Sian Ellis reports on the CLA business member who has cashed in on the demand for low carbon energy fuel
Article reproduced by kind permission of The CLA, Sian Ellis and Paul Felix (photographer)
Having the right idea at the right time – and the right people to carry it through – is a Holy Grail in business. Certainly Wood, based at Madley in Herefordshire, believes it has just such an enterprise.
The company, which grew from a farm diversification, is the UK’s largest specialist firewood producer, having pioneered a kiln drying process nearly ten years ago. As consumers are increasingly encouraged by economic and environmental pressures to find lower-priced, renewable, low-carbon energy sources, the business has seen demand for its firewood, kindling and related products quickly rise.
This year Certainly Wood aims to produce 15,000 tonnes of firewood. “Between three quarters of a million and a million tonnes of firewood are sold a year and the market keeps growing,” says George Snell, who founded the company with his brother Nic. “Wood has been undervalued, with firewood seen as a cheap by-product of forestry. Now it is becoming quite a major part of the forestry industry and people make money from thinnings that come to us.”
The kiln drying process that Certainly Wood has pioneered, using energy to dry logs for burning, may sound perverse. But in fact the computer-controlled furnace that heats the kilns is fuelled by waste wood from logging – sawdust and chippings – that would otherwise go to landfill.
“Our original kiln burnt oil, which is environmentally not sensible and also expensive, while the sawdust and waste from processing had become a massive problem,” George says. “So we came up with an idea that avoids the purchase of oil and saves landfill. The ash produced after burning is used around the farm to make tracks, so nothing goes to waste.”
He is also keen to explain the advantages of logs that have been kiln dried to an average 20 percent moisture content. “At first people thought it was silly to dry logs because you would put them on an open fire and they would burn really quickly, with 90 percent of the heat going up the chimney. But now the wood burning stove industry is so large – around 160,000 stoves are sold a year – and the point about stoves is you can control the air going into them. So once a fire gets going, you turn the air down and the wood burns away quietly. We provide the customer with the perfect product to put in the fire immediately and it gives maximum heat output. If you used wetter wood, you would lose half your energy burning off the water.
“Our logs burn cleanly and don’t blacken the glass fronts of stoves,” he continues. “Customers use considerably less wood – about a third of the volume is needed with kiln dried compared with when it’s green – and our logs are recommended by most of the major UK stove manufacturers.”
The Certainly Wood operation, on the Snells’ farm near a scenic stretch of the River Wye, is impressive. Poplar for kindling comes from sister business The Poplar Tree Company and hardwoods are sourced from thinning processes at local, sustainable woodlands in Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire (including estates of CLA members like Harry Cotterell, Deputy President of the CLA and Chairman of the CLA Board). As the business grows, and when there is extreme demand, hardwoods are bought in from sustainable woodlands farther afield.
The aim is to bring in 1,200 tonnes of small diameter hardwood a month, George says, which makes for a busy yard. In its ongoing drive for energy efficiency the company recently installed 432 photovoltaic cells (99kW) on the roof structure used to house the kilns and these now produce sufficient electricity to drive the saws that turn the wood into logs.
Some wood is left to naturally air dry to an average of 30–50 percent moisture content (hand-held moisture meters are much in evidence among the workforce), before being sold for use on open fires or for further storage. Wood for kiln drying is also processed and stored outside in what George calls “specially designed potato bins” for two–three weeks, allowing sun and wind to take off excess moisture. Then it is dried in the huge kilns for 30–40 hours at temperatures up to 150 degrees centigrade. The company has just built a fourth kiln chamber to keep up with demand.
“Each chamber takes between 18 and 20 tonnes of wood, and after drying we take out about 12 tonnes of wood from each. So around 6,000 litres of water has been removed in each chamber in about 35 hours,” George says. “Generally, it is best to put the same types of wood into a chamber because drying times vary between different woods, however we can’t totally separate them. We do try to keep ash, which is easier to dry, away from oak, which obviously takes longer. But oak and beech can go in together.”
When the logs are ready they are bagged and delivered to retailers countrywide. Bulk deliveries can be made direct to customers’ doorsteps and orders may be placed via Certainly Wood’s online shop (or by telephone for those without internet access). The company offers special discounts to persuade customers to buy their woodfuel in summer, to avoid the sort of panic orders it saw during last year’s snowy winter.
Certainly Wood launched in 2005, growing out of an early firewood business that George ran as a farm diversification. “Nic joined me from working for a soft fruit marketing company, bringing his marketing expertise, while I look after production,” George says. “We now have an exceptional cross-section of people involved in the business, including our finance director Roger da Cunha and a non-executive director, and our whole team aims to bring a quality service second to none.
“Funding from Advantage West Midlands was phenomenally useful in helping us get the business started, with money put towards the purchase of a kiln and building,” he adds.
George had already been kiln drying kindling in his original firewood enterprise and the idea for using the process on logs came about when demand for Certainly Wood’s barn-dried wood outstripped capacity. “We popped some wood into our kiln to test and instead of leaving it in the barn for six months we could sell it after a week. Nic then suggested we carry on with the idea, with ‘kiln dried’ being our USP.”
It caught on as a premier quality product and last year Certainly Wood became the UK’s first approved supplier for kiln dried firewood and kindling under the new HETAS (Heating Equipment Testing and Approval Scheme) Solid Biomass Assurance Scheme. Intended to provide a benchmark for biomass production, the scheme takes into account the type, size, moisture and energy content of logs produced.
George is confident that demand for woodfuel will continue to rise, driven by a combination of factors. “There is the lifestyle thing of having a lovely fire, while cost is a major influence with the price of electric and gas going up. Heat from wood is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels, and most importantly renewable and sustainable. Wood is regarded as a carbon neutral fuel as trees absorb CO2 throughout their life, balancing the carbon released in burning.
“We are keen to do as much for the environment as possible and now we are even offering our customers the opportunity to do their bit. For just £3 they can have a tree planted. It’s surprising just how many take it up.”
The Renewable Heat Incentive is also boosting the woodfuel market, George says, while the Forestry Commission’s Woodfuel Implementation Plan 2011–2014 is providing grants aimed at encouraging foresters to bring thinnings to the market. Forestry Commission England estimates that up to two million tonnes of woodfuel a year could be produced from currently “under-managed” woodland in England alone, saving 400,000 tonnes of carbon emissions a year, as well as bringing the advantages of enhanced biodiversity that managed woods can provide.
“The price of raw material that Certainly Wood is buying now is almost double what it was a few years ago, because we are creating a market for thinnings. The most important thing is we are putting money back to the grower, who benefits from selling his timber,” George says.
Indeed, the company is keen to hear from anyone in the area who has timber to sell. It is working closely with Heartwoods in the West Midlands, who have secured RDPE funding to assist any woodland owners who wish to explore the potential for their woodland with a free visit and advisory report to assess its viability and advising on how they can best get their timber to market. (Nick Maskery of Heartwoods can be contacted on 01952 435860 or visit www.heartwoods.co.uk.)
Sister business The Poplar Tree Company also helps landowners to develop extra revenue by advising on tree planting and helps with farm diversification into woodlands, linking with the Forestry Commission to consider re-plantings and new plantings.
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