The Limits of Green Energy: Wind Blades of Wood and Plastic

What does the deforestation of balsa wood in Ecuador’s Amazon region have to do with wind power generation in Europe? There is a perverse link between the two: a drive for renewable energy has boosted global demand for a prized species of wood that grows in the world’s largest rainforest. As Europe and China increase the construction of blades for wind turbines, balsa trees are being felled to accelerate an energy transition driven by the need to decarbonize the global economy.

In the indigenous territories of the Ecuadorian Amazon, people began to notice an uptick in international demand for balsa wood from 2018 onwards. Balsa is very flexible but tough at the same time, and offers a light yet durable option for long-term wind power production. The typical blades of a wind turbine are currently around 80 meters long, and the new generation of blades can extend up to 100 meters. That means about 150 cubic meters of wood are required to build a single unit, according to calculations by the United States National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Ecuador is the world’s main exporter of balsa wood, holding 75% of the global market. Major players include Plantabal S.A. in Guayaquil, which has around 10,000 hectares dedicated to the cultivation of balsa wood destined for export. With the boom in demand starting in 2018, this company and many others struggled to cope with the quantity of international orders. This increase has led directly to the deforestation of the Amazon. Irregular and illegal logging has proliferated by those who have reacted to the scarcity of wood grown for timber by chopping down the virgin balsa that grows on the islands and riverbanks of the Amazon

The impact on the indigenous people who live in the area has been as devastating as mining, oil and rubber were in their day…The Amazon’s defenders are calling for the wind turbine industry to implement strict measures to determine the origin of the wood used in turbine blades, and to prevent market pressure leading to deforestation. Ultimately, they say, balsa wood should be replaced by other materials…

In 2019, Ecuador’s balsa exports were worth almost €195 million, 30% more than the previous record from 2015. In the first 11 months of 2020, this jumped to €696 million.

Wind turbine blades are mainly made from polymethacrylamide (PMI) foam, balsa wood and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) foam…But The Spanish-German company Siemens-Gamesa..has  introduced blade designs using PET only, other competitors soon followed. Wood Mackenzie, a consultancy firm, forecasts that this “will increase from 20% in 2018 to more than 55% in 2023, while demand for balsa will remain stable…”

Today’s blades also present a problem for recycling. The first generation of wind turbines are reaching the end of their lives, and thousands will need to be dismantled… “But the blades represent a challenge due to their composite materials, as their recycling requires very specific processes…

Excerpts from How the wind power boom is driving deforestation in the Amazon, ElPais, Nov. 26, 2021

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