Anderson Trucking Service (ATS) has spent more than 20 years investing tens of millions of dollars in acquiring specialized equipment and hiring drivers to become the nation’s largest over-the-road transporter of gigantic wind turbine components.
Those investments have paid off, and even in the face of economic uncertainty from the coronavirus, the American wind energy industry has been at the back of this diversified Minnesota-based trucking company.
“COVID-19 has impacted some of our companies,” said Gene Lemke, vice president of projects for ATS, in a telephone interview with American Shipper. “But our transport of wind turbine components has been extremely strong and without that business things may have been bleaker, as it has been for the trucking industry in general.”
As of Aug. 28, ATS counted 12,300 wind turbine component loads since the start of this year, compared to 8,300 loads for the same eight-month period in 2019.
Last year, the company handled a total of 14,100 wind industry-related loads and it now expects to handily beat that number before the end of 2020, Lemke said.
Industry rides strong breeze
The abundant construction of turbines throughout the Midwest — from North Dakota to Texas — has continued unabated during the COVID-19 pandemic, driven by safe work practices and a generous federal production tax credit for the industry.
The Washington, D.C.-based American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reported that 14 new wind projects were installed in nine states during the second quarter of 2020, for a total output of 2,546 megawatts — enough power for 860,000 American homes.
Texas led Q2 installations with 810 megawatts, according to AWEA, followed by Kansas (369 megawatts), Colorado (229 megawatts), Missouri (242 megawatts), Nebraska (231 megawatts) and Minnesota (205 megawatts). During the quarter, West Virginia and Wyoming also saw their first utility-scale wind turbine installations since 2016.
AWEA said the U.S. wind industry between Jan. 1 and June 30 added 25 projects across 14 states, totaling 4,367 megawatts. There are now 109,919 megawatts of operating wind power capacity in the U.S., enough to electrify more than 33 million American homes.
Healthy supply chain
To satisfy this requirement for wind turbines in the U.S., equipment manufacturers must feed this supply chain through both domestic- and international-produced components.
In addition to domestic manufacturing, some turbine components manufactured overseas, such as blades and towers, are delivered by ship to breakbulk ports mostly in the Pacific Northwest and Texas Gulf, where they are either railed to an inland location or picked up directly by specialized truckers, like ATS, depending on their proximity to the wind farm sites.
Cassie Olsen, pricing analyst supervisor for projects at ATS, said COVID-related hiccups in the wind turbine component supply chain have caused some delays, but overall, these events are minimal.
AWEA said a number of U.S. wind projects installed in the second quarter were nearing the end of their yearslong construction and most components were “on hand to complete construction before the COVID-19 pandemic began to create supply chain disruptions.”
To support the wind turbine supply chain, privately held ATS operates a fleet of about 220 specialty blade and “Schnabel” (tower component) trailers. ATS uses its multipurpose, multi-axle deck trailers to transport wind turbine hubs, nacelles or other nacelle-related components.
Lemke said the company invests millions of dollars a year to acquire and maintain these unique transportation assets. This costly equipment investment has kept the actual pool of trucking companies dedicated to turnkey wind project transport to less than a handful in the U.S., he added.
Infrastructure, weather burdens
Lemke said the most significant obstacles in the U.S. to transporting gigantic wind turbine components — with single blades now measuring nearly 250 feet long — are either infrastructure or weather related.
It is not uncommon for ATS drivers with wind turbine loads to encounter “pop-up” construction on preplanned transportation routes, causing them to stop and wait a day or two to be rerouted. “Fortunately, we have a good team and are able to react quickly to these events,” Lemke said.
In some cases, ATS must seek approvals to temporarily relocate certain infrastructure, such as utility poles, or alter a curb to allow truckloads to safely pass through intersections.
Since wind farms are often located in remote areas that are accessible by dirt roads, rainstorms can temporarily delay trucks from delivering their components to the sites, Olsen said.
It generally requires nine to 12 trucks to transport the individual pieces necessary to build a single utility-scale turbine.
Blowing into 2021 and beyond
Most wind farms currently under construction are expected to be finished by the end of the year, the AWEA said. However, some wind farms have been delayed by COVID-19 and the Internal Revenue Service has granted affected developers up to five years to complete projects started in 2016 and 2017 and still benefit from the federal tax credit.
According to several industry forecasts, wind turbine construction in the U.S. is not expected to abate at the end of the year and will continue to break records through 2023.
One of the biggest drivers of this construction are commercial and industrial companies that commit through sustainability targets to purchasing electricity from utilities that is produced by wind turbines.
In 2019, corporations agreed to purchase a record 4,447 megawatts of U.S. wind capacity for a total of 16,857 megawatts or 10% of all wind capacity now generated in the country.
“The U.S. wind industry is proud to not only power millions of American homes but to also provide affordable, reliable and zero-carbon electricity to the brands that are driving this country’s economy forward, even as the U.S. continues to recover from the global pandemic,” said AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan in a recent statement.
More than 140 companies have purchased U.S. wind energy. Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL) is the top corporate wind energy customer in the U.S., with 2,397 MW contracted. Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) is the second-largest purchaser, with 1,459 MW, followed by Walmart (NYSE: WMT), AT&T (NYSE: T) and Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), AWEA said.
Lemke believes ATS’ dedicated fleet will remain on a roll in the years ahead, with continued wind farm construction driven by a combination of corporate demand and supportive government policies for wind energy.
“We’re reasonably confident new government policies will be implemented regardless of the outcome of this presidential election,” Lemke said. “There is bipartisan support for wind.”