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Utilization of energy willow varieties and marketing possibilities of the produced wood chips


1. About the short rotation energy wood plantations

2. Market possibilities of the wood chips

3. Breeding programme of the energy willows and the varieties

4. Environmental significance of the willow

5. Return and profitability


1. About the short rotation energy wood plantations

The new form of plantations – known as “energy forest” means “short rotation coppice energy wood plantations.

All arboreal plants are suitable for the establishment of energy plantations that have fast growth in the first two or three years, produce a high amount of biomass, start shooting early after cutting, is able to renew, can be machinery harvested and endure the technology well. For this purpose several species and varieties have been investigated in the past years. Among the species mainly willow, acacia and poplar are suitable to fulfil these criteria, just as their different clones and varieties have become registered as supportable varieties.

Energy plantations – depending on their growth intensity – shall be harvested each two or three years by a chipper harvester. The produced wood chips are usually fired in power or heating plants after some-weeks drying period. The energy content of willows is definitely high. The heat of combustion of Swedish willows is between 21000 and 21200 KJ/kg, while that of Hungarian varieties lays between 18000 and 19000 KJ/kg. This can be compared to the energy content of acacia and other hard wood types, furthermore it’s higher. Beside this the ash content of these varieties is low and their water-content loss is favourably fast. (Ash content: 0.31-0.52%, water content at harvesting time 46-52%).

The establishment of a plantation has to be authorized and is a supported activity. The requests for permission have to be addressed to the regionally responsible forestry authority. The highest limit of the support is 200 000 HUF per hectare. The supported species and varieties are listed in the continuously updated website of the Central Agricultural Office (MgSzH). As the energy wood plantations belong to the plough-land cultivation, the standard filed based subvention can be applied for the field as well, just as in case of other plough-land crops. About the permission process and the financial support we will give detailed information under another menu point.

Willow plantations are established mainly by those farmers, who have fields with high ground water level or periodical water cover. In case of these fields with low value willows can ensure safe and high profit and quick return rates in contrast to cereals.

Many people establish plantations on a patented field with an investment intention – because of the lack of own fields.

It is a rational investment to establish some hectares of willow plantations on the own fields of the local governments both from the aspect of employment and the heating of the buildings.

There are several, in Hungary manufactured wood chips boilers available for the households. A fully automatic wood chips boiler with 25 KW power cost 8-900 000 HUF in 2009, while there have been available models from Hungarian manufacturers at a price of 277 000 HUF (gross) in 2010. Therefore we have to count on increasing public use of willow chips as well.

A standard growing planting group consists of heating or power plant owners, or rather pellet or bricket manufacturers, since they have become aware that the cheapest raw-material derives always from their own production.

Energy willows are able to tolerate and utilize high salinity – and high nitrogen content. As a result of this character they are suitable for the utilization and the disposal of sewage sludge, cleaned wastewater and technological wastewater. The dissemination of sewage sludge, cleaned wastewater and technological wastewater generated in Hungary can be executed only with a high cost demand. With willow plantations – that have been established for root filtration – these costs could be saved; furthermore due to the positive effect of these wastewaters on the biomass growth these materials could mean an income source for sewage works and local governments, as well.

Different arboreal energy plants (acacia, poplar and willow) do not mean any concurrence to each other, because each species has different ecological – mainly soil – conditions. Acacia is suited for dry, while poplars for fresh and willows for definitely wet habitats. It depends mainly on the characteristics of the soil, which of them can be successfully produced on our fields.

In contrast to the vulgar errors the production of energy plantations means no concurrence for food or fodder production! In case we calculate with the 80% utilization of the Hungarian plough-lands, we have to still count on overproduction. Besides plough-lands there are several hundred thousand hectares uncultivated, which could be partly utilized with energy crops!


2. Marketing possibilities of the wood chips

The first question that is raised related to the willow plantations is: where and at which prices can the produced wood chips be sold? Therefore in the next paragraphs we will deal with this issue, the marketing possibilities of wood chips.

At present a bit more than one million tons of wood chips is sold in Hungary each year. Almost 100% of this huge amount derives from chipped forestry uprooting and timber wastes. The biomass amount that is produced in special plantations is temporarily at low level in Hungary.

The greatest users of wood chips are: Mátra Power Plant in Visonta, the Pannon Power in Pécs and the Biomass Power Plant is Szakoly (DBM). Beside these power plants these are several pure biomass power plants in the permission process. Beside the power plants there are heating plants of several cities (Szolnok, Dunaújváros, Szekszárd, Miskolc, Eger …) that increase the demand for wood chips, as well. Beside the Hungarian power plants, the mainly Austrian power plants show also great interest towards the produced Hungarian wood chips.

According to the Kyoto Protocol the coal-fired power plants are obliged by the carbon-dioxide quota to produce a certain rate (at present 5%, later 12%) of their electric power by utilizing renewable energy sources. In case of the Mátra Power Plant it means the firing of 400 000 tons of biomass per year. From 2013 the next step of the Protocol will increase this obligation to more than two times higher.

Besides power plants the bricket and pellet manufactures have a continuous demand on raw material. So based upon these it can be stated, that: At present wood chips have continuously growing, almost unlimited market.

The present situation is getting worse, because due to the crisis the use of wood in building and furniture industry has fall back to a minimal level. Due to this the uprooting of forests has decreased by 80% in 2009/2010 in contrast to the previous year. This means that there will be no available forestry or even timber wastes. This is confirmed by the fact that previously silvicultures have presented the wood waste to their partners for free (just to make the fields clean from the waste), but nowadays the same material – previously unworthy – costs 60-130 000 HUF per hectare. The wastes of the Romanian timbers close to the border are often purchased by Hungarian undertakings.

All these facts confirm that there is a huge and present demand on the wood chips of energy plantations. Power plants have prognosed this deficit to 2013 before; still they have to face this situation already in 2010.

Following problems are present in the field of wood chips:

  1. Producers do not have enough information about the market. They do not know that it is often a problem for the power plants to purchase raw material. The first Hungarian pure biomass fired power plant is operating since the July of 2009 and its performance has reached 20 MW. Still, the producers in the neighbourhood of the power plant do not trust this new technology and they still do not intend to plant.
  2. Most of the producers choose the conventional crop/cereal production – sometimes out of sheer habit – although they cannot ensure a rentable production from these crops for already more than a decade (except for some outstanding years).
  3. Most of the producers do not know that the European Union has to face an overproduction crisis and therefore it supports other utilization ways of the plough-lands, so the energy plantations as well. These kinds of support will expectedly remain in a middle term. In contrast the prices of the produced cereals will expectedly move only into a negative direction.
  4. The establishment of these plantations is a supported activity, but unfortunately it’s post-financed. The 4-500 000 HUF planting investment and cultivation cost has to be raised by the producer in advance. According to the present practice the supports are paid only in the year after the planting.
  5. Farmers have to deal with the deficit of their funds. So there is nothing else available for the plantation than the intention. There is not even any working pre-financing possibility in 2011.

There are available budgetary and EU funds for the establishment of 6 000 ha plantations each year. Still, in the past two years only a bit more than 2 000 ha have been planted – due to the reasons mentioned above; although all indefinite questions mentioned above can be answered satisfactory.


3. The breeding of energy willow varieties and the varieties


The breeding work of willows has been started in Japan, Sweden, Great-Britain and Poland.

In the largest breeding centre in the southern part of Sweden the previously Lantmännen Agroenergi Group – under the leadership of Mr. Stig Larsson and afterwards Mrs. Gabriele Engqvist – an over 30-years breeding programme is executed. At the beginning the Swedish breeding work was base on the selection of autochthonous varieties, but now crossing breeding has become the practice. Among hundreds of variety nominees two of three new varieties are registered each year. Basket willows, white willows, snake willows and Siberian willows have been used as crossing material.

It is a common landscape in Sweden that next to the villages there are willow plantations and related smaller performance (1-3 MW) heating or power plants are established.

The breeding programme focused on the favourable growth, the good shooting, the good winter hardiness, and tolerance and content parameters. According to this and in contrast to the varieties bred by solely selection, the Swedish willow varieties are able to produce higher biomass amount than other European varieties.

Parallel to the appearance of the Swedish willow varieties in the inland market we have started a technology research programme in Hungary and in Romania and Slovakia as well. The results of these programmes are available as presentations in our website.

First we have studied the performance of the Swedish varieties and afterwards we have selected some of them to register. Our aim was to find and purchase the licence rights for the three, in several points of Europe best performing varieties. The three increased to nine in the end, but it was a good decision. The in Hungary available varieties are the following: Inger, Tordis, Tora, Torhild, Sven, Jorr, Gudrun, Olof and Doris. These varieties have been compared and tested in the DUS-test of the Central Agricultural Office. After the study it was confirmed that these Swedish varieties’ performance exceeds that of the other European varieties.

We have established mother plantations from these nine varieties and we have started the technological experiments, just as their propagation work. We have stopped the propagation of the varieties Jorr and Gudrun because their biomass yield stayed under our expectations. We have uprooted the mother plantations of these two varieties and keep only a small amount for the purpose of gene reservation in production. Because of environment protection reasons, the varieties Doris and Olof are no more considered as supported varieties. These varieties are bred from Siberian willows that are not autochthonous in Hungary. In order to protect the inland plantations these varieties can be planted but the plantations are not supported. Although they produce extreme high (even 40 t ha-1 a-1) biomass yield in fields with high ground water level and they endure periodical water cover of the fields as well.

Among the five rest varieties Tora, Tordis, Torhild and Sven are recommended to wet, but not extreme (polder or often water-coverage) fields. Under such circumstances they produce high biomass yields. Beside these the variety Sven can be used in the root-zone wastewater treatment due to its excellent salinity tolerance. Among the registered varieties the variety Inger is outstanding because of its several favourable parameters. The variety Inger produces high yield and endures drought as well. Its vegetation period starts very early and therefore its weed-control ability is outstanding. It has a very good frost tolerance. After the early start of growth this variety endures slight frosts as well and shows no symptoms until -3 °C. After the heavy frosts (-6-7 °C) in the May of 2008 is regenerated quite fast. Not only it starts the vegetation period early, but it finishes it early. Leaves fall already in the beginning of October; therefore the rods have time to become ripe enough. According to this hard winter frosts do not mean any harmful risks for the tissues. The variety Inger turns into hormonal dormancy quite early, so it can already be harvested from November. The water content of the plant material is about 44-52%. (The transport of the material is economical with a water content of 35%. This value can be reached within 4-6 weeks.) The main quality parameter of the variety Inger is its outstanding yield safety, that is based on its adaptation ability to the extreme ecological circumstances (drought and polder). At our sites the new plantations of the variety Inger produced a height growth of 4-5 m. (In 2008 we measured a precipitation in the vegetation period of 300 mm.) In 2009 the new Inger plantation reached a height growth of 3-3.5 m in spite of the precipitation less than 150 mm. This is unique and not characteristic to any other Swedish or Hungarian variety.

The technological tolerance of the variety Inger is extreme good. On every soil type it produced an adequate high biomass yield. We consider that from our varieties this is the most perspective variety and from 2008 we expand our mother plantations solely with this variety. At present 90% of the propagated material consists of the variety Inger.


4. Environmental significance of willows, technological research work

The technological research work of the Holland Alma Ltd focused first on the weed-control and afterwards on the sewage sludge application in the willow plantations. After we have solved the problems of chemical weed control we paid attention to the problems of the nutrient supply of the plantations that includes significant environment protection issues as well. Hereinafter we introduce some interesting information about this issue. The results of investigations on the weed control are summarized in the technological description.

At present several hundred thousand tons of untreated and unutilized sewage sludge are produced from communal waste waters in Hungary each year, that are considered as hazardous wastes. The deposition of the sewage sludge at the sewage works means a cost increasing factor. The produced waste water and sewage sludge is placed and applied to the fields partly illegal which means a load to the environment.

Still, sewage sludge means a cheap and utility nutrient source in the agricultural production – and in the short rotation coppice energy plantations. The application possibilities of sewage sludge on plough-lands for food and fodder production is limited. In short rotation coppice willow plantations the disposal of this hazardous waste is ensured – due to the high salinity, just as the nitrogen tolerance of the plants and due to the fact that there’s no food production.

Elder willow plantations may have favourable reaction towards the sewage sludge application each 2-3 years in case of adequate dosages and application technology. In our research we observed a yield depression in case we applied higher (above 40 t ha-1) dosages, but in case of lower (20-25 t ha-1) sewage sludge dosages a significant biomass yield increment was measured.

In case the right fertilization technology would be elaborated and put into practise, the illegal sewage sludge deposition could be stopped and due to the yield-increasing effect this material could be utilized and bring profit. In plough-lands used for energy plantations there would be no rest pollution of the sewage sludge.

Sewage sludge contains quite a high amount of organic active substances of medicaments (antibiotic, antiphlogistic, contraceptive). In order to eliminate this we started a joint development project with our research institute partners for the synthesis of a bacteria preparation that is able to degrade and mineralize these harmful substances. That means these preparations convert the components of sewage sludge into nutrient substances that can be taken up by the willow plants.

Because of the demands of the wood chips market and the favourable long-term contracting conditions of the power plants, just as the supporting system of energy plantation an exponential growth of the plantation area is assumed – that is controlled by quotes that consider the demands of the market volume. Farmers who cultivate willow plantations have to face that the application of organic fertilizing material is essential, at least after the second harvesting period.

The cheapest available fertilizing material for the nutrient supply of the plantations is the sewage sludge. Any other available nutrient sources are not competitive with it from the aspect of price and active substance content. The “competitiveness” of the sludge can be increased with microbial preparations that accelerate the mineralization.

The present situation is the following: The quality and quantity development of the Hungarian agricultural crop production has lead to a state in which – regarding the yields, demands and marketing possibilities – we are able to produce the essential agricultural products on a far smaller area than ever before. This results, that fields with low fertility – that were previously used for agricultural production – have become redundant and shall be excluded from agricultural crop production.

The consequence of the present situation is: Fields that have been withdrawn from cultivation either became uncultivated or forests have been planted (with governmental support) on them. It is the consequence of the changing economical situation that further uncultivated fields remain (e. g. the discontinued fruit tree plantations) that shall be utilized somehow. In addition, these fields have low production value and are not suitable for the production of any other agricultural crop (because of their microbial activity).

Regarding the marketing possibilities and the long-term computability one of the best possibilities on these remaining fields is to produce industrial energy plants. At present 15 years duration contracts are signed for the wood chips from energy plantation. In these agreements the prevailing prices of the wood chips in the power plants depends on the wage and its affixes, just as on the prices of the fossil fuels.

Problem: The above mentioned soil types are suitable for willow plantations and for its long-term production with adequate biomass yields, but their nutrient management parameters have to be improved 3-5 years after planting already. For this purpose cheap and in the technology easily adaptable elements are essential.

Solution: The low-quality, less fertile soils has to be treated and supplied with adequate amount of organic and mineral substances. Sewage sludge is a cheap and effective solution for this purpose.

In order to improve the soil fertility, the nutrient utilization efficiency of the produced crops, the increment of the growth intensity and the insurance of the further growth and development a microbial serum shall be developed, studied and controlled for effectiveness. This could make the production of energy crops much more economical, and the hazardous mineral and organic substances in the applied sewage sludge could be neutralized by it.


5. Return and profitability

The return of the plantations depends on three things: Yield – Price – Utilization method. Yields are detailed in the technological description chapter. In case of the exact application of the production technology yields vary between 20 and 40 ta ha-1 a-1.

Prices are stable and change only into positive direction (17 200-19 000 HUF). The same statement is false in case of other field crops.

The profit and return depend mainly on the utilization method. In case the plant material is sold towards power plants through a sales organization, the profit will be at the lowest level and the return the slowest. The reason for that is that prices are the lowest in this case and the sales organization takes also part in the sales transactions.

In case we use the produced wood chips for our own purposes – public or institutional heating – we can count on a fast return and high profit because of the low first cost in contrast to gas heating.

In case we can utilize the plantation for the root zone filtration waste water treatment or sewage sludge deposition, we can count on the fastest return rates.

You find detailed information on this topic in our website ( in the presentation “Willow and Water”.

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