Ireland must embrace liquid biofuels in heating to meet climate targets

There is no doubt that both the public and policymakers in the Republic of Ireland are in favour of bringing about an energy transition that would see the country become carbon neutral by 2050, and the Government has developed its Climate Action Plan on this basis.

Ireland must embrace liquid biofuels in heating

The reality is however, that little progress has been made in the heating sector, which remains heavily dependent on the fossil fuel kerosene, commonly known as home heating oil. According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), over one third (37%) of Irish households (about 700,000 homes total) rely on oil for their heating needs, and this figure rises to more than half (53%) in rural areas. Furthermore, only 6.3% of Ireland’s heat sector demand is being met by renewable energy, which leaves us lagging far behind our European counterparts, where renewables meet an average of 22%.

Lack of progress due to focus on electrification

So, why this lack of progress? The answer lies primarily in the fact that the Government’s strategy for decarbonising the heating sector has focused almost exclusively on electrification, which was recommended by the National Heat Study.

The National Retrofit Plan was rolled out to encourage the installation of heat pumps, with ambitious targets of achieving 500,000 home energy upgrades by 2030. While heat pumps certainly provide an effective means of lowering emissions – particularly for new builds – there are serious problems with an electrification-only approach. A deep retrofit, which is usually required to ensure heat pump efficiency, costs an average of €56,000 and causes major disruptions, often requiring homeowners to move out for the duration of the process.

Even with the provision of a 50% government grant, few families can afford to cough up the €28,000 needed for a deep retrofit, and, in addition to the prohibitive cost and invasive nature of these works, there are serious concerns about whether the construction sector can meet the targets due to a shortage of workers and materials.

Even if retrofitting targets are met, with 700,000 homes reliant on oil-fired systems, hundreds of thousands of families in Ireland will continue to rely on liquid fuel to stay warm for years to come. It is imperative that we give these homeowners the option to lower emissions, and, contrary to the recommendations of the National Heat Study, there is a mounting body of evidence to suggest that this can most effectively be achieved through the incentivisation of low-carbon liquid fuels.

Enough feedstock by 2030

In January 2020, a report commissioned by The Alliance for Zero Carbon Heating (TAZCH) and carried out by the world-renowned consultancy firm AECOM, found that the use of Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO) can reduce heating emissions by up to 87% and provides a more cost-effective solution than heat pumps.

But if liquid biofuels are to be deployed across the heat sector in Ireland, surely that raises questions about sustainability and the availability of feedstocks? Indeed, it does, which is why Portland Analytics were commissioned to examine these issues and found that there will be more than enough projected feedstock availability to meet renewable liquid fuels consumption requirements several times over by 2030 in both Europe and North America.

The Portland analysis included only select feedstocks – based on the criteria that they did not compete with food production – and found that the projected renewable liquid fuels yield in Europe would exceed demand by between 243 – 560%. Similarly, a report conducted by consultants Byrne O’Cleirigh and published by the Department of Transport, notes that Ireland’s indigenous production capacity of biodiesel/HVO could triple by the start of the next decade, from around 185 million litres, to between 435 and 735 million litres per annum.

A technologically neutral approach

These studies show that liquid biofuels can be used to effectively decarbonise the heating sector, and that we can produce more than enough sustainable biofuel to allow for this change to take place, while still meeting biofuel demand in other sectors.

At OFTEC, we strongly believe that advanced, synthetic, and liquid biofuels must be deployed alongside other technologies like electrification and district heating (the latter of which is sanctioned by the National Heat Study but is not feasible in rural areas where there is a particularly high dependency on kerosene).

The technology we need is available to us now, but the Government must be prepared to incentivise its use by making liquid biofuels economically viable. A good first step would be to recognise liquid biofuels like HVO as renewable fuels for biofuel obligation certificate purposes, under the promised Renewable Heat Obligation (RHO) scheme.

This would incentivise the suppliers of liquid fuel to increase the amount of biofuel used for heating purposes and would mirror a scheme that has already produced significant carbon savings in the transport sector. There is a real opportunity here, but if we are to seize it, we must be prepared to take a technologically neutral approach by using all the tools we have at our disposal to lower heating emissions in Ireland, and not unduly promoting the use of electrification over alternative options.