In the latest in our A Voice from the Woods series, our insider details the choices facing the industry over fuel.

SOME time long ago I recall someone describing the running of a business as like being a boxer. You circumnavigate the ring, avoiding the blows, but just occasionally one of those blows connects and knocks you to the canvas. But you can’t lie there for long and you have to quickly get back on your feet, ready to face the next blow. To me, this seems to reflect the general approach of the government and regulators towards smaller businesses; heavyweight versus flyweight. Big business has the clout, the influence and the money to negotiate, outmanoeuvre and adapt to whatever regulations are introduced. That’s before we even consider recent concerns regarding politicians with advisory roles, lobbying and any other grace-and-favour arrangements. If small businesses have difficulty with regulations or regulators, then approaching your local MP is probably a complete waste of time. I’ve tried it!

At the moment, I’m stuck in no man’s land regarding red diesel as the rules – or at least the advice around them – changes on a weekly basis. At one stage, diesel generators could run on rebated fuel, then they couldn’t and then they could, provided it was for your own use. Then they couldn’t if it was for commercial use, which seemed to create a big grey area as oil companies seem to think ‘commercial’ means generating electricity for the grid. Surely if you are generating electricity for your own business it comes under commercial use? If this is the case, then I will be caught out!

READ MORE: Voice from the Woods: December 2021

The government’s macro mantra over these changes is to help the environment and persuade operators to switch to greener sources of energy. Unfortunately, the cynic in me sees it as another means of taxing people and generating more revenue. Even if we give the government and their mantra the benefit of the doubt, one could easily pose the question: ‘Why not ban diesel altogether?’

Can you imagine the outcry? Electric trucks still seem some considerable way off, as is hydrogen technology. Then you need the electrical energy to run many of these things, and our capacity is nowhere near large enough. Some environmentalists still don’t seem to have cottoned on to the fact that if the wind doesn’t blow then there is no electricity. It seems that at the stroke of a pen (or the press of a keyboard) a whole raft of small businesses can be written off which don’t have the power or the resources to fight back in order to help solve the green energy revolution. Instead it looks as though they will have to pay through a series of stealth taxes.

I recently received a shiny red brochure from our energy supplier proclaiming: “We are ready! Are you?” It was basically questioning our current practices and asking what could we do for the environment. Traditionally, our little mill ran on steam and it has seriously crossed my mind to return to it. All of our current residues go for biofuel and are burnt in a very efficient power station. In reality, we are in carbon credit. However, being in a rural location means there is no phase 3 electricity for 20 miles, which means we have to use a diesel generator. This in turn stops us from buying our energy from the power source which uses our residues. Look at the fuels the oil companies are advocating as alternatives to red diesel: kerosene, HVO (hydrogenated vegetable oil) and liquid gas.

Considering kerosene first, it is not recommended for diesel engines as it contains no lubricant and usually destroys the pumps. If you’re ever tempted to try it, then here’s a little exercise for you. Take a nut and bolt which are turning freely and wash them in kerosene. Reconnect the nut and bolt and listen to the sound as you turn the thread. It will squeal and squeak as you turn the nut on the thread.

Secondly HVO. When we contacted a supplier, the HVO worked out 20p a litre more expensive than red diesel. Determined to give it go, we asked the supplier when they could deliver, to which they said there was none currently available. And so, finally, LPG or liquid gas. For the quantity we’d require, we contacted a supplier who informed us the refinery hadn’t yet been built!

So our only realistic alternative to red diesel is white diesel but, owing to price increases this year, it is now 350 per cent more expensive than the red diesel we were using 12 months ago. This could seriously place in jeopardy the viability of any small sawmill in a rural location which can’t get hooked up to the mains. And all this comes at a time when the industry is desperate for more sawmill capacity for oversized and redwood sawlogs, with the big sawmills taking up the bulk of mid-range logs.

When you take a step back and look at recent decisions you realise how incompetent our decision–makers really are. Tried-and-tested timber preservations were banned, more and more timber was allowed to be imported (which probably did for a number of smaller mills) and now comes a ban on red diesel. Two biofuel plants on Teeside costing millions were allowed to go bust when the cost of ordinary diesel dropped to a very low price. Surely if the powers that be were serious about a greener future they would have supported these ventures.

Likewise, under the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) a few years ago, 20 million acres of upland grazing land became available due to a rapid decline in the sheep population from 40 million to 20 million. Subsidies were awarded on the basis of how much acreage you owned. Basically, you got money for nothing when the land could have been planted for the national good. Now we’ve left CAP it will be interesting to see the direction of travel here. To me it all seems that the interests of a few wealthy individuals and institutions take precedence over the hard-working small guys, and it is these smaller businesses which are being asked to pay the bill for this green ideal.

READ MORE: Voice from the Woods: November 2021

Moving forward, I often wonder why on earth I didn’t shut down the business, sell off all the machinery and redevelop the site. But, as with most self-employed individuals it’s in the blood and we’re a very resilient breed. I’m now blending fuels like some mad professor as I’m determined to find an alternative and not be ripped off by the system that only seems to favour its powerful and wealthy friends.

So, from where I’m sitting, it seems very frustrating that government officials and institutions are using the cloak of climate change as a revenue stream rather than doing anything serious about the sustainability of the environment. My little Northumberland mill has been here for 150 years and when it all began it was steam powered and all the sawlogs were hauled by horses. I don’t anticipate reinstating the horses, but the status of the mill could quite easily be carbon neutral or even carbon credit. There are so many simple ways, with only a modicum of thought, that the industry could be helped towards a greener, more sustainable future, if the desire and motivation was there. When Rudolf Diesel designed the first diesel engine, he designed it to run off peanut oil. There must be many crops we could grow today to provide diesel or similar fuels. Many areas of the UK suffer from flooding, especially those downstream. Why not have networks of hydro-electric dams all down the Pennines or other upland areas? Why are there so very, very few hydro-electric schemes? It seems successive governments always want to maintain the status quo. Protect the protected! Make the little guys pay! Well, this time I’m not sure I can absorb a fourfold increase in energy costs and I will have to give very serious thought to the future.

The current approach seems to mirror the approach the government took some years ago and which I wrote about at the time regarding the health and safety culture. The foxes were placed in charge of the hen huts and damn near shut everything down. 
Outsourcing to China has come back to bite us and someone somewhere needs to ask: if we continue down this line how will people feed and clothe themselves and, in the end, will there just be one giant company called Aperzon or Woogle? Maybe we’re not that far away!