Delivering Renewable Energy From Irish Forests

Ireland’s forestry sector, a major economic driver in the country, is poised for growth along with the bioenergy industry.
By Des O'Toole | March 27, 2016

The Irish forestry sector annually contributes €2.3 billion ($2.5 billion) to the country’s gross domestic product, and supports approximately 12,000 jobs, mainly in rural locations, according to the Irish Forestry and Forest Products Association. Annual production of wood from Irish forests is estimated at 2.95 million cubic meters, with Coillte, the semi-state forestry organization, producing 2.43 million cubic meters, and the balance coming from the emerging private sector forestry resource, and a small amount of imports. This annual production volume can be categorized into large saw log (1.81 million cubic meters), fencing (0.15 million cubic meters) and small-diameter pulpwood (0.99 million cubic meters).

The markets for these products are the construction sector, packaging, fencing, wood-based panel board production, and most recently, the emerging biomass energy market. Today, supply and demand are largely in equilibrium, but it is expected that as the requirement for biomass energy increases, a new market dynamic will be created. Demand for biomass for cofiring, biomass power generation and both industrial heat and combined heat and power (CHP) are all expected to increase. This demand will be met by local sawmill residues, pulpwood from our forest estate, and potentially, biomass imports.

Today, pulpwood is primarily consumed by Ireland’s wood-based panel board manufacturing sector, which produces in excess of 773,000 cubic meters of board products annually. Medium density fibreboard (MDF) is produced by Medite, oriented strand board (OSB) is produced by Smartply, and Masonite produces door skin panels.  Of all wood-based panel board products, 86 percent is produced products produced in ireland, 86 percent are exported. Medite and Smartply are both Coillte-owned, and recently, Coillte commenced a €59 million reinvestment in SmartPly’s facility in Belview, County Waterford. The investment will secure the plant as one of the region’s most important export industries, and support a number of high-skilled research and development positions. The plant uses pulp harvested mainly in the southern part of the country, to manufacture innovative and sustainable wood panel products used by building companies in flooring, building frames, roofing, and many other applications.

Overall, the forest products sector is buoyant and optimistic about the future growth of the market.

Ireland’s Bioenergy Sector
Large-scale electricity generation in Ireland is dominated by natural gas, accounting for 45 percent of total primary input, followed by coal, accounting for 22 percent of the fuel mix. In addition, Ireland has three peat-powered generation plants, one of which, Edenderry Power Ltd., has commenced cofiring with biomass. Local landowners have now started to show an interest in growing energy crops (e.g., willow) to supply the plant, but uptake has been slow.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland reports that fossil fuels account for 90 percent of all energy used in the country, and there remains an opportunity for local biomass to displace imports. Oil is the dominant fuel used for thermal applications, but in recent years, renewable heat as an alternative has faced significant challenges. For large thermal energy users, the project economics associated with new, capital-intensive biomass installations has made investment decisions challenging. Notwithstanding, there were a number of early adopters who now represent the pinnacle of high-quality biomass installations throughout the country. These industrial-scale biomass installations now reduce Ireland’s reliance on fossil fuel imports and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, thereby improving domestic fuel security. In addition, they support many jobs across the local bioenergy supply chain. 

Despite these recent success stories, uptake has been slow, and with fossil fuel prices now at an all-time low, new projects are unlikely to proceed in the current environment. The Irish government white paper on energy policy set a target of 12 percent of thermal energy to come from renewable energy sources by 2020. The renewable heat sector remains largely undeveloped, however, having grown slowly to 6.5 percent in 2014, mainly as a result of wood waste utilization in the timber processing sector. Based on its current heat from renewable energy sources (RES-H) trajectory, Ireland’s 2020 target will not be achieved (Figure 1), and Ireland now faces potential EU fines. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland has estimated the cost to Ireland may be up to €150 million for each percentage point Ireland falls short of its overall combined RES target of 16 percent.

Under the EU Tracking Roadmap prepared for the European Commission in 2014, it was noted that Ireland had no programs for the development of certain technologies such as biomass or high-efficiency CHP. One of the recommendations from that report was to introduce a reliable RES-H strategy with appropriate support schemes. It stated that Ireland was deploying less biomass than planned and that previous support programs had expired. In response, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources published a draft bioenergy plan in October 2014, whereby it acknowledged a gap in meeting Ireland’s 2020 RES-H target of up to 200 kilotonnes of oil equivalent, and announced the intention to introduce a renewable heat incentive (RHI) in 2016.

This demand-led incentive should provide the much-needed catalyst to stimulate new investment in the bioenergy sector. Investor confidence is critical to shift investments toward renewable technologies, and any renewable heat policy should aim to accelerate market growth by removing the economic barriers currently preventing major capital projects from proceeding. Reducing Ireland’s reliance on fossil fuel imports, reducing national greenhouse gas emissions and improving domestic fuel security are key pillars for developing a green economy. The bioenergy sector stimulates rural development and local job creation through the many jobs required in the processing and logistics of biomass and in the design, installation and maintenance of boiler technology. It provides an outlet for the country’s growing private timber resource, and a channel to market for growers of energy crops. Stimulating increased demand with the RHI will mobilize our forest resource, and allow the establishment of local grower groups that will be able to supply biomass energy to local industry with the economic benefits shared locally.

The Biomass Supply Chain
Coillte, the state forestry company, is already at the forefront of mobilizing the bioenergy sector here in Ireland. Coillte now underpins the future sustainable energy supply of a range of industrial-scale clients through its regional biomass supply hubs. These long-term biomass supply contracts displace several thousand liters of imported fossil fuel per week by providing more competitive energy costs for the businesses concerned, thereby helping maintain competiveness and securing local jobs. Coillte plan to establish new hubs as new demand for wood chip arises. Through these regional hubs, wood chips are supplied to clients in the pharmaceutical, textile, industrial and hotel sectors and include companies such as Glaxosmithkline, Astellas and Radisson SAS.

Each regional biomass fuel supply hub operated by Coillte is typically comprised of a secure, 8-hectare log storage yard and covered wood chip fuel storage sheds. In addition, a weighbridge and a quality testing laboratory are vital for operation. Each hub has a range of specialist chipping machinery and equipment capable of producing wood chip and access to a range of delivery vehicles for haulage.

Coillte is committed to a strategy that matches renewable energy requirements with local biomass supply. Small-diameter pulpwood is sourced through a local Coillte forestry team from both state and private sector sources within a region. These logs are sourced and delivered on a preplanned basis, several months in advance. Logs are systematically stacked for open-air drying to the required moisture contents specific to each customer’s boiler requirements. The key to ensuring good quality wood chips at the correct moisture content at each hub is management of stock rotation and replenishment, as well as ensuring suitable air flow through the stacks, which are covered during the winter months. Each supply hub has its own specific characteristics, and seasonal variations in log moisture need to be anticipated and controlled with great care. This can only be achieved through experience and by having a strong partnership with supply contractors.

All wood chips are produced strictly in accordance with quality specifications set out in I.S. CEN/TS 14961:2005. Moisture content samples are gathered in preapproved aluminium sampling trays for testing by the oven-dry method using preapproved and calibrated moisture testing devices. Particle size is controlled during the chipping process by the provision of the correct size screens on the chipper feed. Regular testing is undertaken to assess the percentage of fines.

The wood chip delivery vehicle fleet is comprised of a range of vehicles, from large walking floor trailers (carrying 20- to 24-metric-ton loads) to smaller tipping vehicles with side blowers (8- to 16-metric-ton loads) depending on a specific client’s fuel handling and on-site storage infrastructure.  The biomass loads that are delivered are checked for compliance with moisture content, particle size and percentage criteria. Each client is then invoiced per gigajoule of energy delivered.

Author: Des O’Toole
Business Development Manager, Biomass Coillte