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A regional conference heralds a new chapter for the Greek forestry bioenergy sector

A regional conference heralds a new chapter for the Greek forestry bioenergy sector
Held on May 14, 2024, over 150 pax attended the Greek-Austrian Biomass Regional Forum in Larisa, Greece with Stathis Stahopoulos, Secretary General at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry welcoming delegates (photo courtesy Hellabiom / Shape IKE). 

Modern Greece is known for many things, great food, fantastic beaches, (over)tourism, the debt crisis... In the renewable energy sphere, it is solar and wind that make the headlines. So how did a regional bioenergy conference in a non-touristic city in mainland Greece, attract more than 150 participants, including high-level institutional and company representatives from Austria? And what does this mean for the future of the sector in Greece?

With the world’s eye on the Greek sunshine coasts, most people are unfamiliar with the interior, which is 80 percent mountainous.

Greek forest sector reform

Forest coverage in Greece is also high. Official figures vary from source to source but an often-quoted figure is that around 60 percent of the country’s land area is forested.

High-density forests may be around 30 percent but still amount to a quite impressive 39,000 km2 of real forests – a total not far off Austria, the reason for the choice for comparison which will become apparent.

What does make global headlines is the impact of climate change on Greek forests. Mega-fires have increased in intensity over the years and in 2023 alone around 180,000 hectares (ha) of forests were burned, including inside the protected forest of Dadia reputed to be the largest recorded in the EU since the start of such data collection.

A raging wildfire on Peloponnesos, Mani in 2021 (photo courtesy Jeanette Fogelmark).

Apart from climate change, other, underlying causes contribute to the extent of the damages and poor data: years of neglect and poor management due to rural abandonment, low funding of forest services, difficult terrain, etc.

Management of many Greek forests was in many cases minimal, with extraction only of very high-added value wood and firewood for local purposes; excess biomass accumulation inside the forests increased, offering an “excellent” source of fuel for the wildfires.

With increasing public pressure to do something, Theodoros Skylakakis, Minister for Energy and Climate, announced in autumn 2023 what could be a new page for the Greek forest sector.

The Greek state would start stimulating the creation of a new forest-based economy through an ambitious reform, a key pillar of which would be the provision of subsidies for the extraction of excess forest biomass and their provision as a raw material for a new bioeconomy / bioenergy sector.

Greek–Austrian collaboration

Quickly understanding the prospects this reform offered, Hellabiom – the Hellenic Biomass Association – mobilized its international contacts to begin facilitating the exchange of know-how needed for things to take off.

Building on a pre-existing collaboration with Advantage Austria, the trade promotion and development branch of Austrian Embassies, and the Austrian Biomass Association, a plan was made to arrange an Austrian business mission along with a conference and relevant field trips as soon as possible.

Hellabiom had a practical reason for calling on Austrian expertise – the physical conditions in Austrian forestry with difficult terrain and slopes were similar to Greece, and Austria’s advances in forest biomass extraction and bioenergy utilization could provide a reference model for a reformed Greek forestry sector.

The Regional Biomass Forum in Larisa

Plans were made and dates were fixed for mid-May 2024. Activities started when the Austrian delegation landed in Athens on May 13 and met Austrian Ambassador to Greece Gerda Vogl, local representatives of Advantage Austria, and the representatives of Hellabiom and its members.

Matchmaking visits between Greek and Austrian companies during the 1st Regional Biomass Forum (photo courtesy Matchmaking visits between Greek and Austrian companies during the 1st Regional Biomass Forum (photo courtesy Hellabiom / Shape IKE).

The Austrian delegation included Christoph Pfemeter, Managing Director of the Austrian Biomass Association (ABA), currently serving as President of Bioenergy Europe; Paul Ehgartner, Deputy Head of Division Wood-based Value Chain, Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Regions and Water Management; Dr Christoph Huber, Head of the Institute of Forest Engineering / Austrian Federal Research Center for Forests – BFW; Anna-Sophie Pirtscher, Head of the Forestry Training Center Ossiach at the BFW), as well as representatives of Austrian companies including Eschlböck BIBER Wood Chippers, Neuson Forest, ICS ENERGIETECHNIK, Polytechnik, Syncraft, Stadlober GmbH, and Schüller & Heise Vienna.

A first, high-level meeting was set up with Minister Skylakakis and his cabinet at the Ministry of Energy and Climate, before the delegation started making its way to the city of Larisa, about 350 km north of Athens.

The conference itself took place on May 14, attracting around 150 pax, an impressive number of participants.

Nikos Damatis, Secretary General of Hellabiom, opened the conference which featured presentations from the Greek side – including a remote intervention from Minister Skylakakis – and the Austrian side.

Networking was an important aspect of the event.

The last two sessions of the conference featured short, pitching presentations from the participating Austrian and Greek companies and organizations and a series of bilateral match-making meetings.

Based on anecdotal evidence, i.e. questioning selected participants, it seems that the companies were happy with the quality of meetings and the prospects they offered.

Forests- and forestry

After a full day of conference and meetings, the participants were ready to hit the open spaces on May 15, with a visit to the local forestry agency of Mouzaki.

Although bad weather conditions and poor roads made it impossible to see much of the forest and forestry operations, the Austrian delegation at least had the chance to hear from the local agency about its multitude of activities and see some videos of forestry operations and wood extraction – which made it quite clear how much work needs to be done for modernizing the sector.

Before returning to Athens for their return trip, the Austrian delegation visited the Dept. of Forestry, Wood Science and Design of the University of Thessaly, delivering short lectures to the students and faculty, and the department’s laboratories.

Bioenergy site visits

The final day of the event on May 16, comprised three visits to local bioenergy facilities. The proximity of these sites was one of the main reasons why Larisa was chosen as the conference host city.

The first stop was the wood processing plant of Alfa Wood in the industrial area of Larisa. Alfa Wood is the largest wood processing company in Greece making all kinds of relevant products: panels, kitchen tops, floorings, veneer surfaces, construction wood, etc.

View from the boiler fuel infeed at the Alfa Wood combined heat and power (CHP) plant in Larisa (photo courtesy Hellabiom / Shape IKE).

The company is also the largest wood pellet producer in Greece through its Nevrokopi facility in the far north of the country (not visited), with a production capacity of 65,000 tonnes per annum (ENplus-certified).

In each of its three production sites, Alfa Wood has installed a biomass combined heat and power (CHP) unit to cover its thermal energy demands and to sell electricity to the grid.

The factory at Larisa features a 1 MWe CHP plant using different types of wood residues and waste. The boiler was supplied by Philippopoulos S.A., a Greek manufacturer, and the Organic Rankin Cycle (ORC) turbine from Turboden.

The second visit was to the biomass gasification plant of Agrigas, which features an integrated pelletizing line for agro-pellets.

Heavily hit by the torrential floods that hit Thessaly in early September 2023 – only a few weeks after the plant’s inauguration – many pieces of equipment were heavily damaged and had to be replaced.

Some months later, after intensive work by the Agrigas employees and its suppliers, the plant is ready to start operations again.

The gasifier will produce 500 kWe for the grid, while small quantities of biochar will also be used and probably find their way into the barbeque market.

A lot of work was done to establish the biomass supply chain for this plant, which takes up a wide range of local feedstocks: cereal straw, maize residues, and cotton stalks.

The final visit of the day and the whole event was the 5 MWe biomass plant of VIOPAR, part of Ravago Group, in the industrial area of Volos.

This is the largest and most modern biomass power plant in Greece. An impressive visit, VIOPAR features technological components that are rarely, if ever seen, not only in Greece but globally.

As in Alfa Wood, at the core of the energy conversion process is an ORC turbine provided by Turboden. As explained by the plant’s manager, Dimitris Karagiannis, the key challenge for VIOPAR has been fuel supply.

Initially designed to operate with very poor-quality olive cake, supply chain issues have forced VIOPAR to refocus on a mixture of sunflower husk pellets and waste wood.

Despite this change, the plant manages to achieve very high levels of availability and a really impressive efficiency level for this type of installation, helped by the air-cooling process in the ORC cycle.

Next steps

The successful conclusion of the event left participants in high spirits and the organizers happy that their hard work paid off. But the hard work is far from over, since this was only the start, and lots of details remain to be clarified.

How will the subsidy of forest biomass work in practice? How to modernize biomass harvesting and bring collection costs down? How much biomass and with what characteristics can Greek forests bring to the market? Will the private sector feel secure enough to proceed with investments in bioenergy facilities?

And, at the heart of the matter, will the Greek forestry sector manage to modernize itself? Further collaborations and knowledge transfer between the Greek and Austrian sides are planned. We will have to see how this will all turn out.

This article was first published in Bioenergy International no. 3-2024. Note that as a magazine subscriber, you gain access to the e-magazine and articles like this before the print edition reaches your desk!

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