green hydrogen decreases. Much of the existing gas network could be used to transport and store hydrogen. While we think the future is electric (and it will be in many ways), renewable gas and hydrogen will be needed in difficult to decarbonise sectors requiring thermal heat or in heavy transport and shipping for instance.

What is the ICOS position?

JB: ICOS are supportive of the development of the anaerobic digestion and production of biomethane, as indeed we are supportive of all renewables which have the potential to deliver real benefits to farmers and co-ops economically and environmentally. However, this cannot come at the expense of food and feed security, nor can farmers and co-ops be expected to bear all the risk in embracing renewables with high up-front capital costs. We especially would like to see a feed-in support structure for biogas which is to be incorporated into the gas grid to give greater certainty and a value being placed on the green credentials of the gas with certificates of origin which carry an additional value as they do in other countries. In terms of renewable electricity, the micro generation scheme, planning exemptions for rooftop solar and the TAMS support for farm scale renewables are all welcome. We do have a way to go in the upgrade of the electricity grid in some areas to take additional local generation. The grid is designed for large, centralised generation and it will take some time to adapt to a more distributed generation system. The ultimate in this regard for ICOS would be to see local communities able to export directly within the community and retain the economic benefit within communities, but this is some time away realistically.

Is AD the answer or are there side effects (using more fertiliser to grow the feedstock etc)?

JB: AD is not the answer to all our problems, and it certainly has its critics. But it has a huge part to play if implemented correctly. We have seen examples in other countries where crops were grown just to be fed into digesters, this would not be welcome on a large scale. There are lots of wastes and residues which could be utilised first – sludges from food processing, other food waste streams, meat processing wastes and sludges are all excellent feedstocks. Cattle and pig slurry also have a role but are high volume and low gas generation capability (gas yield potential) compared to food processing waste streams, therefore do not make sense to move over longer distances. Grass can play a part and it can be grown in the form of multi-species swards fertilised by the digestate or residual material coming from an AD plant – this ensures no additional chemical fertiliser is used. Recent work by Paul Crosson and colleagues at Teagasc have modelled that there are ’hidden hectares’ which could be unlocked in this way without adverse effects.

Then you have the more integrated approach with the whole bioeconomy system, this means extracting maximum use from all resources. This could mean the production of biofertilisers, production of industrial CO2 and extracting ammonia or phosphorus as part of the AD process, adding value, and having further positive climate impact. There are also opportunities to integrate AD with biorefining. The recent announcement of €3m in DAFM funding to the ‘Farm Zero C’ project in Carbery to develop a demonstration integrated grass biorefinery and AD plant in Shinagh shows real commitment to this concept. In short, this means extracting high value proteins and food/feed ingredients from grass before the residue is fed to an AD plant. A truly circular approach.

What role could co-ops play?

JB: Co-ops have a huge role to play as they are ideal vehicles to roll out renewables having a democratic legal structure, a unique local awareness, a relationship with local members, existing sites of their own, experienced management, operational and administrative staff. Further the adoption of renewables can help decarbonise the entire supply chain of co-ops and their members as well as helping to reach overall sectoral climate targets. Co-ops can offer scale and replicability which will be key in the deployment of renewables.

Finally John, is biomethane a potential “win win” for farmers in meeting climate targets also?

JB: Yes, biomethane is a win-win from the point of view of additional income for those supplying grass or other crops, reducing slurry storage for those supplying slurry, replacing chemical fertiliser for those spreading digestate or biofertiliser. In addition to decarbonising inside the farm gate, biomethane will also contribute to climate targets and objectives outside the farm gate right across the supply chain, potentially supplying thermal heat to dairy processors, providing a valuable waste to value opportunity in using processing ‘wastes’ and also possible decarbonising inbound and outbound logistics if compressed renewable gas can be used to power the transport fleet.