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Germany is one of Europe's most densely forested countries, and soaring oil and gas prices are leading more households to switch to modern wood-burning heating systems, Germany's forest owners' association says.
Back to the roots on energy?
"Wood grows through God's hand and no further energy is needed to produce it," said Michael Prince zu Salm-Salm, the association's president.
One-third of Germany is covered with forests despite it being the European Union's most populous country with the biggest industrial economy.
Germany is Europe's leading timber producer, and Salm-Salm said standardized wood pellets can be produced from vast numbers of small or deformed trees which are thinned from forests to allow growth of better quality timber.
Until recently, such trees had no economic value and were left to rot in the woods. But Salm-Salm underlined that rotting wood releases the same amount of CO2 -- which is stored while a tree grows -- as does burning the wood to produce heat.
Wood pellets could be the heating source of the future
"This means burning wood is CO2 neutral," said Salm-Salm. Carbon dioxide, or CO2, emissions are widely believed to be a cause of climate change.
A growing market
Heating systems fuelled by wood pellets have been installed in 70,000 German buildings in recent years. The technology -- which is more expensive than oil or gas burners -- is subsidized by the German government.
This is still a small number out of the roughly 38 million German households. But the sector's growth has been explosive, starting with just 800 units nationwide in 1999 and growing to 27,000 units in 2004.
Numerous factories that produce wood pellets have opened in Germany in recent years, including the market leader, German Pellets, based in the eastern Baltic Sea city of Wismar.
Set up in 2005, German Pellets now produces 400,000 tons of wood pellets per year and sells not only to German customers, but also to Denmark and Sweden, according to CEO Peter H. Leibold.
German households are increasingly turning to wood for heating, forest owners say
Leibold said new technology for burning pellets produces minimal ash and is as easy to operate as a conventional oil or gas system. He said enough pellets for an entire winter are blown into a basement container and then automatically transported to the burner.
"If we had the political will, Germany could provide 100 per cent of its winter heating from wood," Leibold said.
Made at home
Trees were not the only source for making pellets, he said. Millions of acres of farmland can provide straw, which is routinely ploughed under, for pellets.
Noting recent Russian cut-offs of oil and gas, Leibold said not only was wood a cheaper way to heat, but it is also a safer source.
"This is energy security ... because it's domestically produced," he said.
Salm-Salm noted that with only about 70 percent of annual wood volume growth in German forests being harvested each year, there is great capacity to expand wood burning heating systems.
A forester's dream
Despite growing interest in wood for heating and rising timber prices, there is little danger of depleting forestry resources, said Salm-Salm. German sustainable forestry laws are among the strictest in the world, he stressed.
Germany has strict laws to protect its forests from too much logging
"You cannot cut down more than grow each year," he said.
Sustainable forestry was established in Germany almost 300 years ago by royal Saxony state forester Hans Carl von Carlowitz with his groundbreaking book "Sylvicultura oeconomica."
"Our foresters are the envy of the world," Salm-Salm said.