I have already mentioned an article that appeared today in The Herald with the heading “Flatpack wood turbines could give wind power a green boost”. Had it appeared a few weeks later I might have assumed it was an April Fool, but evidently it isn’t.

I think it’s worth noting the extent to which the article effectively makes the case against existing wind turbines. It notes a number of problems (compared to which the wooden turbines are supposed to be an improvement).

First, we are told (not that we need to be reminded) that the manufacture of existing wind turbines requires a lot of steel, concrete and plastic, and that this takes a toll on the environment.

Next we are reminded that disposing of them at the end of their lives involves additional problems – “blades made from fibreglass and carbon fibre are particularly tricky to recycle, meaning they tend to end up in landfill.

We are told that the new lightweight turbine parts are easy to transport, and because they can be slotted together on site, smaller lorries are required. This avoids the need for road closures, and more parts can be delivered in a single journey. The obvious implication is that road closures and roads cluttered with lots of vehicles carrying few (but large and heavy) turbine parts are currently something of a nuisance. That would be an understatement. As I noted in Blown Away, so great is the extent of this problem that the Scottish Government’s Onshore wind policy statement 2022 devotes a whole section to such technical issues, and rather lamely hopes that the problem may be solved by its Abnormal Loads Legislative Reform Sub-group.

Next we are told that engineered wood is stronger than steel at the same weight, so wooden towers are cheaper than those made of steel and allows for the production of ever taller turbines without the need for costly reinforcements. Weren’t we told (incorrectly) that wind power is “nine times cheaper” than gas? Apparently it’s not so cheap, after all (but then we already knew that). Not only is it not so cheap to use steel, but “tower construction costs soar” in that scenario (or so we are now told).

I have always been suspicious of claims made by the renewables industry in respect of “carbon payback” time periods, and now we are told that “a timber wind tower solves a host of environmental issues, including generating 90% less carbon dioxide emissions during construction.” And what exactly are those carbon dioxide emissions? According to wooden turbine manufacturer Modvion, the life cycle emissions from a 110m tall wind turbine tower of steel is approximately 1,250 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Finally, we are told that “steel towers require hundreds of bolts that need regular inspections”, the implication being that fewer inspections would be required in respect of wooden towers that are held together with glue (I can’t say I’m convinced by that one).

The article also mentions a collaboration between Stora Enso and Voodin Blades, and more can be found about that here. It makes similar points to those above:

Wind power blades are typically produced with fibreglass and carbon fibre, energy-intensive non-renewable plastics made from petrochemicals that cannot be easily recycled. Tens of thousands of ageing blades today end up in landfills. By developing blades with sustainable wood, Stora Enso and Voodin Blades can make the blades lighter and reduce the overall dependency on fossil fuel extraction.

The wind industry as a key driver towards carbon neutrality needs to become 100% sustainable and environmentally friendly….

Acknowledgement, at last, that “green” renewable energy isn’t so green, after all. That said, of course, all of the above is in the form of publicity for new kids on the block who wish to break into what has so far been a very lucrative market, what with all the subsidies that have been sloshing around. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it should be taken with a large pinch of salt, but perhaps some healthy scepticism wouldn’t come amiss.

It’s also not clear, despite the attempts to put a positive spin on the sustainability angle, exactly how sustainable wooden turbines might be. Presumably it’s going to involve cutting down a lot of trees, so to that extent its green credentials might be as controversial as those of Drax. As the Herald article tells us:

A spokesperson for Modvion said Scotland with its large supply of Sitka spruce could be well placed to make its own tree-based wind turbines.

We currently use Scandinavian spruce but any soft wood works, including Sitka spruce. Scotland is very much possible for supplying raw material for wooden towers.”

Who knows if this might represent good news for those of us concerned by the environmental depredations of “green” energy? What it won’t solve is the fundamental problems associated with renewable energy – its unreliability, its unpredictability, its destabilising effect on electricity grids, with associated costs. Nor will it be any kinder to birds and bats, and in all probability it will continue to blight beautiful landscapes, especially as one of the big claims made for wooden turbines is that they will facilitate the use of turbines that are ever taller. In passing, I note that I haven’t read anything about what will go in the foundations. Will they dispense with concrete?

In all probability, if wooden turbines ever come to pass at scale, I fear that their manufacturers will represent just another snout in the subsidy trough, and the problems associated with renewable energy will remain as acute as ever for the end-user of electricity.

8 Comments

  1. When I worked at UEA l lived in converted farm buildings along with four other families and two others in the farmhouse. We had no gas supply. We considered a communitynele energy supply cladding our roofs with solar panels and erecting in my garden a wind turbine. That described by Mark would seem to be ideal.
    The scheme never went ahead because one of our neighbours objected and my then wife developed cancer and my interests changed.

    In the right setting I see absolutely no problem with renewable energy.

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  2. Alan,

    I also have no problem with renewable energy in appropriate locations and at an appropriate scale. I do have a problem with the misguided belief held by so many that a modern (post-?) industrial economy can be run on energy provided purely by intermittent, unpredictable and unreliable renewable sources, without a reliable source of back-up. And I have a problem with expensive subsidies being made available to replace a reliable nation wide energy system with an unreliable one.

    My position on many issues relating to net zero are the same. Thus, I don’t have any problem with people buying electric vehicles if they work for them (and I readily accept that for many people they will – if you live in a big city, rarely travel far, and especially if you have the ability to charge your vehicle overnight at home, because you are lucky enough, unlike millions of people, to have a drive and/or garage, then by all means buy an EV). I do have a problem with a government that has decided that everyone has to move from ICE cars that work for them to EVs which often won’t be as practicable, depending on individual circumstances, and I have a particular problem with loading tax and subsidies in such a way that often poor drivers of ICE vehicles subsidise often wealthy drivers of EVs.

    And so on. It’s about horses for courses.

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  3. Some wood at least – balsa – is already used in turbine blades. Having just looked it up, I discover that balsa is actually in the family Malvaceae, which is the family of plants in which the familiar garden hollyhocks belong. But balsa – Ochroma pyramidale – is of slightly larger stature, growing to a hundred feet in little over a decade.

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  4. Jit,

    Since you mention balsa wood:

    “A green paradox: Deforesting the Amazon for wind energy in the Global North
    A shift to wind energy is leaving a trail of destruction in Ecuador, with a brutal impact on Indigenous communities and fragile ecosystems”

    https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/democraciaabierta/deforesting-the-amazon-for-wind-energy-in-the-global-north-a-green-paradox/

    What has the destruction of balsa trees in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest got to do with the wind power industry in Europe?

    As the international commitment to renewable energy has grown in recent years, the increase in wind farms has triggered a huge demand for balsa wood, leaving a trail of deforestation in its wake.

    Balsa wood is used in Europe, and also more intensively in China, as a component in the construction of the blades of wind turbines….

    …In 2018, international demand for balsa wood increased significantly. The tropical wood is flexible and yet hard, while also being both light and resilient. Ecuador, which is the main exporter of balsa, with about 75% of the global market, is home to several large exporters, such as Plantabal S.A. in Guayaquil, which dedicates up to 10,000 hectares to growing the wood for export.

    The increased demand led to the deforestation of virgin balsa in the Amazon basin, in what came to be known as ‘balsa fever’. Balseros began to illegally deforest virgin balsa from the islands and banks of the Amazonian rivers in an effort to overcome the shortage of cultivated wood. This has had a terrible impact on the Indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon, in a similarly brutal way to that caused by mining and oil extraction in recent decades, and the rubber boom at the start of the 20th century…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Mark,

    Very interesting article, and also comments. I can endorse the remarks about roads — a minor scenic route here is now threatened will upgrading to highway standard to take turbines for two wind farms. You should see the EIA and its discussion of “pinch points”. So it needs widening, upgrading, new laybys, and all set out in a “desktop” survey. They haven’t yet bothered to actually inspect the road!

    I’d seen those comments about balsa wood extraction before, but had forgotten them. Well worth remembering. As for the rest of turbine construction …. how anyone can call building a wind farm in the middle of wild hill tops green seems completely ludicrous to me.

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