A 19-year-old serial entrepreneur whose businesses include an organic lamb venture and an industry-leading firewood supplier recently highlighted the urgent need for regulation in the firewood industry and the opportunity to use firewood to help Ireland meet its renewable targets.

Nick Cotter, who established Cotter Brothers Firewood with his 21-year-old brother Jack in 2011, recently spoke at the Irish Bioenergy Association (IrBEA) National Bioenergy Conference 2020 at Croke Park.

The panel included: Laura Burke, director general of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Thomas Duffy, president of Macra Na Feirme; and Donna Gartland, CEO of Irish District Heating.

Wood energy featured prominently at the conference: “Bioenergy – inspiring the industry with opportunity and vision.”

While countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Austria place strong emphasis on wood as a major renewable and carbon neutral energy source, it has its critics.

“For example, the 2018 EPA report ‘Air Quality in Ireland’ identified domestic use of solid fuel such as coal, peat and wood as having a negative impact on our air quality in England, the Government has begun tackling this issue by announcing a ban on wet wood and house coal by 2023.

“These will be replaced by cleaner alternatives, including dry wood and manufactured solid fuels,” Nick said.

‘Significantly improve air quality’

Nick, along with a number of speakers at the conference, including Kenny McCauley of McCauley Wood Fuels, stressed the need to urgently move away from wet firewood.

“This will require market regulation to ensure that products such as wood chip and firewood are dried to at least under 25% moisture content which is the standard demanded by the Wood Fuel Quality Assurance Scheme (WFQA),” said Kenny.

This view was shared by Nick whose company, like McCauleys, is a member of the WFQA scheme.

“Lack of regulation is a significant challenge in the biomass industry,” Nick told the conference.

“There is a lot of inferior sub-standard wet firewood out on the market. This is not good for our industry nor is it good for the consumer. It contains less heat, and is bad for stoves and the environment,” he said.

Switching from wet to dry firewood reduces particulate emissions by about a factor of 4. So if we stop burning wet firewood, we could significantly improve our air quality.

Nick outlined a plan which has been developed by WFQA to implement mandatory minimum standards for wood biomass, including firewood, which his company processes in Abbeyfeale, Co. Limerick.

The Co. Limerick entrepreneur proposed an initial maximum moisture content of 25% and then moving to 20% as that, he said, is the optimum moisture content of firewood. Both speakers also emphasised the importance of locally sourced wood.

“A Western Development Commission study shows that 1,000t of firewood leaves €250,000 in the local economy while the same usage of oil leaves a mere €15,000,” said Nick.

“The journey forward for the wood energy sector certainly has its challenges but the evidence here from the IrBEA and WFQA shows a serious attitude towards meeting these challenges going into the next decade.”