9 August 2002

Willow coppice at crossroads?

By Wendy Short

North-east correspondent

THE future of willow coppice as a renewable energy source was left hanging in the balance this week following the news that Europes first wood-powered energy station had gone into voluntary liquidation.

The decision to put the ARBRE energy generation plant at Eggborough, near Selby in North Yorkshire, into liquidation was taken at a meeting on Wednesday (Aug 7).

The move could leave the 55 farmers under contract to supply the plant with no market for their willow crop.

There is also a fear that farmers with contracts linked to the project could be liable to pay back some of the £10m of European money that has been invested. One of these suppliers is NFU president, Ben Gill, who grows 2.5ha (6 acres) of coppice on his farm in Easingwold, North Yorkshire.

Gareth Gaunt, vice-chairman of the grower group, told FW that growers still intended to try to rescue the project, perhaps by joining forces with the government and TPS, a Swedish company with a 10% stake.

"If Project ARBRE goes under it will send out a very poor message to farmers who were considering growing short-rotation coppice," he said.

Earlier in the week growers thought that Notts-based company, Coppice Resources Ltd (CRL) which claimed to have contracts for 10,000ha (24,000 acres) of willow coppice would provide a lifeline for ARBRE members.

CRL director, Mark Paulson issued a statement that his company was in the process of negotiating a major supply contract for coppice willow. But details of the contracts that might be on offer have yet to be revealed.

Project ARBRE was set up in 1998. The plant was designed to burn willow and forest residues to produce enough energy for more than 30,000 people. But there have been some technical difficulties and argument is divided over whether these are just teething problems or if the technology does not work.

Originally owned by the Kelda Group, (which owns Yorkshire Water) the project was bought by Bristol company, Energy Power Resources in May. The deal was signed on the understanding that Kelda would continue to fund its development but it has now withdrawn its support, leaving jthe projects future in serious doubt. &#42