Wind turbines and mammoth mining equipment find easier -- and less expensive -- transit through the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The Port of Duluth this season has become a global hub for massive cargo shipments, thanks to a bump in world demand for efficient but beastly sized components for the wind energy, oil, iron mining and steel industries.
Power generators, scary-looking potash grinders, ore crushers and train-sized turbines are increasingly bound for the Port of Duluth-Superior en route to and from India, Brazil, Spain, Germany, Canada and other points across the globe.
Massive shipments, known as "breakbulk traffic," through Duluth hit 50,000 freight tons in 2011. So far this year it's on pace to hit 125,000 freight tons, officials with the Duluth Seaway Port Authority said Friday.
"The Port of Duluth-Superior has seen a surge in project cargoes this summer," said Adolph Ojard, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority during a phone interview Friday. "This uptick in cargoes is a reminder of the important role the seaway plays in sustaining the economic vitality of our port and region."
Duluth's wave of freight loads is explained by the growing equipment needs in Canada's bustling oil sands, North Dakota's wind farms and the construction of the massive Essar Steel plant, just 90 miles from Duluth in Nashwauk.
Experts say water-borne freight also is rising because of new laws demanding more sustainable energy, and because of larger, more powerful wind turbine blades that didn't exist five years ago.
Moving 120-foot blades by ship is much easier than dealing with trucks, roads and land-transit "pinch points," Ojard said.
Also contributing to the freight surge is a U.S. tax credit for wind energy producers that's scheduled to end in December. That's pushed up delivery dates, blade orders and related cargo through the port.
"The production tax credit is expiring at the end of this year, so there is really this push to get our wind projects finished," said Minnesota Power spokeswoman Amy Rutledge during a phone interview Friday. "You really have to have [your turbines] up and running to take advantage of the tax credit." So the rush is on.
Since May, Minnesota Power sent one of four shipments of wind turbine components from Denmark through the port of Duluth. It sent two more in June and July. A fourth will glide in this week.
The parts are all destined to sit atop 70 new wind turbines in North Dakota.
"Minnesota Power is stepping up its construction of wind-powered generation this summer by building Bison 2 and 3 near the Bison 1 wind farm it commissioned near New Salem, N.D. early in 2012," Rutledge said.
While the Bison 1 wind farm took two years to build, Bison 2 and 3 will be up and running in less than a year come December. But Minnesota Power is not the only game driving demand.
Three weeks ago, Duluth dock workers unloaded Minnesota Power's parts off the cargo ship Alamosborg. That ship was quickly reloaded and shipped off to Brazil with an unrelated load of windmill blades.
That kind of turnaround demonstrates that sustainable energy is driving global commerce and jobs all along the Duluth, Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, said Dave McMillan, executive vice president of Minnesota Power and a member of the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp.'s advisory board.
Cost saving over truck, rail
But wind energy has lots of company in generating waterway commerce.
Adele Yorde, spokeswoman for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said that the farmers, manufacturers, steel producers and construction firms that haul goods across the Great Lakes and connecting St. Lawrence Seaway save about $3.6 billion a year in transportation costs when compared with truck and rail shipments.
There is no need to tell that to the officials of Essar Steel Minnesota.
Before the end of this week, a ship from Hazira, India, will slip into Duluth's port carrying more of the hefty structural steel needed to build a massive ore-crushing plant on the Iron Range. Between now and December, 10,000 metric tons of steel will float from India into the Duluth port.
"That Duluth group is awesome," said Steve Rutherford, Essar Steel Minnesota's projects chief. "The Duluth port does a very good job. It's our preference," he said noting that winter shipments that landed goods in Baltimore or the Gulf of Mexico increased his ground transportation time and cost.
"When it comes into Duluth, we can just handle it once," Rutherford said. Port workers unload the steel onto trucks right at the dock. Then a crew from logistics firm C.H. Robinson drives it right to the construction site at Nashwauk in 90 minutes.
"With Duluth, it's so close you are getting 10 to 15 truckloads a day here versus three when it comes from Baltimore," Rutherford said.
That's important. Besides steel, the port also is receiving Essar equipment from Spain and France. In June and July, towering cranes at Duluth's Clure Public Marine Terminal unloaded 50-ton sections of one rock-grinding shell.
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725