The Times – Now we’re cooking – on wood
Escape the winter weather — and save on gas bills — by switching to this eco-friendly solution
Each morning, as the Siberian winter grips Britain, gas supplies are rationed and heating bills soar, Georgie Ursell carries her seven-month-old baby down to a warm kitchen and slides another log into the woodburning range cooker before putting on the kettle and porridge pan for breakfast. The family has no central heating — all their cooking, heating and hot water is provided by the Rayburn range cooker and two woodburning stoves.
Outside their stone cottage in Herefordshire’s Golden Valley, her husband, James, is constructing a timber-framed woodstore consisting of three bays which, when full, will accommodate several years’ worth of firewood.
Back in the kitchen, baby Gwendolyn is banging a spoon on the table while her mother heats soup; in the sitting room, six-year-old Abe and four-year-old Ivy are curled up on a sofa with storybooks.
The family moved into the cottage last year: “The upstairs rooms are perishing,” Georgie admits, “the previous owners were truly Spartan.” But the ancient Rayburn is soon to be replaced with a new wood-fuelled range cooker that will heat water and six radiators. The whole system, including a new water tank, will cost £8,000, but because James is setting up as a full-time artist, they qualify for a £3,500 grant under the Government’s Warm Front scheme, aimed at those claiming income-related benefits.
For most of us, a log fire has become little more than an optional indulgence for country weekends, but in the era of climate change, dwindling resources and rising energy prices, wood is making a comeback.
At River Cottage, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has swapped his Calor Gas-fuelled cooker for one that burns wood; in Soho, the Princi bakery heats its bread ovens with beechwood; in Monmouthshire, Arne Maynard, a garden designer, runs his heating and hot water from a computer-controlled log-burning boiler; and in Sussex, Jane Howard ditched her oil-fired Aga two years ago in favour of an Esse wood-fired cooker.
“I loved my Aga,” Howard says, “but it was like having a V8 engine throbbing away 24/7. The Esse keeps us warm, cooks our meals and heats the water and two radiators. We put a log on before we go to bed, come down in the morning, put some kindling on the embers and woof, off it goes again.”
Ten years ago 80 per cent of Esse’s range cookers ran on oil, 15 per cent on gas and only 5 per cent on solid fuel. Today the wood-fired model accounts for more than half of total sales. It’s a tiny segment of the cooker market, but a straw in the wind nonetheless, and there is a VAT tax break on both purchase and installation costs under the Government’s renewable energy scheme.
Provided that each tree felled is replaced, wood counts as a renewable fuel and the carbon released in burning is reabsorbed by new plantings. By contrast, burning fossil fuel releases carbon that has been locked up and out of the system for millions of years. And wood is cheaper, too: “People living off the gas grid can pay a fortune for heating,” Angela Guignan, of the Forestry Commission, says. “If you’re buying oil, coal or LPG, you should be looking at wood, woodchips or pellets as an alternative fuel.”
Though few of us have the time, money or space to convert entirely to one energy source, it makes sense to reduce our reliance on the vagaries of international energy markets — siting an efficient woodburning stove where it will heat much of the house, for example.
And townies need not be denied the romance of wood; although 80 per cent of us live in cities or towns that are classified as smoke exempt, there is a new generation of stoves that pass strict controls for urban emissions. Mike Barber Starkey, managing director of Euroheat, which imports and manufactures woodburners, says that high-spec woodburners can be micromanaged as easily as the most sophisticated central-heating system and combust so efficiently that they produce very little ash or smoke. An open fire is around 30 per cent heat efficient compared with up to 80 per cent for a woodburner, but good dry wood is essential for optimum performance and for most of us without our own bit of woodland that means finding a reliable source of seasoned logs. Green wood clogs up flues, blackens glass and emits excess carbon into the atmosphere. Barber Starkey says: “Ninety per cent of problems are due to poor fuel. Anyone can sell you seasoned wood, it is meaningless. Ideally you should buy it a year ahead and store it off the ground, covered but with air circulating.” He recommends buying a moisture meter: “Anything over 25 per cent moisture content is too wet to burn efficiently.”
At Certainly Wood in the Wye Valley, George Snell dries his hardwood logs in kilns heated by a computer-controlled furnace. “We put 45 tonnes in the kilns and get 30 tonnes out,” he says. “That’s how much moisture is removed.” While it seems perverse to use energy drying logs for burning, the huge boiler is actually fuelled by waste — sawdust and chippings from the logging process — which would otherwise go into landfill.
In council flats in Barnsley, coal-fired boilers have been replaced with woodchip gleaned from municipal tree prunings, saving 1,300 tonnes of carbon a year and cutting fuel costs by half. At West Dean College in Sussex, all the buildings are heated with wood from the estate, saving £12,000 in oil bills each year.
In Herefordshire, the Ursells buy in their firewood, ready cut, spending around £35 to £40 a week. But James plans to become more self-sufficient, buying uncut wood in “cord” lengths directly from neighbouring landowners, processing it himself and storing it in a three-year cycle: “Once the system is up and running, we should be spending an average of £12.50 a week on fuel,” Georgie says: “We love fires. It’s a basic human need, isn’t it? Like food and shelter.”
Fuel costs: woodchip 2.5p per kilowatt output; electricity 8.8p, oil 4.4p, natural gas 3.1p, LPG 6.5p. (Source: www.biomassenergycentre.org.uk)
A £400 grant is available for woodburning boilers under the Government’s Boiler Scrappage Scheme. governmentboiler-scrappagescheme.info
Low-income families can claim up to £3,500 for heating installation. www.warmfront.co.uk
Grants are available for wood pellet stoves. www.lowcarbonbuildings.org.uk/home
Suppliers: www.esse.com; www.euroheat.co.uk; www.certainlywood.co.uk
Further reading: www.forestry.gov.uk/england-woodfuel; www.woodlandtrust.org.uk