The giant wind turbines spinning above farm fields in the Great Lakes Bay Region create both energy and jobs.
Across the nation, the wind industry employs more than 114,000 people, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The United States wind power capacity at the end of 2019 was 105.591 megawatts, enough to power 29.5 million average American homes. It also makes wind the largest renewable energy source in the nation.
In Michigan, the trends are the same. According to the Michigan Public Service Commission’s 2019 report on renewable power, wind turbines generated about 69% of the alternative energy in the state. The Michigan Workforce Development Agency and the Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives estimates that alternative energy created about 9,800 jobs in 2018.
Bay County isn’t home to any wind farms yet, but the industry still impacts the local economy.
Throughout the summer, freighters from Spain, India, and China have pulled into Port Fisher Terminals, on the West Side of the Saginaw River, filled with the long, silver turbine blades. The terminal and Bay Aggregate are each part of the Fisher Companies, which consists of 10 separate businesses in Michigan and Kentucky.
The stevedores can unload about five blades in an hour. When the BBC Song arrived recently, it held 39 blades.
It takes about 40 days for the blades to make the journey to the 411 Tiernan Road port. When the ships arrive, stevedores from KK Integrated Logistics – based in the Upper Peninsula town of Menomonie – offload the blades and place them on trucks for transport to wind farms through the Thumb as well as Isabella and Gratiot counties.
Paul Strpko, sales manager for Fisher Companies, was unsure of the economic impact of the work, but says about 10 stevedores work here throughout the summer, staying in hotels, dining in restaurants, and enjoying local entertainment. When the freighters arrive, the number of stevedores rises as high as 40.
Paul Strpko, sales manager for Fisher Companies, at right, talks to Bay Aggregate Manager Kevin Cotter at the Fisher Port Terminals.
“These guys are spending the summer here,” Strpko says. “That’s a lot of heads in beds.”
Henderson Heavy Haul Trucking, based in Colorado, carries the blades from the port to area wind farms in the Thumb, Gratiot, and Isabella counties. The turbine blades are about 250 feet long, which limits the roads the trucks can travel. The routes that can handle the turbine traffic add time to the trip, says Bay Aggregate Manager Kevin Cotter. A passenger car can drive from the port to an Isabella County wind farm in a little over an hour. But it takes a truck hauling the turbine blades about 5 hours to make the same trip, Cotter says.
Because the blades each weigh thousands of pounds, the trucks can’t always take the most direct route from the port to the wind farm.
By early September, 18 ships had dropped blades at the port. Another four ships are expected before the season ends. By the time it’s all done, about 600 blades will have passed through the port.
Bay Aggregates and the Fisher Companies sought out the blade deliveries about nine years ago in order to diversify and expand their opportunities. The turbine industry wanted to get its equipment as close to the wind farms as possible in order to minimize disruption of street traffic. It’s also much more efficient to move blades by freighter than truck.
It’s worked out well. Along with the shipping work, Bay Aggregates and the Fisher Companies also provide the gravel and concrete needed when the turbines are built.
The blades are manufactured in trios. If one blade in the trio is damaged, all three must be replaced.
“Renewable energy is going to continue,” Strpko says. “Michigan is absolutely blessed with good wind and good infrastructure. The farm industry has embraced the turbines.”
The port also houses rehabilitated train tracks and rail cars. Dotting the landscape are tanks holding liquid asphalt, fertilizer, and calcium chloride to melt ice and suppress dust on dirt roads. Fisher Companies is ready to add another 34 acres to its holdings to accommodate even more tenants, Cotter says.
“We’re looking for ongoing opportunities to add into our business,” Strpko says. “If wind slows down, what’s next?”