The £600,000 lorry that turns trees into wood chips

By Steve Keenan, Northern Dorset LAG member

On a disused World War II airfield in Tarrant Rushton (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAF_Tarrant_Rushton), east of Blandford, there is a fearsome crushing machine, one of only three in use in the country.

It’s called a Komptech Chippo and it’s a lorry made in Austria, a country that is world leader in creating energy from timber. There are no oil or gas reserves in Austria, but they do have a lot of trees.

The lorry reduces trees to chips in seconds: up to 100 tonnes of solid timber an hour. It can split anything over 1.2 metres with its onboard hydraulic splicer, use the crane to grab and lift a trunk and dispense chips by blower or belt. But Dan Upton isn’t satisfied: he’s going to sell the Chippo, probably to a wood recycling company in Ireland. And he’s going to buy a bigger one from Austria.

Dan set up Southern Wood Energy in 2008, on land he leases from two farms, including Abbey Croft Farm, where he was employed before setting out to build his own business.

The main storage area is an enormous hangar that used to house Lancaster bombers. The airfield was also home to troop-carrying glider operations during WWII – taking off from here to Pegasus Bridge, the first Allied troops to land in France on D-Day.

The runway has long gone, the concrete broken up and re-used to build the A338 Bournemouth spur road in the 1970s. But on a patch of hardstanding, alongside other Nissen Hut war relics, Dan has established one of the biggest wood fuel production companies in Britain.

There are eight boilers on site, fed on ‘ugly’ wood – pallets, poor grade trees, stumps, cut-offs and other waste. Some 10% of the wood that comes in is burned to heat air and reduce moisture to around 20% in the ‘good’ wood chips.

One brand new (Austrian) boiler will effectively turn the wood into gas, which is then burned to generate electricity – and will replace the existing generator, saving hugely on costs. And excess power can be sold to The Grid.

Some 100,000 cubic metres is produced annually and sold, mainly within a 50-mile radius, to customers including schools, care homes and hospitals. It is cheaper to heat buildings with wood chips rather than pellets. Containers are also packed and shipped to other customers, including the huge boilers at the Olympic Park, now home to 6,000 flats.

The self-contained (driver sleeping cab included) Chippo crushing machine is also on the move regularly: it chips 40,000 tonnes of timber a year on site at Heathrow Airport.

Where does the wood come from? From the many large estates in Dorset – while on site, a lorry lumbered in stacked with poplar from a land clearance in Child Okeford. No money changed hands – the estate was happy to have its land cleared for free.

Leylandii, oak and other species were ready to be chipped. There were also old fence posts beyond commercial use. Southern can also handle brash and smaller wood – and its biggest boiler, the 900C Froling (it’s Austrian) is able to extract stone and metal during the firing process.

There are nine people employed on site, with at least one engineer constantly on the road maintaining 20 wood chip boilers shipped and installed by Southern around the country.

It’s quite an operation. Dan has successfully applied for 40% grants for three separate pieces of machinery used at Southern, which typifies the type of project that LAG is looking to fund – sustainable ideas that create jobs while helping to manage woodlands and timber waste.

It’s a magnificent site, with big open skies and surrounded by barley and wheat fields. There are no neighbours to complain about noise, even when Chippo is going full throttle. They’re missing something: it’s quite a spectacle.

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