Concerned raised over ESB biomass plans at oral hearing

Source: Greennews.ie

April 17th, 2019

Three
national environmental groups have raised concerns over plans for ESB’s peat
stations at a hearing into the semi-state’s plans to convert one of the
Midlands stations to co-fire with biomass.  

Appearing
at an An Bord Pleanala oral hearing in Tullamore yesterday, Friends of the
Irish Environment (FiE) said that the Board should refuse permission for the
ESB’s application to convert its West Offaly plant in Shannonbridge to co-fire
biomass alongside peat.  

The move, if granted permission, would follow the conversion of Bord na Mona’s Edenderry plant over a decade ago. Last year, the plant reached a biomass co-fuelling rate of 41 per cent.

FiE
argues, however, that many forms of biomass are still environmentally damaging,
and in the case of woody biomass can produce more emissions than the burning of
coal.

Woody
biomass is currently classified as carbon neutral by the EU. The idea is that
any carbon lost through felling and burning is recaptured and fixed back in the
soil through replanting.

In
reality, however, woody biomass can be far less efficient than fossil fuels
like coal for each kilowatt-hour of electricity produced as more power is
needed to burn it off the high water content in fresh cut wood.

The
ESB has yet to indicate the precise sources of biomass that will be used at the
plant, although wood pellets are one likely source as plans for the plant
include a pellet storage silo.

Documents
released to The Green News under
Access to Information on the Environment regulations last year show that the
ESB has previously carried out trials of biomass provided by Bord na Mona.

Biomass samples provided include sunflower husk from Eastern Europe and palm kernel shells, the latter of which Bord na Mona stopped importing in 2017 following an Irish Times investigation into the sustainability of the product coming mainly from Indonesia.  

Industrial scale peat extraction Photo: Friends of the Irish Environment

‘Most carbon intensive fuel
known to man’

Speaking
on behalf of FiE yesterday, John Kenny BL said that the choice facing the Board
is not simple between permitting a plant that burns 100 per cent peat and
permitting a plant that burns some biomass and some peat.

The
choice, he said, is instead between permitting a peat-and-biomass plant “using
the most carbon intensive form of fuel known to man” on the one hand or refusing
permission with the end result of “no emissions at all”.

“The
[ESB’s] argument that the project will result in emissions reductions is
therefore wrong as a matter of fact and fundamentally misconceived,” he said. 

Mr
Kenny maintained that the direct and indirect effects of the power plant –
including the production and transport of both peat and biomass – need to be
assessed in line with binding European Directive.

The
ESB has stated that the environmental effects of the use of biomass at the
plant are considered in the Environmental Impact Assessment Report. Mr Kenny,
however, said that this is “simply not the case” without information on the precise
sources of biomass that it intends to use.

“It
is necessary for the applicant to identify the precise sources of biomass to be
used both domestically and internationally in order to allow the Board to carry
out a legally compliant EIA and appropriate assessment in this case,” Mr Kenny added.

Mr
Kenny also highlighted a legal case brought
by FiE
together with plaintiffs from Estonia, France, Romania, Slovakia and
the USA challenging the inclusion of forest biomass as a renewable fuel in the
EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED II).

The plaintiffs contend that RED II ignores the science on forest bioenergy and promotes false carbon accounting as woody biomass is classified as carbon neutral.

Train with milled peat for Edenderry Powerstation Photo: Peter Mooney

Prolonged peat burning

Two
other prominent environmental groups – An Taisce and Friends of the Earth (FOE)
– also raised concerns about ESB’s plans in submissions to the planning
authority last November.

In
its submission, FOE said the ESB’s claims that it plans to use indigenous
biomass supplies are unrealistic and do not reflect the reality of the lack of
biomass available in Ireland.

The group’s deputy director Kate Ruddock said that co-firing will only prolong the use of peat that is “not compatible with sustainable electricity generation” and “in direct contradiction” with our national, European and international climate objectives.

Peat
burning is estimated to generate around nine per cent of electricity in
Ireland, but is responsible for almost one-fifth of all emissions from the
electricity sector. 

Ian
Lumley, Advocacy Officer of An Taisce, stated that ESB’s proposal “perpetuates
unquantified peat extraction and burning” and will delay the rehabilitation of our
bogs.

He
said that the lack of a domestic biomass supply will mean that the West Offaly
plant will be dependent on “unsustainable” foreign imports with likely “adverse
ecological” impacts.

The
ESB has previously told The Green News that
the transition from peat to sustainable biomass at its Midlands stations is
part of its “commitment to leading Ireland’s transition to a low-carbon
future”.

Both
the West Offaly and Lough Ree stations will use biomass with “proven generation
technology to provide reliable and predictable renewable energy” to the grid,
the semi-state said.

An Bord Pleanála is due to make a decision on 6 June 2019.  

About the Author

Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London

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