DULUTH – Massive wind turbine blades that will one day tower above Midwestern prairies hovered atop oversized truck beds along the Duluth harbor last week as they awaited the final leg of their journey.
Once these parts are trucked away to wind farms, more will be arriving by ship to take their place — as they have all year.
The Port of Duluth-Superior is on course to set another record for wind cargo shipments as about 525,000 tons of blades and tower parts are expected to move through the port by the end of the year. That blows past last year’s single-season record of 306,000 tons.
“Part of it is location, location, location — and it’s driven off the Midwest being a hotbed for wind development,” said Jonathan Lamb, president of Lake Superior Warehousing. “We’re well-positioned to serve the market.”
The wind business is a bright spot in an otherwise down year for shipping on the Great Lakes.
Temporary taconite mine shutdowns this spring and summer brought iron ore shipments — the majority of the cargo moving through Duluth’s port — to their lowest levels in years.
Through September, overall tonnage totals were 30% behind last year. Wind energy in the U.S. is on pace for record growth this year, meanwhile, as 6,300 megawatts of new capacity were added in the first nine months of 2020, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Xcel Energy, which promises to be carbon-free by 2050, planned to bring more than 1,200 megawatts online this year alone at projects in South Dakota and Minnesota.
About 50 tower and turbine blade sets were shipped through Duluth to Xcel’s Blazing Star 2 project in southwest Minnesota this year, the company said. Construction on that 200-megawatt wind farm is expected to wrap up next year.
Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said wind shipments “send a really important message that the port is open to a wide variety of different types of cargo.”
“We plan together for what would benefit our terminal and what would work best for our regional economy,” she said. “We are always looking to support our regional industries to keep them competitive in a global marketplace.”
Manufactured and shipped from Brazil, Germany, India, Malaysia, Mexico, South Korea, Spain and Turkey, the blades and tower parts are shipped as far inland as possible before they are loaded onto trucks and slowly rolled down the highway.
“The most expensive part of that is trucking,” Lamb said, so for wind farms in Minnesota and the Dakotas, the most cost-effective route is through Duluth.
Each piece is its own truckload with its own permitting and escort vehicles, which have become a common sight on some area roads this year as the massive loads maneuver their way up Highway 53 out of Duluth on a near-daily basis.
The wind business started picking up around 2006, and in 2008, a longstanding record 302,000 tons of wind cargo moved through the port.
With blades as long as 242 feet and tower sections stretching nearly 100 feet, several dozen or so pieces at a time arrive by water and are unloaded onto the Clure Public Marine Terminal, in which the port and the state have invested heavily over the past decade.
The current terminal opened in 2016 after a nearly $18 million expansion project that brought an additional 26 acres of cargo storage space and two ship berths with dockside rail and truck service.
On Friday the BBC Xingang settled into its berth with tower parts ready to unload. The Antigua-flagged bulk cargo ship had left the port of Kuantan, Malaysia, on Sept. 30 and traveled through the Suez Canal and up the St. Lawrence Seaway on its 44-day journey to Duluth.
Unlike most of the ships that pass through the port with iron ore or grain stashed away inside the hold, this cargo was stacked high and visible for miles as it approached the Aerial Lift Bridge.
It typically takes up to four days for crews to unload wind cargo from ships and get turbine parts ready to be moved away one at a time.
A team of 12 people were getting started on the first few tower sections on Friday, their yellow vests just specks against the gleaming white-painted steel.
Just one more ship with wind cargo, the 30th of the season, is expected in Duluth this year.
Next year could be another busy one, though it all depends on where new wind projects are planned and where they are sourcing their parts from, Lamb said, which is the main reason shipments fluctuate so much year over year.
Some projects require turbines to be made in the U.S., while projects in Texas and Oklahoma would likely receive imported parts through the Gulf of Mexico.
And while Minnesota and the Dakotas had more than 2,600 megawatts of wind power under construction as of September, according to the American Wind Energy Association, just 500 more megawatts of capacity were in advanced planning stages.
“With everything being as busy as it is not just here but in the wind industry overall, I expect we’ll see some wind cargo next year,” Lamb said. “But it’s a little too early to tell.”