For Anderson Trucking Services’ ATS Projects, the dominant player in wind power-related land logistics, the rush by developers to get huge onshore wind projects up and running by the beginning of the next decade is being met with a certain amount of trepidation.
“Twenty-twenty is going to be a very busy year,” said Eugene Lemke, ATS Projects vice-president.
ATS, Lemke said, predicts that 2020 could set a single-year record for the installation of onshore wind generators in the US, eclipsing 2012, when the industry installed 13.1GW. That’s about 60% above what wind energy developers installed annually in the US in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
But as much as ATS must gear up for the next 36 months, it’s what comes after that that keeps Lemke and the company’s other transport specialists fretting.
“We see a cliff coming,” said Alan Redding, ATS Projects director of sales and business development. He cited the end of federal development and investment incentives. “So, how much capital do we want to commit? How much do we want to invest in a two-year industry cycle?”
Rapid changes in wind power technology increase the unpredictability. Blades are getting longer and towers are getting taller, and at a blistering pace. According to the manufacturing giant Siemens, blades have grown 15 times over the past 30 years. Onshore blades now stretch to more than 60 meters, or 200 feet, almost double what they were just six years back. And manufacturers are eyeing 70 meter blades.
In some respects, Redding said, ATS and other transport specialists have become “enablers of these bigger rotor sizes,” successfully working out ways to haul these giant blades over long stretches of road. However, there’s a limit to size and weight and manufacturers are also investigating the possibility that ever-larger blades may have to be fabricated in two parts and then assembled on site.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Lemke said.
Even now, Lemke added, “there are a lot of risks associated” with hauling the newest generation of blades, towers and turbines. Routes must be carefully planned. Hauling such large equipment often means utility wires must be raised, signs moved and posts relocated. But because roads and highways are the domain of varied jurisdictions, from county to state to federal, communication can be treacherous, especially when a local road project is initiated, often without the advanced knowledge of the state highways departments.
Add to all this, the truncated work schedule of those constructing the towers. According to Lemke, 70% of a year’s installation takes place over a six-month period, from the second half of Q2 until the early part of Q4. This is in large part weather-driven, but is also the result of financing and funding decisions.
“We’re trying to convince developers to spread it out,” he said. To mitigate equipment needs and transportation bottlenecks, Lemke said, “Everyone needs to work more efficiently.”
ATS, based in St. Cloud, Minnesota, handles between 25% and 30% of all onshore transport of wind-power related equipment in the US. Its huge fleet of specialized gear includes 125 expandable blade trailers and more than 90 Schnable trailer sets.