Wind turbine blades aren’t the heaviest products to pass through the Port of Vancouver, but they’re definitely among the biggest.
“The longest, for sure,” said port Chief Commercial Officer Alex Strongen. “In a general sense, wind blades are the longest cargos we handle.”
That distinction was clearly illustrated Wednesday as the port began unloading a record-breaking shipment of 198 turbine blades — the largest number ever loaded onto a single vessel, stacked in an intricate zippered formation to make them all fit.
Each of the 160-foot, 19,600-pound blades had to be carefully lifted from both ends, using both of the port’s mobile harbor cranes in coordination. The blades had to be pivoted to pass between the crane bodies, then swung back around to be lined up and lowered onto custom flatbed trailers.
A procession of five trucks spent the day moving the blades to a storage area at the western end of the port, where they’ll be transferred to specialized trucks for the journey to their final destination: a PacifiCorp wind farm near Dayton, in southeastern Washington’s Columbia County.
The port expects it will take four or five days to unload the ship, according to Sales Director Steve Mickelson, and then it will take three to four months to move the blades to Dayton, along with another roughly 150 blades that are expected to arrive at the port in another shipment in mid-August.
The port’s crane operators have a lot of experience unloading wind blade shipments, Mickelson said, although this week’s shipment was the first to arrive at the port in several years — recently, the biggest wind turbine growth areas in the United States have been in Texas.
But the balance is starting to shift back toward the Pacific Northwest and Canada, due both to new wind farm projects as well as upgrades to existing farms.
“It comes and goes,” Mickelson said. “We should be pretty busy for the next year or so on wind (cargo).”
This week’s record-breaking shipment is for one of the upgrade projects — PacifiCorp is embarking on a $200 million “repowering” operation at the Dayton wind farm, retrofitting each of the farm’s 117 towers with longer blades and new state-of-the-art nacelles to house them.
The new blades and nacelles are both manufactured by wind energy company Vestas, which is based in Denmark. The nacelles were built at a plant in Colorado, according to Vestas spokeswoman Chante Condit-Pottol, but the blades were manufactured and shipped from Taranto, Italy.
It’s generally easier to manufacture new blades close to their destination due to complicated logistics of shipping something so massive, Condit-Pottol said, but the Colorado facility has already transitioned to newer blade designs that are around 246 feet long — too long to be installed on the older 200-foot-tall towers at the Dayton farm.
“In the big scheme of things, these (160-foot units) are kind of small blades,” Mickelson said.
Still, they’re 25 percent bigger than their predecessors at the Dayton farm, and when it comes to wind turbines, bigger is always better — PacifiCorp says the upgrades are expected to increase the farm’s electrical output by 35 percent.