Energy co-op goes to the forest for renewables

A group committed to reducing its collective carbon footprint has backed its words and actions with money as it plans the launch of its most ambitious project to...

A group committed to reducing its collective carbon footprint has backed its words and actions with money as it plans the launch of its most ambitious project to date — a wood-chip burning energy co-operative.



The co-operative is the latest initiative of the Fownhope Carbon Reduction Action Group (CRAG). The group was started four years ago by around 12 residents of the Herefordshire village of Fownhope; previous projects have included the planting of 350 trees in the village.

The group’s new idea is to harness the energy potential of some of Herefordshire’s woodland. With help from Sharenergy — a West Midlands spin-off from Energy4All, which supports renewable energy co-ops — they formed the Woolhope Dome Community Wood Fuel Co-operative, believed to be the first of its kind in the UK.



The co-op plans a share issue in October but, following the closure of regional development agency Advantage West Midlands, needed to raise an initial £30,000.



The sum was raised from the local community in just six weeks, to the delight of project manager Ben Dodd. “I think it’s staggering to raise that amount of money in that short period of time, particularly given where we are as a country economically,” he said.



“It demonstrates an amazing commitment from local people to the project. Even though I’ve been working on environmental projects for 20 years I’ve learned so much, and had so much fun, with this group — they really are fantastic.”



The new co-operative aims to use sustainably harvested wood from local woodlands to power wood-chip boilers that will then heat local business and community premises.



The co-operative, which will own and maintain the boilers after placing them on local farms and other premises, is confident it will deliver a whole package of benefits from reduced heating costs and fossil fuel use to providing an economic and environmental viability for managing woodlands and rewarding investors with a financial return.



Mr Dodd says a feasibility study has been positive. “It confirmed that there is enough wood within a 15 mile radius of Woolhope to keep the boilers supplied with fuel on a sustainable basis,” he said. “Initially we are looking to install around six boilers but may consider a second phase next year.



“There is only a finite amount of wood available so there is a limit to the co-operative’s scale but we believe that if it is successful it will have the potential to be replicated elsewhere in the country. There has been a lot of success with community-owned wind power — we hope the same will be true for wood chip.”



And he says the initiative has many benefits. “The co-operative will be replacing oil-fired boilers with new wood-chip boilers, so we’re replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy.
“At the same time we’re creating an economic market for wood thinnings which would otherwise just be burned, or the woodland they come from left unmanaged.”



He added: “If the wood owners get their thinnings to the roadside we will buy them from them.
“That provides a financial incentive for them to look after their woodland and we’ve had a lot of interest already — from small woodland owners to large estates.



“And for our heat clients — the people who will be hosting the boilers — they are guaranteed to be paying less for their heating — as well as receiving a free boiler which will be installed and serviced for them.”



The group is now looking for customers. “To make the project worthwhile we’re looking to work with businesses or people who are currently spending around £5,000 a year on oil,” said Mr Dodd. “A number of local farmers are interested but one of the biggest problems is persuading people that, even though the offer seems too good to be true, it isn’t!”



The co-operative has put out a tender to find a suitable installer and hopes to have its first boilers in place in the first few months of 2012. It believes it will be saving around 900 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.



October’s share issue will give individuals, organisations and businesses the opportunity to invest in the co-operative, with an anticipated return on investment of between five and eight per cent over 20 years. This is based on the Renewable Heat Incentive, a government scheme which provides a guaranteed price per unit of heat generated by renewable energy.



• More details at www.sharenergy.coop/woolhope

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