While gray alder has few uses other than providing heat, harvesting the timber has not been cost-effective. Energy price hikes could be changing this situation now, with gray alder one alternative to Russian gas.
Gray alder woods make up 6.6 percent of Estonian woodlands. State forests hold 5.5 million cubic meters of gray alder and private forests 26 million cubic meters, Arvi Toss, chief specialist for the Ministry of the Environment's forests department, said.
"It remains an untapped resource. Talking about gray alder forests, most are fit only for heating, with the timber seldom finding other use. But firewood has until recently sold for less than it costs to process," Toss said.
The expert added that recent energy price hikes have altered the situation. The Estonian Private Forest Association has said as much. The association finds that the felling volume for alder could be hiked by half a million cubic meters a year that would be enough to replace Russian gas used for heating.
"Half a million cubic meters would not impact the relative importance of alder woods or our total felling volume to any notable degree," Toss said.
Gray alder is abundant enough for nature conservation restrictions not to apply. But Toss added that the state will not be subsidizing alder felling.
"I believe the state should lend a hand, while it should be on the demand side of things first. To go over district heating solutions that currently operate on natural gas. Plenty of investment is needed there," Jaanus Aun, executive manager of the private forest association, said.
Jaanus Uiga, head of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications' energy department, said that boiler plants' demand for wood chips already exceeds supply. A fifth of district heating still uses gas.
"The current price level motivates building new boiler plants where they can be operated on wood chips. These investments will simply take a few years or at least one. New plants need to be designed and constructed," Uiga said.
The ministry has used EU grants to support the construction of such stations in the past and plans to do so again. The Estonian Private Forest Association also wants the state not to lay down new forestry restrictions. Siim Kuresoo, head of the forestry program of the Estonian Fund for Nature, said that while gray alder could be used more intensively, the association's demand is worrying. He emphasized that dialing back consumption should also be prioritized in energy.
"Heating consumption can be reduced by making buildings more energy efficient, while there are other ways to heat houses than just gas and timber," Kuresoo offered.
Editor: Marcus Turovski