May 2008 | News | Trends

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Drifting and drafting across Wyoming's exposed high plains with a kayak and bicycle atop your car, you learn quickly why poor aerodynamics and fuel consumption are a real drag.

Recurring gusts, the occasional high-wind advisory sign, and all-too-frequent stops at the gas pump are constant reminders that, all things being equal, the "Equality State" and wind are inseparable.

For U.S. businesses moving cargo across the Great Plains, aerodynamic angst is markedly more refined than the barrels of diesel trucks hemorrhage in fuel-siphoning headwinds.

Blowing snow, poor visibility, trailer-toppling squalls, and road closures are further indications that wind alone is a force to be reckoned with.

But as the monolithic turbines sprouting up from the remote, arid flats of the Foote Creek Rim and the more fertile foothills of Medicine Bow National Forest alternatively suggest, wind is a valuable commodity - and one that is harvested with increasing regularity.

This dichotomy is readily apparent throughout the United States as transportation and logistics partners haul and hoist turbines across the country to help public utilities capture wind-generated electricity, while others adjust their rigs to reduce drag, recapture lost energy, and ration fuel spend.

The institutional demands for renewable energy sources and more efficient fuel economy have precipitated a flurry of activity from global businesses exploring new ways to manipulate wind energy.

Wind Industry Spin

The growing recognition and efficacy of wind-generated electricity has created a noteworthy industrial and supply chain shift. Picking up where European innovation began, the United States is currently installing more incremental wind capacity than any other country in the world.

But it is doing so at great economic and environmental cost, according to a recent study by researchers at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.

Whatever value wind turbines may ultimately contribute to better rationalizing energy resources and use has been largely offset by the impact of transporting large tower, blade, and turbine components from overseas.

This "green" cottage industry has placed considerable environmental and economic stress on offshore supply chains that are principally centralized among manufacturing clusters in Germany, Denmark, Spain, and India.

As technology continues to neutralize the price per kilowatt-hour disparity between wind- and coal-generated electricity, and as demand grows for larger turbine installations capable of shrinking this gap even further, manufacturers and utilities are collaborating with transportation and logistics providers.

They are rethinking their supply chain footprints to more efficiently transport components to and within the United States.

"Reductions in the cost of producing wind energy are largely a result of increasing the size of the machines. Problems associated with shipping larger units, together with rapidly increasing demand, have created serious constraints in the supply chain," write Suzanne Ozment and Terry Tremwel, authors of the University of Arkansas study.

An average wind installation project can require 689 truckloads, 140 railcars, and eight ships to move heavy parts. The transportation factor alone contributes as much as 25 percent to total landed costs.

To counter these inefficiencies, Ozment and Tremwel argue that greater reliance on collaborative logistics, including communication and coordination between manufacturers and various transportation groups, will facilitate efficient and sustainable operations and ensure greater profits.

The challenge of moving large machinery between continents, combined with already high transportation costs, has pressed the U.S. wind industry to begin shifting production closer to the United States.

Expansion of manufacturing in the Western Hemisphere will reduce costs, streamline logistics, and possibly promote wind-power projects in other North American and South American countries, observe Ozment and Tremwel. Arguably, it will also spur further manufacturing growth within the United States as new-age wind farms replace old-time agriculture and other fading industries.

"While turbine manufacturers have remained international or coastal, blade and tower companies have just started expanding to the south-central region of the country in order to service growing demand in the region," they write. "Because blades and towers require expensive transportation equipment, these parts are typically manufactured locally in order to be shipped shorter distances."

As evidence of this emerging trend, the Port of Duluth recently witnessed a reversal of traditional trade patterns. In August 2007, it exported its first shipload of wind turbine blades manufactured in the United States for delivery to European wind farm projects.

Given the transportation and logistics challenges of transporting oversized turbine components, heavy haulers have weightier concerns than reducing wind drag.

But for the majority of U.S. businesses moving freight across the globe and around the country, more efficient aerodynamics translates to better fuel economy. With diesel costs more than triple what they were 15 years ago, businesses face considerable pressure to optimize freight spend by whatever means necessary.

Truck manufacturers, for example, are making great strides in streamlining heavy-haul vehicles to increase aerodynamics.

By modifying tractor and trailer designs over the past two decades they have been able to reduce the drag coefficient (a measure of wind resistance) of a typical freight truck from 0.80 to 0.65 - a nearly 20 percent improvement, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Smartway Transport Partnership.

Additional efforts to improve aerodynamics can result in a further 20 percent reduction in drag coefficient, which could raise fuel economy as much as 15 percent at highway speed, the EPA reports.

The Winds of Change

Manufacturers such as International Truck and Engine Corporation are taking the lead in building more streamlined vehicles. Its new LoneStar series features an aerodynamic hood, grille, air cleaners, and side skirt that the company projects will be 15 percent more fuel efficient than traditional long-nose classic trucks, equal to an annual savings of $3,000 to $15,000 or more, depending on miles driven and fuel costs.

Over-the-road shippers are also exploring ways to retrofit existing fleets to perform more efficiently. Stop & Shop Supermarket's drop and hook regional trucking operation, a Smartway Transport partner, has been experimenting with roof fairings that push air up and over the cab and trailer to reduce drag, says Mark Gangemi, manager of fleet maintenance for the Quincy, Mass.-based company.

"To identify the pros and cons of roof fairings, I performed a fuel study on one tractor without a roof fairing. We used our best driver to ensure consistent performance with this one tractor. Traveling under various weather conditions and carrying different loads, we averaged 6.5 miles per gallon," he reports.

Gangemi then installed roof fairings on the same tractor. Using the same driver, he was able to boost fuel efficiency to 7.0 mpg, which he acknowledges was an excellent result.

Drafting Into the Future

While U.S. surface freight shippers and carriers uncover new ways to reduce wind drag and increase fuel efficiency, some in the ocean industry are taking a page from the past. Sailing with the trade winds is by no means a novel concept for an industry that has historically relied on nature's caprice to move freight across hemispheres.

But the means by which today's ocean carriers are leveraging wind-generated power prove innovation can be as simple as hoisting a sail.

SkySails, a Hamburg, Germany-headquartered company, aims to help ocean carriers do just that. It manufactures a towing kite wind propulsion system that allows cargo ships to save as much as 35 percent in fuel costs, depending on wind variables and time deployed. Under optimal conditions, SkySails predicts fuel consumption can be temporarily reduced by up to 50 percent.

The system features a fully automatic, pilot-controlled steering system that aligns the kite according to wind direction, wind force, ship route, and ship speed. The company is currently in a pilot phase, testing the system in commercial shipping operations.

Cutting energy consumption 50 percent is "pie in the sky" economics for most cargo shippers. But as fuel costs continue to soar, even incremental efficiency gains can have an impact on reducing overall transportation spend.

Minimal investments in roof and side fairings, and cab extenders that close the gap between tractors and trailers, go a long way toward increasing fuel efficiency. For a typical combination truck, improving aerodynamics by 15 percent can cut annual fuel use by up to 2,430 gallons and save up to $3,644 in fuel costs, according to the Smartway Transport Partnership.

With imagination and innovation, the U.S. wind industry might provide some extra force of its own. If component manufacturing shifts its course closer to the United States, as Ozment and Tremwel suggest, and the push for renewable energy sources continues its swift pace, U.S. shippers and carriers may benefit from another windfall.

In 2007, Xcel Energy, a Minneapolis-based utility, and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory opened a facility at the National Wind Technology Center outside Boulder, Colo., that uses electricity from wind turbines to produce and store pure hydrogen.

"Converting wind energy to hydrogen means that it doesn't matter when the wind blows because its energy can be stored on-site in the form of hydrogen," says Richard C. Kelly, Xcel Energy chairman, president, and CEO.

"By marrying wind turbines to hydrogen production, we create a synergy that systematically reduces the drawbacks of each. Intermittent wind power is converted to a stored fuel that can be used any time, while at the same time offering a climate-friendly way to retrieve hydrogen, to power our homes and possibly cars in the future."

Greater capacity and efficiency in converting and storing wind-generated power as hydrogen, combined with emerging hydrogen fuel enhancement technologies, could give shippers and transport companies a cheap and reliable fuel lifeline as they confront fluctuating oil prices.

If nothing else, it provides businesses with further incentive to check which direction the wind industry blows - then draft accordingly.

Green Hype Good for RFID

With all the speculation that has tagged radio frequency identification (RFID) technology during the past few years, it's about time the industry captured some hype support from another supply chain buzzword - sustainability.

The use of RFID technologies in green-related applications is a promising market segment, reports AIM Global, a Warrendale, Pa.-based industry trade association that covers automatic identification and mobility solutions. It predicts consumers will see increased RFID exposure in environmentally friendly programs worldwide over the next 18 months.

Currently, businesses use RFID to advance the efficiency and effectiveness of numerous environmental programs, from monitoring vehicle emissions and collecting recyclable materials to reusing packaging resources and electronic parts and disposing of electronic waste.

In addition, RFID provides greater supply chain visibility by helping companies more efficiently track and manage inventories, thereby reducing unnecessary transportation movements and fuel usage.

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