by CHRIS ROGERS
Winonans can expect an unusual spectacle on Riverview Drive this summer. Four hundred and three gigantic wind-turbine blades will be shipped by barge to the Port of Winona.
“They’re pretty impressive specimens,” CD Corporation President Dan Nisbit said. Each blade measures 190-feet long and weighs 39,000 pounds, or 19.5 tons. They will be lifted by a pair of cranes off barges, loaded onto extremely long semitrailers, and trucked to a staging area in Western Winona. Twenty tons is not unusually heavy for a semi load, but the blades are 2.5 times longer than the normal limit for semitrailer length in Minnesota. Specialized, telescopic trailers with rear-axle steering will enable truckers to turn the corner at Pelzer Street and Theurer Boulevard. Signs and escort cars will warn motorists of the oversized loads and temporarily stop traffic on Pelzer Street while the massive trailers make the turn. They will need the whole intersection and then some. The lead company, Central Oceans, inked a road-use agreement with the city and placed a damage deposit at city hall in case any of its trucks damage the Pelzer Street median curb when they roll over it. To avoid high traffic, the company agreed not to haul any blades during shift changes at Fastenal’s Theurer Boulevard plant.
Central Oceans specializes in shipping odd-sized cargo all over the world, and it is contracting with CD Corporation, Winona’s barge-loading company, for this job. To move such large cargo, Central Oceans Chief Operating Officer Thomson Silvers said, “There’s definitely a lot of extra planning that’s involved, both on the logistical front but also on the permitting front.”
The blades are bound for wind-turbine projects in the Dakotas, where developers are racing to build more turbines before federal tax credits for wind-power construction expire, Silvers explained. That surge — combined with a tight labor market for truck drivers — has stressed the trucking industry, so Central Oceans is transporting the blades most of the way by barge, Silvers stated.
Manufactured in Brazil, the blades will be shipped on huge, ocean-going cargo vessels to the Port of New Orleans before being loaded onto barges and pushed upriver by towboats, Silvers explained.
The blades are so long they will not fit into the bellies of hopper barges, so Central Oceans had special crutches or platforms custom designed to hold the blades atop the deck of a barge. “They were actually two feet too long, unfortunately,” Silvers said. “So we actually had to design from scratch these shipping platforms.” Six blades — or in some cases, nine — will be loaded on each barge.
“It’s green transportation for green energy,” Central Oceans CEO Todd Alexander said. “Anytime we can transport components by barge — it’s the most efficient form of transport in the U.S.” According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), shipping by barge produces nine-times fewer greenhouse gas emissions than hauling by truck because it is drastically more fuel-efficient.
Once truck drivers make the corner at Pelzer Street, the blades will be stored at a staging area on Theurer Boulevard in the Winona airport industrial park, just west of Airport Lake. Over the course of this year, other trucking companies will pick up blades from the staging area and haul them to construction sites in the Dakotas.
Silvers hopes to offload the first shipment in June and finish the job before the city starts resurfacing Riverview Drive in late August, but the Mississippi River may have different ideas. High water levels downriver have prevented most barge traffic so far this year. Asked by city of Winona Port Authority officials, Nisbit acknowledged it’s hard to predict when the river will open. The USACE keeps pushing back its own forecasts, he said, adding, “I was trying to be cautious and say June 1, but now I don’t even know if it’ll be June 1.”
The shipments could continue through construction if need be, Winona Economic Development Director Lucy McMartin noted. There will be one lane open on Riverview Drive throughout the construction project. However, between momentary stoppages for oversized trucks turning and a one-lane flagging operation during portions of the construction project, the route may cease to be a speedy shortcut for Winona motorists until construction ends in September.
The turbine blades are the first shipment of their kind at the Port of Winona in recent history. The city-owned docks, which are leased to CD Corporation, typically bring in fertilizer and ship out grain. In 2016, the city’s Port Authority Commission considered constructing a reinforced heavy-lift zone at the dock to accommodate the loading and unloading of especially hefty goods, such as shipping containers. However, city officials decided against it, determining that there was not enough demand for such shipments. The blades CD Corporation will offload this summer are light enough that a heavy-lift zone is not necessary.
Hauling the blades will be a bit of a learning process, Nisbit said. “The first 20 will be very interesting,” he stated. Hopefully the next 383 will be routine, he added. When Port Authority Commission members joked that they wanted to set up bleachers on Theurer Boulevard and watch, Nisbit responded, “Let’s wait until we get the first barge done.”