Ever wondered what keeps the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister warm in their Stormont offices? The answer, surprisingly, is willow.
It is not only the leaders of Northern Ireland’s government that use boilers fuelled by willow. About a hundred domestic, business and public buildings here use wood burning boilers supplied by Rural Generation Ltd, which also has customers in Great Britain and the Irish Republic.
The offer from Rural Generation sounds too good to be true – the boiler is supplied free on condition that the customer buys the willow as fuel from the company. Future willow supplies are guaranteed as cheaper than oil or gas.
“Energy security is important for the long-term,” explains Rural Generation managing director, Tom Brennan. He argues that locally produced willow is not only cheaper, but also 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.
Ireland’s climate is excellent for willow production, without the need for any chemical fertiliser. Instead, Northern Ireland Water and Donegal County Council provide sludge from water treatment works, which is dug into the soil beneath the willow, as is waste from a dairy.
The result is a production system that does not use conventional fertilisers – which are high users of energy and carbon. As a means of waste disposal that does not have a carbon cost willow production is actually carbon negative, claims the company.
Rural Generation at present 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 in New York, having planted a thousand acres of willow to provide wood to heat municipal buildings.
Even more significantly, Rural Generation hopes to finalise a contract with a municipal authority in Saskatchewan in Canada. This involves a very different type of application of willow, but one that has also been used extensively by the company within Northern Ireland, for water treatment and management. In Canada, the willow would be used to assist with the management of melted snow in the spring, to avoid it blocking the municipal water system. The contract would involve the export of the company’s expertise, equipment and young willow plants.
Diversification is nothing new for the company, which works closely with AFBI – the Agricultural Food and Bio-science Institute – on commercial applications 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. Significant investment has gone into this, but it remains at development stage and not yet ready for commercialisation.
Instead, it was the use of European Union set aside that spurred the move into willow production. “John felt that it was immoral to leave land doing nothing when it was a real natural resource,” explains Brennan. As an experiment, willow was grown, production was successful and new markets developed.
It would be wrong to suggest the rest was history. Rather, it is the future – and, in all probability, not just for the company.