Wind Energy Transport Needs Challenge Industry By Tom Gray

One of the final sessions at last week’s WINDPOWER 2010 Conference & Exhibition provided an excellent overview of the ways in which the growth of wind energy, and especially growth in the size of wind turbines and their components, have affected America’s transportation industry.

Featured during the session were specialists from the trucking, rail and barge industries. Key messages from the speakers included:

– The current size and scale of wind turbine components presents a daunting challenge to the trucking industry.

– That challenge is increased by the fragmented regulatory system under which the trucking industry operates, with individual states determining not only the routes extra large trailers must take, but also, through expenditures on maintenance, the condition of the roadways on which they travel.

– While rail and barges can provide attractive and energy-efficient alternatives for part of a turbine component’s journey, trucks will likely be needed for the balance.

– Wind power project developers need to consider transportation early on in making wind farm siting decisions.

Regarding state regulation of roads, Jay Folladori, Vice President of Heavy Specialized for Landstar System, commented, "The wind industry has pushed superload permits to astronomical numbers. Four to five are needed for each load–last year, 22,000 were needed for 5,000 wind turbines. Transportation preplanning is critical to delivery. There are many obstacles, including overhead objects, height requirements, and weight limits. Each state legislature needs to help support this industry."

On the subject of routes, Folladori provided as an example one truck route from Fargo, N.D., to a Wyoming wind farm site. The company identified a workable route 894 miles in length, but the route ultimately permitted by states along the way totaled 1,221 miles, or 36% longer.

The trucking industry is also dealing with a rapidly aging workforce, Folladori said, with the average age having increased by five years in one recent three-year period: "We need to learn how to attract a younger workforce."

It was also clear from his remarks that a long-term national energy policy that provides greater certainty in the market is urgently needed. The cost of the very large trailers needed to haul wind equipment is substantial, and "last year, the capacity of the industry’s equipment was seriously underutilized."

Landstar is "committed to maintaining our position in the wind industry," Folladori concluded, adding, "We need to get support and change the laws."

Katie Farmer, Vice President of Industrial Products Sales for rail company BNSF, described some of the major advantages of rail in transporting wind equipment: "The turbines for a 150-MW wind farm can be moved entirely in two trains of 75 cars each," while the rail industry maintains its own infrastructure and is not hampered by state regulation of highways. Even so, she said, the size of modern turbines is a challenge, as "Our predecessors [in the rail business] didn’t imagine 130-foot [rotor] blades."

To address the size issue, Farmer said, BNSF works collaboratively with turbine manufacturers to encourage transportation-friendly designs and conducts clearance verification, checking routes along the way before large components are shipped.

River barges have a substantial edge in the size of the cargo they can deliver, according to Gabriel Forir, Director of Sales for shipper American Commercial Lines: "One 15-barge tow can haul the equivalent of 216 rail cars or 1,050 large semi-tractor trailers. A typical tow for us is 40 barges."

Forir urged turbine and component manufacturers to try to identify factory sites with riverfront access "so you have all three [transportation] options in your toolbox." America’s inland waterway system capacity, he added, is currently only 40% utilized, leaving plenty of room for growth. Forir also touted innovations in blade hauling that now allow up to 18 blades to be stacked in a single barge–an amount that he said takes stevedores and cranes just two and a half hours to load.

The final speaker, Lone Star Transportation Vice President of Transportation and Logistics Doug Miller, strongly urged the need for advance planning of component transportation: "We want to plan, plan, plan–it allows us to compete and stay efficient … as soon as you say ‘this looks like a great place for a wind farm,’ that’s when the planning needs to start. The wind business is a logistics business, and always has been."

By Tom Gray,