The heat is on

The heat is on

Brian Nicholls travels to Austria to find a case for North East businesses to switch to renewable energy and sustainables, starting with wood heat.

Ilsa Achleitner, farmer’s wife and businesswoman, offers an organic apple from a display box in her extraordinary market store. The apple looks so tempting that the intention to bring it back to England is abandoned.

I find myself, instead, devouring it as I sit in the airport departure lounge a couple of hourslater, awaiting the plane home. Many people living in Morpeth, Rothbury, Tyne Valley and Carlisle area will recognise what Ilsa and her husband Gunter have gone through to rebuild their livelihood.

They had to replan their lives and relocate their organic food distribution business after their farm buildings were damaged by the Danube breaking its banks in Austria. Fortunately, their determination leading to a new company in 2005 has brought about today’s Biohof Achleitner enterprise at Eferding, near Linz in Upper Austria.

Not only is the produce organic, but the building selling it is totally sustainable and powered by renewable energy.

“Yes, it has been hard work,” Ilsa says, smiling. “But also it is worthwhile. It works well for us.” The building contains, besides the indoor market, airy modern offices from which they run their wholesale business in organic fruit and vegetables, an organic cafe and a distribution warehouse. The sustainable building has a timber frame, clay plasters, straw bale sections and other natural wood. It has triple glazing to help maximise energy efficiency, and the many plants strategically placed throughout give clean air and regulate temperature and moisture. A 75kW pump provides the winter heat, underground water and summer conditioning. Solar collectors 16m2 feed into a 1,000 litre accumulator tank, and photovoltaic panels line the roof. About 80% of the heat pump’s energy is photovoltaic.

Vehicles on a forecourt are fed sunflower oil for the delivery of orders to 3,000 customers from a 20km radius. Ilsa reckons the environmental features have raised the cost of their business by 15 to 20%, but subsidies and grants largely compensate. The North East of England isn’t the UK’s least active region in pressing for renewable energies, but reliable figures show that even this region, in biomass capacity, is nearly 25 years behind Upper Austria.

Linz itself (population 1.38m, unemployment 3.6%) is the hotbed of revolution in renewables, widely considered to show best practice both as manufacturer and installer. This partly accounts for its remarkable contribution of 25% towards Austria’s industrial exports. The Achleitners are just two of innumerable Austrians who, as providers or consumers, benefit from their commitment to new fuels and energies, and particularly biomass – wood chips and pellets. Another farmer a few miles away, Hans Wildfellner, saw opportunities for farmers also.

He was instrumental in getting Bauerliche’s bioenergy district heating system up and running, largely owned by a farmers’ co-operative. Its biggest customers today are two industrial companies. Two schools, many homes and farms are also heated with little human effort. In 1999, Hans persuaded 25 other farmers that it would be a worthwhile sideline for a €3m investment. Each farmer took a stake of up to 4%. They contacted buyers, organised fuel supplies, and the boilers were running eight months after work started in 2004.

The manufacturer of one of their two boilers, Froling, has a 24% stake and a hand in the marketing, and subsidies were provided by national and local government. Their boilers are 3MW and 500kW, one for winter use, the other for summer. A 4MW boiler may be added. The heat emitted is piped via heat exchangers to customers.

Because the company does not wish to supply more cheaply than gas or oil, and those fuels were relatively cheap then, customers were scarce initially. But, says Hans: “We marketed successfully soon after on the grounds that it was environmentally friendly, promoted local fuel supplies and supported local farmers.” Hans, however, is also popular locally and believes in personal contact. And with fluctuations in fossil fuels last year, demand for biomass heat has grown. The farming stakeholders own about 700 hectares of forest. Any supplier is free to try undercutting the current _50 a tonne. They burn about 10,000m2 of woodchip yearly, about half of which can be stored under cover; the boilers accept chip up to 50% moist. Amazingly, the plant is run by phone monitoring. Managing director Hans spends about one hour a day there, and one employee spends about the same time on general operation and maintenance.

Alongside is a biogas plant, run by seven of the stakeholding farmers since 2006. Fuel stock here – about 12 tonnes needed daily - includes maize, sorghum and flower seeds. This produces around 6MW of electricity, 6MW of heat. The stock is minus oxygen. The resulting methane is stored in a 360m3 flexible container to await entry to a generator. Breakeven here will be around 10 to 12 years, but again, the plant requires only about one hour’s attention a day. Toffee noses of Vienna and Salzburg used to disparage Linz, the capital of Upper Austria.

“Linz is provincial,” has long been a sardonic catchphrase in the nation’s better-known cultural centres. But Linz has delivered a one-two. It is this year’s cultural city of Europe, now an acknowledged centre not only for its traditional steelmaking, but for its renewables performance. Christine Ohlinger, an executive of the Upper Austria Energy Agency ESV, says Upper Austria has led the way because, while it has abundant forests to provide fuel, Austria has little access to oil.

“Today, renewables provide more than 30% of energy in this region,” she explains. “In five years alone, energy use in new houses here was reduced by 30%.

The aim is to go on reducing it by 1% year on year till 2010.” In those same five years, the regional government encouraged the start-up of 15,000 modern wood chip installations, 15 wind installations and also thermal collar collectors, hydro power from small scale plants, geothermal plants, biogas and sewage gas plants, heat pumps and photovoltaic installations. In one of these fields alone, 30 new companies will have been established by 2010, creating 1,500 jobs. Near the Achtleiners’ remarkable business centre, Genol distribution centre (headquarters, Vienna) supplies not only bulk and bagged pellets but also logs, briquettes – and oil.

Its co-operative pellet distribution centre serving Upper Austria from the same spot has 1,200 farmer members. Its sales of pellets and other biomass fuels have climbed continuously over five years. Pellets sourced from Tyrol for local delivery to 1,000 customers are stored in silos for lorry delivery. About 20,000 tonnes of pellets a year go to companies and homes. Logs are imported also from the Ukraine and the Czech Republic. Another district heating system opened last year at a cost of €3m, feeding on local wood chip. What the likes of Achtleitners andWildfellners of Austria have achieved, farmers in the North East could co-operatively achieve. There is industrial opportunity, too.

Guntamatic GmbH has manufactured boilers since 1963, but with a rewarding switch from log and oil boilers to those of log chip, pellet and grain, its 180 employees produce 12,000 boilers annually now, 70% going to the likes of Germany, France and, increasingly, Britain through Treco Ltd (www.treco.co.uk).Sales top €40m. Systems range from 3 to 40MW.

Measures of support by local and national government account for a lot of Austrian success, especially in promoting energy efficiency and uptake of renewable energy technologies.

Their incentives include free energy advice centres, soft loans for builders and renovators, and grant support and tax incentives for installations.

Regional parliament’s targets for 2030 include 100% electricity and heating from renewables, 41% less use of fossil fuels for transport, and 65% reduction in CO2 emissions.

Unlike Britain, whose fuel future is in critical disarray and whose government already admits inability to cut carbon emissions 20% by 2010, Austria looks set to achieve carbon emissions and renewables targets for 20 years beyond.

Long-term policy is credited for targets achieved and related manufacturing and service industries beneficial to the economy being launched.

The green energy cluster there has 148 member firms employing 4,000 people and turning over €1,570m annually. Britain, unfortunately, is not distinguished for long-term policy achievement just now. And what of customers? Heating by renewables is now the preference for new houses.

In a large family home I saw, there was a 25kW pellet heating system at work in the ground-floor workrooms and storage area. The fuel store holds up to two years’ supply. Delivery lorries peashoot the pellets into the store by pipe. Pellets enter the boiler as required. The occupier has only to empty ashes every couple of months and perhaps clean the heat exchangers.

How does a businesswoman at work all day find the switch from fossil to renewables? One told me: “It has turned out to be a little bit more expensive, but worth every euro for the reduced inconvenience in cleaning and maintenance.” Solar City on the outskirts of Linz comprises 1,294 homes built over a decade by a not-for- profit organisation, whose architects included Norman Foster and Richard Rogers.

The houses, which avoid overshadowing, exploit sunlight through solar energy.

Half the hot water is solar sourced, and all buildings are in a heating network, fuelled 17% by biomass.

Innovative drainage and waste water treatment also feature.