The green energy story has taken some curious turns of late. One recent hot newspaper topic was research into deriving hydrogen-based car fuel from urine, simultaneously offering the prospect of an alternative to petrol and a solution to those motorway jam moments when you start regretting that last large cup of coffee. This was followed by journos getting flushed with excitement over Bristol University trials into powering a VW Beetle with biogas from ‘solid waste’. The politer end of the press referred to the result as the Bio Bug. Elsewhere the headline writers couldn’t resist Dung Beetle.

But, while it has a lighter side, green energy is also becoming an ever more serious and lucrative business and that has implications for every industry, not least wood.

One of the latest developments, the Unimer buying group’s launch of its Green Energy Centre (GEC) franchise, further highlights just how mainstream this field has become.

The GEC is described as “a merchant-led supply chain for a low carbon future”. The translation from eco-speak is a franchise that enables Unimer merchants to establish their own Green Energy Centre in their outlets. The GEC’s central organisation will help set up their showrooms and train their personnel, with the ultimate aim of establishing a nationwide network with a single powerful marketing identity.

Products on sale at your local GEC will cover the gamut from solar panels to sheep’s wool insulation. But high up on the list will be wood-fuelled boilers and, presumably, the wood pellets and briquettes to fuel them. This once more stokes up the already heated debate over the relative merits and priorities of using timber for manufacturing and building things or for burning to generate warmth and power.

This week a new report from the Association of Environmentally Conscious Builders comes down solidly for build rather than burn. It predicts that rising wood fuel use will drive up timber prices, leading to builders opting for less environmentally-sound materials. It also queries the low-carbon credentials of wood energy.

This report was enthusiastically taken up by the Wood Panel Industries Federation which believes its membership will bear the brunt of the battle with the wood energy sector for raw material. Its argument is actually against large-scale electricity generation from wood fuel rather than the small-scale biomass heat business that GECs will service. But clearly, if the use of wood-fuelled boilers in homes and businesses continues to grow, the small scale won’t stay that way for long, adding further pressure on wood supply.

The CO2Sense Yorkshire agency, which helps businesses shrink their carbon footprint (and has written a piece for an upcoming TTJ), firmly takes the middle ground on the issue. In the future, it believes, we will be both building with wood and burning it. To achieve this, we’ll have to waste less timber in manufacturing and construction, grow more fast-growing trees for fuel and cut the volume of wood products going to landfill at the end of their service life. It’s a tall order for all timber-using markets, but CO2Sense says it can be done and the consequence will be recognition of wood as the ultimate green material.