A Bord na Móna power plant in the Midlands, which is due to cease burning peat at the end of the year, is drawing criticism for transporting the fossil fuel from bogs more than 80km away for use in the facility.
The Edenderry power plant received planning permission in 2016 to burn peat along with biomass until the end of December, when it must switch entirely to biomass.
However, the company’s decision to transport peat to the plant from bogs beyond those named in the planning application has caused consternation among environmentalists and disquiet in local communities.
“This is a clear breach of the planning permission,” says Ian Lumley, head of advocacy at An Taisce. “There was no provision for bringing peat from areas other than those provided for in the planning application.”
One of the bogs supplying peat to the Edenderry plant is the Mountdillon Group in Lanesborough, more than 80km away. To avail of the shortest route, heavy goods vehicles transporting the fuel were, until last December, traversing a local primary road, the Cloonfore (Clonfower) Road.
Due to the concerns of local residents, Longford County Council imposed a weight restriction on the route, resulting in lorries transporting peat having to take a circuitous route into Lanesborough.
“The transportation greatly impacted on our quality of life,” says Willie Dennigan, who lives close to the Clonfower Road.
This process began in April 2021 on a part-time basis, involving two or three lorries a day, but was ramped up last May to 10 lorries, each making three trips a day, a contractor confirmed.
“Because of the restrictions on the road there, with the lorries up and down, and the road is so narrow, it’s not able to facilitate that type of vehicle,” says Dennigan. “When you’re meeting cars or anything, you have to pull in and the road itself is quite boggy in places and if you pull in at all, you’re in danger of going over the sides.”
The importation and burning of biomass at Edenderry is also drawing strong criticism from An Taisce and Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE).
Edenderry Power Limited, which is part of Bord na Móna and owns the plant, stated in a 2021 planning application seeking to burn only biomass that the fuel to be used would be a mixture of indigenous and imported materials including residue from the wood industry. The indigenous wood materials are transported to Edenderry from unnamed forests all over Ireland involving distances of hundreds of kilometres in some cases.
The plant also sources wood materials from Santana in Brazil, which is transported by tanker to Ireland and then by truck to Edenderry, a distance of some 7,500km.
“This isn’t going to go away,” says Lumley. “Indigenous supplies being supplemented by imported biomass is undesirable in principle.
“This is trying to be virtuous in one country by seeking to have carbon neutral energy, but doing that at the expense of deforestation or causing damage in other countries, and should be stopped. It should be sourced indigenously without transporting it over long distances from other countries.”
Biomass is deemed to be sustainable as the trees and plants from which some of its materials are derived consume carbon-dioxide and can be replenished in a relatively short time. Indigenous biomass was forecast to amount to 92 per cent of the total used at Edenderry last year, with this dropping to 66 per cent next year.
However, Lumley says: “There is huge concern whether biomass is carbon-neutral. Our current Irish forestry model of clearfell conifer planting is very problematic in the carbon cycle, and it also generates soil displacement.”
Clearfelling is the harvesting of all marketable trees at the end of a forest rotation, which is generally at 30-50 years in conifer forests and longer for broadleaf trees, says Teagasc, the agriculture and food development authority.
Lumley is advocating for an examination of the process of turning forestry material into biomass, including its transportation and the shredding of it to put into a power station’s combustion system. “There’s also been very unrealistic projections as to the level of biomass or biogas or bioenergy being an alternative to fossil fuels.”
FIE director Tony Lowes says the group believes the Ukraine war has allowed “extraordinary profits” to be made from the generation of electricity and that it would be better to “burn nothing” at all.
Two contractors were appointed to transport peat from Mountdillon to Edenderry, says Bord na Móna, one of which is Lynn International, a haulage firm based in Ballinea, Co Westmeath.
Company owner Gerard Lynn says “peat has become viable” for generating electricity because the price of gas has risen significantly. He acknowledged that peat was being transported from different bogs including Bellair in Co Offaly.
Despite inquiries from The Irish Times, Bord na Móna has not released the names of any bog other than Mountdillon from which peat is being transported to Edenderry or the details of any related contracts. The semi-State company did not respond to a request for comment on the issue of compliance with planning permission.
Lowes believes the peat transportation scheme would be difficult to challenge legally, as it is not deemed to be part of harvesting which, for sites of more than 50 hectares, requires planning permission and a licence from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Back in Lanesborough, concerns about peat lorries on the roads have amplified local grievances about the abrupt closure of the town’s former power station, Lough Ree Power, in December 2020 and wider issues concerning the transition away from fossil fuels.
Electricity had been generated in the Shannonside town since 1958, through the burning of milled peat produced locally by Bord na Móna. Lough Ree Power replaced the old station in 2004 and had a contract to burn peat until 2020.
A just transition, according to the Government’s Climate Action Plan, is “the policy framework of climate action to support individuals and communities in the transition, [and] the process of ensuring that... these groups have a voice... in informing and shaping these supports”.
However, locals say this aspiration is not materialising on the ground.
“Between ESB and BNM, it probably was their intention to get out and, unfortunately, they walked away without leaving anything in the community in the line of employment,” Dennigan says. “There is a small piece of employment in bog restoration but they haven’t come up with the master plan for that yet.
“We were let down because everyone knew this was coming, and no one put in any forward planning to have anything else in place.”
The creation of the Lanesborough-based Food Hub, under the Just Transition Fund, has come with its own challenges, says Fianna Fáil councillor Mick Cahill. New enterprises took time to emerge and it was “a challenge in itself to attract employers to come to Longford”, he says.
As a result of the refusal by An Bord Pleanála in 2019 of planning permission to allow West Offaly Power in Shannonbridge to continue to run on peat and biomass, and later biomass alone, beyond its planned closure date of 2020, the ESB said it “subsequently withdrew the application for Lough Ree Power” as precedent for refusal was set by the West Offaly decision.
Furthermore, the ESB said it undertook a review of the options for the West Offaly and Lough Ree stations post 2020 in the context of electricity market requirements. “Having considered the key planning, environmental and commercial issues associated with peat and biomass, there was no viable business model beyond 2020.”
Dennigan says he sees these developments in his locality as part of a national question.
“Forward planning in Ireland hardly exists because you can see everything as it is,” he says. “Like, the energy crisis alone, where was the forward planning there? Pulling two perfectly good power stations at a time when we needed them most to supply the country with enough power.”