Estonian pellet industry stirs up controversy


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IMAVERE (Estonia) (AFP) – Estonia’s thriving wood pellet industry pits environmentalists who warn it is increasing logging and harming biodiversity against supporters who say it makes good use of wood that would otherwise be wasted.

The subject is particularly sensitive in the tiny Baltic state once ruled by Moscow, whose forests cover more than half of the area and are an integral part of the national identity.

But, in a factory belonging to the largest producer of wood pellets in Europe, Estonian Graanul Invest, the head of the company’s quality and certification systems, defended the industry.

“Wood only comes to us when sawmills or plywood factories reject it,” Mihkel Jugaste told AFP of the sounds of machines turning logs into sawdust and compacting them into pellets.

Mihkel Jugaste of Graanul Invest, Europe’s largest producer of wood pellets, says they only use wood rejected by sawmills or plywood factories Ivo PANASYUK AFP

Wood pellets are a type of biofuel that can be used in special pellet stoves or central heating ovens for homes.

They are also used on a larger scale.

The old coal-fired power station at Drax in Great Britain now runs partly on wood pellets, some of which comes from Estonia.

Recording intensity “too high”

Conservationists say demand for biomass in Western Europe is causing increased logging in places like Estonia, including in protected areas and using techniques such as clearcutting in which entire areas of forest are destroyed.

They warn bird species like the black grouse and wood lark are threatened by logging, noting that the number of woodland birds has declined by about a quarter over the past two decades.

Their warnings were heeded in Brussels and the European Commission earlier this year launched infringement proceedings against Estonia for failing to ensure environmental impact assessments before issuing permits to operate in these areas.


Environmentalists fear demand for biomass could lead to increased logging
Environmentalists fear demand for biomass could lead to increased logging Ivo PANASYUK AFP

“The intensity of Estonian forest management is too high and pellet production within the forest industry plays an important role,” said Siim Kuresoo, forestry program coordinator at the Estonian Nature Fund.

“The original idea of ​​allowing the burning of wood as a renewable energy was only to reduce waste from industry. Now it has grown into a big industry in its own right,” he said.

Exports of timber and timber products account for around 10% of Estonia’s total and the value has increased by 48% to reach 165 million euros ($ 186 million) for the 12 months to August 2021 by report to August 2020, according to official figures.


Wood pellets are a type of biofuel that can be used in special pellet stoves, central heating ovens for homes or on a larger scale
Wood pellets are a type of biofuel that can be used in special pellet stoves, central heating ovens for homes or on a larger scale Ivo PANASYUK AFP

Graanul also announced that its turnover amounted to 438.9 million euros in 2020 compared to 401.7 million euros in 2019.

Jugaste said his company respects and will continue to comply with all environmental protection regulations, but pointed out that sometimes stakeholders do not agree on what the rules should be.

“We as a wood processor cannot really decide for them,” he said.

“As long as the experts make a decision on the protection status or the protected territory and this list is given to us, then we can protect it 100%,” he added.

“An incredible myth”

An article in Nature Research in 2020 found that there was an 85% increase in harvested areas in Estonia between 2016 and 2018 compared to 2004-2015 – one of the biggest expansions in the Union European.

At the same time, thanks to natural reforestation and planting, Estonia’s total forest area increased to 2.3 million hectares (5.7 million acres) in 2020 from 2.2 million hectares. hectares in 2001.


Taavi Ehrpais, a forest owner who also heads Vardi Metsauhistu, a forest management organization, says only about 10 percent of his wood ends up in a pellet mill.
Taavi Ehrpais, a forest owner who also heads Vardi Metsauhistu, a forest management organization, says only about 10 percent of his wood ends up in a pellet mill. Ivo PANASYUK AFP

The issue in Estonia is part of a larger European debate on whether wood pellets can be considered a carbon neutral source of energy as long as trees are replanted.

Many claim they can’t because burning wood is as dirty as charcoal and trees take many years to grow back.

Taavi Ehrpais, a forest owner in northwest Estonia, said only about 10 percent of his wood – the lowest quality pieces – would end up in a pellet mill.


Exports of timber and timber products account for around 10 percent of Estonia's total
Exports of timber and timber products account for around 10 percent of Estonia’s total Ivo PANASYUK AFP

Ehrpais, who is also the head of Vardi Metsauhistu, a forest management organization, said it was “an incredible myth” that the pellet industry was leading to increased logging.

Ehrpais also defended the logging laws, saying they were “very strict” and guaranteed biodiversity.


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