June 24, 2022
During a lecture held at the Trento Festival of Economics on June 05, 2022, forestry economics expert Alessandro Dolcetti claimed that “the European Union argues that the use of biomass for energy purposes is a problem. The best use of wood is for construction purposes” .
According to the latest Report on the Use of Biomass for Energy Production in the European Union, Europe’s position on biomass production is ambiguous. While it supports the growth of this energy source as a mean of divestment from fossil fuels, it is yet concerned about “[…] the intensification of forest management for additional biomass production, [because it] can increase pressures on forest ecosystems at the local level” .
The concern specifically refers to the 63 % share of the total wood used in the EU going to bioenergy production in 2015 . In quantitative terms, the study also shows that 59.2 % of all renewable sources used in the EU are represented by bioenergy.
Looking at the 2030 Biodiversity Strategy, the Report clearly specifies that a sharp increase in demand for bioenergy is expected, which translates into a direct increase in demand for wood and woody biomass. Specifically, three ways for additional biomass production are identified by the Report: (1) increased harvesting of wood residues; (2) afforestation/reforestation; and (3) conversion of natural forests to plantations .
Dolcetti’s analysis of the situation in Italy – and especially Trentino and Veneto – is very different from the one depicted by the European fears of timber shortages and fits well into this discussion.
In Trentino, a notable project of 2011-2012 defined and quantified the use of woody biomass in the Province of Trento. At the time, the “Biomasfor” project proposed a holistic model for evaluating sustainable forest bioenergy. What emerged is a deficit of woody material to use for energy purposes. Specifically, 30 % of Trentino’s total needs .
As a solution, the project recommended “the activation of an efficient harvest of agricultural residues from an already well-organized and structed sector (apple orchards and vineyards), [thus determining] source differentiation and income integration for Trentino farms” .
In any case, an increase of tree felling and sawing activities to produce greater quantities of energy wood residues and chips was seen as unreasonable by the predictions of that time. Further and more recent analyses of Trentino’s biomass sector state-of-the-art are not available to date. The opinion of Trentino artisans, however, seem to draw attention to the changed economic and social condition of Trentino compared to a decade ago. “The 140 sawmill and packaging firms, with about 1300 employees, process an average of 1 million cubic meters of rebar in Trentino, but the availability is 500 thousand cubic meters. That means that we buy half of it from outside the Province of Trento. The point is that 1 million cubic meters of processed rebar produces 1.2 million stero meters of by-products, waste from sawmills, 45-47 % of which is not used in Trentino” .
Fig. 1: In defining the logging capacity for an area, the presence of adequate forest infrastructures suitable for transporting material is paramount. Free-source photo by Ma Ti on Unsplash (Scotland, 18 September 2020).
In Veneto and in line with “Biomasfor”, we find the “Biomass-React” project, led by the forestry company Cippolegno srl in partnership with the Tesaf department of the University of Padua and FSC Italy. The project was activated in the municipality of Asiago (Vicenza) in the 2019-2021 period .
The project results show that the amount of timber moved from May 2019 to January 2021 on the Asiago Plateau exceeded 46,000 cubic meters. Of this, about 20 % was classified for biomass chipping. Over the past three years, an average of 450 cubic meters of material has been produced every MONTH for energy purposes in the form of wood chips. These quantities are quite impressing when compared with the average annual values generally handled in the area for wood chipping: about 450-650 cubic meters per YEAR.
In this context, the turning point was storm VAIA and its consequences.
While the project does not deny the countless negative impacts that storm VAIA caused in a vast area of the Eastern Alps, it laid the basis for a proper evaluation and use of the material fell because of storms. Conversely to the predictions set at beginning of the decade for Trentino, the data shows how the national forestry system, here represented by the Asiago supply chain, works properly also when large amounts of material must be skidded and processed. Considering the current Italian underharvest compared to the annual wood increment estimates, wood harvesting was confirmed to be liable at the expense of the national supply chain both under ordinary conditions and following extreme weather events .
“Biomass-React” also demonstrates that areas like the Altopiano dei Sette Comuni can start and consolidate a virtuous process that favors the establishment of a local biomass supply and use chain. For such goal, a key point is the construction of a “[…] governance capable of managing in a more structured way the material of the area, evaluating not only its availability, but also the logistical aspects and local demand” .
Due to the phytosanitary emergency caused by the appearance of wood scolytids on the studded material (in particular, Ips typographus) and since affected trees cannot be used for wood works, an increased amount of wood chipping material will be available in the next years.
Cover- and preview photo: A small forwarder collects birch wood in a birch forest. Free-source photo by Ma Ti on Unsplash (Scotland, 18 September 2020).
 Ufficio Stampa della Provincia autonoma di Trento. (2022, June 05). Fonti rinnovabili, accumuli e bioenergie in Trentino e in Alto Adige [Online; dated 13-June-2022]. https://www.ufficiostampa.provincia.tn.it/Comunicati/Fonti-rinnovabili-accumuli-e-bioenergie-in-Trentino-e-in-Alto-Adige.
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