Surging wind energy demand hits US truck barrier

Surging wind energy demand hits US truck barrier

The remote location of many wind-turbine sites makes transportation more expensive and difficult. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com

NEW ORLEANS — Logistics managers moving wind towers to inland sites face a growing problem — the size and weight of the shipments. “There are turbine prototypes on tap right now that will be in excess of 160 meters [in length], and we have 120 meter turbines now,” Dan Shreve, head of global wind energy research at Wood Mackenzie, said Tuesday.

“There are enormous challenges with moving this equipment,” Shreve told the JOC Breakbulk & Project Cargo Conference here. “They will take additional trucks to move. Some of the components need to be split up, particularly the nacelles.” The challenge will be moving these components by project deadlines. “There will be some projects that miss the mark,” he said.

That could mean losing US Production Tax Credit (PTC) benefits, Shreve warned the conference. “If you don’t deliver on time, you might not meet production criteria and lose access to tax credits,” he said. That’s a major incentive for importers and project managers to come up with “alternative” means of moving these oversized and overweight components quickly.

The wind energy business is booming, but diminishing federal tax incentives are forcing developers to book transportation farther and farther in advance to haul turbines and components to remote landlocked locations. Truck capacity may be abundant right now when it comes to general freight hauling, but not heavy-haul operations, speakers here said.

In January, Wood Mackenzie Power and Renewables released a report claiming $2.1 billion in revenue is at stake for the wind-energy business, as suppliers push to bring more than 23 gigawatts of new energy capacity online over the next two years. Interest in offshore wind farming is rising as well, presenting a new set of logistics challenges.

Wind-energy imports will reach almost 15,000 shipments in 2020, led by blades, Shreve said. Even with domestic production of wind-tower components rising, imports are needed to meet demand. As the size of the blades increases, what used to be one heavy-haul shipment likely will become several modular shipments, moving by truck and out-of-gauge rail.

“There’s not enough truck capacity to meet the demand, there’s no question about that,” said David Ferebee, vice president of sales and marketing at Lone Star Transportation, a Texas-based heavy-haul trucking company affiliated with Daseke Inc. “Truck and rail are both essential for a successful wind market,” he said. “Trucks can’t do it all.”

'Leveling' demand to free capacity

Shreve believes “levelization” of demand for wind towers is essential to closing what he called a “transportation gap.” Levelization means spreading demand out more evenly to more efficiently use truck and rail capacity and avoid bottlenecks. But Ferebee sees roadblocks in the form of underfunded infrastructure and a shortage of truck drivers with the right set of skills.

“The drivers that can accommodate these loads are older, and they’re retiring from the industry,” Ferebee said. “The other challenge is the pay for the drivers. A driver might say I don’t want to haul turbine blades anymore; I’ve got the skillset but I can make more money hauling regular loads,” or working in higher paying jobs outside trucking that keep them closer to home.

A high level of skill is needed to haul a wind turbine blade on an oversized open-deck trailer. A video Ferebee shared with attendees showed just how hard it is to turn one of these combination vehicles, even with the help of escort vehicles. Too often, highway and road infrastructure aren’t designed to accommodate massive heavy-haul tractor-trailers.

“Site condition is a huge element” in a successful delivery, Ferebee said. “Developers often build roads for one time use to get a shipment to the installation site, and if they don’t build them well, trucks sink or there’s not enough turning radius, and it costs money to repair them.” Securing permits to move multiple loads through states or local jurisdictions is another hurdle.

“Getting authority to move one load, that’s not a problem, but when you’re moving 1,000 loads in 90 days through one of these little towns, people don’t like that,” Ferebee said. “We have to do route surveys well ahead of time and often have to go to the state and ask if we can physically run this route. That’s why you’ve got to have the rail piece in place to make this work.”

Contact William B. Cassidy at bill.cassidy@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @willbcassidy.

Comments

Please, contact me. Problem solved.