BY 2010, every village in the country will have a woodchip heating system installed in at least one of its buildings, predicts the Rural Energy Trust’s Richard Harvey.

The rising price of oil is making wood-fuel a cheaper option, so it should be easier to convince local authorities of the benefits. Other European countries are already leading the way, he reports.

“Government organisations are under pressure to use renewable energy sources,” says Mr Harvey. “Most farmers in Finland supply wood heating to their local ammenities. They usually work in groups, organising installation of the system and then using shared machinery to chip and deliver the wood.”

It can be an uphill struggle to convince local authorities to pay up to three times as much to replace a traditional system with a wood-powered installation, but there are 50% grants available for community projects, he says.

“Once there are one or two systems working well in an area, it becomes easier. There is a lot of interest in environmentally friendly options. At current prices, wood is working out at about one-third of the cost of oil.”

Starting up local heating projects is likely to be more profitable than signing a contract with a large power station, he adds.

“Transport costs and intermediaries taking out their share of the profits mean that, in most cases, power station supply should only be considered as a second option.”

It is recommended that landowners join the Forestry Commission’s new English Woodland Grant Scheme as soon as it opens in 2005, because it may become more difficult to qualify in the future.

Ben Scotting, an adviser for the Yorkshire and the Humber partnership organisation, Yorwoods, says the proposed scheme will be split into six sections. It follows the closure of the old Woodland Grant Scheme in June this year.

“Under the old scheme, small areas of woodland may not have been eligible for high levels of grant aid, unless they contained specific environmental features,” says Mr Scotting. “The new five-year scheme is expected to offer 30/ha to maintain all woodland, as long as landowners satisfy management criteria, such as allowing public access, controlling non-native species and managing boundaries correctly.”

Although some elements of the proposed new scheme may only cover costs, it may still be beneficial to farmers, he adds. “A 20ha block of woodland could attract an annual grant of 600, and it may only require two or three days” work to maintain it to the required standards.

“Farmers who carry out the maintenance themselves should benefit, especially if they are using the woods for shooting, or planning to harvest timber,” adds Mr Scotting.

“At the moment the proposed scheme is untested. If it proves very popular, the eligibility criteria may eventually be tightened up, so I suggest applying sooner, rather than later.”