Wind turbine propellers boost balsawood sales

Wind turbine propellers boost balsawood sales


27 | 12 | 2021


The world's leading exporter is Ecuador, which doubled its international sales in 2019 and doubled them again in 2020, mainly due to demand from China.

In the picture

Wind turbine propellers [Pixabay].

The global commitment to renewable energy sources has increased wind power generation; in turn, the construction of new 'windmills' has boosted the consumption of balsa wood: a wood that is as light as it is resistant, ideal for wind turbine propellers, especially for smaller ones. Ecuador is the main exporter - in 2019 it doubled its international sales and in 2020 it doubled them again - and China is the biggest buyer. The business has fuelled illegal exploitation of this tropical tree and raised concerns about its sustainability management .

The balsa is a tree native to South America that grows especially in the tropics as it needs a humid climate and fertile soil to develop properly. Each tree can grow to a height of 25 to 30 metres, which is very beneficial for its growers as it offers a high performing per tree. In addition, the perfect age for cutting the tree is only three to four years after planting, which allows high profits to be obtained in a short time.

Its characteristics as a light and soft, yet highly resistant wood - strong and light at the same time - make it perfect for the manufacture of cladding for cruisers, skis, bridges... and especially for wind turbine propellers. Turbine blades are partly made from balsa wood because it is cheaper than metal, more resistant than plastic and, unlike these materials, it is ideal for adapting and recovering on windy days. As industry expert Carlos Martinez-Thiem specifies, balsa tends to be used to a greater extent in small turbines. "Conventional wind turbines have blades that are generally made from fibreglass, in a proportion that can be around 24 tonnes GRP, with just over a tonne of wood, and average tonne of metal," he says. This means that when conventional wind turbines, which have a lifespan of 10 to 20 years, are discarded, it is not worth recycling the wood, as it would be laborious and costly.

With the worldwide commitment to wind energy and the growing demand for windmills, the international demand for balsawood has also increased. However, as Martínez-Thiem explains, the oscillation of its price, with its recent increases, is not so much due to the global evolution of this demand as to other factors, such as the vicissitudes in the possibilities of access to the material or in global transport.

Since South America has the perfect tropical climate for the cultivation and harvesting of balsawood, it is logical that the largest producer and exporter of balsawood is a country in this region. The first place goes to Ecuador, which markets 20.3% of balsawood available globally. Other South American exporting countries are Chile (3.92%) and Brazil (3.77%), so that the three of them account for almost a third of the world market.

In the picture

Balsa wood exports from Ecuador. Weight in tonnes (MT) and price (FOB) in millions of dollars. Taken from the Central Bank of Ecuador

In 2018, Ecuador exported 19,226 tonnes of balsawood, worth $67.5 million, according to foreign trade figures provided by the Central Bank of Ecuador. That volume of goods, which had fallen from previous years, almost doubled in 2019, when it rose to 33,081 tonnes ($126.9 million). And in 2020 a record export of 74,680 tonnes was reached, which in price grew even more, given the revaluation of the product caused by its high demand, reaching 402.1 million dollars.

These developments have contributed to reducing the weight of Ecuador's oil exports, which fell from 24% of total foreign sales in 2019 to 14.5% in 2020. Balsa wood went from representing 0.49% of exports to 3.06% (behind bananas and shrimp), being the sector with the highest growth.

The increase in demand for balsawood is due to China. In 2020, 85% of Ecuador's sales of this timber subject went to China: of the 74,680 tonnes exported, 65,379 tonnes went to the Asian giant, worth 344.8 million dollars, followed by Poland (2,198 tonnes), the United States (1,877 tonnes) and Lithuania (1,377 tonnes).

China requires so much balsa wood because it is implementing a plan for the construction of wind turbines in order to increase its own production of clean energy and rely less on coal, and with the goal also to position itself globally in the sector, as it has done with photovoltaic panels. issue In order to achieve the goals of the plan, the Chinese government has subsidised a large number of Chinese producers for the purchase of tons of balsa wood, which has boosted demand so much that it has also led to farmers in Ecuador producing it illegally, without official permits, and generating a black market.

This black market is causing serious environmental problems, such as contributing to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest to plant balsa and exploit it, so that communities living in the Amazon have been severely affected by the booming demand for such timber.

Although Ecuador has been exporting this product since 1940, it has never had to meet so much demand, which explains the lack of regulation and regularisation of this economic sector. The lack of commercial and environmental regulation mechanisms has triggered a division in the Amazonian communities, for while their leaders want to preserve the jungle space where they live and maintain their traditional activities, the new generations are influenced by those who arrive to promote the new industry and get involved in illegal activities, ranging from cutting down the jungle to plant balsa to the consumption of drugs, such as marijuana and crack, introduced by the newcomers. In this context, last year 8,139 deforestation alerts were triggered in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest, especially in the sectors of the Pastaza, Bobonaza, Curaray and Villano rivers.

In order to meet Ecuador's international environmental commitments, the new president Guillermo Lasso has presented a plan for the promotion of renewable energy. The plan speaks of new models of sustainable production and consumption to reactivate the economy, both in relation to direct energy sources and indirect ones, such as the regulated exploitation of balsawood.