The sight of hulking wind turbine blades strapped to oversized semi-trailers has been known to unnerve motorists as the giant blades move through traffic destined for wind farms across the country.
Wind turbine blades manufactured at LM Glasfiber’s Grand Forks plant range in length from about 120 feet to about 145 feet long and can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds.
“Most people, even some of our customers, don’t realize how big they are until they see them up close,” said Ralph Sperrazza, general manager of the LM Glasfiber plant in Grand Forks.
A special extra-long trailer that is designed to move with the blade and steer around corners is required to move the blades from the LM Glasfiber plant to wind generation facilities.
“They tend to slow traffic up a little bit when they make their turns,” said Bert Gjovik, LM Glasfiber’s logistics manager. “The general public in traffic would probably say it’s a pain in the you know what.”
Sperrazza said most people don’t appreciate all that goes into the production and transportation of the mammoth blades.
The turbine blades are so large that they need to be molded in separate halves and then pieced together, sanded and finished at the LM Glasfiber plant. The blades are rolled out of the plant on blade carts and may be stored outside for weeks or even months on root stands before the buyer arranges for them to be picked up and transported to a wind energy project.
A giant heavy-lifting machine delicately hoists the turbines onto stands on semi-trailers. Depending on the size and shape of the blades, some truckloads carry one turbine blade, while others carry two that fit together.
Sperrazza said when winds gusts hit 20 mph or more, the turbine blades can’t be loaded because “there’s too much risk.”
Once on trucks, the turbine blades are transported to a number of sites in the United States and sometimes even go overseas. A good portion end up in North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Texas and some go to Canada.
“They go everywhere,” Sperrazza said. “It varies. Once they load it on the truck, it’s out of our hands and they’re on their own.”
A recent shipment to Spain was transported by semi-trailer to Duluth, where it was loaded onto a boat, traveled through the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean and on to Spain. When the Duluth port shuts down for the winter, overseas shipments instead will be trucked to the Port of Houston and then transported by boat the rest of the way.
Domestic shipping rates vary, but Gjovik said he has seen some trucking quotes of $15,000 to $20,000 and recently saw one for $27,000 for a shipment to Oklahoma. And those prices are only for one load of one or two blades. With each load containing one blade, it would take three loads to ship the blades needed for a rotor to run one wind turbine. Other wind turbine parts are manufactured by different companies and the giant windmill-like structures are assembled on-site at wind energy projects.
Geographically, Grand Forks isn’t usually considered to be centrally located. But LM Glasfiber’s first North American plant is located a state or two away, an easy driving distance, from many wind energy projects in the Midwest and Great Plains, helping to reduce shipping costs and decrease shipping time.
LM Glasfiber opened a blade manufacturing plant in Quebec last year and broke ground on a new factory in Little Rock, Ark., last month that is expected to begin operating in early 2008.
Requirements vary by state, but Gjovik said, generally, wind turbine blades transported by truck need a pilot car in front and behind the semi-trailer with oversized-load signs and flashing lights.
North Dakota does not require them, but some states, such as Minnesota, mandate the shipments be escorted by the state patrol. Gjovik said generally state patrol escorts travel through traffic lights like a funeral procession would. “The highway patrol can do things like that,” Gjovik said.
“They follow all traffic laws, unless they have an official state-sanctioned escort,” Sperrazza said.
The turbine blade convoys generally follow predetermined routes because the height of the loads (sometimes almost 14 feet high), can’t go under some bridges. They often stop at truck stops, which are easier for the long trailers to maneuver around, and can take up two lanes when turning.
The oversized loads even have a difficult time negotiating the narrow two-lane South 48th Street leading from the LM Glasfiber plant to DeMers Avenue and Interstate 29.
“They can make it,” said LM Glasfiber’s quality manager, Chad Frost. “But it’s not preferred.”
By Ryan Schuster, Herald Staff Writer
12 November 2007