Woodfuel supply and demand in Dorset

A report into the potential of Dorset’s woodfuel sector

Project duration: January 2009 to July 2009

Could the county of Dorset produce and supply enough woodfuel to satisfy its own current – and future – demands from biomass boiler installations?

That was the question at the centre of a 2009 project, the Dorset Woodlink, tackled by CSE in partnership with Bristol-based Crops for Energy, run by former CSE employee Kevin Lindegaard. The main aim was to support both producers and consumers looking to invest in wood as a source of fuel, and assure each other that there was both the supply and the demand.

The project initially looked at the demand in the area. It established that, as of 2009, there were around 39,000 properties across the districts of Dorset, Bournemouth and Poole that were not connected to the main gas network, and that many of these depended on much more expensive options, like heating oil or electricity for heating. Switching to biomass could be a viable alternative for many of these properties.

On top of this, a further 64,700 homes are planned across Dorset by 2026. With new legislation expected to ensure renewables are at the forefront of new developments, many of these could be suitable for biomass installations – especially those built as part of urban extensions, which will have potential as community heating schemes.

There is also potential demand to retrofit biomass installations into existing buildings such as schools, care homes, hotels, off-gas housing, farm businesses, plant nurseries, dairies, large estates, leisure centres and public offices.

So there is certainly a potentially large demand in Dorset. What about the supply?

The project then examined the extent to which the county could supply this demand. Currently more than 10% of the total area of Dorset is woodland and a further 75% farmland, meaning there is a significant potential for the area to produce wood-based fuel, and to enable it to 'play its part' in helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Aside from this, the resource is also useful to help create rural jobs and could potentially reduce the number of people in fuel poverty.

Taking 2026 as a target date (the end point for the current local development plan), the report looked at the combined annual amount of woodfuel required to satisfy biomass installations.

As of 2009, there were just 24 across the whole county (see maps), with a combined annual requirement of around 1,500 tonnes.

The report then gave an estimate based on two future scenarios:

  1. A low uptake – with 12% of all new housing
  2. A high uptake – with 32% of all new housing, including 50% from 2016 based on expected legislation

The former figure is based on the fact that other renewables – such as refuse-derived fuel, anaerobic digestion, heat pumps and solar heating – could all play a more significant part in heating new housing than biomass installations. Whereas the latter scenario suggests biomass heating could be involved in as many as 65 community heating schemes that consist of more than 100 houses.

In many cases, the low uptake of biomass boilers was assumed due mostly to a lack of space to house either the installation itself or the fuel. It also anticipated problems with fuel deliveries, which often need large amount of access for vehicles. However, the report also went on to suggest that there is a larger potential uptake amongst schools, as these buildings tend to comprise a large proportion of the energy that local authorities consume.

Based on the high scenario the market for woodfuel by 2026 would be around 95,000 tonnes, resulting in the installation of almost 780 boilers as well as 65 larger scale centralised systems. The estimated woodfuel resource available in Dorset at present is around 105,000 tonnes per year, coming from a variety of sources that include:

  • woodland
  • arboricultural arisings
  • heathland arisings
  • sawmills and joineries
  • energy crops

Of this, more than 90% would probably come from Dorset's existing woodlands, although the majority of woodlands therein are actually small and under-managed, and in many cases it would be economically unviable to bring them back into regular management. And of course it is also important that woodlands are not ‘over-managed’, as this can have an adverse affect on the biodiversity. So the report suggests reducing the potential yield by around 20%, to allow for inaccessible locations and habitat management.

Beyond the target date of 2026, as the number of boilers continues to grow, it would probably be necessary to use woodfuel obtained from other sources, such as energy crops. However, many of the options available for this have long ‘lead in’ times and growing native species – such as short rotation forestry or broadleaved coppice – can require planting up to 10 or 20 years prior to the first commercial harvest

Therefore to begin planning for Dorset’s future woodfuel requirements, it is important the local authority starts now.

The report makes 23 recommendations based on the following broad themes:

  • creation of a woodfuel producer group
  • further liaison with potential woodfuel suppliers
  • extending the knowledge base on potential resource and demand
  • promotion and planting of energy crops
  • developing positive planning policies for woodfuel heating
  • biomass boilers in buildings
  • training and information dissemination

Once finalised, the report will be scrutinised by the Dorset Woodlink Steering Group and the Dorset Energy Group, and then once it is fully endorsed, these recommendations are expected to be taken forward by the Woodlink Officer and the Bioenergy Working Group.

The final report received a glowing endorsement from Tom Munro, the Countryside Officer for Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, following delivery. He said: "Congratulations! This is a great bit of work – most useful for us and the rest of the bioenergy working group, not to mention the industry itself. You've done us proud."

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