United States

United States

Comment - Transport is the wind beneath US industry wings

US: Turbine transportation and logistics companies are arguably the wind industry's unsung heroes. The ability to analyse all the transport options for a given project or set of components, crunch the costs, variables and risk factors, cope with increasingly mammoth loads, and get everything to a project site on time represents a remarkable feat. Then to do so repeatedly for various projects, with thousands of separate pieces shuffling around the world simultaneously amid changing seasons, fluctuating transport prices and equipment availability, and unforeseen bottlenecks is mind-boggling.

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This month’s special report on logistics and transportation of wind components looks at the vast US market from a variety of industry perspectives. Europeans have grown used to components rumbling along their motorways but for many Americans the experience is new. The past few years have seen explosive growth in US wind, with nearly 10 gigawatts installed in 2009 alone and around half the country’s total capacity installed since 2007.

But the industry in the US is still learning how to move a massive tonnage of steel and composites around the country cost-effectively. The lessons learned in Europe do not always apply in the US. And the lessons learned today may not be valid tomorrow.

The industry has to think on its feet and adapt to changing areas of development and an increase in turbine sizes that threatens to outpace the capabilities of the ports, cranes, trucks, trailers and railcars. Turbines over 2MW and their tower sections are at the threshold of what trucks and trailers in the US can carry - and they will only get bigger.

Investments are being made across the country and the world in bigger trucks, trailers, cranes and other equipment. Beyond just ramping up, the transport sector is also adapting and evolving to the industry’s needs. One of the most pronounced shifts is a move to rail. For example, while wind still accounts for a small percentage of the freight shipped by rail behemoth Union Pacific, it has grown 50% in the past two years.

This is partly a reflection of ever-bigger equipment but also an embrace of the well-developed freight rail system in the US. The country’s passenger train infrastructure is far behind Europe, but the freight system is world-renowned. Where most wind equipment in Europe is shipped by truck, rail is increasingly seen as a cost-effective strategy in the US to cope with the longer point-to-point shipments. Rail companies are now working with the wind industry to adapt railcars to wind equipment.

Ports are also growing alongside the wind industry and making investments to accommodate the next generation fleet. Since 2006, the Port of Vancouver, in Washington state, has bought two mobile harbour cranes, the largest of their kind in the US and each capable of lifting 140 metric tonnes. New port rail infrastructure and the purchase of 281 new acres of port space ensures adequate staging space as more equipment is shipped to the US, particularly from manufacturers in Asia.

Equipment manufacturers are also adapting. Some, like Mitsubishi, are now shipping nacelles in two separate pieces. Some turbine makers have tweaked nacelle dimensions to suit railcars, in some cases borrowing railcars to test turbine design and loading capability.

Location and planning

Manufacturers must ensure their facilities are located close to good transport infrastructure. The analogy of ‘building a boat in a basement’ is used by one transport expert: no matter how well it is built, it is no use if you cannot get it out of the basement. A tower or blade factory surrounded by mediocre infrastructure will struggle to price its products cost-effectively and growth will be stunted. Working closely with transport experts is increasingly crucial.

Well before a ship sets sail or the trailer wheels start turning, competing transport scenarios are analysed by companies like Danish shipping and logistics company Baltship. It typically works a year in advance of project construction to determine the best routes and pricing. It is a logistical juggling act to co-ordinate the various components needed at a project site, which increasingly come from multiple sources and locations. Seasonal dynamics are plugged in too: a shipping route to Wisconsin through the Great Lakes may be the best choice in August but not when the route is frozen over in January.

With transport accounting for around 10% of the up-front cost of a wind project, minor shifts in strategy can add up to millions of dollars. Jumps in oil prices or currency fluctuations can bring wide cost swings and often influence the choice between one turbine and another. Topping it all off, the US wind industry often needs to meet deadlines dictated by on-and-off federal incentives, so transport-related delays can mean the difference between achieving expected margins or insolvency. For all these reasons, the unsung heroes of the transport sector deserve their day in the sun. 

 Jesse Broehl is US editor of Wind Power Monthly



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