Back to newsroom With Kyoto kicking in, opportunities abound in biomass production


Boatloads of almond shells from Spain, cocoa husks from Nigeria and palm kernel from Malaysia being imported into a country where the trees and grass grow for at least 10 months a year. It beggars belief.

The reason is that Ireland has signed up to Kyoto agreements obliging us to switch power plants such as the one in Edenderry from burning 3,000t of peat a day to a "renewable" energy source.

The theory is that burning a tonne of forest thinnings or willow will release as much carbon into the atmosphere as burning a tonne of peat.

The difference is that the tonne of woodchip soaked up the equivalent of a tonne of carbon while it was being grown, making it a carbon neutral source of energy.

We also get to leave some of our wonderful bog habitats intact for future generations to appreciate.

But the real value of powering our lights and our kettles with biomass is the huge opportunity it presents for the Irish agri-sector by offering it a guaranteed outlet for 400,000t annually of energy crops grown on farms around the country.

The latest results from the state-run farm advisory service, Teagasc, would appear to confirm that the opportunity is still alive and well.

A 0.9ha plot of marginal land in Teagasc's Oak Park farm has yielded a massive 22 tonnes of willow each year since harvesting began in December 2010.

That's worth nearly €1,000 when it's trucked to the power station in Edenderry. Take away transport and harvesting costs, and you're left with close to €500/ha.

Ok, transporting woodchip from Kerry to Edenderry won't make sense, but there are over 30,000ha of farmland within 100km of the power plant.

There are also some additional spraying and fertiliser costs, but nothing that €100/ha wouldn't cover.

The Government has attempted to incentivise planting by offering a 50pc planting grant, so your initial set-up costs are covered after about five years. At that stage, every tonne you sell is money in the bank, for sod-all input in either time or money each year. And once established, willow crops will keep producing for decades.

In fact, growers can double their returns by going one step further than lumping all of their crop into the power station. While the likes of Edenderry will provide a fail-safe outlet for any amount of crop for years to come, they are bottom of the heap in terms of high return customers.