Wind cargo boosts freight tons at Port of Duluth-Superior


BigLift’s heavy-lift ship Happy River discharges wind turbine towers at the Port of Duluth-Superior. Photo credit: Dennis O’Hara.

After handling 306,000 freight tons of wind turbines and components last year, the Port of Duluth-Superior has strong expectations for similar growth in 2020, driven largely by the federal production tax credit (PTC) for wind development, which has triggered massive wind development in the United States, including in the Midwest.

Duluth-Superior, on the St. Lawrence Seaway along the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin, is the Great Lakes’ top tonnage port and among the top 20 in the US. It handled approximately 800 vessels and 31.8 million metric tons during its 10-month 2019 shipping season, according to Jayson Hron, the port’s director of port communications.

The port’s shipping season begins after the winter ice breaks, normally in March. Grain and bulks, common backhauls or base cargoes for multipurpose/heavy-lift ships, are the port’s dominant exports. However, the port is expanding its breakbulk traffic, focusing on project and oversize cargoes, including a large percentage of wind components, Hron said.

“We really cut our teeth in the wind industry in 2006, when the Midwest started to blossom and heat up with wind farms,” Jonathan Lamb, president of Duluth Cargo Connect, told “That’s when we saw the beginning of wind component imports — 2006, 2007, 2008 — that were being shipped to the Rocky Mountain and Upper Midwest wind belts.”

After that busy start, the intervening years were “up and down,” but the current outlook for wind components should be less volatile, Lamb said. “With the production tax credit and levels of installation, we have seen more opportunities for imports and exports of wind components than we have in the last 13 or 14 years.” The PTC had been set to expire by the end of 2023, but was just reset by the federal government and will now end in 2024.

Several midwestern states and Canadian provinces are also “stepping up with renewable energy mandates,” Lamb said.

The port and terminal expect to break last year’s freight ton record for wind cargo in 2020, Lamb said. “We hear from OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] and the AWEA [American Wind Energy Association] that the industry feels very confident with the efficiency, productivity, and technology advancements,” able to move forward even after the expiration of the PTC.

Midwestern wind boom

Leveraging its St. Lawrence Seaway location, the port will be serving wind farm installations and component requests in Minnesota, Iowa, Montana, and North and South Dakota. In the past, wind energy components tended to be bound for Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Missouri, and central and western Canada from Duluth-Superior, Lamb said.

Duluth Cargo Connect, a partnership between the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and Lake Superior Warehousing, has been a catalyst for attracting breakbulk freight tons, Hron said. Lake Superior Warehousing serves as the agent for the 120-acre Clure Public Marine Terminal, the breakbulk, heavy-lift, and project cargo terminal owned and maintained by the port.

“Specifically, we have put $25 million into Clure since 2015 because we’re in a growth mode,” said Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

The terminal has seven St. Lawrence Seaway-depth (26-foot, 6-inch) vessel berths, access to four Class 1 railroads — BNSF, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, and Union Pacific — and 10,000 feet of track on port property. It also owns a mobile 300-ton Manitowoc crane and twin 81-ton gantry cranes manufactured locally in Duluth, Hron said. Clure Terminal is also a Foreign Trade Zone.

Approximately 5 percent of wind cargoes now leave the port by rail, DeLuca said, a proportion expected to increase as wind components grow larger and larger. Currently, the majority of wind components leave the port by truck. Many heavy-haul trucking companies serve the terminal, including Perkins Specialized, ATF Trucking, Barnhart Transportation, and Contractors Cargo, Lamb said.

Expanding the port

DeLuca said Duluth Cargo Connect also faces “negative challenges … We are strapped for warehouse space and we can use more laydown area.”

“So, we’re adding 50,000 square feet of warehouse space and rebuilding two dock walls at a cost of $21 million [with construction], planned for 2021-2023. We are also adding five acres of off-site laydown area, which will free up space at the Clure,” she said.

Beyond wind, Lamb said, Clure Terminal expects to handle additional heavyweight cargoes that include transformers, reactors, pressure vessels, and similar equipment serving the mining, manufacturing, energy, production, and oil and gas industries.

Additionally, a new CN Duluth Intermodal Terminal at the Clure Terminal allows regional companies to access new markets and revenues, Lamb said. “Previously, these companies were limited to markets they could reach cost effectively and now with CN Intermodal terminal — where they can containerize almost anything — they have broader reach.”

Among the cargoes affected are grain; forest products, including pulp products, finished lumber, and finished paper products; other finished goods; and raw materials for manufacturing.