Bioenergy and Forestry in Treeless land: BioPAD and REMOTE mini-seminar in Iceland

What to do if you get lost in Icelandic forest – stand up and you will see your home!

Probably all foresters have heard that joke, which is nowadays seriously outdated. Even all Icelanders have not noticed yet the growth of forest sector in a “treeless land”, but currently Iceland can be highlighted as an example of development where well educated foresters have been doing good co-operation internationally and developed an ecologically, economically and socially sound modern forest sector.  Iceland has enormous geothermal heat reserves and a lot of hydropower.  Iceland can be said to be the most developed country when we are talking about use of renewable energy. More than 80 % of the total energy consumption is based on renewable energy.  The electricity price is Iceland is the lowest in whole Europe which make the use of biomass challenging.  Still, wood energy can be an option.  In the Eastern part of the country, geothermal heat is very difficult and expensive.  Base rock is solid and volcanic activity is low, which is why some areas are totally without possibilities to utilise this best known source of energy in “treeless land”.  Hallormstadur near Egilstadir is this kind of area. Luckily Hallormstadur has forests.

Hallormsstadur was also the place where BioPAD and REMOTE decided to hold a mini-seminar to talk about forestry supply chains in Iceland and the differences of renewable energy policy frameworks in each country of Northern Periphery area.  The aim of the meeting was to discuss what we can learn from Iceland and how different policies are effecting to each country’s use of renewable energy. The meeting commenced with visits to an Icelandic larch forest where participants learned how the forest has been established and thinned and how the supply chain of energy wood and industrial wood is done.  After the visits to research plots and a harvesting site, participants attended a lecture on Icelandic supply chains and forestry in Iceland.

When the first settlements were established in Iceland in AD 874, all lowland areas were covered by trees.  Active iron making, agriculture and sheep herding consumed sensitive wood resources and the land was later a long time without forests.  At the beginning of 20th century wood planting programmes started and they still continue actively.  To find a suitable species was problematic but hardworking Icelanders planted around 150 different species from more than 1000 provinces to find the most suitable one.  Landowners are encouraged and supported in tree planting and nowadays annual planting amounts are about 3.5 million seedlings. In 2007-2009 planting reached its’ height, 6 million seedlings per year.  The economic collapse after that reduced funding of planting projects.  Current growing stock is 1.2 Mm3 and annual growth is around 80 000 m3.  Figures are not high, but Iceland started close to zero and direction is steeply upwards.  Trees are growing well in Iceland because of the fertile volcanic land and good amount of rain.  Winter is harsh but not disturbing trees as much as earlier expected.  At the beginning planting densities were high, 6000-7000 seedlings per hectare, because natural mortality was believed to be over 50%.  Later, mortality was found to be much lower and nowadays planting densities are lower, 4000-3000 seedlings per hectare.  Dominating species are European larch (Larix decidua) and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis).  Also Aspen (Populus trichocarpa), Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) and Norway spruce (Picea abies) are common.  Remaining natural forests are nearly all downy birch (Betula pubescens).


Participants visiting in Iceland Forest Service research plots of Larch. Picture taken by Karri Pasanen, Metla

Dense, fast growing forests need to be thinned or otherwise all trees can die.  Harvesting of small diameter trees is expensive and harvesting needs to be planned carefully.  At the same time, also the use of harvested wood must be developed.  Small scale sawmilling and firewood production were good starting points, later, heat entrepreneurship gave business opportunities for Hallormstadur area, which does not have geothermal heat available.  The newest demand for freshly harvested Icelandic trees is ferrocilicium production of Elkem Ltd.  Fresh, moist wood is needed to tie oxygen, when quartz is altered to ferrocilicium, a valuable catalyst and raw material in steelmaking.  Wood is harvested by harvesters (excavator and forest tractor mounted), and a forwarder using tractor and forest trailer, chipped with an Icelandic made chipper and transported to the boiler by truck.  For Elkem Ltd.  the wood is not chipped and it is transported as delimbed stem wood by truck. Wood is chipped at the plant.


Harvesting operations of Larch in Icelandic challenging conditions and chipping of wood at Elkem. Picture taken by Karri Pasanen, Metla

The Icelandic forest service also owns a sawmill in Hallormstadur, but the wood size and quality are enabling only a minor part of removal to be processed for lumber.  Firewood is used in Iceland to some extent.  For example, pizzerias in Reykjavik need remarkable amount of firelogs annually.  Heat entrepreneurship has challenges in Iceland like anywhere else. Competing energies are relatively cheap, especially electricity.  (Hallormastadur has no geothermal heat available).  The new ferrocilicium industry needs also fresh wood in its’ processes and harvesting costs are high. A new wood energy scheme is under planning in Grimsey island, which is now the only place in Iceland heated and powered by oil.  If you can establish viable wood energy chain in Iceland, you can do it anywhere.  Internal technology and know-how transfer must be done carefully and systems need to be adapted into the local operational environment.  Wood energy is not a total solution for energy production but it can be local solution for many more places, close or remote.

The second day of the mini-seminar was concentrating bioenergy policies.  Policies are tool to use the natural resources efficiently in a sustainable way.  Sweden will manage to reach their of 2020 target using a stick approach by having high taxation of fossil fuels, Finland have a lower taxation for fossil fuels but use a carrot approach for using renewables.   Finland has subsidies for renewable energy as well as a number of tax concessions available.  Both Finland and Sweden support multiple ways to use of renewable energy but Finland is still struggling to reach the 2020 target which is more than possible to achieve.  Norway is supporting both investment of new boilers and power plants (most of them are hydro plants) but are also giving support for biomass use.  The role of fossil fuels will still remain high in Norway as they have huge resources of oil comparing other NPP countries.  The situation in Ireland and UK is challenging.  It is looking that both countries are not able to reach all the targets of 2020.  There are several supporting policies available but the problem is that most of them are short term and changing annually which make policies hard to trust or to use.   These policies are sometimes too complex to understand.  The conclusion was that Ireland and UK need to react fast if they want to reach their target.  It might be that forestry is not anymore the primary option as it grows slowly but use of Energy crops could be still possible if investments are made.  Iceland has huge renewable resources which have help them a lot to be a country of success in use of renewables.  They have still one challenging step to take which is to increase the use of renewables in transportation.  It could be done using electric cars if the electricity price remains low.  All parts of Iceland can’t use geothermal or hydropower so support for use of biomass is still needed.

Mini-seminar participants visited also in geothermal plant in Egilsstadir and Elkem ferrosilicium plant close to Reykjavik.


BioPAD team in Egilsstadir geothermal plant. Photo taken by Karri Pasanen, Metla

BioPAD project is making a case study report of Iceland supply chain of wood biomass. Please follow the project to keep updated when it is available to read.


About biopadblog

Developing a local bioenergy market can provide significant opportunities for rural and remote areas, by improving security of energy supply, contributing to a reduction in CO2 emissions and stimulating the local economy by creating jobs and keeping payments for energy within the local community. A new project, BioPAD (Bioenergy Proliferation and Deployment), which targets the Northern Periphery of Europe, aims to ensure that bioenergy becomes more widely used and that awareness of the opportunities it provides are increased. The project will help the development of bioenergy and improve our understanding of the links between supply and demand by looking at supply chains for a variety of bioenergy fuels and different ways of converting these fuels into sustainable energy. Understanding the supply chains and the ways bioenergy moves from fuel source to energy provision will help the establishment of robust and efficient supply services which can match local demand. BioPAD is led by the Western Development Commission (Ireland) and is funded under the ERDF Interreg IVB Northern Periphery Programme (NPP)
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