On America’s highways, wind turbines may be the ultimate oversize load.
Trucks carrying silvery blades nearly half a football field long have been lumbering through this placid coastal town all summer, backing up traffic as they slowly exit the roadway. Huge, tubular chunks of tower also pass through. Tall pieces of machinery looking somewhat like jet engines travel at night because they require special routing to avoid overpasses.
As demand for clean energy grows, towns around the country are finding their traffic patterns roiled as convoys roll through carrying disassembled towers that will reach more than 76m in height, as well as motors, blades and other parts. Escorted by patrol cars and gawked at by pedestrians, the equipment must often travel hundreds of kilometers from ports or factories to the remote, windy destinations where the turbines are erected.
In Belfast, officials have worked hard to keep the nuisance to a minimum, but about 200 trucks are passing through this year on their way to western Maine, carrying parts that have been shipped from Denmark and Vietnam.
Plenty can go wrong despite months of planning. In Idaho and Texas, trucks laden with tall turbine parts have slammed into interstate overpasses, requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs. In Minnesota last year, a truck carrying a tubular tower section got stuck at a railroad crossing; an approaching train stopped just in time. Also in Minnesota, a woman was killed last September when her car, driven by her husband, collided at an intersection with a truck carrying a wind turbine. (After a police investigation, local officials found that the truck driver was not at fault.)
Maine had a glitch of its own two years ago after a truck carrying a big piece of turbine got stuck for hours while trying to round a corner near Searsport, a port near Belfast that receives many turbine parts from overseas.
“It left a nice gouge in Route 1,” recalled Ben Tracy, who works nearby at a marine equipment store and saw the incident.
On a per-turbine basis, the cost of transportation and logistics generally varies from around US$100,000 to US$150,000, according to John Dunlop, an engineer with the American Wind Energy Association.
Wolfgang Neuhoff, the project manager for TransCanada, which is developing the Maine wind farm, indicated that his numbers were probably above that range, though he declined to be specific.
In Belfast, the onslaught of turbine-toting trucks did not receive a warm welcome at first from some local business owners, who feared that rerouting traffic during the summer tourist season — the best time to transport turbines in a wintry state like Maine — would keep patrons away.
“We were afraid that the state was going to put up signs to avoid Belfast because of the delays,” said Jerry Savitz, the owner of Darby’s Restaurant in Belfast, who added that locals nonetheless supported the idea of windmills because of the clean energy they create.
After discussions with the town, the wind developers agreed to send the tall nacelles, which sit at the top of the turbine towers and contain the electrical generating components, through town at night, so few people would be delayed. Because they had to pass through residential neighborhoods in order to avoid low underpasses, residents feared that a few trees would need to be chopped down. But in the end, the trees were spared.