In the latest in our A Voice from the Woods series, our insider looks at novel ways to generate energy for sawmills. 

IT’S good to start a new year on a positive note and, just recently, one or two good things have happened at the sawmill.

Just when I was beginning to despair about the work ethic of the young, along come two new recruits to inspire some hope. Over the last couple of years we’ve been reliant on a couple of pensioners to keep things going, and while their contribution has been invaluable and greatly appreciated, it’s good to have a nice balance of age within the workforce. This is a very physical job and sometimes you need a little youthful exuberance.

Talking about new arrivals, we’re also about to take delivery of a shiny new loader. While we’re all very excited about its arrival, it does give me one or two concerns. The outgoing model (the old loader) had its engine at the rear, which to me makes sense.

However, the shiny new one has its engine on the side. This could explain why, when visiting farms, many of the new loaders I have seen have battered engine covers, battered engines and evidence of damaged hydraulics. In terms of physics it makes sense to have the engine at the rear to act as a counterbalance and to aid the engine’s protection.

READ MORE: Voice from the Woods: January 2022

It almost looks as though it’s been designed specifically to provide follow-up revenue for the manufacturing company – or perhaps designed by someone who’s never driven one.

Producing a machine with so many blind spots seems insane to me. One thing is for certain: it will be getting a very thorough inspection when it arrives, guards fitted to cover the vital bits and possibly even a camera for the blind side. To me, these additions should all be standard. So, I suppose our excitement and our sense of achievement are somewhat tempered by what I see as design flaws. Watch this space.

As I explained last month, the issue of red diesel has been occupying my mind for most of my waking hours. It turns out the generator I recently bought had been set up for using different fuels in different countries. This just might have provided me with a little wiggle room. I’m still firmly of the suspicion that the whole energy issue is of the government’s own making and designed, along with the oil companies, to maximise revenues. 

Up until 100 years ago, most towns in the UK were built next to rivers. The town need water not only for drinking, but also for industry. Why we aren’t making more use of our rivers today for hydro-electric purposes beats me. I’m not just talking about grand schemes, but local enterprises. Think of the millions of kW flowing past the average town every hour which could be converted into cheaper energy bills for local people instead of the massive increases we’re about to experience. 

If you’re a little sceptical of the government’s green agenda then when you scratch beneath the surface you’ll see all is not what it seems. The generator we’ve just acquired actually came from a generator bank used to back up wind power. No wind? Switch on the diesel-fired generators! This generator is 500 kVA and was one of 16 which, when linked, created a 10,000 hp super-generator. Strangely, I’ve never seen this in the green energy companies’ ads when they show idyllic scenes of rolling countryside with small children running carefree through glorious meadows with windmills turning gently in the distance.

The use of hydrogen is another interesting feature. To create hydrogen through electrolysis requires huge amounts of electricity and storing the stuff is very difficult, according to researchers. How is it then that a man on Scrapheap Challenge had his own car running on hydrogen from parts he’d salvaged from a scrap yard? Why don’t you Google the episode? I smell a rat here. If some random member of the public can do it, then why are these research labs fruitlessly spending millions?

On a similar track, a friend’s son is currently in Australia. He and his wife both work in the public sector and were able to take a year’s sabbatical from their UK jobs. He was telling me that in Australia you can install your own electrical system and you don’t have to rely on hitching up to their equivalent of the national grid. Clearly the sun shines a good deal more Down Under. A system of solar panels and storage batteries can be installed for 7,000 Australian dollars or roughly £5,000. This can provide all the energy needs for that particular property, although he wasn’t sure about the longevity of the storage batteries. To install a similar system in the UK he was quoted £26,000. 

Furthermore, I happen to know two farmers who have recently had plans to generate their own hydroelectricity from streams on their land declined. These were high-altitude hill farms where the water tends to flow at a faster rate and are ideal for hydroelectricity.

The reason given for the planning authority’s decision was apparently due to migrating fish, although where they were migrating to in the upper Cheviots is a mystery.

Presumably, if the government was serious about its green credentials then surely it would be encouraging people to take these initiatives, not discouraging them. Could it be the energy companies don’t want people abandoning the money-go-round which is the energy industry?

So, with an influx of youth to the mill and a possible way out of the increased red diesel costs, I’m in the middle of installing extra circular saws. The aim is to cut down on double handling and make things a bit easier. A few years ago we fitted vertical edgers which cut boards directly out of the scabs. This has worked really well and we want to take this to the next level by fitting bigger versions to edge the bigger planks and even multi-rip straight from the log if necessary. The beauty of this, when we get it up and running, is that everything will come from the main saw with straight edges, reducing the need for resawing.

Forestry Journal:

The other advantage of this approach is synchronicity. The edgers will edge when the mill is running at the same rate that the logs are fed in. If I don’t run the mill for a day then I don’t have people standing around. Likewise, if a person is working an edger behind the main saw then you will inevitably bury him in timber or he’ll just be standing around, depending on what is being milled. The system should, therefore, be easier and more efficient. The only variable would be at the end of the saw, and redeploying another person to help should be easy enough. If they’re needed then there’s a myriad of other tasks: pointing posts, stacking, driving the forklift and thereby keeping things simple and flexible.

READ MORE: Voice from the Woods: December 2021

The system would also help in the case of staff absence – a situation which all employers face on a fairly regular basis. This can be very difficult with a small workforce and seems to be particularly prevalent on a Monday for some reason. And so, onwards and upwards, as they say.

When Harold McMillan asked Rab Butler, the then home secretary, what represented the greatest challenge for a politician, Butler replied: “Events, dear boy, events.” 

Things have happened and changes have been made and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another. I’m not a changes-for-changes-sake person and, at the moment, there seem to be some weird things happening, employing some strange methods, but it all seems to be working. Fingers crossed!