During the 1980s-1990s, private forest owners in the Allgäu region in southern Germany began mobilising an increasing amount of timber. Until then, only 40-50% of the annual growth of private forests was used, with the forests dominated by 90% spruce.
However, with the increased use of timber, the downside was that there was no use for the treetops. The price of oil was at € 0.12/l and the pulp industry needed better quality wood–not treetops full of branches. In order to prevent bark beetle attacks and to make room for planting and natural regeneration, the treetops were gathered and set on fire in so-called “Mott” fires. These “Mott” fires increased so much that clouds of smoke passed over the Iller River, resulting in residents’ worried calls to the fire department because of the threat of forest fires.
This challenging situation eventually led to the construction of the first woodchip plant in Allgäu and the establishment of the first woodchip logistics chain. While in the beginning there was no economic gain for the forest owners, they were happy that there was now a way to get the forest residues out of the forest without any cost. This allowed for the successful natural regeneration of the forest and reduced the threat of bark beetle attacks.
With the continued establishment of woodchip heaters for the local heating of entire districts, (e.g. Sonthofen, Immenstadt, Buchenberg and Scheidegg) and the increased competitiveness, a new viable market for woodchips was created. This shows a successful example of the valuation of a resource that was previously treated as waste, offering the forest owners an additional income of 2-6 €/m3.
The renaissance of mankind’s oldest fuel source–firewood–and above all, the increase in broad-leaved tree species and investment into the forests, prompted the conversion of the forests into more climate-resilient mixed forests.
However, the future for bioenergy in the region remains uncertain. The current subsidy policy promotes oil-run heating systems to the disadvantage of wood boilers and recent years not have not seen a single new woodchip heating system installed despite the large number of oil and gas boilers.
The fall in price of fossil fuels also means that significant woodchip heating systems in the region were shut down in favor of natural gas. This led to an enormous oversupply of wood chips and a massive price collapse. The situation was further exacerbated by a large storm and bark beetle attacks in Bavaria in recent years.
Currently, in several regions in Bavaria, treetops are again left in the forest.
Hugo Wirthensohn, Forest Owner Association of Kempten