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United States

Hard road to travel for wind logistics

With turbine sizes increasing as the sector expands, growth is a word that truly applies to the wind industry.

Turning point...logistics innovation catching up with turbine design
Turning point...logistics innovation catching up with turbine design
In the US, in excess of 40GW of wind projects has been installed, with more than 5GW of that — which is enough to serve the equivalent of 1.5 million homes— last year. Turbine manufacturers are building larger machines that are increasing efficiency and overall energy output.
With growth come particular challenges in the area of transportation and logistics, such as truck-driver shortages, a lack of consistency in state permitting and environmental sustainability. Roadways and waterways need to be improved to accommodate the wind industry’s needs, with innovations in trucks and ships that, if the vehicles are able to handle the ever-increasing size of the components, could make transport more efficient and affordable. Efficiencies can also be achieved if the overall manufacturing and shipping process is streamlined.

Transportation and logistics is an area of growing importance and opportunity for the wind energy industry. One wind turbine can require up to eight hauls to the project site — the nacelle, three blades and three to four tower sections. A 150MW wind farm, may need almost 700 truckloads, 140 rail carriages and eight ships, although the proportion of components manufactured in the US is an important factor. These figures help to explain why transportation costs can reach 15% of the total cost of a wind farm.

As elected officials and policy makers seek to source more of the country’s energy from wind, they will have to address the infrastructure issues that threaten to stall growth. Companys in the transportation and logistics industry that can meet the demands of the wind industry will reap the rewards of the manufacturing resurgence in the sector.

Meeting growing demand

Demand is growing for more innovative transport products to handle the increased weight and overall dimensions of generators and other components that are increasing in size to meet the needs of lower wind speed areas. "Original equipment manufacturers of wind turbine equipment have faced obstacles in recent years balancing new design without increasing transport costs," says Gary Kowaleski, logistics director for manufacturer Suzlon Energy. "As technology advances, it allows for more efficient wind turbines, which translates into larger and heavier equipment to transport."

Innovation in trailer design will not only address the size and weight requirements of the new turbine components but also make trailers more efficient, says Nathan Guess, vice-president of sales and marketing at trailer manufacturer XL Specialized Trailers. By streamlining the weight of the vehicle, more product can be transported, which means increased overall economic effectiveness, he adds. XL recently collaborated with logistics operator Energy Transportation to develop a 13-axle trailer to haul loads that previously could only be carried on 19-axle vehicles. "This collaborative project is an example of seeking out efficiencies in the wind industry to make roadway transportation of turbine components more economical and safer," says Guess.

There is also a need to develop waterways as a viable alternative to road for shifting huge components, according to Todd Alexander, director of operations at logistics firm TMO Global Logistics.
"Waterways are not currently optimised for wind energy component delivery due to port locations and capabilities, as well as the physical constraints of the existing shipping fleet," says Alexander. "Improving waterway infrastructure and protecting the environmental integrity of the waters will make transportation for the wind industry more economically advantageous."

Driver shortage

The recent economic downturn has led to a driver shortage in the North American trucking industry, with fewer drivers having the necessary technical expertise. Recruitment of drivers with experience of the wind industry is a critical issue, says Carl Proefrock, director of specialised logistics at Trinity Logistics Group.

"As the number of new drivers decreases, and a growing number of drivers with the experience and training necessary to transport these critical shipments are leaving the industry [through retirement], there is a shrinking pool of available drivers who have learned, or are willing to learn, the complexity of transporting wind energy components, such as oversized loads shipped on very specialised equipment," he says.

Compounding these problems is the myriad of regulatory issues that govern road transportation of wind components. Irregularity in state route regulations causes risk to service, costs and confusion for drivers, creating an unpredictable business climate, says Jay Folladori, vice-president of heavy specialised services at LandStar Global Logistics."More work needs to be done to streamline interstate and intra-state rules, and regulations governing our roadways to maintain the competitiveness of the industry," he adds. "Not only do the inconsistencies create an unpredictable logistics environment, they also raise overall costs and can potentially delay project operations."

In an industry dedicated to sustainable energy, the supply chain decisions made in the past for moving components have not been specifically focused on environmentally friendly measures or practices, says Theo Vallas, senior account manager for power generation machinery and transportation equipment at CSX Transportation. Vallas is part of a transport and logistics working group for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).
"The strategic vision of the group incorporates multimodal solutions and broad-based cooperation of all partners of the supply chain. The group will focus its efforts on reducing the environmental impact of wind power supply chains," Vallas says.

Smart logistics

AWEA formed the working group in 2009, in recognition of the critical role that transportation and logistics play in ensuring that turbines arrive safely and on time, and of the importance of smart and efficient logistics systems to the cost-competitiveness of the industry. Its aim is to pinpoint the issues and identify possible solutions to the large policy issues, and eliminate logistics issues that would hinder unlimited growth of wind power in North America.

"As a team comprised of transportation professionals from various modes including truck, rail, barge and ports, the working group has identified issues that constrain wind transportation today," says Vikash Patel, co-chairman of the group and global project logistics commodity leader at GE Energy Logistics. "As the group matures as an organisation and issues are brought to resolution, the entire wind industry in North America should see and feel the positive impact."

Policy development on the part of the wind industry will not only inform policy makers at state and federal levels but directly shape transportation and logistics policy to benefit the long-term growth of the industry.

"Innovation and efficiency saves companies money, and when you’re talking about saving money in the energy industry, that means less expensive energy for consumers," adds co-chair Nikhil Amin, president of Trinity Logistics Group. "We are making these recommendations today to encourage innovation in development tomorrow, which will result in a prosperous domestic industry in the years to come.   

Tom Maves is deputy director, manufacturing and supply chain, American Wind Energy Association

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