Persuading livestock farmers in Northern Ireland to give up grass and plant willows is one of the greatest challenges facing Rural Generation – the alternative energy company set up by former UFU president John Gilliland.

“There is a stigma attached to taking land out of grass around here,” he says.

But Mr Gilliland is convinced that generating and selling heat from biomass does have a viable future, especially given the changes affecting agriculture.

Decoupling is forcing farmers to take a look at the economics of what they have traditionally done.

And the WTO decision to end all export subsidies by 2013 will act as a further spur as it becomes more difficult for local farmers to compete in world commodity markets.

In trying to commercialise short rotation coppicing, Mr Gilliland says he has three aims – to be competitive with oil, to give a decent return to growers and to ensure the business can survive without subsidy.

His figures suggest all three are achievable.

For example, at £40/t for dried willow chips, plus £25/t to convert it into heat via a wood-chip boiler, Mr Gilliland reckons biomass offers a 33% saving on the equivalent cost of oil at 20p/litre.

As for the margin to farmers, based again on a sale price for willow chips of £40/t, he claims an average net farm income of £447/ha (179/acre) a year, before any planting grant.

Mr Gilliland’s own experience with wood-fired boilers stretches back to the late 1980s, when he replaced the old oil-fired machine heating his father’s house.

Despite the high capital cost – a wood-fired boiler is typically five times the price of a conventional one – the saving on running cost was over 70% a year.

At that stage, the boiler was fired on timber and straw.

But in 1992 set-aside came in, prompting Mr Gilliland to plant his own short rotation coppice.

“I believe it is morally wrong to tell farmers to do nothing with their land,” he says.

Now there are some 160ha (395 acres) of willows planted at Brook Hall Estate, near Londonderry, which are harvested every three years.

The dried wood chips are used to fire three boilers, heating water for the houses and generating heat for grain drying.

Having seen the system work on his own farm, Mr Gilliland wanted to expand the concept, setting up Rural Generation in 1996.

The firm installs medium-sized wood boilers in places like community centres and colleges.

Most demand is for 100-200kW “self feed” boilers, where the willow chips are fed automatically from a pit through an auger.

The chips only have to be replenished every two to three weeks.

Rural Generation does not own the boilers, but it supplies the fuel, both from Brook Hall Estate and from another 240ha (593 acres) of willows grown on contract.

philip.clarke@rbi.co.uk