The time is ripe to exploit wind energy to improve the sustainability of timber production. On a recent visit to Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, I noticed a painting of a sawmill-studied landscape, powered by windmills. Painted by Claude Monet in 1871, Mills in the Westzijderveld near Zaandam pictures the polder landscape with its many characteristic sawmills and their adjacent sheds.
There were once more than 200 wind-driven sawmills in the Zandaam area near Amsterdam, turning it into one of the world’s earliest industrial zones: the sawmills enabled large-scale shipbuilding, making a crucial contribution to Dutch colonial trading.
Although water-powered sawmills have been around since Roman times, the wind-powered variety was only invented in 1594 when Dutchman Cornelis Corneliszoon applied a crankshaft to a windmill, which converted a turning motion into a back-and-forward motion to power the saw. Prior to this, commercial sawing was slow and laborious, using a whipsaw operated by two strong men in a saw pit.
Today, wind-powered sawmills have all but disappeared in Europe. Merely a handful remain in Holland, notably the restored Salamander mill at Leidschendam. The only surviving wind-driven sawmill in the UK is Buckland Windmill in Surrey. Sawmills powered by renewable energy were eventually displaced by steam power. In the last century, the introduction of electricity and high technology transformed sawmill operations into the massive and expanded facilities we see today.
With sustainably felled timber deemed carbon neutral – even though it’s mostly imported and converted into usable timber by non-renewable energy – it’s time to make timber production more environmentally sound.
One solution is to convert kinetic energy from wind or water flow into power for sawmills. Modern wind turbines are highly efficient and are a growing source of commercial electric power. They can be used to propel a wind-powered sawmill renaissance. In the move towards increasingly sustainable timber production, renewable energy sources can play a significant part by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing the overall sustainability of wood.
Other resources: The potential for water-powered sawmills.
Windmills around the world.