Energy Institute

Could we convert Moneypoint to biomass instead of more wind?

While it would be technically possible to replace some or all of the coal with biomass at Moneypoint the plant owner and others have expressed doubts about the economic feasibility of a conversion at this time 1.

Some of the concerns relate to the price and availability of sufficient biomass in the medium term and others point to the additional costs and the impact on electricity prices and security of supply. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme was intended to provide a price signal that would act as a disincentive to the use of high carbon fuels. However, the price of carbon emission permits is too low to offset the current price advantage of coal in power generation.

On the basis of current electricity, fuel, and carbon market conditions and in the absence of targeted renewable energy support measures, it would seem that the business case for converting Moneypoint to biomass firing is too weak for it to happen anytime soon. The question will have to be re-examined before 2020, as the future of the aging plant needs to align with 2030 low carbon energy goals.

The Irish Government’s recent energy White Paper envisages a marked reduction in our reliance on fossil fuels by 2030, with energy related greenhouse gas emissions falling in line with agreed targets 2. Thus, the emphasis on renewable energy for power generation will continue with wind, biomass and other low carbon technologies competing for their share of the generation mix.

If Moneypoint were to be converted to burn biomass it would, in current conditions, have to be incentivised. The policy precedent for doing this is to introduce a sufficiently attractive feed-in tariff for the electricity generated. Such a feed-in tariff is effectively a price guarantee, the extra costs of which would be met though the Public Service Obligation (PSO) levy. This in turn would feed into the price paid by the consumer.

The ESB has, as owner of Moneypoint, recognised that the long term future of electricity generation at the site is conversion to a low carbon energy source. However, none of the current proposed options (re-powering with biomass, coal or gas CCS, a nuclear generating station) appears to be viable in the short to medium term 3.

The company has trialled biomass at Moneypoint but said in 2015 that it was “not feasible at this point” 4.

There are issues with the verifiable sustainability of biomass (i.e. biomass from forests is only sustainable if felled forests are replanted and allowed to grow again) and the fuel supply chain due to the likely requirement for large amounts of fuel import (since the available biomass in Ireland would not be enough).

The ESB stated “currently the conversion of the station to biomass cannot be justified on business or fuel supply grounds” 5 and this position is backed by an Taisce 6, the Academy of Engineers and the ESRI who believe Moneypoint “should stay as it is until until the position about new low carbon or zero carbon technologies is clearer” 7. The ESRI, in one review, recognised the potential of biomass firing as a transitional power source 8.

SEAI has argued that the use of biomass for thermal electricity generation is a wasteful and inefficient use of a resource which would be better used for achieving carbon emission reduction in heating (industry, households and institutions).

However, opponents of more wind development, and those who see wind as a high cost option have argued that the cost of subsiding biomass firing at Moneypoint would be lower than the cost of deploying wind 9,10.

While cost is a key element in the debate, the options are not comparable in certain respects;

  • In the case of wind, the energy is free, the resource is indigenous, the capacity is additional and it is available indefinitely,

With biomass co-firing at scale some energy has to be bought or imported from abroad. The quantities of biomass required for Moneypoint would mean it has to be imported. There are questions about the sustainability of some sources of supply 11, and the future availability of the resource.

There are no binding sustainability criteria for biomass at the EU level, although some exist at national and industry level. A new European Commission policy on biomass is being released within the next two years 12 and the Irish Government is developing a Bioenergy Strategy 13. Issues which are being addressed within this plan include demand, transport and supply-side measures as well research gaps and knowledge 14.

EU policy for 2030 places the emphasis on overall greenhouse gas emission reduction. There is a target for at least a 27% share of renewable energy consumption included in the 2030 climate change package. Within the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS) greenhouse gas emissions from power stations are no longer the primary responsibility of national governments 15. It is the responsibility of the State to reduce emissions in the non-ETS sectors of heat, transport, and agriculture.

In the ETS sector, a limited amount of emission permits are allocated to large industrial companies and power generators such as Moneypoint, with the total cap in the EU reducing by 1.74% each year between 2013 and 2020. Due to the declining cap, emissions from the ETS sector should be 21% lower in 2020 than in 2005. To reach a 40% reduction by 2030, the cap will need to decline at a higher rate of 2.2% per year post 2020. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS) is designed to provide both a policy signal and a financial incentive to reduce emissions and the expectation is that it will do that by reducing emissions where it costs least to do so 16,17.At present, the emissions from Moneypoint are within the cap imposed by the ETS and a continuing reduction in emissions is being pursued through enhanced efficiency, abatement and monitoring processes 18.