Going higher to produce more power is a goal for Europe in its quest to become carbon neutral by 2050 as high-altitude wind power plants are the future of wind energy production. But not only that. In the challenge of being cleaner and finding better sources of energy, going greener is also key.
We have seen many industries investing and pushing the boundaries of where to use wood, like the textile industry, the computer chips industry, and many others. Although in the past some attempts were made, building taller and stronger wood turbine towers to produce wind power is the next frontier.
Today, most of the turbine towers are made of steel. Paradoxically, although they produce clean energy, these steel towers are also estimated to make up 20-30 per cent of the turbine’s contribution to global warming since so much fossil energy is spent on producing steel. This is one of the reasons why the reintroduction of wood as a structural material for the construction of turbine towers is so important and exciting.
The Swedish engineering and industrial-design company Modvion –recently acquired by Vestas Ventures– is behind the new modular wooden turbine towers. The project, partially funded by the EU, “seeks to develop the next generation of cost-efficient tall towers”. According to Vestas, the wooden towers are expected to have an 80% lower CO2 footprint than conventional steel towers.
The objective is to bring to the market the first modular wind turbine tower made from laminated wood (LVL), which can be built with a larger diameter base. As Modvion Managing Director Otto Lundman has explained in different interviews, when used as a building material, timber offers several advantages in addition to its positive climate footprint: “Pound for pound, composite wood is 55% stronger than steel, and thanks to the modular structure, the wind turbines can be mounted higher”.
Movdion’s Chief technical officer Erik Dölerud explains that the structural materials used for their towers are glue-laminated timber (GLT) and laminated veneer lumber (LVL). “LVL is a loadbearing plywood structure created through laminating many very thin wood-veneer layers”, he says.
One of the many advantages of these new wooden structures is that they can be manufactured with zero emissions right from the start. “By building towers of wood, the carbon dioxide emissions caused by manufacturing can be radically reduced, while the carbon dioxide absorbed by trees as they grow is also stored in the wooden towers. In addition, certified sustainable wood raw material is used, which means, among other things, that new trees are planted”, states a press release by Vattenfall, Modvion’s partner in the business development project.
On the other hand, the tower elements are divided into four curved modules that can be screwed together at the wind farm itself, making them much easier to transport.
For research purposes, in May 2020, the company installed a prototype on the Isle of Björkö, close to the city of Gothenburg. It is 30 meters high and is built entirely of wood. This proof-of-concept tower was built in collaboration with the wood products company Moelven, at the glue wood factory in Töreboda. It is deemed to serve as a demonstration of how it is possible to build towers higher than traditional ones using wood, due to its lighter weight and thanks to a modular design.
Thus, this downsized structure is a stepping stone towards building the much larger 150-meter commercial tower. If the model is successful, the company plans to produce commercial-scale versions. It already has two major orders for 2022.
Europe has the potential to generate enough wind power to supply the entire continent, according to a study carried out by scientists from the University of Sussex, in the United Kingdom, and the University of Aarhus, in Denmark. The study measured the potential of the continent, focusing only on inland wind power, excluding any project planted offshore. The conclusion, published by the international journal Energy Policy, is that wind energy in Europe could multiply its current production by 100 and cover its energy needs entirely.
With wooden turbine towers wind power could take a gigantic leap forward to become the world’s cleanest source of energy, taking Europe a step closer to its goal of becoming the first climate neutral continent.