IT MAY sound like a throwback to the smog-filled Victorian era, but the Scottish government wants wood-powered energy to provide heating for around a quarter of a million homes and businesses by 2020.
According to targets in the Scottish Government's forthcoming renewable energy framework document, boilers powered by pellets made from compressed wood should provide around 10% of all Scotland's heating needs in a little over a decade.
But critics have pointed out that biomass fuels - the technical name for using wood-burning to generate energy - have environmental drawbacks, such as smog and deforestation, as well as a sting in the tail for the consumer who will have to find thousands of pounds to fit out their homes with the equipment needed to turn wood energy into heat.
There are also questions over whether or not the biomass industry has the ability to fulfill the government's ambitious plans. The industry in Scotland is tiny and experts claim rapid growth could be hamstrung by installation costs, wood supply, and the effect widespread use of the boilers will have on air quality in urban areas.
Experts estimate the annual turnover of the entire biomass industry in Scotland today is well under £3 million per year. Industry body Scottish Renewables has 260 members, only 15 of whom are directly active in the biomass sector.
The Scottish government has commissioned research into the effect the boilers will have on air quality.
There are also serious concerns around cost. A domestic biomass boiler costs between £4000 and £10,000 to install with a industrial boiler costing much more. A Westminster Government consultation on the best way to support people who want to install boilers closed last week.
There are further worries about the forestry industry's readiness to supply enough fuel to meet the government's biomass targets. In January, a wood fuel task force estimated the industry would need one million green tonnes - timber freshly felled - per year by 2020. That is a seventh of all the wood produced in Scotland last year.
The report concluded there would soon be "increasing competition" for the wood or timber waste material that goes into making biomass boiler fuel.
Jason Ormiston, chief executive of the Scottish Renewables Forum, said the new targets would mean a sharp increase in the current rate of boiler installation from around 1500 per year to 25,000 per year by 2020.
Ormiston, who predicted the industry could have a turnover of £275 million by 2020, said: "It's a massive jump and the real question is whether Scotland will be able to deliver that in time. We have to be confident about it. Other countries make far better use of renewables."
However, Ormiston also said there were considerable challenges facing the SNP government in pulling off the project. He pointed to pollution from wood-burning, the pressure on forestry, the cost to consumers and the huge growth needed to meet the demands.
John MacLennan, manager of the Nevis centre in Aviemore, said the community centre and sports building was about to install a biomass boiler that would cost £180,000 and is expected to save about £20,000 a year.
Alistair McGlynn, a manger for biomass fuel manufacturers Balcas, called for better incentives for customers and boiler installation companies.
Balcas is building a wood pellet production factory in Invergordon. The plant will produce 100,000 tons of pellets a year when it opens next year.
He said he had no concerns about finding enough wood to fuel his factory and "the new targets are a fantastic opportunity for the whole industry".
The Scottish government said the report would be published shortly.