By Keith Norbury

For a self-professed transportation nerd like Brad Manor, wind turbines and their components represent the epitome of project cargoes. “The biggest thing is the sheer size,” said Mr. Manor, a self-employed marine and cargo surveyor based in Windsor, Ont. “The pieces are either incredibly long, and if they’re not incredibly long, they’re incredibly heavy. The nacelle that the blades bolt onto at the top that houses the generator may weigh close to a quarter of a million pounds. The ship has to be designed to carry that weight. And getting it off safely can be a challenge.”

According to the Canadian Wind Energy Association, Mr. Manor hasn’t seen nothing yet when it comes to wind turbine movements. “In 2003, we were 322 megawatts of installed wind energy capacity in Canada,” said Robert Hornung, the association’s President. Now we’re over 6,500. And we expect that by 2016, there’ll be close to 12,000.” What happens after 2016 isn’t so clear, he said. Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, and B.C. are all working on energy strategies or about to launch such initiatives. The policies that emerge from those exercises will shape what energy projects will be developed in the coming decades. “So right now is actually a very important time because governments, utilities and systems operators are wrestling with that question of what should we build going forward,” Mr. Hornung said.

On September 11, Ontario tweaked its wind energy policy by announcing that it will henceforth pay wind energy producers not to produce electricity (at reduced rates) when the province does not need the electricity. The move is expected to save Ontario ratepayers about $200 million annually.

Looking further ahead, the association expects that by 2025 wind will generate 20 per cent of Canada’s power. When CanWEA first made that projection the 20 per cent share translated into 55,000 megawatts. But demand for new electricity isn’t growing as fast as it did a few years ago. Even so, Mr. Hornung expressed confidence in the future of wind power in Canada, given its successful past, and that wind will continue to play a significant role in Canada’s energy future going forward.

Pros and cons of wind energy

Wind has a number of factors in its favour, as well as a few obstacles to wider acceptance. On the plus side, wind energy does not generate the carbon emissions that are associated with the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, so it’s a potent weapon against climate change. Moreover, its fuel, wind, does not have a cost associated with it. On the downside, the wind doesn’t always blow, making it an intermittent power source. Also, because of its intermittent nature, the capital cost of wind energy installations per unit of energy produced is high. Wind turbines also pose a deadly hazard to bats and birds. And people living near the turbines often complain about the noise and that they are visual blight on the landscape.

Protest movements against wind farms are springing up as quickly as the towers themselves, especially in Ontario. The opponents claim that noise from the turbines, including inaudible low-frequency sounds, have adverse health effects. A recent study by professor Simon Chapman of Sydney University in Australia concluded that people opposed to wind farms are more likely to worry themselves sick about the turbines than for the turbines themselves to make them sick. Then again, this May, a paper in the journal Canadian Family Physician concluded that “Industrial wind turbines can harm human health if sited too close to residents.” As responses to that paper and others make clear, however, opinions are strong on both sides of this issue. As if to settle the matter, Health Canada has embarked on an epidemiological study to evaluate the health effects of windmills in eight to 12 communities. Mr. Hornung was diplomatic in responding to those concerns. “The wind industry has to engage with communities to address their concerns. The successful wind energy projects are going to be the ones that had good public participation in the process of developing and siting them,” he said.

A potential worry for those hauling wind turbines is that protesters might interfere with that work. So far no blockades have materialized in Canada. In the last few years, Mr. Manor estimates he has surveyed about 20 ships laden with turbines, and has yet to encounter a protest. “I have heard people make comments about it but I’ve never seen any concerns,” Mr. Manor said. “As Canadians, we’re a little apathetic, we’d have to get off the couch and do it,” Mr. Manor added.

It’s an intermittent business

At the Port of Thunder Bay, CEO Tim Heney has seen his share of wind turbines, but hasn’t encountered any protesters either. Last year, the port unloaded turbines from Spain that were shipped to Alberta before being trans-shipped to Montana. “We had a good year last year,” Mr. Heney said. “But wind power shipments have slowed down quite a bit. We’ve only had, I think, one ship of wind turbines so far this year.” Like wind itself, the business of transporting wind turbines is intermittent, Mr. Heney explained. “I know on the U.S. side they had some issues with their tax credit system for wind projects,” Mr. Heney said. “That kind of slowed wind projects in the U.S.” In Alberta, he said, a flurry of building several wind farms will be followed by a lull so that regulators can evaluate the impact on the grid. “You can’t put too many of them in without throwing things out of balance,” he said.

Barge crane does tricky lifting

On Vancouver Island, Doug Peterson at Nanaimo Port Authority said he has heard of no negative comments about the Cape Scott Wind Farm being developed on the island’s northern tip. He attributes that lack of fuss to the farm’s remote location. “I think the developers are working closely with First Nations,” said Mr. Peterson, Nanaimo’s Manager of Marketing and Sales. “Everyone seems to be aware of what is going on and it seems to be working very harmoniously.” He said the port is optimistic that a second phase of the wind project will proceed in 2014.

Last summer, Amix Heavy Lift of New Westminster brought its Arctic Tuk crane barge with its Manitowoc 4600 ringer 3 series 2 crawler crane to perform the more difficult lifts. Clarke Longmuir, President of Amix, said terminal operator DP World hired his company to lift larger items that were “with either too difficult for shore cranes or ship’s gear to handle.” The only real challenge was ensuring that the crane could reach across the beams of the ships. “We just lifted it right off the deck and then just reached right across the ship and placed it down onto the trailers on the dock,” Mr. Longmuir said. “It was a bit of a challenge to ensure that we had good clearance and coordinate with the freeboard of the ship. Other than that, it was pretty straightforward. You pick the stuff up and swing it over the dock.”

Some of the ships that called at Nanaimo had gear capable of discharging the turbines, but others didn’t, Mr. Peterson said. The Grieg Star ships, for example, had gantry cranes for handling lumber. But those cranes weren’t capable of lifting the wind turbine pieces and dropping them on trucks, he said.

East and west, wind shows promise

On the Atlantic coast, the Sheet Harbour Marine Terminal, 115 kilometres northeast of Halifax, handled components for a large windmill project this summer, said Patrick Bohan of Halifax Port Authority, which now operates Sheet Harbour. “Sheet Harbour was an excellent place about an hour closer to the wind farm than Halifax, so it worked very nicely,” Mr. Bohan said. About 50 turbines, brought in from Europe, were handled at Sheet Harbour for about three small wind farms near the terminal.

Terminals in Port Metro Vancouver are hoping that they will soon be handling wind turbine components, said Brady Erno, of Fraser Surrey Docks. They would be destined for wind farms proposed near Tumbler Ridge and Chetwynd in northeastern B.C., as well as in the windy Pincher Creek region of southwestern Alberta. To secure that business, the terminals and Port Metro Vancouver have embarked on a multi-faceted campaign to promote the port as a viable gateway for moving large project pieces inland. (See related article.)

“Windmill business is down generally,” said a transportation industry source who asked not to be identified. “It is primarily driven by subsidies in the U.S.A. and these have slowed down. Similarly in B.C., there have been specific projects for which windmills have come in, but the volume is very small compared to the U.S.A.”

More work when turbines need replacing

Not everyone in the project cargo business is gung-ho on wind farms. Mr. Beringer, President and CEO of Rohde & Liesenfeld Canada, said he’s never been an enthusiast for wind, calling it a short-term energy solution because of its high costs of maintenance.

“You have to constantly replace parts inside the nacelles,” Mr. Beringer said. “You’ve got to constantly maintain all of those wind energy components. And anything that is mechanical is just not long term. So I just don’t see it being sustainable.”

That wind towers have to be replaced periodically, though, is something that should appeal to people in the transportation business, Mr. Hornung pointed out. “At the end of the life span of those turbines, there’s a tremendous incentive for a developer of a wind energy project to take those turbines down and to put up new ones, because the resource is still there,” he said. That means removing the obsolete parts and bringing in new ones, although the new turbines are likely to generate double or triple the power of the ones they replace.