BAY CITY, MI – Large metal arms reach into the sky this week near the mouth of the Saginaw River. They are industrial cranes aboard big cargo ships, and they are unloading a delivery of giant windmill blades to fuel Michigan’s renewable energy industry.
For nearly a decade, Bay City Aggregate with parent company Fisher Companies has been hard at work developing Port Fisher Terminals, offering vessel, rail, and highway transportation services. Port Fisher is currently serving as the arrival site for large windmill parts making their way to windfarm projects, especially in the Thumb region.
“It was kind of like the Field of Dreams, you build it and they will come, and we started adding in a component every year and wind energy just kind of happened to fall right in the middle of it,” said Fisher Sales Manager Paul Strpko.
Strpko explained that friends in the wind industry plus the facility’s location helped to forge the path that the shipping terminal is on now.
“When they were looking for places, that made perfect sense and where a lot of the concentration of wind energy was going to be,” he said. “Then we started to develop our site so it could handle that.”
As of May, the state has a total of 1,149 operational turbines and the Michigan Public Services Commission is currently tracking progress on 33 wind farm projects, according to the ThumbWind project. Nearby Huron, Gratiot, and Tuscola counties are listed on the site as the top wind energy counties in Michigan.
“When they’re moving big components like this and with a lot of the permitting to move them around, they like to get them as close as they can to the projects without putting them on the road infrastructure,” said Strpko.
Parent company Fisher Companies also participates in a lot of the infrastructure projects to help get the wind units to sites, such as with road improvements and site and access roads, through work such as contracting and supplying materials for concrete.
“It’s nice that numerous parts of our business get to play,” said Strpko.
The impact of the wind energy industry can be physically seen right down the river at the nearby Consumers Energy facility. The coal-fired J.C. Weadock Generating Plant at the mouth of the Saginaw River was shut down in 2016 and the final major structure was demolished with explosives on Saturday, Aug. 29 as Consumers Energy makes a push toward renewable energy.
The coal and natural gas-fired units at the neighboring Dan E. Karn Generating Complex are next on the list for retirement beginning in 2023. The facility will shut down entirely by 2031.
From docks to windfarms
Just as Port Fisher has undergone a long journey to get to its current spot, the windmill parts and blades they handle have also gone on quite a long trip.
This year’s windmill blades are originating from Spain, China and India, according to Bay Aggregates General Manager Kevin Cotter. However, he noted that Port Fisher has seen blades that were produced domestically in past years and transported via rail. The blades are produced by General Electric facilities around the world, said Cotter.
Shipments will take anywhere from a few weeks to over a month, depending on where they’re coming from, to reach Port Fisher.
Shipping a windmill blade takes quiet a bit of strategy and logistical planning. Luckily, the process is made a breeze thanks to the help of stevedores, or workers that specialize in the unloading of vessels. The stevedores working the docks at Port Fisher are from KK Integrated Logistics of Menominee. These specially trained workers oversee and handle operations such as taking the blades off of the boat, putting them in storage, and loading trucks for transport.
The influx of stevedores each shipping season benefit more than just Port Fisher and their windmill operations. Approximately 40-plus employees come in and swell the personnel numbers upwards to help with unloading endeavors.
“While this is going on, on a normal year these guys are spending the summer here, so quiet a few heads in beds, a lot of meals, we’re the frequent flier to a lot of restaurants – they feed them all, breakfast and dinner and then we feed them lunch,” said Paul Strpko.
Once a ship arrives at the Port Fisher facility, the stevedores are quickly at work to help the windmill parts start the next leg of their journey. The first task at hand is to get the parts and blades off of the ship and onto dry land.
The stevedores have to perform a literal balancing act as a part of the process. Working together, two crane operators and the crew work together to get the blade carefully off the ships into the yard for staging. The crew loads the blades into slings as the crane operators carefully lift it with surgical precision.
“They have to work in unison bringing that blade up very very evenly, extending it out, setting it down on the truck, it’s really a specialized operator,” said Cotter.
The blades are moved and “put to rest” in the yard, according to Strpko, where they will be fitted with special fixtures so that they can be loaded on a semi for being transported on public roads. Anderson Truck Service Special Haulers, or ATS, handles Fisher Companies’ port to site hauling, as contracted by the owners of the components.
Once they’re scheduled to hit the road, the blades are sent using a special telescoping rig that takes them for a slow but steady ride to their destination. For example, blades that were unloaded on Wednesday, Sept. 9, were destined to soon be on their way to Isabella County for a wind farm installation. What would normally be a typical hour-long trip for a car from Bay to Isabella County turns into a multi-hour endeavor due to required slow speeds and special designated routes.
“From here, you could drive that in an hour and fifteen minutes, but to get a blade there takes upwards of five hours because of the route that they have to take,” said Cotter.
The windmills are transported in select groups of three – the blades are built to match each other in a triplet group.
Afterward, the process keeps on spinning as the next shipment comes in.
By the time this year’s shipping season is all said and done, Port Fisher will see 22 ship loads in total.