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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 March 2008, 20:53 GMT
Willow power stops pool cash drain
By Martin Cassidy
BBC NI environment correspondent

Cookstown pool
Lower running costs will more than pay for the willow investment
Oil prices may be reaching new heights, but Cookstown Council has reduced the cost of heating its swimming pool by 1,100 per week.

It has managed this by switching to wood chip produced by local farmers.

The project is being seen as an important example of how Northern Ireland can reduce its heavy dependence on imported fossil fuels.

Like leisure centres across Northern Ireland, the swimming pool in Cookstown attracts thousands of swimmers every week.

But heating the pool has been proving a major drain on council resources.

Rising oil prices boosted the cost to almost 100,000 last year.

Cheaper source

Determined to keep its leisure facility, the council decided that somehow it would have to find a cheaper source of fuel.

The wood-fired burner is located in the pool building's basement
As it happened, a number of local farmers were becoming interested in growing energy crops and had been planting fields with fast-growing willows.

The two sides quickly realised they could work together to come up with a local solution which would offer savings to ratepayers while establishing a local renewable energy industry.

The result has been the installation of a wood-fired burner beneath the leisure centre and instead of oil deliveries, the farmers keep the new wood chip store topped up with the willow crops they grow.

The council says that the switch from oil to willow has reduced its heating bill by 1,100 per week.

The lower running costs will more than pay for the investment in the new heating system.

Harvester of willow
Farmers clubbed together to buy a harvester of willow
The farmers too are gearing up for their new business in the energy industry.

The five growers involved in the project have clubbed together to buy a special willow harvester.

With more than 2,000 acres across Northern Ireland now planted with the short rotation energy crop, the Cookstown farmers see a busy time ahead.

Back at the leisure centre, a pool attendant is checking the water temperature.

Outside it's a chilly four degrees but inside the water is lovely.

It may still be early days but what's already been achieved at Cookstown could prove a model for other councils.

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