Wood energy is the most significant source of renewable energy in the European Union, where it is a technically mature, widely deployed and commercially viable sector. Appropriate and planned development of the sector will give rise to greater awareness of the carbon economy and environmentally sensitive behaviours (both personal and corporate), including wider use of green technologies which in turn will benefit the wider economy and, of course, the environment.
The Western Region is uniquely placed to develop a wood energy sector because, with 41% of afforested land in the state, it has potentially enough forestry resource needed to supply market demands. In addition, a high proportion of this forestry is of an age profile where it requires thinnings (forestry thinnings and residues are a major potential source of wood fuel).
The WDC intends to accelerate growth in wood energy use by providing a coordinated and strategic framework for the development of the sector. To facilitate this, in 2006 the WDC set up the Regional Wood Energy Advisory Group to act as a regional coordination mechanism. Research commissioned by the WDC, with the support of the Advisory Group, showed that the best opportunity for developing the wood energy sector in the region is in the supply of wood chip from private-sector forestry to commercial and industrial heat users (hotels, hospitals, schools).
Benefits of the wood energy sector
The strategy is designed to achieve a regional heat target of 477 MW of heat by 2020 (approximately 11% of the regional heat market). The WDC’s research suggests that this will:
- Create 887 full time equivalent (FTE) jobs in the Western Region.
- Generate CO2 savings of 619,000 tonnes per annum (a benefit of €6.9m if carbon is valued at €15 per tonne) for the region.
- Generate 477 MW of heat energy, utilising 472,000 tonnes of timber with an annual value of €1.7 million to the farming sector.
- Increase annual Gross Value Added (GVA) in the Western Region of €15 million.
There are of course other advantages to promoting wood energy as a source of renewable energy in the region. One key additional benefit most likely stems from its role in achieving critical mass in the wood heat industry. Another benefit is its longer-term role in developing viable economic activity in rural areas. Because wood heating uses existing natural resources, most of the employment is rural. In addition, high transport costs mean that the activities must be locally based, bringing benefits throughout the region.
Strategy and Action Plan
The WDC has mapped out regional targets and an action plan for growth/development of the wood energy sector in the report Wood Energy Strategy for Western Region. This identified that the key drivers for the growth of the sector are a proactive development approach and the provision of expertise and advice at regional level.
The Strategy and Action Plan aims to develop the entire supply chain – from producer to end user. This will ensure a consistent supply of wood chip by coordinating the large number of small-scale private foresters across the region. (This will give heat users confidence in their access to a supply and encourage a switch from fossil fuel-based heating systems to wood heat.)
Actions already achieved
The WDC, supported by the Regional Advisory Group, has already begun to deliver elements of the Strategy and Action Plan and three actions were completed in 2008:
- An analysis of the community enterprise opportunities presented by the wood fuel supply chain in a joint initiative with Údarás na Gaeltachta.
- A review and best practice guide on the role of local authorities in supporting the wood energy sector in partnership with Donegal County Council.
- An assessment of the biomass combined heat and power (CHP) market potential in the region and the potential economic benefits that could be derived from development of the sector.