How to access affordable wood fuel from local sustainable forests
The last five years has seen a dramatic rise in the use of wood for home heating, as fossil fuel prices have risen inexorably. At the same time woodland owners are organizing themselves into groups and cooperatives to be able to handle this demand. Examples include Western forestry co-op in Sligo, Donegal woodland owners society, and Greengrove wood growers co-op in Roscommon. Additionally there are some other wood producer co-ops being established in the South-East.
One of the main reasons behind the formation of producers co-ops is to allow small-scale forestry owners to club together and get access to the big wood harvesting contractors, who prefer to work with larger customers. The co-ops also help the producers get access to markets and get a better price for their wood. The market is still in its infancy though, and suffers from the ‘chicken and egg’ syndrome.
Some of the main barriers on the consumer side are quickly evaporating, as the price of oil rises. However even with this price incentive, there are other barriers to switching over to wood fuel. One of these is having a home that can be heated efficiently only using wood (we are working on an affordable group retrofit scheme for this, more in a later post). Another problem is the requirement to buy the fuel in bulk, which is becoming more difficult for people as the recession bites in, and larger once off purchases become expensive. Other issues include the perception that much of the wood available in Ireland comes from unsustainably managed clear fell forestry plantations, and that they provide poor quality soft wood.
One possible solution to most of these problems might be to form a wood buyers group, which would allow consumers to arrange bulk fuel supply contracts with wood fuel supply co-ops. The consumers would provide a guaranteed market for the producers who would be happy to share savings through not having to constantly look for customers. The consumers could also have some say in how the forests are managed, so they know they are benefiting the environment. Customers could also arrange to spread payments over time, and avoid big one-off payments. Contrary to conventional wisdom, softwood burns quite well, but needs more time to season compared to hard woods like Ash. A well-organized coalition of buyers and producers should easily side step this problem, as wood is cut in winter, processed and delivered around Easter, and seasoned over the summer for the following heating season.
Introducing permanent Irish forests!
One way to ensure sound environmental practice would be to buy from producers who manage permanent forest cover, rather than clear felling. This method of forest management is called silvaculture. In Ireland, much of our older forestry is mono-culture Sitka Spruce. However in more recent years more broad leaf trees have been planted. Silvaculture is slowly being adopted in Ireland and can work quite well with thinned out Sitka Spruce plantations, as the older trees provide cover to the younger (broad leaf) ones. ProSilva Ireland, an advocacy group for switching to silvaculture, maintain that it may be quite profitable for forestry owners to adopt this technique, since the cost of replanting is lower over time, and the forest can be used for leisure activities too. This choice may be even more pragmatic now, since more recent plantations which are due for thinning around now have a mixture of hard and softwoods, demanding more complex forestry management. We are currently researching the economics of processing firewood and delivering direct to subscribers on a smaller scale which would be compatible with silvaculture, and the initial results look promising, but it needs sufficient local buy in to work. The big picture solution is to organize groups to retrofit wood stoves and log boilers, and arrange for bulk buying of their wood fuel at the same time. Next week we’ll be looking at affordable ways to retrofit houses with wood compatible heating systems.