Wind industry could take toll on Kansas highways

Giant blades are among the pieces of oversized equipment trucked throughout Kansas to meet the state and region's booming wind industry demands. This blade was at the westbound weigh station on Interstate 70 near the Kansas State Highway 99 interchange

This truck is carrying a piece of a wind tower in the western Kansas town of Oakley. Overweight loads hauling wind turbine components have increased 700 percent since 2006.

Siemens Energy has opened a wind turbine manufacturing plant in Hutchinson that will begin making nacelles like this. This school-bus sized piece of equipment is the engine of the turbine that converts the wind's energy into electricity.

As the wind industry in Kansas booms, state highway officials are looking at how to better manage the trucks needed to carry pieces of the massive wind turbines.

Today, Kansas roadways see seven times more trucks carrying extremely heavy loads of wind tower components than they did five years ago.

“It’s a growing sector of the manufacturing sector, not only in Kansas but other central states,” said John Maddox, Kansas Department of Transportation’s rail and freight program manager.

In 2010, KDOT recorded more than 7,500 truck loads of 150,000 pounds or more carrying wind tower components. In 2006, the number of these extremely heavy loads was less than 1,000.

Some of the loads are coming from out of state and heading toward Kansas wind farms under construction and others are just passing through the state, Maddox said.

Traffic is only expected to increase.

In December, Siemens Energy opened a wind turbine manufacturing plant in Hutchinson. The plant is building nacelles, a 90-ton, school-bus-sized piece of equipment that sits at the top of the wind tower and is the engine of the turbine.

Other companies have plans of opening wind manufacturing facilities in Kansas, including one in Ottawa.

And the building of more wind farms is being proposed throughout Kansas, adding to the nine farms that already operate.

While a growing wind industry is a positive for the Kansas economy, the heavy loads needed to get wind turbines to their destinations will damage the roads over time.

“We do keep it in the back of our minds,” said John Culbertson, a bridge evaluation engineer at KDOT.

That impact to the roadways is one of the reasons KDOT is updating its permitting process of routing overweight and oversized loads from a paper system to one that uses Web-based software.

As part of the permitting process, KDOT analyzes what routes the trucks should take to avoid bridges that can’t hold the weight, low underpasses and narrow construction zones. In 2010, KDOT issued 70,000 permits for oversized or overweight loads. More than 1,000 of those permits were for overweight trucks carrying wind tower components.

The new software system, known as Kansas Truck Routing and Intelligent Permitting System, will automatically generate and evaluate alternate routes for large loads.

“There is a concern,” Culbertson said of the heavy wind turbine loads that are carried over Kansas roads. “This is one of the reasons for the new software. It will help us track and plan a little bit better.”