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Europe's energy crisis: Wood industry booms before winter of discontent

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By David Hutt
Felled trees stacked ready for transportation to the sawmill at a forestry plot near Vologda in 2021. Europeans are investing in wood amid the energy crisis.
Felled trees stacked ready for transportation to the sawmill at a forestry plot near Vologda in 2021. Europeans are investing in wood amid the energy crisis.   -   Copyright  Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP   -  

Petr, a Czech builder, spends an extra thirty minutes at work nowadays. After his colleagues leave, he roams around building sites collecting discarded chunks of wood.

On a good day, Petr can pile a few kilograms of off-cuts into his van and store them in his garden, knowing that scraps could save him a few Czech koruna come winter.

"Of course it’s not properly dried or of good quality, but anything that saves me from using an hour’s worth of gas will help," he said.

Amid a Europe-wide energy crisis, the Czech Republic has had amongst the steepest increase in costs. The July 2022 Household Energy Prices Index found that the country was paying the most for electricity when adjusted to purchasing power parity.

Anecdotally, people say they are now paying almost the same for energy bills as they are for mortgages or rents, although the Czech government did impose price caps in mid-September.

It’s obvious to all that Europe is heading towards a winter of discontent, made all the worse by an expected cold snap across the continent because of the impact of La Nina, a weather pattern influenced by colder temperatures in the Pacific, the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, an independent intergovernmental agency, warned earlier this month.

In anticipation of surging energy bills, greater numbers of Europeans are turning to wood to heat themselves up this winter.

But the story is the same across the continent: firewood prices are spiking, warehouses have filled their waiting lists until next year, and concerns have been raised that all this will lead to major environmental problems.

Government agencies have expressed concerns about illegal logging, as people are expected to venture into the forests to cut down their own fuel, although some politicians have been more lax than others.

Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland's ruling party chief, said in early September that people should “burn almost everything, of course aside from tires and similarly harmful things.”

The Hungarian government has banned the export of pellets while at the same time pulling environmental regulations that prevented logging in protected forests.

Prices for wood pellets, a compressed form of woody biomass that typically burns better than ordinary firewood, have nearly doubled to €600 a ton in France, according to a Bloomberg report.

Mike Groll/AP Photo
Hardwood pellets used in a wood burning boilerMike Groll/AP Photo

In Bulgaria, which relies heavily on wood burning for most households, prices have also doubled to nearly €100 per cubic meter. Local media reports from Poland last month asserted that prices of firewood have already doubled this year. The Telegraph reported in August that firewood sales in the UK have increased fivefold this year.

In July, the EU also banned the import of Russian wood and pellets, and campaigners are warning that spiking prices will be felt the most by the poorest, especially those in Central and Eastern Europe where low-income households tend to be more reliant on firewood than gas.

Amid the rush for wood, crime has reportedly flourished.

Germany’s police force has warned of a “catastrophic” wave of Internet scams, as fake online stores are claiming to be able to offer firewood for as much as a tenth of the going rate.

The energy crisis has been mixed news for the continent’s wood industries, according to Paul Brannen, public affairs director of the European Confederation of the Woodworking Industries and the European Organisation of the Sawmill Industry.

On the one hand, it has been financially damaging for companies that use kiln-drying or sawing facilities, which consume a comparatively high amount of energy.

“When energy prices were lower, energy costs would make up around 10 per cent of total sawmill costs. Nowadays this percentage has at least doubled – and other costs have risen, too,” said Brannen.

On the other hand, there has been an “unprecedented surge” in consumer demand for firewood, pellets, and the various sawmill residues used for burning, which has driven up prices for these products, he added.

Georg Wendt/dpa via AP
Activists project the slogan "Save forests, don't burn them!" onto the Tiefstack cogeneration plant during a protest against burning wood in power plants, in Germany.Georg Wendt/dpa via AP

All this comes amid heightened debate about the environmental costs of wood burning.

Some scientists and activists have long argued that burning wood emits more carbon pollution per unit energy than burning coal.

Air pollution from fossil fuel and wood burning in the home causes €27 billion a year in health-related costs to society across the EU and UK, according to a study published earlier this year by the European Public Health Alliance.

Wood-based home appliances are the worst offenders, accounting for €17 billion in health-related costs across Europe, the report found.

In February, the British government revised its figures and now reckons wood burners contribute to 38% — up from the previous estimate of 17% — of small particle pollution.

Martin Pigeon, a researcher and campaigner at Fern, a Netherlands-based environmental NGO dedicated to protecting forests, said that it will be even more problematic since the hastily cut wood won’t be dry enough for the winter, so will produce even more toxic combustion.

“I can only fear the consequences,” he said.

In May, the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety recommended an amendment to remove primary woody biomass, wood sourced directly from forests, from the EU’s newly-revised Renewable Energy Directive. However, the European Parliament voted in mid-September to dismiss this change.

They did, though, vote to phase down the share of primary wood biomass counted as renewable energy. The amount of forest wood harvested to make pellets will be capped at the average harvests between 2017 and 2022. Changes were also made to subsidies for the industry.