Alnwick-based biomass company
Ben Tansey learned negotiating skills haggling for food in India
and now heads a biomass company which turns over £3m just three years
The North East, according to Ben Tansey, is probably the best place to run a biomass business.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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
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.
now the national standard for training for fuel production, and more
than 1,000 people from across the UK have successfully completed the
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.”
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
The new company, initially run as a part-time venture, was
set up in conjunction with Warkworth-based businessmen David Orange and
Just three years after its launch, re:heat now has a £3m turnover and six members of staff.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
as a biomass pioneer and key adviser to the industry, Tansey doesn’t
yet have a biomass system installed in his own home.
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!”