How Logistics Are Making Cleantech Blow in the Wind

The challenges facing the wind industry and the opportunities they create.

Wind FarmEver since T. Boone Pickens announced his plan to sell off 667 turbines, effectively decimating plans for the largest wind farm in the world, the wind industry has come under increased scrutiny and criticism.

Kate Galbraith, a blogger for NY Times’ Green Inc., has recently run an interesting series on the challenges facing this cleantech sector. As she chronicles, the biggest challenges facing the wind sector are not harvesting wind, but the expensive and potentially dangerous logistics associated with it, from transportation and erection of turbines—ironically, the wind itself is one of the largest inhibitors—to transmission of the power generated.

A wind farm can’t just be built anywhere. Sophisticated studies must be carried out, assessing the most advantageous regions for capitalizing on wind and directional patterns. Once an area has been identified, you have to get the turbines to the proposed wind farm.

“As demand for clean energy grows,” Galbraith writes, “towns around the country are finding their traffic patterns roiled as convoys carrying disassembled towers that will reach more than 250 feet in height, as well as motors, blades and other parts roll through.”

In Idaho and Texas, according to Galbraith, trucks laden with tall turbine parts have slammed into interstate overpasses, requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs. In Minnesota, several, more serious accidents have occurred over the past year, including a woman’s death whose car collided with a truck carrying a turbine.

Highway dangers aside, transporting the wieldy parts is also a costly venture. “On a per-turbine basis, the cost of transportation and logistics generally varies from around $100,000 to $150,000,” said John Dunlop, an engineer with the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). An AWEA fact sheet states that transportation can be roughly 25% of the entire cost of a turbine.

Once the turbines have reached their destination, then comes the issue of erection. 110-200 feet long blades need to be connected to tower sections ranging from 120-250 feet tall and weigh over 70 tons. Despite their imposing sizes, with winds whipping at speeds of hundreds miles of an hour in some locations, simply getting the turbines assembled and vertical is a monumental task.

Not to mention the fact that they can get blown away.

“If you don’t chain them down, they’ll fly away in strong wind,” said Mark Buckbee, a senior project manager for heavy and marine equipment with Reed & Reed, a general contractor based in Maine.

Finding Solutions
The cost and hassle of transporting the huge, heavy turbines has led to interest in manufacturing turbines in the United States rather than other parts of the world. With Obama’s inauguration mandate of stimulating more domestic jobs with the proliferation of the green collar, this seems to be a tremendous avenue for the growth of jobs and business.

Even if more turbine parts are made in the United States, however, experts say that transportation logistics are starting to limit how large—and as a result how powerful —wind turbines can get.

This is where a company like Clipper Windpower steps in. It has plans to building a 5,000 megawatt wind farm (As Galbraith writes, “even bigger than the ‘world’s largest wind farm’ that T. Boone Pickens once planned”).

Though both of these last points seem to offer great opportunities for both the wind industry and the American economy at large, neither address the pesky part of getting the turbines up, whether they are built in the US or on the farm itself. Experts say that assembling in pieces could compromise the structural integrity of the tower.

Readers: What do you think? What could be some potential solutions to addressing erection? Are there companies out there that you know of that have figured out an effective work-around? Let us know.

Ashwin is an Associate Editor of Triple Pundit. He recently returned to the Bay Area after living in Argentina, where he wholeheartedly missed the Pacific Ocean. He is a freelance editor and media and marketing consultant.After a brief stint working in the wine world, when not staring blankly at a computer screen, you'll find him working on Anand Confections or at 826 Valencia, where he has been a long-time volunteer.

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