March 12, 08
World’s First Run Farmer Biomass Service Station Cooperative

The Austrian state of Carinthia, in the south of the country, has opened its first cooperatively managed service station for biomass. 7000 small farmers are members of the energy cooperative, which collects residual wood and turns it into finished products ready for combustion in large biomass power stations and small heating units. Biomass users come to "tank" at the station. The collection point is located in Feistritz/Drau and offers technical assistance as well as machines to the farmers. By cooperating, the farmers achieve scale, a stable supply, and a new market which allows them to increase incomes by an estimated 15 percent.

The idea behind the energy cooperative is simple: hundreds of small farmers team up to supply wood to the station, which turns it into dry wood chips that are bought by several big customers. The initiative emerged out of the idea to make sustainable exploitation of local forest and woodland resources more attractive again.

Many farmers had lost interest for years, because there was no market. The emerging bioenergy sector signaled a change. But individual farmers did not see much opportunity as single suppliers: investing in heavy equipment, drying and storage facilities when you only have a limited raw material resource base does not make sense. Last autumn, an existing farmers' cooperative therefor launched the idea of a collectively supplied "biomass station" that takes away the investment risk by distributing it over many farmers. And it became a success: hundreds now participate as suppliers.

The cooperative had a bit of luck too. A heavy storm caused severe damage to woodlands in the region, which prompted the local authorities to draw on private resources to clean up the wood. The cooperative stepped in, and more farmers joined. Now the Feistritz service point guarantees a secure, year round biomass supply, which is a precondition for any large power generator to use the resource.

The simple farmer cannot compete with his small quantities. But with our organization we offer scale and thus we can help him get access to a much larger market. This guarantees his survival. - Josef Steiner, Maschinenring

Biomass is seen as an attractive energy source, because not only is it renewable, it has become the least costly of all fuels. But biomass is more than wood. Biomass fuels consist of raw wood that has undergone a simple transformation process: it is collected, dried, stored and turned into chips or pellets. It is this seemingly insignificant transformation that makes all the difference to the farmers. It adds value and opens the market. Individual farmers often don't have a large enough wood supply to warrant investment in the machines needed to carry out these processes.

The farmers now have the possibility to create value with the machines offered by the cooperative. They do no merely sell wood, they supply a true fuel for energy, namely wood chips with a high heating value. - Christoph Aste, managing director of the cooperative

The cooperative rents out heavy equipment to farmers who use it to haul fallen trees and branches out of their forests and woodlands. A specialised team of four men comes with the machinery.

The biomass fuel station is located at the site of a sawmill that was redesigned for its new function. This means the necessary logistical infrastructure is in place. The station now supplies fuel to both large and small customers. It covers the yearly heating needs of 4,000 households as well as the biomass supplies of several large district heating plants.