Posted on November 7, 2023
The longest wind turbine blades ever to enter the Western U.S. arrived at the Port of Vancouver, Washington, in 2020.
They were 253 feet long.
This winter, new blades will arrive that are 272 feet.
“I would imagine by 2026, we will see even larger wind blades,” said Alex Strogen, chief commercial officer at the port.
“It’s not out of the realm of possibility to eventually see wind blades flirting with the 100-meter mark.” That’s 328 feet.
Wind turbine blades are unloaded from a barge at the Port of Lewiston, Idaho.
With wind turbine blades nearly the length of a football field, transporting them to remote installations has become a challenge. Industry officials say it will be easier to move them inland by barge on the Columbia and Snake rivers than by truck or train.
The behemoth blades are made overseas and put on ocean-going freighters, which call at the deep-water ports along the Columbia River. From there, they can be transferred to a barge for the trip upstream, or put on trucks and onto the region’s busy highways.
“We haven’t necessarily come across a blade yet that we can’t get out of our ports and the lower Columbia River, clearance-wise,” said Erik Zander, chief operating officer for Omega Morgan, a specialized transportation and logistics moving company based in Hillsboro. “But as these things continue to grow in size, we’re getting close.”
Zander is also president of the Columbia River High, Wide and Heavy Corridor coalition.
“It seems like every year we say, ‘There’s no way it can get any bigger,’” he said. “Then someone throws out something that’s a little bit bigger, and the supply chain — being us — comes up with a solution on how to get it moved.”
Flanked by two tugboats, a barge moves wind turbine blades on the Snake River near Colton, Washington, in 2020. Industry representatives say barging currently represents about 10% of moving windmill components, but will become more important as the blades get larger to generate more energy.
A concern looming in the background for movers and wind power developers is how continued calls to tear out Snake River dams could impede the movement of the massive turbine blades.
How wind turbines work
A wind turbine includes six tower sections, three blades and a nacelle — “the beating heart of the wind turbine” where the blades are attached to the generator, Strogen said.
Wind turbine blades are fabricated using a combination of fiberglass and wood. The bigger the blade, the more electricity they generate, he said.
Trucks vs. barges
There are two transportation options for getting the turbine parts inland, where massive new wind farms are being built to take advantage of the wind that races across the countryside.
Large wind turbine blades can’t be moved by rail, Zander said. Sharp turns and obstacles along the tracks make it impossible to move the blades by train.
Barging on the Columbia and Snake rivers is a “huge option” for transporting blades, said Rob Rich, vice president of marine services for Shaver Transportation Co., a Portland tug and barge company.
“It is safer because you’re not congesting traffic. “It is far more efficient because you have multiple blades per single barge, versus single blade per multiple trailers hooked up to a truck,” Rich said. “It is just a more efficient, lower-carbon footprint (mode) of transport.”
Wind turbine blades are loaded onto a barge at the Port of Longview, Washington, in 2020.
Barging remains the most efficient option for blades loaded at the port and going a long distance, Zander said.
As blades get larger, barging will be the best solution to move them out of the metro areas around the ports, Strogen said.
For example, a tunnel at the interchange connecting Interstates 205 and 84 in Portland heading east has a bend in it and will become a “pinch point” for trucks carrying large blades.
“The blades can only get so long before that bend becomes unnavigable,” Strogen said.
Entering the U.S.
Wind power is big business. Manufacturers — many of them overseas — sell turbines to the companies that are building massive wind farms.
Wind turbines in Oregon. The blades are nearly the length of a football field
In Idaho, for example, the proposed Lava Ridge wind farm would be one of the largest developments in the nation. It would include 400 turbines on 84,000 acres north of Twin Falls.
In 2024, GE alone will install about 2,000 turbines across the U.S., Strogen said, with blades ranging from 213 feet to 262 feet long.
Most wind energy components are manufactured overseas, in countries such as India, Spain, China and Brazil.
Typically, a shipment of 30 blades will arrive on a single ocean-going vessel. The ship then docks at one of three ports on the Columbia River — Portland, Longview and Vancouver.
Wind turbine components, including several blades, are stored at the Port of Lewiston, Idaho.
The Port of Vancouver handles about 3,000 wind components in a year. It moves more wind energy equipment than any port in the Western half of North America, Strogen said.
Most blades moving by barge are unloaded at the Port of Morrow in Boardman; ports in the Tri-Cities in Washington or the Port of Lewiston in Idaho — are the farthest a blade can go by barge, Zander said.
The blades are transferred to trucks for the rest of the trip.
Each blade weighs 55,000 to 65,000 pounds.
“They’re not extremely heavy … they just take up a bunch of space,” Zander said. “They used to be 15,000 pounds, so they’ve grown. We used to ship two of them on a truck.”
Most blades are shipped in one piece, Zander said.
“To get the product to do what it needs to do, it needs to be built in a factory,” he said. “It’s not something that you can finish the fiberglass process out in the field.”
Collapsible or hinged blades are available, but they’re relatively new and more expensive to manufacture, Strogen said.
The destination for about 80% of wind turbine blades going through Northwest ports is Canada, Strogen said, pointing to an “extremely aggressive” increase in wind farms in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The blades can’t move through British Columbia ports, which don’t have the same infrastructure or clearances as U.S. ports.
Strogen expects several hundred blades will move through the U.S. to Canadian wind farms each year as demand increases.
Over time, wind farms will also need to replace their parts. A wind turbine typically lasts up to 20 years.
“Sun, rain, wind, snow — the equipment can only survive for so long,” Strogen said.
The tower remains, but the nacelle and blades must be replaced.
More tower sections can be added to accommodate larger blades, Zander said.
The Port of Lewiston temporarily stored 120 blades on 10 acres, General Manager Scott Corbitt said.
“There’s an indication that this type of project is not going to go away any time soon,” he said.
“Moving 82 meters is almost like moving a football field down the road,” Zander said. Eighty-two meters is 269 feet.
One blade can fit on a single truck.
Omega Morgan uses software to predict potential obstacles, such as buildings, trees, signs, light poles, telephone poles and bridges. The company also has to consider the location of road construction projects and places to park along the way.
One wind turbine requires 12 truckloads, Zander said.
Trucking to Calgary, Alberta, and back takes seven to nine days.
“We’re moving something that its sole purpose in life is to catch wind,” Zander said. “Now I take a bunch of these, stack them together, put them on a barge and I get the ultimate wind catcher.”
They stack blades five wide and two to four high to maximize deck space on barges.
One tugboat pulls the barge while another pushes, to handle the wind and provide another set of eyes.
Two barges typically move upriver, carrying about 15 blades per barge. It takes about four days to get to Lewiston.
The barges transporting the blades are specifically designed for that purpose, Rich said.
Compared to roads, transportation on the river is “all-weather,” he said.
“Whether it’s rain, snow, ice, bitter cold or high winds, barges keep going, and they go day, they go night,” he said. “You don’t have the transport restrictions on the water that you have on our nation’s freeways.”
If the lower Snake River dams are breached, however, the river route would be cut short.
Breaching the dams would inhibit the ability to use barges and force wind components back onto trucks, Strogen said.
“And then, at some point, maybe blades cannot be brought into the interior at a certain size,” he said. “Then you’re not going to get as much wind energy being produced and generating that amount of electricity that you would hope.”
Without the dams, trucks or trains carrying blades bound for Canada would instead likely move out of Texas ports, he said.
The port relies on road, river and rail to provide its “competitive connectivity,” Strogen said.
“Our global competitiveness is hyper-dependent on all three of those modes working, and working well,” he said. “It drives overall economic prosperity and it allows us to continue to put in these alternative energy forms that is something I think we all agree that we need.”