Rising to a new logistical challenge

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Just 15 years ago a complete wind turbine could be packed inside a standard shipping container, but today's megawatt components are far too big for normal transport solutions. Moving wind plant about the world has become a business of skill, secrecy

and intense competition. One Danish freight forwarder has been involved since the start

On a blustery spring afternoon at one of Europe's major container ports, rows of gleaming white, giant tubes line the dockside. They are towers for wind turbines waiting to be swung aboard ship at Århus harbour in Denmark. The tower ends are capped with square metal frames and sealed with plywood. Up close, their immensity looms over the few stevedores present. Without sound, one of the tower pieces suddenly rises into the air, its midsection supported by two slings of webbing connected to the boom of a monstrous container crane. The tower soars swiftly upwards, then over onto the waiting vessel, where it disappears from sight. A few minutes later, a conical hub shoots up into the air like a fish on a reel under another crane, quickly landed onto the waiting ship.

"We have a rhythm now," says Søren Nygaard Jepsen, wearing a protective helmet and an orange safety jacket. Jepsen is the one in charge here -- or at least the one with all the plans. This loading of six turbines and eight towers is the third of its kind for a shipment of 37, 1.3 MW Bonus units headed to inland Washington state from the west coast of North America. Baltship A/S, the Danish freight forwarding firm that Jepsen works for, handles all the logistics of getting the machines from the Danish manufacturer's plant to the Nine Canyon construction site on Vansycle Ridge outside of Kennewick, thousands of miles, a couple of seas, two oceans, a long river and several road miles away -- about a six week trip.

"We're here together with the customer and the customer's insurance company," says Jepsen, referring to Bonus, Denmark's third largest wind turbine manufacturer, still privately owned. "The insurance company is here to make sure the load is secured for transport -- to check that all the lashings are done securely and properly."

These days components for wind turbines are big, really big. Shifting them about the world requires intricate planning and innovative know-how. But such has been the speed of technological development in the wind industry -- and resulting component growth -- that the secrets of transportation are known by only a select few. Talk of the challenges of moving wind turbines from point A to point B has mostly been limited to within the small, fiercely competitive sector of freight forwarders and the wind turbine manufacturers themselves.

"The turbines are so big, they need special transportation, which is expensive," explains Henrik Funk, Baltship's general manager. "So the question is how a company can develop a transportation solution that saves money. The secret is to maximise the loading of a ship -- to make the average cost per cubic metre cheaper. This can be an important competitive advantage -- and wind turbine manufacturers are not comfortable with sharing the details of how they do it."

But since we are talking about huge structures that must move down highways and byways and not about the inner workings of gear boxes, it is obviously difficult for manufacturers to keep their own solutions secret.

"Fifteen to twenty years ago, you could pack a complete 100 kW wind turbine in a forty-foot [12 metre] container," says Flemming Rung, Baltship's managing director. A standard container has an area of 70 cubic metres. A 2 MW machine today can fill 1500 cubic metres -- more than 20 times the space of the 100 kW units shipped to California in their hundreds two decades ago. Packing one of these monsters is not as simple as finding 20 or so containers, however. Blades and blade moulds can stretch to 40 metres, the length of an airline jet. Steel tower sections are typically 30 metres long and more than four metres wide at their base, weighing up to 45 tonnes. Nacelles weigh generally about the same but can tip the scales at 80 tonnes.

If those proportions alone are not enough to stop the average truck driver in his tracks, then the job of keeping the components unscathed and shining after an overseas voyage will. Not to mention factors like road permits for oversized loads in different parts of the world, finding equipment big enough to carry the components and timing everything so that the turbines arrive at the build site "just in time" under the expensive, awaiting crane. This is where the freight forwarder comes in.

Two decades of transport

A freight forwarder pieces together the transportation job for its clients. "We tailor-make complete transportation systems," says Rung. Unlike a shipping company, which is connected to one shipping line, a freight forwarder gets quotes from a number of steamship and trucking lines and goes with the best price, he explains.

Baltship is one of the only freight forwarding companies in the world that specialises so much of its business -- in this case 75% -- around wind turbine transport, according to its founders. It has its roots in Baltisk Liner Agency, where Rung handled his first shipment of wind turbines in 1982: six 50 kW machines from Denmark to Tehachapi, California. "That was 20 years ago," he notes.

Around 1994, the container system showed its limits. That was when the first blades began to exceed 12 metres. "We had a small workshop type meeting at a factory where we found a system to open the doors in the container so the blades could stick out two meters," Rung says. While blades have grown longer and longer, that system is still prevalent today. Down at Århus harbour, a series of 23 metre blades could be seen packed and stacked in threes, jutting far out of containers, ready for shipment. These were not Bonus blades, incidentally, but sensitivity around the topic discouraged Jepsen from saying anything more than they were from a different, unnamed Baltship client "from western Denmark."

The fact that Baltisk Liner Agency had its own shipping line created a conflict of interest too great to bear for Rung and some colleagues who were taking on a lot of wind project forwarding. They broke away to form Baltship in 1997. Today the company has a staff of 20 people in Århus, Copenhagen and Latvia's Riga. In 2001 the company handled the shipping for around 1500 wind turbines to the US, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, the UK and Ireland.

The physical growth of wind turbines since those first long blades in 1994 has been an ongoing development. Baltship's exclusive focus on the market from the start has helped, Funk says. "All manufacturers and freight forwarders face the same challenges: the cargo gets wider and wider, heavier and heavier, longer and longer. And you still have to do a safe transport. Even the manufacturers are saying: We need to think a little more about how to do this. And it's not becoming any easier to find the solutions." He adds that new players today can have a tough time entering the cut-throat field of very few specialist freight forwarders to the wind industry. "It's like when you jump a train. There's a speed when you just can't jump on any longer," he says.

Logistics and innovation

The logistics of each project involve close co-operation among the freight forwarder and the manufacturer, its insurance company, physical transport people, trucking companies, stevedores and navigators on the shipping lines -- who know, incidentally, the best ways to store cargo on a ship. A skill of improvisation under pressure also helps. "We were just in Latvia, where we had to fell some trees on the route," says Funk. "On Crete, we had to move a house. Well," he corrects, "we only took down a wall to get around a curve. But we did put it up again."

The inability to get everything into standard containers means that damage prevention is one of the biggest challenges of the freight forwarder's job. Wooden crates are out of the question for most manufacturers due to their expense. So most cargo leaves the factory painted but unpacked -- "naked" -- and the forwarders work with the manufacturers to find secure ways to stack and protect it. Any structural damage upon arrival will most likely mean the buyer or end user will demand an extended guarantee.

At Århus harbour during the loading of the Bonus turbines, 38 metre blades have been packed in pairs inside long, yellow metal frames which distribute their weight and are a new Bonus invention. Felt or carpet is tucked between the direct contact points of the frame and the blade itself -- particularly on the sensitive, thin edges.

Again, innovation helps. Airbags and foam are generally used to cushion units from each other onboard. "In some places in the world like Costa Rica, if we can't get airbags, we use old tires," Funk says. "Or carpet," continues Rung. "Fifteen years ago, all the carpet waste from shops in the area around Århus was emptied."

At the harbour, Jepsen says, "It's a lot of trial and error. This is real pioneer work." He points to some loops of metal chain on the top corners of the square frames that protect the tower sections. "These towers are stacked onto each other onboard. We discovered last year that the stevedores were putting themselves in danger by climbing up to connect the crane hook to the top tower. That's six to eight metres off the ground." The loops now allow the crane to hook on to the frames without help.

Tower sections are generally stacked two-high on a ship, but every manufacturer has its own way of doing it. As yet there are no patents on transportation solutions, though there is talk of it. "Remember that in the wind market today, you've seen brand new technology the last few years. The experience for transporting these megawatt machines is relatively limited. Therefore, many of the manufacturers are still in the process of developing new transportation methods," says Funk. "It's a question of how far you can reach before the technology changes again.

"Some of the manufacturers have found out that transportation equipment is not only a safe way to handle cargo, but it's also a bit of a commercial thing," he adds. "The buyer will most likely be present when the cargo arrives, and he will want to inspect it. If it looks nice when it comes off the truck, with a logo on the packing equipment, it's good promotion. Some manufacturers are spending a lot of money on this."

What's old is new

Sub-suppliers, such as trailer manufacturers, are finding a niche market in new equipment for wind turbine transport as well. "In Latvia, we need to deliver a 660 kW turbine, and we need a stretch trailer that can extend to 21 metres. You're lucky if you can find one to 18 metres there. At the same time, there are places like Denmark that are selling stretch trailers at 21 metres. They served the industry three to four years ago in Denmark, which uses 38 metre extendable trailers now. But they can sell these 21 metre trailers to the Baltic countries, who have never seen them before," says Funk.

Availability of equipment is only one of Baltship's tasks at the destination country. Other preparation work includes locating a storage area in the port and ensuring it is guarded. Are there access roads from port to the build site? Will the roads have to be built-out? Will special permits be necessary for extreme weight, length, width, driving the wrong way through a roundabout?

"In Latvia, it was 12 kilometres to the site from the port," Funk says. "We went out together with the client and walked through the whole site, measured bends and gradients on the road, found we needed to fill some gravel in here and there, took a lot of pictures and made a site condition report."

Jepsen likes to illustrate a project as a large chain, and the most challenging aspect is to get each point to overlap smoothly. "So much must be linked just right so that the chain holds tight," he says. Co-ordinating the arrival of the shipment with when the customer can receive it and the harbour can handle it is one section of the chain. And then the tempo of the whole project -- if multiple shipments are needed -- must be co-ordinated with the pace at which the machines will be erected on site.

Complicating things even more is the globalisation of the wind turbine industry, where production facilities are opening all over the world. "For a Costa Rica project we had, we got the nacelles from Denmark, the blades from Italy and the towers from Portugal. Everything had to end up at the same time at the site," Funk says.

Five weeks after they left the harbour in Århus, the first load of Bonus turbines and towers arrives in Portland, Oregon. They are transferred directly to three barges -- a first for Baltship, says Jepsen. The barges sail through four locks and up the Columbia River a couple hundred miles to Umatilla, Oregon. There, the machines are unloaded at the small harbour and await a truck transport to the construction site 20 miles away.

Things went smoothly, says Jepsen, who was onboard one of the barges to oversee the process. "We started on this project in November last year. And if we can deliver the last turbine on-site, on time, it will be incredibly satisfying. The whole project will have arrived."

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