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Fuel of the future

Last updated on 11/05/2016
What is Europe's most significant renewable energy source? You might think wind given the number of turbines being erected from here right across the Continent. Or maybe you’d hazard a guess that the fall in the price of solar panels has pushed that form of renewable power to the top of the league table. But the right answer according to a report in the Economist two years ago is wood.

From blocks to pellets to sawdust, wood makes up half of the renewable energy consumed in the European Union.That’s a surprise because wood is so much yesterday’s fuel that it hardly looks like tomorrow’s answer to global warming. 

It’s also appears more than a bit implausible when you reflect on the fact that burning wood releases clouds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The apparent contradiction is resolved however once you appreciate how new plantings can reverse the damage done.

But if wind is a big contributor to combatting climate change in Europe generally, few would think it makes much of an impact here. The take up of wood as fuel has been slower in Northern Ireland partly because Government support in the shape of the Renewable Heat Incentive is a relatively recent initiative. The domestic version of the scheme was only launched last year. 

Even so, wood or biomass to use the formal term, still makes a significant contribution. Just one statistic makes the point. The Fermanagh firm Balcas produces 55,000 tonnes of wood pellets each year. That has an energy value of a quarter of a million MWh. In turn that equates to the output of a 100 MW wind farm. And that’s just one biomass producer albeit, as I understand it, by far the biggest here in Northern Ireland.

You have to add to that all those properties, homes mainly I would think, that are using logs in wood burning stoves. It’s just impossible to put a figure on the value of that consumption. 

Given the importance of wood, one would think it should be given a higher profile in the battle against climate change. In Scotland the sale of wood by the Forestry Commission looks well organised.You can use a forestry haulier to deliver loads of over 10 tonnes or you can collect bundles of less than 3 tonnes yourself. There are even scavenging licences which will allow customers to gather wood from forestry sites. Chainsaws are barred!

If a similar wide ranging scheme exists here courtesy of NI Forest Service I am not aware of it. The market for wood looks far more ad hoc. It is developing but I would argue that we need more bulk supplies available to ensure more competitive prices. An initiative from the Department of Agriculture would be very welcome.

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