Really? If we install too many biomass boilers, won’t we hit 'peak wood'?
The answer is no, but this is an often raised question and one which needs looking into in more detail. The responsible use of our wood fuel supply resource and the provision of wood fuel for use in biomass boilers are intrinsically linked. Although there is much about our wood fuel running out being hyped in the media, the reality is that there is far more wood fuel available that we are not fully harnessing.
First and foremost, our woodlands are not actively managed. As a nation, we love to experience a woodland walk. We just don’t appreciate a woodland has to be looked after – managed. We take it for granted. But leave your neatly ordered garden alone for a couple of years and it becomes tangled and choked.
As far back as the middle ages, this was recognised. The Magna Carta made provision for the 'common' man, giving him the Right of Estover, to collect firewood from 'common' land. Perhaps in an effort to self manage our forests? Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales describe a Yeoman as a Forester, with his European Yew longbow and his Baldryk (a hook to hang a hunting horn from). A sign of both military prowess and an emerging international wood trade.
The Battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt, were won by the longbow. The Yew they were made from came from continental Europe. Lord Nelson famously wrote to the Admiralty after a visit to the Forest of Dean in 1802. He was concerned by their awful condition of the woodland and thought it needed State foresters to manage it. Did he mean to propose the founding of the Forestry Commission? The emergence of iron, steel and the industrial revolution and an abundance of oil, coal and gas led us in many ways to lose our interest in our woodlands. We are now recognising the importance of our woodlands and there is much work underway to manage it, reconnecting with the art of forestry.
The Forestry Commission actively support and promote woodland management through schemes such as the England Woodland Grant Scheme and through initiatives in wood fuel use, including working with partner organisations. They also provide an excellent and impartial source of biomass wood fuel advice through the Biomass Energy Centre (BEC). This site is not just aimed at Foresters, but at end users, system designers and installers, and provides a wealth of advice and useful information.
The Forestry Commission promotes the ‘whole value’ of trees and forests and is leading a drive to reclaim this vital resource. Woodlands have an economic value in timber produced. They are critical to biodiversity and are valuable wildlife habitat. They offer a range of leisure activities. They capture carbon and help us breathe. They also provide fuel to keep us warm. Our forests contain the resources for all of it. Wood fuel is a fraction of the output of good forestry and it is this ‘whole’ tree approach which will be good for our forests, our air quality, our heating and for all of us.
Tall, straight trees will still earn the most value for the high quality timber that is used for furniture, fence posts and construction. However, at best this is only 50% of a healthy tree grown to maturity. The residues for this, including the branches, the crowns and the roots usually discarded are suitable for use as wood fuel as well as other products.
Wood fuel production opens up an income stream, grass roots supply chain and its resurgence has created an emerging, localised industry. This in turn provides jobs and encourages investment. This helps generate resources to help manage our woodlands.
In addition, let’s not forget that for every healthy tree grown, there are essential cycles of planting and thinning, to avoid the forest choking and tangling, to encourage its growth. These low grade residues are suitable for wood fuel. Even the highest value timber processed through sawmills becomes valuable in producing sawdust to compress into wood pellets.
Wood pellets for biomass boilers
The National Trust is becoming increasingly more proactive in woodland management and is now starting to use wood fuel from its estates in biomass boilers as part of their own CO₂ reduction drive. This is great example of how to tie into the natural cycle of forestry management, using its abundant resources for generating heat. It is great to see that the National Trust have acknowledged that managed woodlands have increased biodiversity and habitat improvement to boot.
So managing our woodland and its economic potential are not mutually exclusive. In fact they support a healthy environment. As woodland comes into management, it literally fuels a healthy wood fuel supply market. With sustainability and replanting a legislated and mandated part of commercial forestry, it is one that ensures a healthy and complete supply chain. From furniture, to construction, to wood fuel.
Active woodland management and the growing biomass boiler industry are both part of this mix and we as a company have actively worked with all parties and stakeholders since our inception in 2006. We have seen this start to gather momentum. But with our woodlands and all of their potential still very much under the radar, there is still much to do to stimulate the sector and a great deal of wood fuel available that we are not yet making full use of.