Metla uutiskirje

Metla Bulletin

June 30, 2014
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Wood-based energy in Iceland – believe it or not!

Today, there are wide swathes of land in Iceland where forests are growing rapidly and wood is utilised in a multitude of ways. Things would not go quite as smoothly using just local know-how; international forestry know-how and competence has also been imported into the island nation. Metla has done a lot of research and development work for the Icelandic forestry industry with its various project partners.

An international team of researchers visiting a larch forest thinning site in Iceland. Photo: Metla/Karri Pasanen.

Although Iceland has huge geothermal reserves and a lot of hydropower, wood can also be a possible energy source for this barren island nation. In the eastern part of the country, geothermal heat is difficult and expensive to obtain. Fortunately, the most heavily forested area of the island nation, Hallormstadur, is in the same region. “The prerequisites for heat energy business, small-scale sawmill operations and firewood production were there,” describes Metla researcher Lauri Sikanen the situation in Iceland years ago.

Elkem’s ferrosilicate production facility is the largest user of wood in Iceland. Pictured is the largest pile of wood in Iceland and a pile of wood chips. Photo: Metla/Karri Pasanen.

The first heating plant utilising forest biomass in Iceland was established in Hallormstadur in 2008, and Metla was taking part, providing Finnish know-how. At that time, consultation related to harvesting, supply chains and the heating plant’s boiler was carried out in the Northern WoodHeat project. Later, the research subject was transferred to the EU-funded REMOTE project.

Metla’s Finnish partners have included the Karelia University of Applied Sciences, Josek Oy and the Joensuu Science Park. In the REMOTE project, there were also partners from Scotland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden.

European co-operation at its best

In Hallormstadur, the entire operation is based on a forest plan. The forests in the region grow fast, and the management of young forests had to be included in the value chain – and a sensible use for the thinning wood accumulating during forest management. If the thinning wood is not used, forest management only incurs costs, and valuable wood goes to waste.

The operations are now moving along smoothly, with a very international flair. The trees are felled using a Swedish harvester. They are then transported by a Finnish forwarder to the roadside for an Icelandic wood chipper. From the roadside, the wood chips are transported using a Finnish tractor to the heating plant to be incinerated in a German-made boiler.

The boiler and electrical network are owned by a local energy co-operative, its stakeholders comprising a local energy company and several entrepreneurs. Two local schools, a hotel and an outdoor swimming pool purchase energy from the heating plant. The heating plant uses around 600 cubic metres of wood chips annually. That is a lot in a country where only a few trees grew a hundred years ago!   

In addition to the heating plant operations, there is also a small sawmill in Hallormstadur utilising the “largest logs” of the thinning wood. Firewood is used to some extent in Iceland; pizza restaurants operating in Reykjavik are an example of an individual user group.  The latest need for thinning wood is in the ferrosilicate production of Elkem Oy. Fresh, moist wood is needed to bind oxygen, when quartz is converted in an arc furnace into a valuable raw material needed in steel manufacturing.

Wood energy alone is not the solution even for Iceland’s energy production, but it can be a local solution in many smaller locations, near or far.

Just as elsewhere, Icelandic heating entrepreneurs also have their challenges. There are several energy sources competing with wood, and they are relatively cheap, particularly electricity. A new forest energy plan is currently being worked on for Grimsey island. It is the only place in Iceland where oil is still used for heating.

If a functioning forest energy chain can be established in Iceland, it can be established anywhere

The revitalisation of Iceland’s forestry sector is the result of many successes – international research cooperation has surely been one factor in this. Metla and its project partners have conducted time studies, created growth and thinning models suitable for Icelandic conditions, and planned supply chains and wood heating methods. Icelanders have visited Finland several times and built good relationships with the forestry professionals and researchers at Metla and other organisations.

The majority of the work, however, has been performed by Icelandic qualified forestry professionals and landowners. They have built a system that suits the conditions in their country and have developed the links in the chain so that a vital and varied forestry sector is now operational in Iceland.

Mechanical thinning of a larch forest in the challenging conditions of Iceland. Photo: Metla/Karri Pasanen.

Forest facts from Iceland, where forests are not a given

What to do if you get lost in a forest in Iceland? Stand up, and you can see your way home over the trees. Probably every forest officer has heard that joke, although it has now become entirely obsolete. Not even every Icelander has realised that the forestry sector of this “treeless country” has started growing rapidly. Well-trained forestry professionals have co-operated commendably with their international partners and have developed the forestry sector of their country ecologically, economically and socially.

When the first settlements were built in Iceland in A.D. 874, all the low-lying land was covered with forests. However, iron production, agriculture and sheep-herding soon depleted the sensitive forest resources. Since the early 1900s, the Danes have attempted to increase the forest resources, but it was not until the early 2000s that forest planting programmes started to produce results, and the planting still continues. Landowners have been encouraged to plant trees, and tree planting has also been subsidised by public funding. Today, 3.5 million seedlings are planted annually. In 2007–2009, a record six million seedlings were planted each year. Due to the economic downturn that followed these record years, the funding of forest management was also cut. Iceland’s forest resources today are 1.2 million cubic metres, and annual growth around 80,000 cubic metres.

Iceland’s forests are located in the eastern and northern parts of the country and in the west, near Reykjavik. The trees grow well, because the soil is volcanic and there is enough rain. Even harsh winters do not kill the trees in as large a number as was earlier assumed. The planting densities were initially high, 6,000–7,000 plants per hectare, as over 50 per cent of the seedlings were expected to die. The planting density was later reduced to 3,000–4,000 seedlings per hectare, because the seedlings fared better than anticipated. The dominant species are European larch and Sitka spruce. Black cottonwood and spruce are also common. The remaining natural forests are almost entirely European white birch.

Iceland’s forestry professionals have mainly been trained in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. They are high-level professionals who are developing the forestry sector of their country in a planned manner.

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Header image: Metla/Essi Puranen, Photos: Metla/Erkki Oksanen, unless otherwise stated