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China seeks to develop its own blades for a wind industry empire worth $60 billion
Update time: 2022-01-20
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In the tropical climate of China's Yunnan province, scientists are planting a key ingredient to help strengthen the country's position as a world leader in wind energy: balsa trees.
Balsa, best known as a craft material for making model airplanes, is a major component of giant wind turbine blades. China's $60 billion wind industry sources almost all of its materials domestically, but has had to look abroad for light wood.
As the country that builds the most wind turbines in the world races to install wind power at a breakneck pace to meet ambitious climate goals, suppliers struggle to find enough balsa. To overcome the shortage and reduce imports, China is now seeking to develop its own.
“Given the peak carbon and neutrality goals, clean energy has become a very important issue,” said Zou Shouqing, a retired professor at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “So the country needs balsa wood.”
Zou, who has been researching balsa in China since the 1960s, led a team planting tropical trees in Xishuangbanna, an autonomous prefecture in Yunnan, and is now a consultant for China's first commercial-scale balsa plantation country.
Xishuangbanna, which borders Laos and Myanmar and is dominated by the minority Dai population, has planted around 4 square kilometers of balsa in 2020 and 2021. More are planned, with potential to meet around 10% of demand national, Zou said.
While the booming wind industry has led many farmers to switch from rubberwood to balsa, the domestic business is still in its infancy. It takes at least four years before a tree is ready to harvest, so China's first batch of commercial-scale balsa wood won't be ready for harvest until 2024.
Planting “must continue to grow, otherwise it still won't be enough,” Zou said.
The domestic effort won't entirely replace China's imports, which amount to about 1 million cubic meters of balsa a year – enough to fill the Empire State Building. But it will bring some relief.
Growing demand from China and the United States nearly tripled the price of balsa wood over a 15-month period to mid-2020, according to consultancy Wood Mackenzie.
The wood needs of the wind industry are enormous. Rigid and lightweight, it forms the bulk of a blade’s core, sandwiched between two layers of fiberglass for added strength. A 100-meter-long turbine blade could require 1,229 kilograms of balsa, according to a report from the US Department of Energy.
But China was not previously an ideal place for growing balsa. Zou and his team have tried unsuccessfully to cultivate balsa on a large scale on the tropical island of Hainan and the southern regions of Guangdong and Guangxi. He finally chose the Xishuangbanna as the most suitable place in the country.
Competitive barriers
Locally grown balsa has yet to prove itself in terms of price competitiveness and quality. The higher cost of land and labor in China could increase production expenses, and transporting tons of wood from the mountainous regions of Yunnan to a factory on the east coast might not be much cheaper than shipping costs from South America.
Xishuangbanna has lower temperatures and rainfall than major providers like Ecuador and Papua New Guinea. This means that Chinese balsa grows more slowly, which could lead to a higher density wood, although it would still meet the quality standards for making blades.
Balsa also faces competition from a cheaper alternative – polyethylene terephthalate or PET.
The lightweight and strong plastic material made its way into the wind turbine designs of top wind turbine companies during the balsa shortage of 2019 and 2020. PET is expected to overtake balsa to become the primary base material used in blades, representing about 60% of the global share in 2025, according to Wood Mackenzie.
Still, balsa will retain a large share, mainly in offshore turbines, where the reliability of the material is prized because repair costs are higher than onshore, said Shashi Barla, a consultant at Wood Mackenzie.
“Balsa always has an inherent advantage,” he said. “There will be stable demand.”



URL: https://worldrepublicnews.com/china-seeks-to-develop-its-own-blades-for-a-wind-industry-empire-worth-60-billion/  

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Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Menglun, Mengla, Yunnan 666303, China
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