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Ireland boasts of excellent renewable energy resources that have become a crucial element of the country’s agricultural energy supply and domestic fuel mix (Holt-Giménez and Altieri, 2013, 94). Renewable energy has enhanced the sustainability of Ireland’s dairy sector by facilitating energy security, providing clean power, and reducing dependence on imported fossil fuels. According to Bentsen and Felby (2012), energy productivity will lead to significantly reduced bills, by an estimated 15%. Yielding additional opportunities for domestic consumers and Irish business will require the use of solar energy, bio-energy, and wind. The Renewable Energy Directives formulated in 2009 was dedicated to generating an estimated 16% of the country’s power by the year 2020 (Koohafkan, Altieri and Gimenez, 2012, p.65). The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAL) has made significant efforts to, for instance, collaborating with Teagasc to assist dairy farmers in regulating energy expenses.
Moreover, the partnership has also ensured increased funding to enable farmers to purchase efficiency pumps which reduced the consumption of power on dairy establishments. In the words of SEAL’s Chief Executive Officer-Jim Gannon, “working with Teagasc, we are seeking to ensure that the growth and development of dairy farming in Ireland are as sustainable as possible” (Chiodi et al., 2013, p.1438). The leading technologies provided to farmers to enable them to shift from fossil fuels to environmentally friendly power include smart meters, Variable Speed Drive (VSD) milk pumps, and VSD vacuum pumps (Scarlat and Banja, 2013). Moreover, farmers have also been provided with grants which can cater for 50% for technologies and expenses associated with their installation.
Dairy farmers in Ireland already generate corn-based ethanol as a form of renewable energy. The number of farmers who are adopting this technique has doubled as ranchers are increasing their incomes by using natural resources such as wind to generate electricity, rather than depending on oil, gas, and coal. Using renewable energy in dairy farming is a profitable strategy considering that farmers can harvest these resources for prolonged periods and increase their source of income (Charlier, 2003, p. 516). Recent estimates indicate that wind energy can save $1.2 billion per year in savings for rural landowners and dairy farmers while creating 80,000 employment opportunities (Komor and Bazilian, 2005, p.1879). Renewable energy options for dairy farmers including wind, solar, and biogas have helped reduce global warming, thus creating sustainable development (Ekins, 2004). Subsequent parts in this session will evaluate renewable options for Irish dairy farmers in Ireland.
According to Dalton and Lewis (2011), wind power has been used for decades to generate electricity and pump water. Irish dairy farmers have increasingly paid for the installation of wind turbines, with those who cannot individually afford these equipment forming cooperatives to pull together the resources necessary for the procurement of wind power tools. Farmers also produce biomass energy from organic wastes and plant residues. Corn crop, trees such as willow and poplar, and switchgrass are currently used due to their perceived sustainability. Lastly, solar energy has been used as a practical mean to generate electricity. Rourke, Boyle, and Reynolds (2009) indicate that twenty days of sunlight is equivalent to all the natural, oil, and gas reserves on earth. Solar energy is advantageous in reducing heating and electricity bills for dairy farmers, reducing the current rates of pollution, and enhancing dairy farmers’ capacity to rely on.
Reducing the environmental effects of fossil fuels by encouraging the generation and use of renewable energy derived from biogas, solar thermal, solar photovoltaic, and wind, especially in milk production has become a fundamental issue due to several reasons (Shilton, Mara, Craggs, and Powell, 2008). Firstly, as emphasized by Holt-Giménez and Altieri (2013), the establishment of a vibrant electricity pricing system that calculates off-peak and peak prices will be a reality for a majority of Irish dairy products consumers. Secondly, small scale improvements in renewable energy ventures will be critical in achieving the set clean energy target of 16% (Holt-Giménez and Altieri, 2013, 94). However, the most important reason for this change is the increase in profitability for dairy farmers that arise when the prices of electricity costs are cut down. Independent examinations should be conducted to confirm whether Irish dairy farmers can enhance productivity and safety if they change from using fossil fuels which is currently more expensive (Singh, Smyth and Murphy, 2010, p.281). This analysis will in subsequent parts examine the primary forms of renewable energy used by Irish farmers and recent literature to establish Ireland’s renewable energy use targets within the agricultural sector.
Renewable Energy Sources within the Dairy Sector
Ireland has made significant commitments to dissociate from fossil fuel use after legislators withdrew funding for public gas, oil, and coal companies. The move has been a remarkable indicator of the country’s efforts to enhancing agricultural sustainability and greenhouse gas emissions reduction. According to Rourke, Boyle, and Reynolds (2009), fossil fuels are considered non-renewable and consist of natural gas, oil, and coal, formed from the remains of living organisms and often contain chemical energy. The main disadvantage of using fossil fuels is associated with their limited supply, meaning that they can run out at any given time (Dalton, and Lewis, 2011). Additionally, burning these forms of non-renewable energy releases toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and Sulphur dioxide which may cause acid rain and health issues for animals. These components also contribute to global warming by increasing the release of greenhouse gases. Thus, adopting cleaner and safer energy generation sources and techniques guarantees not only consistent milk supply but also encourages environmental protection (Bostan et al., 2012). Farmers who have access to affordable energy from renewable sources are likely to record increased milk production, as funds set aside for the more expensive fuels are redirected for disease management and purchase of feeds.
The current campaigns to promote the adoption of renewable gas sources by Irish dairy farmers have been stirred by the global need to reduce the increasing concentration of the hazardous greenhouse gases (Finnegan, Goggins, Clifford and Zhan, 2017). The Republic of Ireland has set SMART (specific, measurable, attributable, relevant, timely) plans to enable the country to attain 10% of transport fuel, 40% of electricity, and 12% of heat generation from the solar power, biogas, and wind among other sources of renewable energy. According to Chiodi et al. (2013), the primary advantage of incorporating renewable energy sources in dairy farming is the reduced operational expenses and increased profitability because of the significantly cheaper mode of transportation, heating, and electricity means. Chiodi et al. (2013) also indicate that “60% of Ireland’s land area is used for agriculture, which is dominated by grass‐based livestock farming. It is anticipated that over 90% of the renewable heat and all of the renewable transport fuel in Ireland will come from biomass” (174). Currently, the country’s use of bioenergy is remarkably lower as compared to other European nations including Sweden, Germany, Finland, and Austria, which have more reinforced funding and support mechanisms.
Although several studies seek to improve the management of policy, environmental, and technical issues that have impaired Ireland’s bioenergy development, Monforti et al. (2015) maintain that the willingness of agricultural dairy stakeholders and producers to invest in bioenergy milk production remains underexplored. To date, there is single published research by Scarlat and Banja (2013) which has examined the preparedness of dairy farmers to embrace renewable energy. However, Monforti et al. (2015) indicate that the study failed to evaluate the reasons or opinions to support the highlighted causes. In research by Holt-Giménez and Altieri (2013), the authors revealed that access to advisory services did not contribute to the unwillingness by dairy farmers to embrace energy milk production.
The scraping off of the European milk quota system in 2015 significantly reduced the prices of these commodities and enhanced production per farm. Ireland’s dairy sector has demonstrated a potential for 50% growth over the next two years if farmers adhere to the proposed strategies to adopt renewable energy options for fundamental production processes including heating and cleaning. De Boer (2003) emphasizes that adhering to the national renewable energy policy guidelines will likely reduce milk prices by 33% because of the increased focus on milk quality, quantity, alongside cost controls. Additionally, these improvements largely depend on the ability of farmers to establish crop growing regions which can be used to feed dairy animals.
As cited by Goodbody, Walsh, McDonnell, and Owende (2013), effective utilization of animal feeds is a critical factor in the consistent production of quality and affordable milk and milk products. Currently, the costs of electricity in Ireland daily farmlands is approximately 1.5% of the milk prices. However, consumers have anticipated possible increases in the cost of these products due to the high electricity charges (Bell, Gray, Haggett, and Swaffield, 2013). Surveys conducted by Devine-Wright (2007) have revealed that a deviation from the more expensive fossil fuel may encourage milk price reduction. Devine-Wright (2007) also add that pasture-based dairy farms use around 25% of the energy produced for electricity, therefore, having an in-depth understanding of sustainable electricity production mechanisms and their roles in regulating the costs of production is a vital step in maintaining profitability.
The Irish Commission for Energy Regulation has presented an electricity grid framework that proposes a milk pricing structure founded on the demand and cost of electricity as per the national levels. This means that the quantities of milk being brought into the market will largely depend on the current electricity prices. The peak electricity period in Ireland is usually between 1700-1900 hours, within which a majority of farmers avoid conduction critical operations including machine milking for fear of incurring enormous energy expenses (Koohafkan, Altieri and Gimenez, 2012, p.65). The proposed pricing strategy can also be used to reduce energy-related expenditures through intelligent equipment management by optimizing use during off-peak periods. Dalton and Lewis (2011) add that these energy price variations in Ireland not only vary by time of day but also by season, therefore, presenting farmers with a dilemma regarding the best way of maximizing production during the off-peak seasons to reduce operational expenses and maintain the consistency. Huber and his colleagues (2007) contribute to the discussion by indicating that evaluating and comparing the yearly and daily consumption patterns and associated expenses of wind, solar, and biogas energy and fossil fuel for dairy farmers will enable agriculturalists to compare the most sustainable means of production.
The outcomes of the research by Finnegan, Goggins, Clifford, and Zhan (2017), which sought to examine the viability of using solar energy and the feasibility of solar photovoltaic systems to improve profitability for dairy farmers in Ireland revealed exciting findings. The study confirmed that depending on sunlight as a natural resource for generating a firm’s energy needs will reduce power bills. Other advantages of solar energy include the ability of farmers to increase energy outputs by adding more panels, little or no maintenance costs, and reduced stress associated with finding appropriate sites for installation as most dairy farms already have open spaces. However, Howley, Gallachóir, and Dennehy (2009) highlight several disadvantages of using solar energy for electricity generation, which including the lengthy repayment periods if the installation of these systems was facilitated by loans, alongside the likelihood of failing to meet a farm’s electricity demand during the rainy seasons when there are minimal amounts of sunlight.
The Irish agricultural sector has implemented various farmers’ incentives including the Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme (SRES) to encourage the adoption of renewable energy (Howley, Gallachóir, and Dennehy, 2009). The SRES places a monetary value on each megawatt of electricity generated through solar energy over a prolonged period, thus allowing farmers to accumulate adequate finances that can be used for adding solar energy tools and equipment. Bouamra-Mechemache, Jongeneel, and Réquillart (2008) however questioned the suitability of solar energy for dairy farms by citing the hours of use as the main problem that farmers face in adopting the clean energy. The use of solar energy in dairy farming is primarily for water heating and milking. A typical dairy farm is likely to require electric power in the mornings and evenings mainly because the machine milking, heat, and cleaning take place during these periods, while sunshine is at the peak from midday (Adey, Kangas and Mulbry, 2011). Therefore, the energy generated during solar energy peak hours will not be adequately utilized.
In summary, renewable energy sources such as sunlight, wind, and animal wastes are free and abundant for use by dairy farmers. The recent reduction in the prices of installation equipment and withdrawn funding for oil, gas, and coal companies have demonstrated the government’s and agricultural department’s efforts to encourage the adoption of environmentally friendly energies. Wind and solar energy equipment have also been developed to meet Irish quality standards and last several decades, as additional efforts to enhance the profitability of the industry. The primary contribution of renewable energy to the dairy sector is the reduction of energy bills as these resources are abundant in nature and only require to be tapped. Dairy farmers can use stored solar energy for heating and milking while reducing their reliance on the much expensive gas or oil generated power. Farmers can then divert their savings to other fundamental routine operations including feeding. However, the main disadvantage of solar, biogas, and wind energy is their daily or seasonal availability as compared to farm demands. For instance, farmers using wind-generated electricity may face operational difficulties during the calmer days. Additional issues that have risen include enhancing the cost-efficiency of the renewable energy system by examining the feasibility of rescheduling consumption patterns in a way that ensures primary farm operations are conducted when levels of sunlight or wind are at peak.
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