• A “wall of wood” was predicted in the late 1990s.
• Biomass power stations are now taking up large volumes of timber.
• The rise of timber frame construction has absorbed production.
• Sawmills have made major investments in increased capacity.

Only 10 years ago dire predictions of a “wall of wood” – vast amounts of plantation timber reaching maturity and for which there was no immediate or obvious use – were all the rage at forest industry and timber sector conferences. The problem was definitely there in 1998, so what has happened and why do we no longer hear about it?

Biomass power stations are now taking up huge volumes of timber, so much so that questions are now being raised as to whether future demand can be adequately met from available resources. Examples abound: E.ON’s £90m 44MW plant at Steven’s Croft in Lockerbie entered commercial operation in December last year and is expected to generate enough electricity to power 70,000 homes, as well as save 140,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year. Aside from helping the government to meet its challenging targets for renewable energy, a purported economic spin-off is the plant’s use of by-products from the local timber industry.

Further south, predictions for SembCorp Utilities’ £60m Wilton 10 facility on Teesside are equally impressive, with an estimated requirement of around 300,000 tonnes of woodchips a year to generate enough electricity for 30,000 homes and a saving of 200,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions compared with conventional fossil fuel-burning power stations. While around 40% of the wood is expected to come from recycled timber, the plant is projected to require 7,500 acres of new coppice growth in managed forests in the north-east of England, the equivalent of around 3,000 football pitches. The daddy of them all, however, is at Port Talbot in South Wales, where the planned capacity of the 350MW woodchip-fuelled energy plant is due to power half the homes in Wales.

Wood Fuel Task Force

With more wood-burning plants in the pipeline, demand for secure timber supplies will only increase in the next few years, a production challenge recognised by the forestry and timber industries in the formation, for example, in Scotland of the Wood Fuel Task Force and the Scottish Biomass Support Scheme, the latter of which has generated £19m of investment in 67 separate projects. The Scottish government too, as part of its green agenda, last year pledged £45m for new woodlands in its Strategic Spending Review.

The “wall of wood” has not been eradicated solely by the increase in demand from the bio-energy sector, however, since this is, after all, a relatively recent phenomenon; the use of UK-grown timber in the construction market has also grown significantly. Changes in Building Regulations requirements for thermal performance – particularly in new housing – has encouraged the timber frame sector (which has upwards of 70% of the housebuilding market in Scotland) to expand its highly efficient methods of construction south of the border where at present timber frame accounts for only 13-14% of new homes. With government demands for huge numbers of new houses in the south-east, and even allowing for the high volumes of imported material currently used in timber frame construction, even a small percentage increase in timber frame usage in England is likely to grow demand for UK-grown timber in construction from its current 30% market share.

This in turn has stimulated major commitment to investment in new processing capacity which, over the past two years in Scotland alone, has amounted to over a quarter of a billion pounds. This is significant since, with the largest area of softwood plantation forest of the UK, increase in capacity north of the border signals industry confidence in its ability to meet demand and with BSW Timber, Howie Forest Products Ltd and James Jones and Sons Ltd all investing heavily in the expansion of their sawmill operations at Fort William, Dalbeattie and Lockerbie respectively, strong efforts to increase the proportion of UK-grown timber used in construction from its current 30% share are surely on the horizon.

That said, the pace of investment in new plant is now likely to slow, and attention focused again on improving the quality of the raw material and the range of products that can be manufactured from it. Research programmes such as the Strategic Integrated Research in Timber project are beginning to generate findings likely to impact on everything from forest rotation periods to tree selection and sawmilling methods. Meanwhile, demand from the construction sector for new engineered and modified timber products such as Accoya and massive timber elements is already leading companies such as BSW and James Jones into joint venture operations that may, in the future, result in expanded manufacturing capac-ity in the UK. Should this happen, a new and far larger ‘wall of wood’ is likely to be needed to meet demand.