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Heating with wood and pellets: still a profitable alternative?

By investing this year in two pellet stoves in addition to his gas boiler, Gilles was convinced to make a deal. But the reality looks more complex than he thought. “I run to the stores to find cheaper bags of wood pellets. I spend a lot of time there,” he despairs. This weekend again, he explains that he drove “thirty kilometers” in order to flush out the good deal. “I thought I’d find a fair price, and when I got there, there weren’t even any pellets,” he exasperated. The interest of its 9,000 euros of investments – financed up to a little more than 3,000 euros by government aid – seems to dwindle as it swallows the kilometers. “We’ll do the accounts at the end of winter. I’ll compare my 2021 gas bill and this year’s. But at the moment, I don’t really feel like I’m doing business,” he grumbles. -he.

The misadventure of this Lyonnais is not unique. On the contrary. Gone are the days when the 15 kg bag of “pellets” – the real name for pellets – cost in some parts of France less than 4 euros. In the space of a year, the same quantity could exceed 10 euros. Prices sometimes doubled, which panic consumers. And even if price increases seem to have reached a plateau at the start of winter, the firewood sector is watching market developments with apprehension. Thanks to the increase in production costs and demand, the price of good old heating logs has also increased by 20 to 25% since this summer. France fears it will be shivering this winter due to power cuts, but the happy owners of alternative solutions are not quiet either… to the point that rumors of woodchip speculation are rife.

Find pellets on Facebook

On the great bric-a-brac that has become Facebook, where one is almost sure to find a community for everything – even for the energy trade – the groups of Internet users eager to find solutions to the increase prices are legion. More than 10,000 members jostle on the group “Bons plans – Granulés Pellets”, as on that of “Fabrique vos granulés de bois TIPS ADVICE GOOD DEALS”, while more than twice the tips are exchanged on “Pellet stove or granules”. Each time, the objective is the same: find the right solution to limit the costs of materials needed for heating. Wanting to protect themselves against the rises in the price of gas and electricity, many French people have rushed to pellets and wood for heating, not without provoking – allied to the increase in energy prices – the exact opposite of the desired effect: overstocking and soaring prices.

In English, we call it a “perfect storm”: a perfect storm, the principle combination of different factors intended to make the situation worse. First there was this sudden rise in orders from individuals in the first quarter, panicked by the potential shortage that the war in Ukraine would create. The strong demand led to an initial price increase, creating a kind of “toilet paper effect” similar to that which crossed supermarket shelves at the start of the pandemic. The rises in anxiety will only have fueled a vicious circle already well under way by the explosion in production costs. The effect of the latter, generated by the rise in transport, gas or electricity tariffs, will have been multiplied by the drop in construction. “Fewer wooden planks were sawn, resulting in less sawdust, which therefore gave fewer pellets”, remarks Frédéric Plan, general delegate of the Federation of fuels and fuels.

A dwindling of the resource which has come to mingle with the conflict that has shaken Europe since February. If France imports only a few pellets – barely 20% of its annual consumption – from abroad, the same cannot be said of our European neighbors. Italy, for example, very fond of wood shavings, had been bringing them from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus for a long time. The Russian invasion, then the sanctions that followed on July 10, virtually prevented the reception of pellets from these countries. Nearly 3 million pellets had to be replaced to meet the needs of 15 million tonnes of pellets consumed in 2022 in Europe – the equivalent of the materials used in France over the same period. Italian consumers – among others – have therefore turned to more local production, and in particular French, to meet their needs. Competition for access to valuable wood chips has therefore increased on the continent, contributing to rising prices.

“Self-supply” for wood

Our export level has certainly remained modest, but at the same time, heating needs have increased in France. Seizing the help of government policies, many French people took the opportunity to swap their old gas or oil boilers for wood boilers or other inserts. According to the Renewable Energy Observatory, these purchases increased by more than 34% between 2020 and 2021. In 2022, around 500,000 new appliances were sold. In total, more than 7 million households are equipped with these devices in France, of which nearly 1.5 million represent pellet stoves.

This momentum is also expressed in the pure wood sector, even if the increase in demand remains difficult to estimate in this sector. “In the sector, we say modestly that around 75% of purchases are made by ‘self-supply'”, explains Frédéric Plan. Translation: in terms of firewood, the majority of purchases take place on a parallel market that is difficult to draw. The 20 to 25% price increase is therefore only a partial version of reality. Increases partly in response to the increase in needs, which should increase in the years to come: by 2030, the government and the sector hope to reach 9 million homes heated with wood, without affecting the quantities taken from current forests. . “Which means that, whether we are talking about logs or pellets, we will have to be careful to match the resource, the prices and the needs, comments Frédéric Plan. We are already seeing testimonials from very annoyed consumers, to whom this rise in prices is almost reminiscent of diesel: the state encourages us to equip ourselves for something, and then makes us bite our fingers. This feeling must be avoided”.

The mild temperatures of October and November nevertheless helped to calm things down, slowing down the storage desires of individuals. During the month of November, the government also announced the arrival of a “wood energy check”. For pellets, it represents 200 euros for the most modest families, and 100 for those with slightly higher income levels. For wood, this aid ranges between 50 and 100 euros. A boost to get through the winter, while individuals and members of the sector are still watching the trajectory of prices with attention. “We don’t really know what it will be like in a few months. It remains very vague”, admits Frédéric Plan. In any case, consumers and producers seem to have already abandoned the memory of the bag of pellets for less than 4 euros. “I don’t know much about the evolution of the price, recognizes Gilles, but one thing is certain: we will not come back as low as before”. The Eldorado of cheap pellets, already finished?


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