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Potential for renewable biomass energy projects outlined at ICOS seminar

Swedish and Danish experts encourage co-operative forestry initiatives

Monday 23rd March 2015 – Co-operatives and Producer Organisations can make a major contribution to, and benefit strongly from, Ireland’s new multi-million Forestry Development Programme to 2020, a seminar organised by ICOS heard.   Over 20 delegates including co-operatives, advisory services, and academic interests listened to Swedish and Danish forestry experts on the major potential for additional income to family owned forestry and renewable energy projects involving biomass from forestry.

ICOS (the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society) is currently helping producer groups to develop member owned businesses to exploit this opportunity.

Siobhán Mehigan, Co-operative Development Executive of ICOS said: “Because they are member owned and operated businesses, co-operative forestry producer organisations can maximise the economic, environmental and social benefits that can be delivered by forestry at home as well as contributing to growth in this important export led processing sector.

“Co-operatives can address key strands of the 2020 Forestry Programme particularly in areas relating to knowledge and skills transfer and the establishment of producer groups which are very important elements of the development programme.

“Typically, producer groups can yield collective benefits through co-operation including joint planting, thinning and felling operations and equipment and machinery sharing.  This can also extend into biomass processing operations.”

Karsten Raae, Senior Consultant & Forest Supervisor of Danish Forestry Extension (DFE) told the meeting that there is great potential for the development of a sustainable profitable, producer owned forestry sector in Ireland. However Ireland has a ready-made wood fuel resource in the large areas of farm forests planted over the past 3 decades they now require consistent thinning to achieve production potential and this should be arranged through co-operative producer organisations.  Knowledge also needs to be built up around the harvesting and storing of wood for energy.  There is increasing demand for wood based fuels including pellets and dry wood chips following from SEAI’s campaign encouraging businesses and consumers to install wood fuel boilers.  Additionally, Ireland’s peat fired power stations are currently changing to 30% biomass (due for completion in 2015).

DFE is the international consulting and forestry promotion division of the Danish Forest Owners Association – a grouping of co-operatives with over 5,000 members managing some 20% of all Danish private owned forests with a combined annual turnover of over €85m.  It is currently working with the Irish Council for Forest Research and Development (COFORD) to develop harvesting systems for wood for energy in Irish private forests.  This includes appropriate scale harvesting operations and on site demonstrations as well as scientific reporting and promotion.

Lennart Ackzell, International Co-ordinator at the Swedish Federation of Family Forest Owners said that 50% of the 27 million hectares of forest in Sweden is family owned with the remainder controlled by State, commercial and other interests.  The national association is comprised of 4 regional associations with some 330,000 individual forest owners.  This co-operative based industry controls its own harvesting and processing facilities involving local communities and families in the economic benefits to be achieved around forestry.  In particular the Swedish model promotes overall sustainability and a long term livelihood from forestry through producer controlled co-operative based enterprises.

“If Sweden can achieve this then Ireland can and should do likewise and the co-operative model is the appropriate approach to this requirement”, said Ackzell.

Irish Forestry Potential Highlighted

Forests play an increasingly important economic, environmental and social role in Ireland.  The forestry industry makes a significant contribution to the Irish economy employing 12,000 people directly.  However Ireland remains the least forested country in the European Union with just 11% of Ireland’s total geographical area forested, compared to a 35% average throughout the other EU Member States.

The Department of Agriculture has allocated some €482m of State investment to its 2020 Programme to provide a range of incentives and supports for forestry development over the next 6 years.  This includes plans for 44,000 hectares of new forests, 700km of new forest roads and higher premium payments. The new premiums are 20% higher than those in the previous forestry development programme and establishment grants have also increased by 5%.

Western Forestry

Established forestry co-operatives including Western Forestry Co-operative contributed to the seminar on the development of sustainable, profitable forestry businesses that are member owned. Based in the west of Ireland, Western Forestry is owned by the dairy co-operatives.  It was established 30 years ago in response to a need for support services for landowners considering forestry, along with other forestry producer organisations in Cork, Limerick and Donegal.

Vulcan Project

A case study was also provided around The Vulcan Project – an initiative between South East LEADER groups and the multinational food company Danone. The project is facilitating the development of forestry producer groups in the southeast of Ireland. It is also driving a new income source into many family forestry owned homes and businesses.

Danone’s Baby Nutrition plant in Wexford has a new biomass boiler which requires 8,000 ODT (Oven Dry Tonnes) of biomass per year. The Vulcan Project supports the local supply of biomass from forestry for energy production (by Danone) and also promotes the product among consumers outside of Danone.  Operating across Counties Kilkenny, Laois, Tipperary, Wexford and Wicklow, it addresses the problem faced by small forestry owners around how to earn an income from their timber plantations in the period between the planting grant running out and the trees being ready to harvest. It enables them to sell the thinnings and prunings of the maturing forest to produce wood fuel products, such as chips, pellets and blocks.

By purchasing fuel from producer groups, Danone Wexford can source its fuel locally and more economically.  As a result of reduced delivery costs, Danone is able to secure contracts with these farmers at mutually beneficial rates. The producer groups will be self-financing within 3 years.

In a region where over 1,000 disadvantaged farmers receive state aid, the sale of biomass can provide an additional revenue for farmers and the Vulcan Project will support at least 400 farmer families, increasing their revenue with specific emphasis on those associated with ‘Farm Assist’ – the supplementary income scheme for farms.

In the South East of Ireland, nearly 13,000 farmers currently have forestry able to produce 34,000 ODT/year.  State renewable energy targets indicate a requirement for 236,000 ODT of biomass in the southeast by 2020 so there is considerable potential for economic growth for the region through co-operation between those forestry owners.