Transportation crunch could threaten U.S. wind boom

Source: David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, January 11, 2019

The U.S. wind industry’s plans for new installations could be jeopardized in the next two years by the inability to transport turbine parts, according to a report from Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables.

As wind developers try to bolster turbine capacity and deliver cheaper power, components like rotors, blades and towers have gotten bigger and heavier, and they need special equipment to haul them for assembly.

That process tends to occur in the last quarter of the year, following the laying of foundations and cables earlier on.

“It’s one of those things where the industry has always kind of been that way,” said Dan Shreve, head of global wind research for the consultancy.

With phaseout deadlines looming for the federal production tax credit, demand for the specialized trailers used to ship large parts — and the experienced drivers who do it — is slated to hit an all-time high in the last quarter of 2020.

Providers may have trouble accommodating demand, resulting in project delays and cancellations that could put up to $2.1 billion in investments at risk, according to the report. Almost a quarter of wind energy capacity installations expected in the next two years could be delayed or canceled, it said.

Developers and suppliers need to make arrangements now in order to avoid a last-quarter crunch, said the study. One option is sending parts to “laydown facilities,” or storage yards located close to projects, to take care of the long-haul portion of the trip.

Suppliers could also work with rail car companies to maximize use of dedicated capacity and share rail car fleets with other suppliers. Trailers used to carry short turbine blades could be modified for longer types.

The industry has faced a similar flood of demand before, when 46,000 shipments of large components flowed to developers in 2012. A similar number, or 42,000 shipments, is projected for 2020. But turbine parts have gotten larger, adding to the challenges of transporting them.

An abundance of “repowering” work over the next few years, in which existing turbines get upgrades meant to extend their life, will also exacerbate space shortages.

The threat of bottlenecks applies equally to projects located in “wind belt” states, where major U.S. suppliers are based, because parts often arrive from overseas or other locations.

Many in the industry realize they have a problem on their hands, although the scramble for project financing might take precedence for developers, said Shreve.

“There’s always been a belief that the logistics companies will come through at the end with some solutions,” he said. “And they have done that.”

But due to the size and quantity of the equipment set to be delivered, “‘Guys, come up with something’ isn’t really an option anymore,” Shreve added.