You’d think motorists driving down the highway would be able to see an oversize flatbed trailer carrying a massive 240-foot wind turbine blade.
You’d think – wrong. “We’ve had people literally drive under the blade, not realizing the blade was there,” said Gene Lemke, vice president of projects at ATS, a Minnesota-based carrier.
“With the white blade and white sky – you have no idea how many times we hear, ‘I didn’t see it.’”
Contending with hapless motorists is just one of the many challenges associated with transporting monster wind turbine shipments, a business that has soared in the past few years as wind farm installations have increased.
Many turbines are manufactured overseas, then shipped to U.S. ports, where they are transported by rail and truck to their final destination. Major manufacturers include Siemens Gamesa, Vestas, GE and Nordex Acciona.
ATS claims about 25 to 30 percent of the market, transporting between 10,000 and 16,000 loads annually.
With each shipment, the company conducts detailed route studies, works to obtain local and state transportation permits and undertakes dry runs to ensure every last turn and bridge underpass is safe for drivers carrying the huge loads.
That process takes about a year to complete. “The biggest thing we do is advance planning,” said Lemke.
Citing proprietary concerns, Lone Star Transportation, another major wind hauler, declined to comment for this article.
Buoying the industry
Over the past decade, the United States wind industry has invested around $143 billion in new development. Domestic wind capacity additions in 2019 are expected to total 12.7 gigawatts (GW), exceeding annual capacity additions for the previous six years.
Along with the uptick in projects, there has been an explosion in the size of the turbine blades. “They have just gotten massive,” Lemke said.
The increase in size is tied to changes in the production tax credit, a federal wind energy subsidy that expires at the end of this year.
“It’s an arms race, if you will,” said Lemke. When the wind industry negotiated the phase-out of the tax credit four years ago, “everyone started racing toward a new world, making wind turbines bigger and more cost-efficient.”
The larger models compound challenges for railroads, said Ben Wilemon, a BNSF Railway spokesperson, in an email to FreightWaves. BNSF averages 20 wind energy shipments in a 30-day period, Wilemon said.
Blades are the most difficult components to transport, due to such variables as equipment model, length and route accommodation. As their length and height continue to grow, Wilemon said, “routes that we previously used for shorter blades can sometimes not accommodate larger models, due to the physical size and capacity of certain areas on our network.”
Headwinds are another pain point. BNSF’s customer support team works with the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to identify potential issues before they arise, then collaborates with partners to find alternative design solutions to mitigate potential problems.
The reason wind energy planning starts a year in advance is because of the extensive route improvements the must be made before drivers even attempt to bring the turbines on the road, said Cassie Olsen, ATS pricing analyst supervisor. The recognizance teams, she said, do everything from taking out trees to moving utility poles.
In many cases there is only one viable route, making advance communications with city and state officials critical, said Olsen.
ATS ships wind turbines all over the United States, and to date also has completed five projects in Hawaii, three in Alaska and one in Puerto Rico. Lemke said the company has moved all but one wind turbine in Hawaii, and recently hosted its Hawaii carrier partners in Minnesota for a training connected to the Na Pua Makani wind farm in Oahu.
“If U.S. transport is challenging, transporting in Hawaii is even more difficult,” he commented.
Loading the beast
Once the route has been planned and test runs completed, it’s time to wrestle the huge loads onto the trucks.
The largest wind turbines can weigh up to 700,000 pounds and typically require around 10 loads to transport, Lemke said. One turbine breaks down into three blades, each transported on two three-axle trailers; tower components, also transported in three sections; and the nacelle, the cover that houses all of the generating components, hauled on a 13-deck trailer.
The toughest move is the tower section, where carriers use special “schnabel trailers” that pick up the tower from the front and back, without the assistance of cranes.
“They grab each end of the tower section,” said Lemke, “and through the magic of physics and hydraulics, the nets compress against the tower section, and the tower section becomes the trailer. So a lot of the tower sections become self-loading.”
The other components are loaded via crane or forklift, he said.
Hauling wind components is a dangerous and laborious job.
To qualify, ATS drivers must meet complete a three to four-year training program. There are six driver classification levels in the specialized division and eight in the heavy haul. Blade drivers and tower drivers are the best in class in each of those respective divisions, Lemke said.
Due to the project nature of wind energy transport, drivers are also on the road for months at the time. Each wind farm requires large quantities of wind turbines; as a result wind energy contracts typically require shipping 10 or more complete wind turbines per week, a spokesperson for Siemens Gamesa told FreightWaves.
That pickup-deliver, pick up-deliver rhythm can take a toll on drivers, Lemke said, who often must be away from their families for months at a time.
Clean energy payoff
After all the labor involved, completing a wind project is its own reward. As for the financial compensation – ATS charges around $30,000 to $40,000 for short-haul wind shipments and more than $100,000 for a long-haul.
Other factors make wind energy transport a tremendously satisfying line of work, said Lemke, noting the company is proud of contributing to an environmentally-friendly industry.
In 2018 alone, the electricity generated from wind turbines avoided an estimated 200 million tons of carbon pollution. This reduction is equal to roughly 43 million cars’ worth of CO2 emissions.
“Trucking, especially heavy-haul trucking, is not very green,” said Lemke. “It’s going to be a long time before there is going to be battery-powered truck. So what we do in wind feels like it gives us an opportunity to be a little bit green.”
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