THE fate of 41 ESB jobs at Shannonbridge power station and many more on the surrounding Bord na Mona bogs should be known by June 6 next.
Closing a day-long oral hearing in Tullamore on an ESB planning application for West Offaly Power, An Bord Pleanala inspector Kevin Moore said: “My clear intention will be to report to the board in an efficient manner. I hope the board will make a decision by that date.”
Mr Moore is tasked with making a recommendation to the board on the ESB's controversial plan to extend the lifespan of the 150 megawatt peat-fired station beyond 2020 and permit the operators to phase in the use of biomass as a fuel.
The ESB plans to cease the use of peat completely by 2027, by which time the entire fuel load at the Shannonbridge facility will be made up of biomass, which is a form of woodchip.
The ESB says its plan for Shannonbridge, and a similar proposal for its sister peat-fired plant, Lough Ree Power in Lanesborough, is driven by climate change considerations.
Environmental groups, principally An Taisce and Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), oppose the ESB plan and set out their objections at last week's oral hearing.
The existing planning permission for the power station expires in 2020 and in their opening submission at the oral hearing, the ESB said it will close unless An Bord Pleanala renew the planning consent.
Shannonbridge power station, which is on the riverbank close to the village, has been operating since the 1960s.
It was redeveloped in 2005. The ESB is now also applying for permission to extend an ash disposal facility located on a cutaway bog six kilometres away from the power station.
A generating station owned by Bord na Mona near Edenderry already co-fires peat and biomass and the ESB aims to replicate that in Shannonbridge and Lanesborough.
"The current permission for the [Shannonbridge] station expires at the end of 2020 at which time, without a further grant of permission, it will be necessary to decommission and remove the existing plant," said Rory Mulcahy SC, for the ESB last Tuesday week.
Mr Mulcahy told the hearing the transition from peat to biomass was in line with ESB's commitment to meeting the challenges of climate change.
He said when the project was initially conceived, it was proposed peat-firing would continue until 2030 but a "more ambitious objective" of 2027 is now considered viable.
"The option of an immediate switch to biomass was assessed but is not considered to be commercially viable or feasible having regard to the current state of the development of the indigenous biomass market," said Mr Mulcahy.
West Offaly Power station manager Jim Murray said the project supports ESB's and the State's transition to low-carbon clean energy production.
Mr Murray also said it will allow the ESB to continue to contribute to the socio-economic wellbeing of the State and Midlands region.
Biomass – imported initially - will be delivered by road and the ESB is satisfied the routes around Shannonbridge will have the capacity to handle an increase of 56 additional heavy trucks each day.
Paul Cullen, project manager with the ESB, said by 2027 when the plant is running 100 per cent on biomass, its greenhouse gas emissions will be zero.
Addressing the hearing, Ian Lumley, heritage officer with An Taisce, said peat extraction should have been halted 20 years ago and its continued use has "dragged down" Ireland's international reputation.
He said Ireland was ranked 48th of 57 developed countries in an international climate change index at a United Nations conference on climate change in Poland last year.
"We were by far the worst in the EU," said Mr Lumley. "We should not be here because the planning permission that was granted for the Shannonbridge and Lanesborough power stations at the beginning of the last decade should not have passed legal, scientific or credible professional scrutiny."
He said the Shannonbridge plant was too inefficient for biomass, a fuel which will best be used in a multiplicity of smaller “combined heat and power” plants.
“The whole logistical justification of this plant does not stand up to scrutiny with the way energy supports and the potential market is developing,” said Mr Lumley.
“The first focus of any energy strategy should be efficiency first and then renewables, reduce energy demand and that has not been considered.”
He also said the ESB proposal “perpetuates unquantified peat extraction and burning” and “delays rehabilitation of the supply bogs”.
Furthermore, it is “dependent on the unsustainable import or national sourcing and inefficient use of timber, causes adverse ecological, air pollution, traffic generation and local amenity impacts, with the forest material trucked in long distances leaving poor local employment gain”.
John Kenny, counsel for the FIE, said the ESB's application to An Bord Pleanala was “totally misconceived and misleading”.
“The choice facing the board is not between permitting a plant that burns 100 per cent peat and permitting a plant that burns some biomass and some peat,” he said.
“The choice is instead between permitting a peat-and-biomass plant on the one hand, and refusing permission on the other - between using the most carbon intensive form of fuel known to man and no emissions at all.”
Responding, Mr Mulcahy said the objectors ignored the fact that if Shannonbridge closes, 150 megawatts of electricity will have to be generated somewhere else.
“The proposal meets the project objectives, it meets the overarching policy aim of transition to a low carbon, energy reducing economy,” said Mr Mulcany.
“Various different alternatives have been considered and this is the one which best balances the various objectives and requirements in accordance with policy.”