John Gilliland is passionate about agriculture and energy. And today he leads a business that brings together those two obsessions by producing wood for energy.
Gilliland’s interest in energy policy dates from 1987, when he was paying £9,000 a year to heat the large family home of Brook Hall in Londonderry. By replacing the old burner with a new biomass system, the heating costs were slashed to an annual £3,000, using straw produced on his own farm. The £20,000 capital outlay was soon recovered – and John’s interest in energy policy and the use of biomass from agriculture was firmly established.
Today his company Rural Generation supplies wood burning systems, plus the willow to be used as fuel. The company grows the willow on 500 acres of his farmland, buying-in additional willow from other farmers on both sides of the border.
Sludge from water treatment works in Northern Ireland and Donegal is dug into the soil beneath the willow, acting as a fertiliser. This dramatically cuts the cost and energy consumption for treating waste water, while removing the need to use chemical fertilisers – which also consume large quantities of energy in production – on the crops.
“I like to think that what I am doing today is to bring real innovation to a systems based approach and how we use land,” says Gilliland. “I am looking to use land on a multi-functional basis. We have had international recognition for what we have done at Brook Hall, but never from Northern Ireland.”
That international recognition includes important consultancy contracts for land use, waste water treatment and biomass production in New York State and in Canada. Gilliland believes that in policy terms, North America and most of Europe are far ahead of Northern Ireland. “40% of all energy consumed in Northern Ireland is consumed for heat,” he says. “Yet we have no policy for renewable heating.” He adds: “We have not embraced the green technology revolution.”
Dr John Gilliland OBE is managing partner of the Brook Hall farming estate in Londonderry and chair and founder of Rural Generation Ltd. He has been president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, Northern Ireland’s Sustainable Development Commissioner, a director of the Northern Ireland Authority for Energy Regulation, director of the Action Renewables charity and chairman of the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs’ Rural Climate Change Forum.