It’s impressive to see a truck transporting a massive wind turbine blade on the highway. But it only hints at the complex logistics involved in ensuring every part of the turbine reaches the construction site, and the appropriate number of workers arrive at the site each day.
Cheaper renewable energy, increasing tax incentives, sustainability commitments from utility companies and other businesses, and the Paris Agreement climate goals are all driving the adoption of renewable energy.
However, companies face many logistical challenges when trying to source, transport and build something as complicated and large as a wind turbine or a solar farm.
Some wind and solar projects are built in very remote areas, such as oceans and deserts, increasing the complexity, costs and risk of damage.
Video courtesy of C.H. Robinson
Third-party logistics company C.H. Robinson’s renewables business has grown 654% globally in the past three years. Based on current projects and projections, the company hopes to help process 14,000 megawatts of energy — or, as the company noted in a news release, “enough solar energy to charge 1.73 million electric cars and enough wind energy to power a city the size of London for four months.”
The Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based company on Thursday highlighted some of the biggest challenges that come with moving renewable energy equipment — and stressed the importance of making it happen despite those obstacles.
“The stakes are just too high for these projects not to succeed. It’s imperative to slow the pace of climate change, to keep the expansion of wind and solar power going, to overcome these challenges in the supply chain so the world can keep making progress in clean energy,” Mike Short, president of global forwarding at C.H. Robinson, told FreightWaves.
Special equipment needs
The glass and electronic components of solar panels make them easily subject to damage. Transportation can be especially challenging for parts destined for certain remote locations.
When a solar or wind farm is going up “in the middle of the desert, there’s not an address to deliver to. There might not even be a road. Sometimes you have to build one,” Jim Mancini, vice president of North American surface transportation at C.H. Robinson, told FreightWaves.
Transporting a wind turbine also is “extraordinarily complex,” Mancini said. “Wind turbines are getting bigger, with the largest as tall as an 85-story building. Transporting just one takes nine shipments using highly specialized equipment.”
He explained how each blade is transported separately on a specially designed trailer, and routes to these sometimes remote locations have to be studied and very detailed. Some turbine blades are “big enough to sweep an acre”; the larger the blades, the bigger the turning radius at every point along the chosen route, Mancini said.
He said the tower is moved in three sections, each requiring a specially designed single- or double-Schnabel trailer. The machine head is hauled on a specific type of 13-axle trailer, and the rest of the components are moved via flatbed trucks, according to Mancini.
Finding capacity and access to the flatbed trucks and other specialized equipment is another issue. C.H. Robinson said for every flatbed truck available to haul freight, 100 loads are waiting to be delivered.
Global supply chain visibility
Blind spots in an already complex and time-sensitive logistics operation are not only inconvenient, they could erase profits. Short said C.H. Robinson’s real-time platform helps “eliminate black holes” and provides predictive analytics to avoid potential disruptions.
Supply chain visibility technology can be a great help to developers, investors, manufacturers, installers and construction contractors working on renewable energy projects, Short said. Useful contingency planning requires knowledge of each load’s location and estimated time of arrival.
“These projects have too many moving parts and too many variables for developers to try to piece it together themselves or rely on multiple vendors who can’t see the big picture,” Short said.
He noted that handling project logistics from end to end allows C.H. Robinson to coordinate when and where workers and equipment are needed and maximize customers’ options when contingency plans are needed.
Centralizing the project management can decrease the risk of unanticipated delays and costs. Short said it also makes it easier to adapt to changing trade lanes or ports.
Despite decreasing costs for renewable energy, margins for wind and solar power installation projects are very tight. C.H. Robinson said rising prices in materials are part of the problem. The other part? Unanticipated delays and damages to fragile pieces. Any of these costly issues can slash profit margins.
“These projects are built on tight timelines and budgets, and companies risk millions in unexpected costs if there are delays anywhere along the way,” Short said.
The stress on fast turnarounds stems from developers and investors trying to meet tax credit deadlines. Those transporting parts often face six- or seven-figure fees for late deliveries, according to the release. Projects in remote areas also often have to deal with lack of resources and infrastructure, which can make meeting deadlines more difficult.
Port congestion has made predicting when vessels will arrive and be ready for the next leg of transportation less reliable. Mancini noted one challenge this poses is trying to find last-minute capacity to move these unique pieces of equipment when the freight arrives 20 days after you had trucks lined up to move it.
“If a crew sitting at a project site has thousands of solar panel mounts but no panels to install on them, that has different financial consequences than a retailer getting a shipment of potato chips a few days late,” Mancini said.
He said C.H. Robinson’s partnerships with 18,000 flatbed carriers and management of 325,000 flatbed shipments annually give customers the scope and scale necessary to address these issues.
“We unfortunately have seen companies go through a fair amount of chaos before realizing that these are not the kind of projects you want to take on without a logistics partner that has deep experience in the sector and a large network that can flex with changing circumstances,” Short said.