How the wind boom is driving deforestation in the Amazon | United States


What does the deforestation of balsa wood in the Amazon region of Ecuador have to do with wind power generation in Europe? There’s a perverse link between the two: The search for renewable energy has spurred global demand for a prized timber species that grows in the world’s largest rainforest. As Europe and China ramp up 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 increase in international demand for balsa wood from 2018. Balsa is very flexible yet tough at the same time, and offers a lightweight but durable option for long-term wind power generation. Typical wind turbine blades are currently around 80 meters long, and the new generation of blades can extend up to 100 meters. This means that about 150 cubic meters of lumber are needed to build a single unit, according to calculations by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the United States.

Ecuador is the world’s largest exporter of balsa wood, holding 75% of the world market. The main players are Plantabal SA in Guayaquil, which has around 10,000 hectares dedicated to growing balsa wood for export. With the boom in demand starting in 2018, this company and many others have struggled to keep up with the volume of international orders.

This increase has led directly to the deforestation of the Amazon. Irregular and illegal logging has proliferated by those who have responded to the scarcity of timber grown for timber by cutting down the pristine balsa that grows on the islands and shores of the Amazon. The impact on the indigenous peoples who live in the region has been as devastating as mining, oil and rubber were in their day.

In the province of Pastaza on the border with Peru, the accelerated construction of a highway crossing the territory of the Shuar people to connect the western town of Puyo to a pier on the Pastaza river sparked controversy in 2019. At the gates of the ‘Amazonia, the Shuar and the Achuar peoples saw the road as an infrastructure for extraction and deforestation, and not as a contribution to the development of their communities. But the project continued despite everything without their consent, and the road was completed in November 2019.

Thousands of kilometers away, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke to a Brussels audience about the European Union’s ambitious European Green Pact, which aims to foster a transition to a carbon neutral economy to fight against climate change. Von der Leyen presented the plan in these terms: “The European Green Deal is Europe’s new growth strategy. It will reduce emissions while creating jobs and improving our quality of life. For that, we need investments. Investment in research, innovation, green technologies. To achieve this, we will put in place an investment plan for a sustainable Europe that will support a trillion euro investment over the next decade. “

An island in the Pastaza River seen from Sharamentsa, Ecuador.Francesc Badia and Dalmases

Renewable energies are increasingly cheaper to produce and the support of Western governments has stimulated the installation of wind turbines in Europe. The same has happened in China, which is also trying to increase the share of renewables in its energy mix. In December 2020, President Xi Jinping said China’s 243 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity would grow to more than 1,200 by 2030.

The wind energy fever has led to a fever for balsa wood, with devastating consequences for indigenous communities in Ecuador. By September of this year in Achuar territory, total deforestation of balsa trees was clearly visible on the Pastaza River, and loggers had moved to neighboring Peru. Even though prices were already starting to fall, the loggers continued up the Pastaza with large canoes to unload the logs at Copataza, where they were put on trucks and taken along the new highway.

In June, the indigenous Achuar leaders began to speak out. “Don’t make any investment, even if you cut balsa wood, you won’t be able to remove it and it won’t be sold,” they posted on Facebook, adding that they would not allow balsa wood to leave their home. territory during the city. “This is an urgent call for us to understand the serious problems this poses for neighboring countries such as Peru. The loggers cause the division between brothers. By then it was already too late.

Sharamentsa is a community that has bet on energy innovation itself, with a solar-powered canoe project. He had resisted opening up his islands to loggers, but a local leader bowed to the pressure and sold the community’s balsa trees, causing an uproar and clear division among families.

The felling of balsa trees also has consequences on the ecosystem of the islands and on the river. Loggers drag alcohol, drugs and prostitution in their wake, contaminating mining sites with plastic, cans, machinery, gasoline and petroleum. They ditch used chainsaw chains, eat turtles, and hunt parrots, toucans and other birds that feed on balsa flowers. Illegal deforestation has profound impacts on the balance of flora and fauna, pushing the ecosystem to the breaking point.

Fuel containers dumped on Sharamentsa airstrip.
Fuel containers dumped on Sharamentsa airstrip.Francesc Badia and Dalmases

Amazon advocates are calling on the wind 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.

The increase in prices due to strong demand and insufficient supply is already prompting the industry to seek alternative materials. The cost of balsa wood doubled from mid-2019 to mid-2020, according to The Economist. In 2019, Ecuador’s balsa exports amounted to almost 195 million euros, 30% more than the previous record of 2015. In the first 11 months of 2020, this figure rose to 696 millions of euros.

Wind turbine blades are mainly made of polymethacrylamide (PMI) foam, balsa wood and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) foam. A typical design will use balsa for the load-bearing part near the center of the blade and PVC foam as it approaches the tip of the blades. However, there is an increasing need to manufacture longer and lighter blades, as well as to ensure a reliable supply chain. PET, a low density foam generated from plastic bottles, is a substitute. Danish company LM WindPower has been using PET since 2017. “Today we use PET foam in blades over 80 meters,” said Paul Dansereau, materials engineer at the company, adding that 60% of this material is recycled.

The Spanish-German company Siemens-Gamesa is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of wind turbines. They make blades in the Ria Blades factory in Vago, Portugal with balsa wood that is cut over 10,000 kilometers away in Ecuador. When large companies like this first introduced blade designs using only PET, other competitors quickly followed. Wood Mackenzie, a consultancy firm, predicts this “will rise from 20% in 2018 to over 55% in 2023, while demand for balsa will remain stable.”

Impact on recycling and the territory

Aerial view of a wind turbine at Baix Camp, in the Spanish province of Tarragona.
Aerial view of a wind turbine at Baix Camp, in the Spanish province of Tarragona.Jordi Monserrat

The blades also pose a recycling problem. The first generation of wind turbines are reaching the end of their life and thousands will have to be dismantled. “Currently, 85 to 90% of the total mass of wind turbines can be recycled,” said Ramón González-Drigo, professor of structural engineering at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia. “But blades are a challenge because of their composite materials, because recycling them requires very specific processes. The manufacture of wind turbine blades requires technical solutions that are both sustainable, economically viable and responsible, and which are part of a circular economy model, ”he added.

The social and environmental impact of wind farms does not stop with the deforestation of the Amazon basin, but extends to the territories of countries like Spain where they end up operating. These are sparsely populated communities with constant winds, and where local opposition is dispersed by low population density and isolation.

Matarraña, a region of the Spanish province of Teruel, is home to several wind farm projects whose construction is planned in the short term. Spain is committed to increasing the production of wind energy, which currently accounts for 21.9% of the electricity consumed in the country. The local population feels powerless in the face of the arrival of projects of one million euros which affect the flora, fauna, the landscape or even social harmony. “We are having a debate between the need for renewable energies, where wind farms have a very clear role, and the need to preserve the territory, the landscape. It doesn’t go together very well, ”said Eduard Susanna, an olive oil producer.

Aerial view of the Baix Camp wind farm in Calaceite, in the Matarraña region of Spain.
Aerial view of the Baix Camp wind farm in Calaceite, in the Matarraña region of Spain. Cristina Juliana

Esperanza Miravete, professor of geography and history in Valjunquera, a municipality of 338 inhabitants of Matarraña, criticizes the “very strong aggression” of wind farms in the area. “There is no one to protect the landscape, and there is no natural park or anything that could stop an industrial project here,” she said.

Wind turbines are a key part of the energy transition under the European Green Deal, but the production of balsa wood for the blades and the rise of large wind farms in rural areas pose challenges for various ecosystems and communities. Home.

The energy transition poses a green paradox, and wind power companies must be able to provide a clear answer to this question. When Europeans turn on the heat this winter, they have a right to know how clean their energy is.


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