This Wood Is Key to Wind Power. Too Bad There’s a Shortage

One out of two 23-ton rafts made mostly of balsa wood is prepared to be lifted by a crane at the Industrial Services sector of the Peruvian Navy at the Port of Callao on Oct. 29, 2015. After a month of building and preparation, the two vessels of pre-Colombian design set sail on Nov. 1 on a six-week cruise to Easter Island with a crew of 12 Norwegians and one Peruvian.

Source CRIS BOURONCLEAFP PHOTO/Getty

Why you should care

Balsa wood is light and strong — and without it, wind power gets a lot more complicated.

The rollout of new wind power projects could be delayed by a shortage of balsa wood.

Better known for its use in model aircraft, table-tennis rackets and surfboards, balsa is a key component of many wind turbine blade cores because it is both strong and lightweight. But that could be a problem for the immediate future of renewable energy.

Balsa wood prices have almost doubled in the past year, which could affect planned wind farms.

“Balsa has one of the biggest shortages” among materials used in wind turbines, says Tobias Hahn, chief executive of Diab Group, one of three leading material suppliers for wind turbine blades.

The wood is grown almost exclusively in Ecuador, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Producers in the Latin American country have benefited from the shortage, saying prices are likely to keep rising next year.

Wind turbine manufacturers are racing to prepare for a bumper year in 2020, when a surge in newly installed wind capacity is expected in the world’s two biggest economies.

Next year “is going to be big for wind power in the U.S. and China,” says Shashi Barla, a wind energy analyst at Wood Mackenzie.

The consultancy predicts 75 gigawatts of wind power capacity will be added globally next year, up from 67 gigawatts in 2019, and expects a demand spike in China ahead of the lapsing of subsidies in 2021.

The plastic material polyethylene terephthalate (PET) has increasingly been used as a substitute for balsa in turbine blades, accounting for about 30 percent of the market. But a boom in demand on the back of the balsa problems has also created a shortage of PET. Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, is another alternative.

A long and heavy wet season in Ecuador this year has not helped, hampering both the harvesting of the wood and its transportation to Ecuador’s main port of Guayaquil for export. And production is set to take another hit soon when the rainy season begins again.

“It’s difficult to see a solution any time in the next two years,” said Ricardo Ortíz, the owner of Lumber Industries, an Ecuadorean balsa producer.

Feng Zhao, strategy director at the Global Wind Energy Council, said the balsa shortage would have a “negative impact on global installation,” particularly in China.

The potential lack of supplies of the wood, which takes four years from plantation to harvest, comes as the U.S. and China plan to roll out 14.5 gigawatts and 29 gigawatts of wind power capacity next year respectively, compared with roughly 8 gigawatts and 21 gigawatts in 2018.

As with other commodities, China’s growing presence has added another layer of complexity to the balsa market.

“The problem is that [Ecuador] is full of Chinese intermediaries, who have deep pockets,” and outbid each other to procure raw balsa, says Ortíz.

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By Harry Dempsey and Gideon Long

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