Finn Power: Why Finland Leads in Forest Bioenergy

Finland is doing something right. While most industrialized countries struggle to decrease fossil fuel dependence and increase energy from renewable sources, Finland is a bioenergy success story.

By 2012, Finland’s electricity produced from fossil fuels decreased by nearly one-third, based primarily on utilization of Finland’s greatest resource: its forests. More than 24 percent of Finland’s 2012 energy consumption was from domestic wood and wood byproducts – more than any other nation in the European Union and equal to its amount of energy consumption from oil.

A country bereft of fossil fuels and many other natural resources, Finland is betting its energy future on a combination of sustainable forest bioenergy, nuclear energy and hydro power, with wood and wood byproducts making up the lion’s share.

“We have more forest than we can use," Jukka Leskelä, director of power generation for the trade group Finnish Energy Industries, told Renewable Energy World.

Indeed. The most forested nation in all of Europe, 76 percent of Finland’s land area is wooded. Thanks to good management and a focus on sustainability, the forests continue to multiply even when harvested. Wood is big business for Finland: Wood products make up 20 percent of all exports, and industries related to forestry and wood employ 200,000 people. Some 40 percent of its forest products are exported to European Union nations. And nearly all of its wood pellet exports go to neighboring Sweden (67 percent) – which rivals Finland’s commitment to renewable energy and bioenergy – and to Denmark (33 percent).

Finland’s success in tapping its forests for fuel comes from a combination of ancient attitudes, modern technology, and management practices, with a generous helping of government and industry support.

Finn support for wood energy: culture, commitment, and sisu

Wood energy is nothing new – it’s the planet’s oldest fuel and the primary energy source today for 3 billion people worldwide. But most of them are in developing countries, and Finland is a savvy, modern and well-to-do nation using bioenergy on an industrial scale.

After all, this is the country that developed Nokia, the first market leader in mobile communication devices. It is home to Stora Enso, the largest paper manufacturer in the world; to Aker Finnyards, manufacturers of the world’s largest cruise ships (such as the Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Sea); and to Fiskars, the ergonomic scissors developer.  It’s known for high tech  (Finland’s Rovio Mobile created Angry Birds, and Super-cell is a hot new mobile game developer known for Hay Day and Clash of Clans). Its high-end design and designers include Marimekko, Iittala, and the furniture design group Artek.

Finnish entwinement with forests, however, goes back to ancient times, when forest Finns believed each tree was ruled by a spirit and certain trees – particularly old and venerable ones – were considered sacred. Birch, oak, and other trees were used in everything from spells and medicine to arrows, boats, baskets, and shelter. A history of survival based on forests is integral to the culture and to the pragmatic and understated Finnish character. Because Finland lacks fossil fuels, it has historically been dependent upon wood for heat, shelter, and of course the ubiquitous sauna – the centerpiece even today for Finnish life from birth to death. Several of Finland’s leading politicians have been forestry professors or managers, and it is said that many Finns prefer to be buried in wood – in a plain pine box. Even the capital city of Helsinki has forests.

Finland is a pioneer in forest management and regulatory policies, and is considered a world leader in forestry, conservation practices and the wood industry. The European Forest Institute is based there.

This connection with the land is more than philosophical: Finns have a history of hands-on family forest ownership. Even today, more than 14 percent of Finns still own some forest land (compared to fewer than 4 percent in the US), which is passed down through generations.

“Most of the harvested wood grows on these small non-industrial private holdings, which is a traditional reason for public investment and coordination. Finnish forest policy builds on this legacy of steering and engaging forest owners,” said Eeva Primmer, head of the Environmental Governance Unit at the Finnish Environment Institute. Most are involved in landowner associations and carry out management, and believe the forests exists to be – wisely – used.

“Finns grow up in the forest and have a deep connection to the land – their lives revolve around it,” said Alan Ek, head of the Department of Forest Resources at the University of Minnesota whose spouse has a strong sense of her Finnish heritage. Ek has spent time as a Fulbright Scholar in Finland and visited there often to study its woodlands and their use.

The regular harvesting and thinning of forests, which  Finn landowners take as a matter of course, allows multiple uses of the land and contributes to the health of the woodlands and to the many sub-artic animals that live there, including grouse, moose, elk, reindeer, even freshwater seals, bears, and wolves, Ek said.

Finland also has what’s known as Everyman’s Rights:  the public can walk and gather foods across much of the forest area in Finland. The forests are managed and thinned, which allows open space for cross country skiing, hiking and to foster the growth of hundreds of kinds of mushrooms and 37 kinds of berries from bilberry and cloudberry to blueberries and raspberries, which are an integral part of Finn diet. And of course, the woods provide fuel for the sauna.

“Finns would be shocked if they woke up and found their forests were as poorly managed as they are in the U.S.," said Ek. In the U.S., he says, “we have allowed many of our forests to get so old and dense there is not much light and thus much little food on the forest floor for people or critters.”

Finland is also supporting research into biofuels, to cut its dependence on liquid fuels for transport  (see “Looking into the Future,” below).  It’s tough going, extracting biofuels from wood, but the peoples in this small Nordic country have never backed down from a challenge.

One might not know it because Finns are very modest in marketing themselves. Their approach to an issue tends to be subtle, understated and concerned with effectiveness rather than promotion. “They examine a problem, and then just get down and fix it,” says Ek.

They call that quality sisu – a word that is considered to describe Finnish character so well it is another word for Finn.  Roughly translated, it means guts, grit and determination: endurance, resilience, and some craziness in persevering against all odds.

An historic example would be the Finnish resistance to the Soviet Union in the Winter War of 1939, when three Finnish regiments totaling 11,000 men on cross country skis annihilated two Soviet mechanized divisions of 45,000 men at the Battle of Suomussalmi. The current day example is the dedication to solving the energy crisis with native resources and little fuss.

Why and how forest power works for Finland

It takes more than sisu, however, to make wood power economically feasible on a large scale.

Much of Finland’s bioenergy commitment is spurred by its lack of domestic alternatives, and many of the conditions that contribute to Finland’s success in biomass are unique to its geography, vegetation and long tradition of forestry and wood energy.

The vast forests cover flat or gently rolling landscapes, which makes harvest easy and economical compared to the mountainous and hilly forest terrain in much of the U.S.   These accessible forests are mostly made up of three primary tree species – Scots pine, Norway spruce and birch – which grow and can be harvested at about the same rate and size with efficient mechanized harvesting.

Another reason: For the frugal Finns, little connected with wood and wood processing is wasted. Wood power includes wood-based fuels such as black liquor from the forest and pulp industries, and by-products and waste products from harvesting, milling, and wood processing including paper, pine oil, methanol and turpentine, fibrous sludges and some gases.

Finns have made energy and electricity generation side products of the chemical pulp mills, which produce surplus energy from the “waste” of pulp production, and from waste wood from the production of wood products, noted Mikael Hildén, director of the Climate Change Programme at the Finnish Environment Institute.

This commitment  to utilizing the waste streams of wood-based industries started to develop in earnest in the 1960s, when demands on environmental protection and the treatment of waste water became stronger, according to Hildén. In the 2000s, subsidies and technologies were created for using thinnings and other residues traditionally left in the forest for energy production.

Another economy: Siting power plants near forests cuts costs of transporting materials to power plants. Finland has biomass energy plants and boilers all over the country, close to wooded areas, that range in size from under 25 Megawatts to more than 100 Megawatts – double the size of US plants.  (To be fair, notes Ahti Fagerblom of the Finnish Forest Industries Federation, there is so much forest in Finland that almost anywhere you site a plant is near woods.) The number of small plants has multiplied, adding significantly to the wood-based heat and electricity production adjacent to industrial pulp and paper plants and sawmills.

Finland is also a leader in forest technology, harvesting with state-of-the-art technology from specialized equipment that bundles branches and other slash and includes GPS-based surveys, digital mapping and monitoring (including mapping the shortest routes in and out of the felling area), computerized measuring instruments to direct the felling  – and alarms that sound when a machine is about to move into a prohibited area. Some of the heavy duty logging and hauling trucks are made – appropriately – by the Sisu Auto Company.

Neither the harvesting nor the processing technologies have been invented from scratch, said Primmer.  “Developing new technology and new ways of utilizing wood is relatively easy in a context where forest use and industry have long played a key role in the national economy," she said.

Moreover, both the energy-dependent industry and the government have invested millions of Euros in research, said Primmer. “In addition to industry-driven research and development, the Finnish state has significantly supported research and investments in harvesting and processing,” she said. “An important driver of these public investments in bioenergy is the ambitious commitment to renewable energy that Finland has made as a member of the European Union. The production of wood chips still receives some subsidies, and subsidies are provided for investments into wood-based power and heat production.”   

Sustainability is part of the equation: To encourage biodiversity and preserve soil nutrients, environmental guidelines include requiring that 30 percent of the logging residues in the harvesting area must be left in the forest.

The carbon question

Carbon debt versus carbon neutrality – a hot button in the US – has not generated that much of a controversy in Finland, but the question is emerging, especially with the “sustainability criteria” for solid biofuels currently being developed in the EU. So far, the belief has been that sustainable forestry and forest bioenergy is carbon neutral.  This is not strictly true, Hildén points out, as it depends, among other things, on the perspective of time

“Finland’s forests form a substantial carbon sink," wrote Ahti Fagerblom of the Finnish Forest Industries Federation in an email interview. “Finnish forest reserves have been growing strongly for quite a long time; each year, our forests bind more carbon than is released through their utilization.”

While the volume of the annual carbon sink fluctuates from year to year in tandem with changes in forest growth and utilization rates, “in a typical year, our forests create a carbon sink that binds some 15-40 million tons of carbon dioxide. Even if our utilization of forest energy and wood were to grow significantly, the forests of Finland would remain substantial carbon sinks,” he wrote.

However, wood burning does release greenhouse gases. But according to the current international counting rules, the use of bioenergy is not considered to make a net contribution to the CO2 in the atmosphere, “as long as land cover (in this case forest) is maintained and deforestation is avoided," said Hildén of the Finnish Environment Institute. 

The logic is that the growing trees absorb the CO2 released by burning. But, he added, “This is not quite true when one burns wood that would otherwise be left in the forest to decay slowly, especially the stumps that would be left in traditional harvesting.” The proposed EU-wide sustainability criteria takes this into account,  but may end up specifying too-strict rules, hindering even sustainable use of wood energy, sources say.  If the EU extends its sustainability criteria for biofuels to renewable energy produced from solid biomass as planned, this would require a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to an alternative fossil fuel, according to the Partnership for European Environmental Research.  Finland is working with this: it’s greenhouse gases were a record low in 2012, 14 percent below the average annual Kyoto Protocol commitment level.

Harvesting stumps for fuel, a fairly new development in Finland has also generated controversy because the removal of stumps not only reduces the carbon stock in the soil, but “is the roughest operation for the forest ecosystem and poses an important additional threat to coarse woody dependent species and the nutrient and water cycles in the soil,” said Primmer.

As carefully as harvesting is husbanded, “Removing biomass always removes carbon and disturbs the forest ecosystem,"  she said. “Conducting these operations should be done in a fashion that avoids the biggest damage and leaves the most vulnerable and valuable areas untouched.”

But one challenging bioenergy issue facing Finland (and the rest of the planet) is how to create renewable fuel for transportation.

“Wood will certainly continue to play an important role as a source of energy in Finland,” said Hildén, as the basis for renewable energy from biorefineries, which would take the classic combination of pulp and energy production one step further – producing different wood-based chemical  products, including liquid fuel.

Finland is investing in a big way in biomass and biofuels, reports Renewable Energy World: The Finnish natural gas supplier Gasum is developing renewable solutions, including waste-based fuel from anaerobic digestion, new energy crops, "bio-SNG" (wood-based synthetic biogas created through gasification), and liquefied biogas (LBG) produced in one of the company's liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants. Last year, Neste Oil, another Finnish company, launched ProDiesel, containing a minimum of 15 percent of what the company calls renewable diesel.

“It has turned out to be quite challenging to make the biorefineries profitable,” said Hildén.  But if and when fuel prices go up, they are poised to emerge rapidly.

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