Jaanus Aun: Gas related worries overshadow environmental goals

Jaanus Aun.
Jaanus Aun. Source: Kadri Põlendik

Biofuel is the only realistic alternative for optimizing the exploitation of logging byproducts and low-quality trunk wood, writes Jaanus Aun, the chief of the Estonian Private Forest Union (EPFU).

Gas is both scarce and abundant: despite these contradictory media messages it is clear that gas is expensive and that the upcoming heating season is going to cause households concerns.

Shale oil has recently been marketed as a quick local substitute for Russian gas. True, it is a domestic product, but are we still conscious of our environmental goals? Namely, our goal at the start of the green revolution was to eliminate harmful and nonrenewable fossil fuels.

This initial goal has since been joined by a flood of adjacent ideas, as though a single strategy is being devised to set the world aright. We declare our intention to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but in doing so, we limit our access to our own renewable resources. The European Commission is constantly introducing new provisions into the law, such as the exclusion of biomass as a renewable energy source and the intention to restrict management of more and more forest areas.

Wood continues to be our local renewable energy source, and gray alder, which is ideal for heating, has long been neglected in privately owned forests in Estonia.

It is said that wood is expensive and will become scarce in the near future. Timber prices have indeed already risen, but not as dramatically as prices of natural gas.

In the past, the price of wood energy was so low that forest owners had little incentive to cut down trees as the cost outweighed the reward. Why should a landowner give up his forestland for a pittance? Add to that the export costs of timber that a free market economy entails - our timber prices and availability are also affected by global trends - and the material crisis is sparked.

Logging restrictions have gradually been tightened: reduced state forest felling, increased share of protected forests (now 30 percent of Estonia's forests are protected), and Europe's most strictly enforced spring felling season followed. In result, for about two and a half months this spring, felling came to a standstill. No timber is coming to the market and what is in scarcity becomes expensive. We could recognize by now that by signing petitions to restrict forest management we are supporting price increases.

The Private Forest Union (EPFU) has already pointed out that we have a lot of forest, which, unfortunately, does not yield anything else than energy wood.

EPFU has already raised the problem that a large portion of our privately owned woods is producing nothing but energy wood. In the current situation. it is sufficient to bring an additional 0.5 million cubic meters of wood onto the market to replace natural gas in the heat economy. Such a surplus can be obtained with minimal additional effort. It accounts for less than 5 percent of the annual harvest volume.

Many consider gas heating to be more comfortable than foraging in the woods. However, the only realistic solution for the efficient use of wood residues (branches, tops) or low-quality trunk wood (e.g. rotten or crooked trees), which is inevitably produced during felling, is to use also this source of biofuel as well. This wood cannot be used to build houses or make furniture, i.e. products with a longer lifespan, but its use as biofuel will give a great return.

In many cases wood is not a suitable heating alternative. It cannot fire a gas burner, wood chips require special storage conditions, etc. Moreover, in extremely cold weather conditions, wood energy alone is insufficient to meet peak demand, necessitating the use of an alternative. However, it is still worthwhile to invest in replacing as much gas and oil in the heating sector as possible with wood.

We could allow heating oil to be a one-time solution in this exceptional heating season. But it would be wiser for the coming winters not to impose unnecessary restrictions on our timber industry and instead look for ways to persuade small forest owners to manage their existing underused, low-quality forests in order to help them to generate better quality material in the future.

Our forests contain a significant amount of timber that can only be used for fuel. We can continue to heat Estonian homes affordably if forest owners can bring this type of wood to market.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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