Woodfuel: a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario

It’s almost exactly six years since the Forestry Commission in England launched its Woodfuel Strategy, which talked about the potential to bring many unmanaged woods into active management, delivering biodiversity benefits and stimulating rural economies.

Image: Keith Huggett

Round Wood – managed broadleaf woodland with hazel coppice understorey and bluebell carpet

There’s definitely been some growth in this sector, but as identified by the recently launched Ecosystems Market Task Force (EMTF) report, there are still significant challenges. In particular the report identifies what it calls a “chicken and egg” scenario, with the main barrier being lack of confidence in the long term consistency of the supply chain preventing demand, and lack of demand holding back the confidence to increase supply.

There are mechanisms in place: grants for installation of boilers, and for putting access routes into woods to enable management, not to mention the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), already on stream for non-domestic properties and due to come in for domestic users in July. But while biomass installations account for a large percentage of uptake of the RHI to date, and harvesting of hardwoods has increased in the last few years due to expansion of woodfuel markets, things haven’t quite taken off as they might.

EMTF thinks this needs addressing, but is it an issue from a conservation point of view? At the Woodland Trust we’ve always been supportive of using biomass – woodfuel – for small scale local heat production, where it does genuinely deliver environmental benefits. As discussed recently in these pages, we should be wary of suggesting that every “unmanaged” wood is in need of intervention – some are definitely better left alone – but there are also many that either would not be harmed, or would positively benefit from some active management, so long as it is done sustainably.

The trouble with small-scale, local heat production from woodfuel – production of woodchips and pellets for small to medium sized installations (think primary schools and small hospitals) – is that it’s fiddly. The resource is fragmented, both in terms of its location and its ownership, and in many cases needs a kick-start to make it easily manageable. The market is also highly fragmented, and is embryonic, with potential customers understandably wary of unfamiliar technology and systems. And between the two is a gap that needs to be bridged by woodfuel suppliers. Some of these exist, but set-up requires considerable capital investment and it’s a big risk.

The Renewable Energy Directive commits the UK to sourcing at least 15 per cent of its energy from renewable technologies by 2020. The UK’s Renewable Energy Strategy (2009) suggests that 30 per cent of this target – i.e. nearly 5 per cent of energy – could be met by bioenergy. DECC’s Bioenergy Strategy places heavy reliance on large-scale power production, using a large percentage of imported material, raising widespread concern among NGOs and the public about sustainability of the supply and this form of energy production. All of which is giving biomass a bad name.

Large scale power production from biomass is a big hit in terms of meeting the targets, while development of robust woodfuel markets for small scale local heat production is not. It requires slightly less insular thinking and joining the dots between government departments and strategies to see the benefits for biodiversity targets, delivery of ecosystem services, and rural regeneration.

EMTF identifies the challenges and some of the solutions, such as appropriate business support, facilitation, better information about the opportunities available, better advice – effectively filling in the missing pieces of the jigsaw. It’s resource intensive at the outset, but in the long term could pay dividends for the environment on more than one front. It will be interesting to see how Government responds.

Sian Atkinson, Conservation Adviser

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About Kay Haw

Assistant Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust. Nature is my passion, especially woods and trees which are just amazing elements of life. One day (soon) I hope we humans learn to work in harmony with Mother Earth.
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4 Responses to Woodfuel: a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario

  1. JENNIFER STRAY says:

    I worry that when things become commercial there can be un-intended consequences. Example crops grown to run engines rather than provide food.

  2. Julie Taylor says:

    I certainly feel there could be a significant role for woodfuel on a local, community basis. I do hope the various challenges that are acting as barriers to the development of this renewable energy source can be resolved. Perhaps bringing together the interested parties on both the supply and demand sides of the issue, at local levels, could help?

  3. Roderick Leslie says:

    Sian, I think you’ve laid out the position very well. What you’ve very effectively done is make the case for a focussed, re-energised Forestry Commission working in completely new ways – advocates for the right sort of management, working with private and third sector expertise. Quite simply, the reasons WT is opposing the dilution and probable disappearance of forestry expertise from the Government through amalgamation into Natural England – see Hilary Allison’s excellent and equally incisive blog on the subject.

    The problems of fragmentation and scale are at the heart of our woodland management problems, its not just about wood energy. Its one of the real reasons WT doesn’t manage some of its own woods and it is a very real problem. The scale of our unmanaged woods – small, in quite heavily populated areas – makes them quite unsuitable for industrial scale exploitation – how would 20,000 extra 40 tonne lorry movements a year go down in the south east, for example ? The woodfuel strategy proposes a new, local way of doing things – but using modern technology that extracts over 90% of the energy from wood – compared to only 50% in co-firing. Bringing woods back into the right sort of management – sensitive, with local support and local relevance (local chips heating the local school) surely has to be at the heart of the Government’s support for ‘a new woodland culture.’

  4. Reblogged this on maureenjenner and commented:
    This picture captures everything that makes our Woodlands magical and worth preserving at all costs.

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