Experts set up shop in the middle of a North-East wood yesterday for a heated discussion on using timber as a major fuel source.
The event at Chopwell Wood on the edge of Gateshead also saw the launch of a service called NEWheat (North East Wood Heat) as the expert panel sat under the trees to discuss the economic and environmental issues around the use of wood as an alternative to fossil fuels and other forms of renewable energy.
NEWheat will be persuading companies in the region to switch to modern boilers which burn woodchip or pellets.
According to NEWheat project director Neil Harrison, the wood boilers can cut company fuel bills by half and burning wood is 90% carbon neutral because of the carbon dioxide the tree absorbs during its lifetime.
NEWHeat is an offshoot of the One NorthEast-funded Rural Development Initiative based at Newcastle University's Cockle Park, near Morpeth, which helps rural areas and business enterprises.
The argument is that the North-East is rich in forests and unmanaged woodlands which can supply the timber, reducing fuel miles.
Planting replacement trees and new woodlands, managing woods and harvesting will also provide rural jobs and better conditions for wildlife as companies cash in on the fuel on their doorsteps.
"In landscape terms, I don't think there will be as many issues about trees as there are about wind turbines," said Mr Harrison.
He said that 51% of renewable energy in Europe comes from wood, while in the UK the figure was less than 1%.
"We are really lagging behind in this country. We were the first country to industrialise and because we have used coal, North Sea oil and gas, we have become divorced from our woodlands to which people in the past turned to for fuel.
"We should be making use of what is already there, but it is something we have completely forgotten about."
Mr Harrison said that there was enough natural wood waste alone in the region a year to heat two secondary schools.
Six schools in Newcastle are due to be wood-heated, as is Hexham's new swimming pool and the Clothier Laboratories' High Voltage Testing Laboratory in Hebburn, South Tyneside.
And it won't cost the Earth
Members of the panel yesterday backed wood as a fuel. Athole McKillop, director of Land Factor North-East, said: "It's great news for rural communities that something which is found naturally plentiful in the countryside is set to cause a boom regionwide, help reduce carbon emissions and could lead to future jobs from new businesses and off-shoots.
"It's a fantastic opportunity for entrepreneurs who have previously been unable to start up in rural areas due to rising energy bills and through this technology may now be in a more feasible position to do so."
Keith Gill, managing director of the Tanfield Food Company, said: "It's of huge significance to the North-East and its businesses in particular, not just as a money saving issue but as a corporate responsibility.
"As a company that sources the very best local produce from the region's farmers we are not only helping those on our doorstep but by not importing goods from around the far corners of the earth and refrigerating it we're not costing the planet either. By tapping into wood heat - a clean and natural resource - businesses would not just be cleaning up the region but saving money over time on heating bills too."