Mega-loads: Wind turbine superloads are spectacular

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Wind turbines, perched on faraway hilltops, with their skinny little blades and pencil-thin towers, are bigger than they look. But 700,000 pounds apiece bigger?

Wind turbine generators (WTG), as the industry refers to them, are enormous. Gigantic. Huge. Just ask Challenger Motor Freight, in Cambridge, Ont. Late this August, its crew and equipment  returned from an 80-day trip to British Columbia. They moved over 28,857,760 lbs (Canadian turbine transporters like talking pounds and feet) of components and other odds and ends for 48 WTGs to the Dokie Ridge Project, northeast of Prince George, for Plutonic Power.

The home stretch of that 420-truckload marathon was a grunt up a 4.5-km road that gained 3,500 feet of elevation, for an average grade of 18%. To make the climb some trucks were simultaneously pushed by a flatbed truck loaded with concrete blocks for traction on the greasy road and pulled by a 550-hp articulating tractor, which wore out four sets of chains on the job.

A WTG breaks down into three or four tower sections, a nacelle (the bungalow-sized generator that perches on top of the tower), three blades, a hub/spinner and some miscellaneous loads. It takes as many as a dozen truckloads to move a single WTG. Blades weigh 15,000-18,000 lbs and can be over 160 feet long. A nacelle weighs 180,000-190,000 lbs. Once assembled, a WTG can measure nearly 400 feet high from base to blade tip.

The equipment Challenger uses is built especially for the task. There are blade trailers: multi-axle contraptions called Schnabels grab onto the front and back of the tower sections.

“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,” explains Frank Devries, business development, heavy haul and wind energy with Challenger. Multi-axle (think 80 wheels) flatbed carriers carry the nacelles. Tractors have three drive axles, and some have two steering axles.

The barrier to entry is high. For example, a typical tractor and two Schnabels costs $600,000. Challenger has been hauling WTGs since November, 2009. It bootstrapped itself into the business by buying the assets of Centurian Heavy Haul, then bought an additional $6-7 million worth of equipment.

Challenger also hired Centurian’s employees and imported Devries and his knowledge acquired hauling WTGs since 2004.

“I wear a lot of hats, because it is all new here, like sourcing and purchasing trucks and trailers, advising maintenance and repair people and providing driver training,” Devries says.

Challenger also has a complete in-house logistics rail/ocean department.

“We can turnkey entire projects and look after loads from door to door, from the chartering of ships, rail and truck. Two or three people work full-time just scheduling and ordering permits alone,” Devries says.

Devries mentions some of the challenges in this business: “Scheduling is usually a difficult component. There are permit restrictions. Most provinces and states deem (WTG components) ‘super loads,’ which are usually defined as over 100,000 lbs and 120 feet long. Not one of the provinces, or any of the states, have the same regulations. They each have their own little twist. Cranes and riggers are big money, and they don’t like to wait around. You can’t travel in inclement weather, such as rain or snow.”

Groupe Robert in Quebec entered the market with the purchase of Transport Bernard Mathieu in October 2009. Robert then bought six Schnabel kits, enough to move 18 tower sections, and other equipment, creating a specialized division for the transportation of wind turbines and oversize loads. It can transport all the components of a WTG – at a stately 40 km/h, by the way.

Last December, Groupe Robert hauled four complete towers a week. This year, its moves include 13 complete towers to Indiana, nine to Illinois and contracts to haul WTGs to Nebraska and West Virginia.

Groupe Robert only hinted at the extent of its ambitions, but considering the company’s size, think big.

“Road transportation will adapt to the rail and maritime transportation and we will create, over the next years, a partnership in multimodal transportation,” says Eric Tessier, director, wind turbine operations, Groupe Robert.

Devries says getting into this line of work is a leap of faith, and Groupe Robert notes that business has been a little slow this year. But there is no question about which way the wind is blowing: Canada already has 3,472 megawatts (one MW is one million watts, and will keep about 285 homes happy) of wind-generating capacity. This is a moving target: the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CANWEA) pegs the capacity at 3,499 MW.

If, for fun, you assume 1.5 MW per WTG, current capacity translates into 2,315 installed towers. At a minimum of nine truckloads per tower, that was at least 20,835 loads.

According to CANWEA, wind energy generates 1.1% of the country’s energy – enough to power a million homes. It believes that Canada has the potential to supply 17 times that. It lists 51 new projects, with a total capacity of 7548.5 MW, that already had signed purchase power agreements or were under construction as of this April. Every province but Prince Edward Island is represented on this list, but note that PEI already derives 25% of its power from wind. An educated estimate is that these new projects represent 40,000 to 60,000 truck loads.

It is no wonder then, that Groupe Robert’s Tessier comments, “For 2011 and in the long run, (prospects) look very good. Many projects on standby will start in 2011 or a few months later. The next five years should be busy in our market.” Groupe Robert is in discussions for the transport of 2000 MW worth of WTGs, awarded by Hydro Quebec.

At the 21st World Energy Congress, held this Sept. 12-16 in Montreal, energy ministers from several provinces and territories mentioned their windy ambitions. Although Alberta’s Energy Minister Ronald Liepert burned up most of his talk time trying to paint the oil sands green in front of an informed audience, what he did not mention is that Alberta has extraordinary ambitions for generating electricity from wind.

“We are predicting a $2-billion investment in wind energy over the next two years,” says Kris Hodgson, senior manager of business development, Southern Alberta Alternative Energy Partnership, in Lethbridge. “Over 2,700 MW of additional wind generation will occur in southern Alberta in the next 10 years.”

The province has an estimated 11,500 MW of proposed wind applications, with 7,500 MW of that concentrated in southern Alberta.

It is a good question how many trucking companies in Canada have the specialized equipment and skills to move WTGs. Devries thinks maybe 15 companies are into this game, in varying degrees. The Canadian government’s outdated Canada Wind Energy Directory, 2007-2008,  mentions carriers like Lenron, Transport Watson, Groupe Bellemare, Mammoet, Equipment Express and KR Wind.

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