Stuart Goodall: Green energy should start with local wood fuel

CHOPPING down trees to save the planet may seem a strange way to champion the environment. But as well as using wood to build homes, schools, hospitals and businesses, we are now using wood to heat them.

Wood fuel at a local scale from sustainable, local sources, not large biomass power stations, is the way forward. Large electricity-generating plants unlock only about 30 per cent of the energy available, yet burning wood to generate heat makes use of nearer 90 per cent.

With statistics like that, it’s not hard to see why more and more old oil and gas boilers are being replaced with wood-fired alternatives.

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The government introduced the Renewable Heat Incentive at the end of 2011 to encourage the use of renewable energy. With grants now available to support wood-fuel heating systems, the future looks bright.

Research predicts the wood-fuel sector will be contributing £1 billion a year to the UK economy by 2020, employing more than 15,000 people – new, green jobs just when we need them most. And Scotland is set to be in the vanguard of this growth.

These are truly renewable jobs, too; once harvested, trees are replanted and in as little as 20 years, it’s harvest time again, not so long when you consider coal and oil take millions of years to form – and as Scotland’s forests grow, they reduce carbon emissions.

Next week the first joint meeting of the UK Woodfuel Suppliers’ Group and the Scottish regional Woodfuel Forums is being held in Falkirk to discuss the way the industry can develop at such a positive time.

While the technology is proven, as with any relatively new industry, it is important that providers give consistent and reliable advice and customers have confidence that they will have heat when they want it.

There is scope for significant growth in local wood fuel, but to realise its potential and that of the expanding low-carbon wood manufacturing sector in Scotland, we need to plant more trees. Doing so will unleash an infinitely renewable process of growth.

• Stuart Goodall is chief executive of Edinburgh-based Confor, which promotes sustainable forestry and wood.