The shipping of today's large wind turbines can pose many challenges.
As well as the standard logistical hurdles, other elements, such as route, season or where components are sourced, can change the scope and price of the operation completely.
Foremost among potentially changeable factors is the shipping route itself.
If, say, 20 wind turbines need to be taken to Wisconsin in the US Midwest, they could be taken via the Great Lakes all the way to Duluth, Minnesota, which borders Wisconsin.
That might be good for the summer. In the winter, however, the Great Lakes are frozen, meaning the parts would have to be unloaded in Houston, Texas, then sent more than 1,000 miles north by truck or rail.
Ocean freight is generally more expensive than land-based transportation, though so why not choose Houston anyway?
Sailing to Duluth would only entail getting trucking permits for one state.
From Texas, meanwhile, weight and axle permits would need to be secured for five or six states before the first shipment could land. That involves more time, more risk factors and of course extra cost.
Many other factors such as these are involved in analysing transport logistics and getting the lowest overall costs while ensuring wind turbines reach the construction site safely and on time
Pre-planning and analysis
Today's wind turbine logistics planning does not start when a wind turbine order is made. If we began then, we would already be running behind schedule.
We typically begin project partnerships with wind farm developers up to a year before a project is officially ordered.
Clients need advice at an early stage about how the bottom line will change depending on their choice of sourcing components, for example, and how that will affect routes, timing, vessels and other factors.
This step was simpler some years ago when everything came from a single factory.
For the example in Wisconsin, today the nacelle and the blades might come from Europe, the foundation from a local producer and the towers from Korea, Brazil or China.
A shipment from India might start 500 kilometres inland, which would mean an extra leg of transportation. A shipment by boat from Europe might take six weeks to the US west coast, but only two weeks to the east coast. With all the factors such a choice entails, which route is better?
In situations like this, we look at all the options and risk factors, using our multimodal analysis to find the best solution.
Vessels and ports
When a client places a wind turbine order, the next step is to secure an ocean vessel. It is always possible to get a ship; the key is to secure it at the right cost.
It is important to have strong, long-term relationships with a number of vessel owners, to remove some of the risk of securing the right vessel at the right cost during periods of high demand.
Otherwise, if two vessels are available and both cost a million dollars, the next step is to examine their track records as well as factors such as how optimised they are for carrying wind turbines.
One ship might be able to carry 12 turbines, while another is restricted to nine.
In addition, if there is more than one project that needs shipment at the same time, we investigate the option to consolidate the delivery, combining components on shipments to save costs.
As a single logistics and freight-forwarding supplier, our expertise lies in securing the best sea and land carriers as well as ensuring all the technical and legal requirements are in place.
It also includes co-ordinating schedules between different carriers to keep up with the pace of delivery. A truck must be there exactly when it is needed, as must the crane, the stevedores and the ship.
If a ship is coming into port to unload 19 turbines, those will take up a massive amount of space. Has that space been accounted for?
The components should not be moved more than is necessary since they are not packed in anything protective. And that port area must be vacant again when the next ship comes two weeks later with another 19 turbines or there could be a substantial, expensive problem.
Permits and risk management
All subcontractors must have the correct road permits for oversized loads, as well as insurance and safe, up-to-date equipment for the onward journey.
In the US, permit policy varies from state to state. Some states require police escorts, which have to be arranged in advance, and each state's transport department must grant approval for the chosen route.
Factors like road construction, tourist season or the weather can reroute trucks a long way from the usual path. It is possible to plan all this ahead of time, however.
Risk management is also a key part of the planning process, and involves two overriding factors: the health and safety of stevedores and crane and truck drivers, and economic risks.
Companies can demonstrate their compliance by achieving certificates in the different management systems, including occupational health and safety and environment.
Beyond pre-planning for the issues already discussed, economic risk management includes other elements, such as oil prices, currency fluctuation and market conditions. Even seemingly minor things must be anticipated; for example, a construction site with heavy, constant winds will require that the blades be secured when they arrive on site. And if something unexpected happens along the way, what is our Plan B?
In summary, extensive forward planning is required for a freight forwarder to achieve its ultimate goal: to get a gleaming, undamaged consignment of wind turbines to its final destination on time and at the least possible cost.
Jorgen Hougaard, Jeppe Frank, Alex Olsen and Peter Greve Jensen are respectively director, global sales director, project manager and key account manager of Baltship, a Danish shipping and logistics firm specialising in transporting wind equipment.