On June 9, 2011 the MV BBC Orinoco sidled up to a wharf at the Port of Thunder Bay with 14 wind turbine units (WTGs), including nacelles (the bungalow-sized generator that perches on top of the tower), hubs, spinners, 2.3-megawatt (MW) power units and 42 blades. The ship, operated by Germany-based BBC Chartering, had picked up the load in Aarhus, Denmark for Siemens Wind Power in late May, steamed across the Atlantic, up Highway H2O and across Lake Superior.
Two other ships, the Alaskaborg and the Adriaticborg, operated by Wagenborg Shipping North America, delivered 29 more WTGs to the Port of Thunder Bay that May and June. From there, Anderson Haulage, based in Gormley, Ont., trucked the lion’s share of the components – over 250 loads – to a 99-MW wind farm in Greenwich, northeast of Thunder Bay for owner Renewable Energy Systems Canada.The wind farm became operational later that year.
Those deliveries contributed to 1,267 MW of new wind energy installed capacity in 2011, bringing Canada’s total installed capacity to 5,403 MW. That’s enough to power 1.2 million homes, according to the Canada Wind Energy Association (CanWEA). Canada’s wind energy industry remains in a huge growth phase. CanWEA reports that by 2015, the country’s total installed capacity will top 15,000 MW.
Behind these astounding numbers operates an enormous supply chain effort. A single modern WTG can weigh in at 317,515 kilograms (components weigh from 6,800 to 86,200 kg) and stand 122 metres high. The blades can exceed 49 metres in length. WTG components are passed between trains, ships and trucks, each either specially outfitted for the job or purpose-built from scratch.
Voyages such as those BBC Chartering make from Europe to Canada range from 3,500 to 4,400 nautical miles and can take up to 16 days. Cargo securing and lift plans have to be developed and a ship with on-board cranes is dispatched to the port. Loading can take up to four days and involves many specialists; e.g., cargo superintendent, cargo surveyor, lashing crew and port stevedores. The trips have to be timed so ships arrive during the open season of the St. Lawrence Seaway. At the far end of these voyages, the timing of the arrival of expensive cranes and specialists must be carefully scheduled.
BBC Chartering does 15-20 shipments a year in support of the Canadian wind industry. They originate from Northern Europe and the Far East and are shipped to Hamilton and Thunder Bay. BBC Chartering also makes shuttle shipments from Canadian WTG component manufacturers.
After delivery to a port, components are stored in lay down areas until they can be loaded onto trains, trucks or even another ship, as was the case for the Wolf Island, Ont., wind farm. Those WTGS – 86 in all – first travelled in 11 shipments from Esbjerg, Denmark to the port of Ogdensburg, N.Y. From there, Hamilton-based McKeil Marine moved loaded trucks on a roll-on roll-off barge – 87 loads worth – to Wolf Island.
Tim Heney, CEO of the Thunder Bay Port Authority, discusses the Greenwich shipments: “There are a lot of lay down areas involved. The components came in large quantities. Blades take up the most room and have to be kept in balanced sets of three. You can get in your own way in a hurry.”
WTGs also leave the Port of Thunder Bay by rail. In 2009, for example, CN moved 102 blades 3,220 kilometres to Dawson Creek, B.C. There, they were offloaded and trucked to the 34-MW Bear Mountain Wind Farm. CP moves wind energy components over 1,930 km to its largest rail transfer facility, located in Wilson, Alta. Otherwise, says CP’s David Walker, director of project cargo, “In [an area where] CP does not have a dedicated rail transfer facility, we identify a temporary rail transfer siding as close to the wind project as possible and dedicate it to that project.”
The Wilson transload facility, owned by Transmark, is about 15 km southeast of Lethbridge and about 200 km east of Calgary. Transmark has 12,800 m of track space and 20 tracks on an 89-hectare property. Lethbridge-based Gilmar Crane Services keeps a 285-tonne crane crawler on site all the time. During a WTG transfer, more Gilmar cranes, trucks and a couple dozen men bend to the task.
Timing and coordination are mantras in the WTG transport business, where trips of thousands of kilometers and sourcing of major components from several countries is common. “The timing of arrival of each component is very critical. Our logistics specialists work intimately with the customer and any other third-party providers at the origin and destination locations to coordinate and execute to the optimal plan. Shipping WTG components by rail requires incredible focus and attention to detail,” comments Dan Bingeman, assistant vice-president of supply chain solutions at CN.
With little room to spare on erection sites, components are stored and sorted at ports and transload facilities. “Trains have to arrive in a certain order. A lot of this has to do with how erections are being done,” says Dallas Sherwood, general manager, Transmark.
CP constantly updates its clients, some of which let CP handle the next phase: road transport. Other clients handle the last leg of the trips themselves. “We give the customer a daily report of where the train is so they can schedule the riggers and crane operators,” Walker says.
Between 2004 and mid-2012, CN moved more than 3,700 carloads of WTG components. Its biggest shipment was 60 carloads of components from New Westminster to Chetwynd, B.C. in 2010. Its longest Canadian trip was a 3,166-km, six-day journey from Thunder Bay to its Dawson Creek, B.C. transload facility.
CN has transloaded shipments that other rail carriers have picked up at US ports, including Beaumont, Texas; Stockton, Calif.; and Vancouver, Wash. Its Canadian destinations range from British Columbia to Nova Scotia.
Winter is no obstacle to rail shipments, but as blade lengths increase in newer models, so will the challenges to rail transporters. “To date, CN has not been presented with a WTG blade design our trains are not able to handle. We have heard [about plans] to manufacture blades as long as 60 metres. These long blades will have greater swing outs on track curvatures and will certainly be more difficult to handle everywhere across our network,” Bingeman says.
CP’s entry into the WTG market was in 2005, with an overland trip for 63 railcar loads of blades, hubs, towers and turbines for 12 WTGs. It began at the Port of Houston, with an interchange in St. Paul, Minn. to CP. CP pulled the shipment 4,506 km to the Rushlake Creek Wind Power project near Swift Current, Sask. By May 2012, CP had moved about 4,800 carloads of WTG components.
One of CP’s main clients is Denmark-based Vestas. Its North American operations include manufacturing facilities for blades, nacelles and towers in Colorado. Most Vestas shipments that CP handles are interchanged with BNSF Railway at Sweet Grass, Mont. or St. Paul, Minn. In Canada, Walker notes, “We work collaboratively with CN. In Montreal, we interchange with CN for points east.” Last year, for example, CP handed off WTG components to CN for transport to Amherst, N.S.
CP also interchanges WTG components with the Quebec Gatineau Railway. It has a spur running directly to wind tower manufacturer Marmen in Trois-Rivieres, Que. In fact, its largest shipment was a 67-car unit train of tower tops and mid-sections and a 63-car train of bases between Marmen and Randolph, Minn. in 2010.
CP has access to about 400 specialized cars. “Rail cars to load dimensional wind components must be cu
stomized. We have a 60-car unit train dedicated to handling sections for 80- and 100-meter towers. Each specialized flatcar has modified saddles that allows the unit train to carry 20 top, 20 mid and 20 base sections,” Walker explains. Ninety percent of CP’s infrastructure has been proven to clear up to 4.6-metre wide tower sections, and handle blades up to 49 metres long.
The last leg of every WTG journey is by road. It takes specialized equipment, special permits, special drivers, police escorts and extra horsepower to muscle the tremendous loads up to their hilltop homes.
Route surveys determine which roads the loads can take. Height is not the issue; rather, it is length, particularly of those long blades. There is no consistency between provinces or states on permits, according to Frank Devries, business development, heavy haul and wind energy with Cambridge, Ont.-based Challenger Motor Freight. “They each have their own little twist. Most provinces and states deem [WTG components] super loads, usually defined as over 100,000 lbs [454,360 kg] and 120 feet [36.6 m] long. You can’t travel in inclement weather such as in rain or snow.”
Multi-axle flatbed carriers move the nacelles, which can top 86,200 kg. Purpose-built tri- and four-axle, double-framed tractors pull the tower sections, which are bookended with two-piece wheeled devices called Schnabels. One piece connects to the front of a section and the other to the rear to build a trailer. “A Schnabel allows you to carry the component lower to the ground, and carry larger-diameter loads. There is no need for a structure under the load,” Devries explains.
Long before the first loads arrives in Canada, the last few kilometres of roads to the wind farm are upgraded or built from scratch. “On some sites, we will build the roads. We have to have wide corners and the grades can’t be too steep. Typically, we will also make the access big enough for the large cranes,” says Dean Seely, senior construction manager with Calgary, Alta.-based power generator and electricity wholesaler TransAlta.
TransAlta built 21 kilometres of road for its 68-MW wind farm in New Richmond, Que. in 2011, in anticipation of receiving the WTGs the following year. TransAlta typically schedules the cranes, riggers, etc., months ahead of time.
“Transport schedule problems depend sometimes on the amount of equipment being transported. If there is enough equipment that we can run unit trains, we get more control. Where we do have problems is if we have just a few cars. They can be put on a sidetrack and that can be frustrating. It is the same thing with ships. If everything on a ship is ours there is no stopping at other ports – it is pretty easy to plan,” Seely says.
Trucking the components to the wind farms is becoming big business in Canada. It requires about a dozen trailer loads to move one disassembled WTG: three or four tower sections, a nacelle, three blades, a hub/spinner and some miscellaneous loads. The road journey to the Dokie Ridge Project, northeast of Prince George, for Plutonic Power, added up to 420 truckloads and roughly 13,154,200 kg of cargo. Challenger Motor Fright did the move, which kept crew and equipment out of Ontario for 80 days.
The home stretch of that marathon delivery was up a sometimes-greasy 4.5-kilometre road that gained 1,067 m of elevation, with an average grade of 18%. Some trucks were both pushed by a flatbed truck loaded with concrete blocks and pulled by a 550-hp articulating tractor.
Devries foresees demand outpacing the supply of specialized carrier equipment. Some easy math suggests that, assuming a generous 2.3MW per WTG to be installed this year, 652 WTGs will be transported. At 12 loads per WTG, that is 7,827 truckloads.
According to Quebec-based Groupe Robert, which entered the WTG transport market in 2009, it has ambitions that speak to even closer partnerships among the transportation modes. It will be interesting to see where this cooperation leads as the multimodal WTG transport industry continues to mature.