Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Willow’s a hot option for heating

Clear growth — showing off their willow tree based bio energy fuel are (from left) Dr John Gilliland and Tom Brennan of Rural Generation with Des Gartland, InvestNI

Ever wondered what keeps the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister warm in their Stormont offices? The answer, surprisingly, is willow.

About a hundred domestic, business and public buildings here use wood burning boilers supplied by Rural Generation, which also has customers in Great Britain and the Republic.

The offer from Rural Generation sounds too good to be true — the boiler is supplied free on the condition that the customer buys the willow as fuel from the company and future supplies are guaranteed as cheaper than oil or gas.

“Energy security is important,” explains Rural Generation managing director, Tom Brennan, who claims locally produced willow is cheaper and more reliable than imported oil and gas.

Just as important to the company, it is an environmentally friendly heating source. Rural Generation has 500 acres of willow production on the Londonderry farm of the company's founder, John Gilliland.

It also has contracts with farmers in Northern Ireland and the Republic for willow supplies from another nearly 2,000 acres.

Rural Generation has 10 employees and a £2m annual turnover, but could be on the verge of doubling in size through two major export orders. The company is working with the city of Syracuse, New York.

They also hope to finalise a contract with a municipal authority in Saskatchewan in Canada.

This involves the application of willow for water treatment and management using melted snow in the spring, to avoid it blocking the water system.

Diversification is nothing new for the company, which works closely with AFBI — the Agricultural Food and Bio-science Institute — on commercial appli- cations for its production.

When Rural Generation was initially set-up in 1996, the intention was to create gas from wood to generate heat and electricity. Investment has gone into this, but it is not yet ready for commercialisation. Instead, it was the use of EU money that spurred the move into willow production.

It would be wrong to suggest the rest was history. Rather, it is the future and, in all probability, not just for the company.

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