The North East, according to Ben Tansey, is probably the best place to run a biomass business.
“There’s a natural propensity for wood fuel because we’ve got Europe’s largest manmade forest, Kielder, on the doorstep. A lot of the timber grown in Kielder goes directly to processors like Egger in Hexham, but it means that there is a large production capacity, driving a strong forestry sector,” says Tansey, director and co-founder of Alnwick-based biomass specialists re:heat.
“The North East is the engine, the heart of productive forestry in England. It gives us that infrastructure; we know how to manage our woodlands, we have the contractors and the skills which give us that base.
“At the same time, there are large parts of the region which are off mains gas, meaning biomass is competing against much higher-cost fossil fuels such as LPG and oil, and in high heat businesses which are on mains gas, and it stacks up very well.”
Tansey is passionate about the region he’s called home for the past 12 years.
“I like it for its wilderness,” he says. “It’s remote and rural and I love my hills – to me the hills are essential – but the beaches are stunning and it makes life up here fantastic.”
But the 37-year-old went around the world and back before he discovered what the region had to offer, and that was by chance. A native of Milnrow near Manchester, he studied ecological science and forestry at the University of Edinburgh before setting off on a two-year globe-trotting adventure with girlfriend Adele. The couple are now married and have three children – Joe, six, Millie, four, and two-year-old Flo.
“We chose to go well off the beaten track and we didn’t follow the standard backpackers’ route. We spent a lot of time in Indonesia, going to remote islands on fishing boats. We went to India and Nepal, where we spent a lot of time in the Himalayas. We had some fantastic experiences – you really hone your negotiation skills bartering for lunch in India!”
It also gave him the opportunity to put some of the skills he’d studied into practice, working for the government forestry services in the US and in Australia. When he returned to the UK, the first job he applied for was with the Northwoods, the North East woodland initiative in Rothbury, and he has been here ever since, living in the town.
Northwoods, a Government-supported organisation to support timber and forestry businesses in the North East, was where Tansey met Neil Harrison, his co-founder at re:heat.
“I ran a training project to teach new skills to people working in the private forestry sector,” said Tansey.
“One of the areas was the emerging wood fuel market; 12 years ago, the wood fuel market was not like it is now, but there was huge potential out there.”
The training project at Northwoods was initially a 12-month contract, but its funding was repeatedly extended. Tansey and Harrison, who lives in Boulmer, ran a variety of training and other schemes between them, and co-authored a training programme for people wanting to work in the embryonic wood fuel industry. The Ignite wood fuel programme was the first of its kind, and won a National Training Award in 2006.
“We piloted it on a group of 65 forestry contractors and land managers in the North East,” said Tansey.
“It’s now the national standard for training for fuel production, and more than 1,000 people from across the UK have successfully completed the course.”
His interest in renewables firmly sparked, Tansey left Northwoods to work for Newcastle-based energy consultancy TNEI, where he received a firm grounding in other aspects of the alternative energy sector. A secondment to learn about the installation side of the biomass industry – woodchip or pellet boilers providing heat to domestic, commercial and public buildings – led to a job with one of the UK’s pioneers in the sector, Wood Energy.
Tansey said: “The wood fuel sector was really quite small, with only three or four companies of any size in the UK. Wood Energy didn’t have anybody at all in the North of England at the time.
“They really focused on large-scale commercial and industrial installations, working with Austrian equipment which is undoubtedly the leading nation for biomass energy.”
He drove the business development side of the company from enquiries through to execution, working with major construction companies on biomass heating projects in hospitals, schools, universities, hotels and prisons in the North East and further afield.
“After that, I went back to Northwoods as director to focus on the fuel supply side and associated projects to get that up to speed, then I set up re:heat with Neil.”
The new company, initially run as a part-time venture, was set up in conjunction with Warkworth-based businessmen David Orange and Keith Puddephatt.
Just three years after its launch, re:heat now has a £3m turnover and six members of staff.
“We work with a strong network of installation partners, and provide support, training, design and high-quality equipment, supporting heating engineers through biomass energy projects. These engineers have completed many oil or gas systems, but they are now finding there is a big demand for biomass.”
The re:heat team have worked on biomass projects as far afield as a site drying seaweed for organic fertiliser on North Uist in the Outer Hebrides to schemes down to Wiltshire. Closer to home, the company was heavily involved in designing and installing the biomass heating system at the Grade II-listed Minsteracres Retreat in the Tyne Valley, and at Alnmouth Golf Club’s impressive base at Foxton Hall. Although focusing on the North, the business works with a network of installers around the UK.
Although biomass heating is still a relatively niche market in the UK, Tansey says it has a huge potential. Much of this is due to the Government’s support of the sector as part of the push to move away from fossil fuels to heat from renewable energy.
Indeed, Tansey has been called in as a consultant by the Government on the development of the biomass sector, due to his experience in drawing up training programmes and providing specialist advice – often for organisations where their initial biomass boiler has not been installed properly, and isn’t working as expected.
He said: “We have just completed a piece of research for the Government department that runs the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), assessing how the current scheme is being delivered on the ground and what needs to improve for the next phase.
“The Government has big aspirations for biomass to deliver renewable energy. The big three energy needs are heat, electricity and transport; 47% of the market for total energy in the UK is in the form of heat.
“The question is how much of our fossil fuel use we can replace with biomass. When I first got involved in biomass, there were maybe 150 automated systems installed in total in the UK; this has grown to around 6,000, but the Government is targeting 120,000 by 2020.
“The Government incentive is driving the sector forward, and the UK is now accepting biomass as a fuel source; we used to have to sell biomass as a concept, but there’s less of that now because it’s not seen as a wacky technology any more.
“We’re in a position where we have reliable technology – a lot is from Austria, where they have been doing this for more than 30 years and biomass is as mainstream as oil or gas is in the UK.”
Re:heat opted to primarily supply equipment from tried and tested leading Austrian biomass boiler makers ETA and Binder, after thoroughly reviewing the market. The company now represents ETA products across the North of England and works with Binder on larger, higher-duty and specialist applications. Tansey said: “We’ve also done quite a lot of work abroad. We’ve run European projects on sharing good practice with other countries with more advanced biomass sectors than ours, such as Austria and Finland. For example, Neil has just returned from speaking at the World Bio-Energy Conference in Sweden.
“We differentiate ourselves from the rest of the market because we have a lot of knowledge and experience of the whole wood fuel sector, from how the fuel supply chain is structured, through to delivering large and complex installations.
“What makes us stand out is our track record, experience of working with unique and unusual projects, and the breadth of the work – everything from consultancy for government agencies to involvement in installations and training other businesses which are installing boilers.
“We can answer queries on just about everything about biomass energy, from supply chains and logistics to setting up to grow your fuel, and how to integrate a biomass system into your property.”
Expertise gained across the whole biomass industry is essential for anyone joining re:heat.
“Including myself and Neil, there are six full-time people,” said Tansey. “We are happy with the numbers at the moment, but we do have an active recruitment drive to see who is out there, and if the right people come along, we look to add them to the team.
Everyone we have on board has come with direct experience of the sector, and we have a really strong team as a result.”
As a businessman, Tansey admits that money isn’t his prime motivation: “What is important to us as a business is an open philosophy,” he says.
“It’s a very relaxed environment, and we need everybody to feel part of the business. When you get to the point where you get that Sunday night dread, you know that’s the time to start thinking about doing something different. I’ve never had that once – it’s a great business.”
Ironically, as a biomass pioneer and key adviser to the industry, Tansey doesn’t yet have a biomass system installed in his own home.
“I have bought three boilers and sold them all to other people,” he says. “If you run a biomass business and someone phones up and says they want to buy a boiler quickly, you tend to sell it to them. I have another one now, and it will go in before Christmas!”