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Wood Fuel and the Future

Following a recent visit to Certainly Wood’s operation deep in the Herefordshire  countryside and the discovery that despite the UK government’s carbon reduction target only recently have financial incentives for woodland management opened up for landowners, the editor takes a look at shape of the current wood fuel market and what more needs to be done to develop this vital supply chain.

Having spent the last two years looking after the Energy Saving Trust’s brand in the North East and Cumbria & Lancashire, I’ve been privy to a fair share of Government spin on the subject of climate change.

We are now only a matter of months away from the Kyoto Protocol agreement that the UK would, by 2012, reduce its emissions of the six major greenhouse gases by 12.5% from 1990 levels. And there are many optimists who believe that the 2050 target of an 80% reduction will be met.  Overlooking the potential A visit to the Energy Saving Trust’s website will tell you exactly what the Government has been doing to realise these targets - passing the Climate Change Act, introducing mandatory Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) for domestic property sales and unveiling the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) to name but a few.  But a visit to a managed forest in Hereford as part of Certainly Wood’s recent open day opened my eyes to the huge potential for both carbon capture and alternative fuel that the woodland in this country has to offer.
A potential, it seems, the Government is largely overlooking when it comes to incentivising woodland management.
Wood fuelled appliances have been a huge success story within our industry in recent years. Anyone who has been a regular at the Hearth & Home Exhibition over the past decade will bear witness to the seemingly un-stoppable tide of wood burning stoves and wood fuel products that have all but knocked the decorative gas fire off its throne.
Over a third of all appliances at the 2011 show were wood burning, the fact that the interior design media has gone stove-mad and the emergence of companies like Certainly Wood all point to a buoyant and burgeoning wood fuel market.
The consumer arm of the RHI, the Renewable Heat Premium Payment (RHPP), has undoubtedly been geared towards encouraging householders in off-gas areas and those still relying on solid fuel as their main heating fuel to consider biomass as an alternative.
Much is being done to encourage consumer demand but what of the supply chain to meet this growing demand?
According to Forestry Commission statistics there are approximately 2.86 million hectares of woodland in the UK, roughly 12% of the total land area. And while this is small fry when you compare these numbers to the likes of Sweden - 28 million hectares of woodland equal to 67% of its total land area – it is, none the less, a plentiful and wholly renewable resource.
Estimates by the Forestry Commission put the UK annual firewood market at 1 million tonnes per year but industry experts such as Nic Snell, managing director of Certainly Wood suggest a more conservative figure of about half that.
Either way, with incentives like RHI, RHPP and the growing acceptance of the need to address climate change further by embedding the concept of alternative fuel into the nation’s psyche, the numbers are only set to rise.  Indeed between 2004 and 2007 deliveries of UK grown hardwood for wood fuel doubled.
You would think therefore that landowners would be falling over themselves to capitalise but estimates suggest that over half of woodland in England alone is being under managed. Yet the price of wood has risen sharply with grower price for standing timber rising from £5 to £30 per tonne over the past three years.  It’s a lucrative market.  Timber theft a growing problem So lucrative that a recent report in the national media highlighted wood theft as a growing problem. A representative of the Forestry Commission based in Lincolnshire said, “We are coming across more and more incidents of people illegally taking timber from the woodland floor across the county as well as from stacks of felled timber awaiting transport to auction.”
Yet despite the demand, the available resource and the carbon reduction targets being set, only in the early summer of this year did the Government announce the first real incentive for landowners. The Wood Fuel Woodland Improvement Grant will open up a £10 million pot of funding to landowners for the building of access roads for cutting equipment - access problems being one of the key issues leading to under managed woodland.
Applications can also be made to fund woodland inventories and the costs associated with harvesting contracts.
The Forestry Commission maintains that UK forests can more than support an additional 2 million tonnes of wood be taken out each year without undermining the long term future of our woodland.  If this is achieved, it would treble the amount of wood being burnt for fuel by 2020.  More must be done I believe we should be doing much more. Convincing as the ‘carbon neutral’ thesis might be for the experts, for the average householder it’s little more than scientific “white noise”. There’s a real need for an authoritative, ‘layman’ piece on the subject which those in the SIA might be the best equipped to provide.
Just as importantly, our Government needs to be more visible in its recognition of the potential importance of wood.  The Wood Fuel Woodland Improvement Grant needs to be rolled out in a way that maximises its exposure among the landowning target audience and in partnership with both the Forestry Commission and private silviculture organisations as well as those entrepreneurial manufacturers who are have already invested in this market and who understand the supply chain management process.
Having stood around for years waiting for a renewable energy policy to ‘evolve’ and now handicapped by an economy that can ill afford to invest in  additional nuclear capacity,   this would seem like a great marketing opportunity to impress the voters at relatively little cost.
If investment is needed, let them also provide or instruct our banks to support  those wishing to manage woodlands and harness this great resource. The £10 million pot, the equivalent of 0.01% of the annual NHS budget, is simply not enough to help secure our energy future.

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