Burning trees is good for you

At least that's the theory according to farmers who are adapting the ancient art of coppicing to combat global warming. by Daniel Butler

I'm growing trees to burn because it's good for the countryside." The Avon farmer Brian Maggs is proud of his apparently iconoclastic approach to the environment. "There are thousands of acres across Britain doing nothing as set-aside. It would be far better to use them to grow an energy crop to reduce our use of fossil fuels."

He is convinced growing and burning wood to generate electricity is the environmentally friendly answer and has put his beliefs into practice by planting 10 hectares (24 acres) of poplar cuttings on his farm near Bath. He says wood for fuel is "green" in every way.

Maggs's conviction that burning trees is an answer to global warming comes as a surprise to most people. After all, isn't the destruction of the rainforest one of today's worst environmental disasters and surely, burning creates carbon dioxide, the cause of rising world temperatures?

Not a bit of it, according to Maggs: "For three years my trees take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They provide shelter for wildlife and employment for men who would otherwise be laid off. Then they are burnt to produce electricity, putting no more gas back into the atmosphere than they absorbed as they grew. The stumps regenerate and three years later they're ready for another harvest."

The key to this approach lies in the centuries-old art of coppicing which makes use of the natural ability of many trees to survive being cut down, with new withes rocketing up from an established root network - far faster than a new seedling fighting to grow both underground and above the surface. Now coppicing looks set to undergo a revival as government researchers investigate using wood to generate electricity on an industrial scale.

In theory this makes good economic and environmental sense because a tree's growth is greatest during its early years and young trees are a particularly rich source of food and shelter for wildlife. "We counted 33 species of bird in our two-year-old wood, which is more than last year," says Maggs. "But that's probably the peak; we think they drop off again in the third year." This is fortunate, as it coincides with the three- yearly harvest.

In case the concept of growing fuel to compete with oil sounds implausible, it is worth remembering that until the 18th century, Britain was fuelled by wood and charcoal. Even today, some countries still take the principle very seriously. The Swedes, for example, have 9,000 hectares of deciduous coppice and even the US is not immune: "Most people are shocked to learn Oregon gets 40 per cent of its electricity from wood," says Peter Billings of British Biogen, the trade association for wood-burning interests. "Getting the farmers to coppice is the whole reason for British Biogen," he explains. "We have to bridge the gap between an energy industry used to planning 15-20 years ahead and farmers who are more concerned about the next six months."

The Government is helping by funding half-a-dozen trial projects around the country to establish the costs and project yields. Alec Barnes, a Devon farmer, is conducting one of these near Tiverton. He says he could only afford to invest in the scheme with the help of grants.

So far, the researchers - based at the Energy Technology Support Unit (ETSU) and ADAS (formerly the Agricultural Development Advisory Service) - are two years into their studies. Although the initial results are encouraging, the scientists admit there is much to learn: "We still don't know enough about the crop," says Gareth Ellis, woodland consultant for ADAS. "We only harvested our first trial sites at the end of November. We have to experiment with the machinery and there are lots of questions to answer - whether to leave the poles whole or chip them like silage, and which machine is least harmful to the stumps left behind? Then, because it typically contains about 50 per cent water which reduces its burning efficiency, we've got to work out how to dry it down to 30 per cent."

The results are sufficiently encouraging, however, for the energy industry to be interested. Three wood-fuelled power stations are in the pipeline - to be built near Eye in Suffolk, Swindon in Wiltshire and Selby in Yorkshire. The last of these is being developed by Yorkshire Environmental, a subsidiary of Yorkshire Water: "We're applying for planning permission to build a plant," says Keith Pitcher, development manager. "Eventually we should be able to heat 16,000 homes."

The plant, which should come on line in late 1997, uses the latest gassification technology to convert wood chips into gasses by intense heat and pressure. The result is surprisingly efficient, converting 30-45 per cent of the available energy into electricity, compared with 20-25 per cent in a conventional coal plant. Many remain sceptical: "The technology is unproven," admits Ellis. "Critics say it's one step too far - an untried crop being used in untried technology."

Keith Pitcher dismisses this with a shrug: "We know from experience with wind power that prices will come down as the technology is more fully understood," he says. "We'll get an industry emerging from this and as the yields from the trees improve, returns will be better for everyone."

For all his enthusiasm, however, Pitcher has to concede he cannot compete with gas on price. The Renewable Energy Bureau estimates wood-powered electricity costs an average of 8.7p per kW, compared with 5.3p for wind power. In contrast, gas costs about 2p and coal around 3p. Underwriting Yorkshire's investment is the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO), a commitment placed on electricity companies to buy a percentage of their power from sustainable sources. Under NFFOs (three have been negotiated so far and a fourth is in progress), investors in new technology are guaranteed high prices for 15 years. This in turn means Pitcher can provide a long-term market to local farmers, allowing them to establish coppices while he waits for his plant to be built: "One of the reasons we are going ahead is to break the vicious cycle of no market until there's a product and no product until there's a market," he says.

Although he refuses to give details, Yorkshire is believed to be offering about pounds 20 a ton. With the research showing possible annual yields of up to 45 tons per hectare, this could be enough: "At pounds 20 a ton, farmers should be able to get about the same profit as they do on winter wheat," says Gareth Ellis.

In Devon, Alec Barnes is unconvinced: "It's not worth going into unless you can get pounds 25 a ton," he says. As a result he is looking with interest at a neighbour who is experimenting with making composite boards from coppiced wood. "As with any business, the only way you can keep prices up is to have various outlets. If you're dependent on one customer, you're at his mercy," he explains.

In the end, however, the real driving force behind wood power may lie not with relatively big plants, but on a smaller scale: "The advantage of wood energy is it is very flexible," says Dr Keith Richards, ETSU's deputy manager for Biomass Resources and Statistics. "We have several housing and industrial estates which are interested in small plants. The great thing about wood is once you have located your user, you can design the plant around them.

"Wood is only expensive if you are talking about selling the power wholesale, but if you are producing the energy on a small-scale rural site it is very competitive," agrees Peter Billings. In the end this is the attraction for Brian Maggs and Alec Barnes, who both intend to use their coppices to heat their homes and businesses: "We should make money by saving money," says Barnes.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...