The season’s final foreign ship carrying wind energy parts to the port of Duluth-Superior came and went last week — and along with the Liberia-flagged BBC Swift went another record-setting campaign.

The Duluth Seaway Port Authority will announce this week that 525,000 freight tons of wind-energy components moved through its Clure Public Marine Terminal in 2020.

It’s the second straight year the port has set a wind-parts record — far eclipsing 2019’s mark of 306,000 freight tons.

“This year, it wasn’t really even a contest,” said Jonathan Lamb, president of Lake Superior Warehousing Co., which is charged with unloading the parts, which are then transshipped onto trucks for overland hauling.

Prior to the back-to-back record-setting campaigns, the previous high mark had been 2008’s 302,000 freight tons.

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Several wind turbine blades sit in a staging area at docks C and D in Duluth in late November. Wind turbine parts sit in the area until they are taken by truck to wind farms. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Several wind turbine blades sit in a staging area at docks C and D in Duluth in late November. Wind turbine parts sit in the area until they are taken by truck to wind farms. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The record haul of blades, tower sections and other parts came across 30 shiploads, moving on foreign salties across the Atlantic Ocean and through the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System.

Well over half of those vessels returned overseas back-loaded with mostly grains from either Duluth and Superior or Thunder Bay, Ontario, Lamb said. The BBC Swift left Duluth for Thunder Bay, where it was loading grain this week.

Some ships were so tightly configured for moving wind parts that all they do is run parts over and beat it back for another load of wind components, Lamb said.

The wind parts delivered locally were bound for wind fields in North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota.

While there is no national renewable energy standard in the United States, Lamb credited many states with having mandates that are pushing cost-side efficiency when it comes to wind components. Technology is getting better, too, and older wind fields are needing replenishing.

“State and local mandates are helping to push the demand,” Lamb said. “They’re also looking ahead to a lot of older wind farms needing to be repowered.”

Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, credited $25 million in capital investments put into the Clure terminal since 2015 with positioning the port for its current success in moving wind parts.

“This didn’t happen by accident,” she said. “We have been very deliberate with our capital investments into the terminal.”

She cited the 26 acres of modern storage space, along with two heavy-lift berths and improved road and rail access, with helping to create an environment to thrive in the wind market.

“It’s positioned us to more effectively and efficiently handle the wind equipment,” DeLuca said. “It’s been kind of a marvel to watch it come in and go out so quickly when they've come in to dock this year.”

Workers at Lake Superior Warehousing fasten one end of a wind turbine blade to a semitrailer for the short trip to a nearby staging area. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Workers at Lake Superior Warehousing fasten one end of a wind turbine blade to a semitrailer for the short trip to a nearby staging area. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The Port Authority and Lake Superior Warehousing market themselves as "Duluth Cargo Connect." In addition to wind, its rail and trucking enterprises have also seen a local boon during a year in which overall shipping totals have suffered for depressed coal and taconite iron ore markets.

Rail and truck movements aren’t as visible or as publicly well-tracked as water-based shipments. But Lamb tried to put those movements into perspective.

He described raw materials moving through the port to places like paper mills, and lumber and other wood products moving out.

“If you want to think of it in terms of tonnage, we probably hit up to a half-million freight tons in terms of all of the other baskets — that makes up another 450,000 to 500,000 tons,” he said. “Wind was a big part of the year, but it’s only one part of a lot of other moving parts.”

The rough year in iron ore and coal has seen overall shipments drop precipitously in 2020. But a port that had been 31% off the August 2019 pace has rallied a bit of late. At the end of October, DeLuca said the 19.5 million short tons of maritime cargo in 2020 was now 28.5% off the 2019 pace.

A truck bearing a wind turbine blade brought to Duluth by the BBC Swift leaves the dock by Lake Superior Warehousing to take the blade to a nearby staging area. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
A truck bearing a wind turbine blade brought to Duluth by the BBC Swift leaves the dock by Lake Superior Warehousing to take the blade to a nearby staging area. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

“It’s been a challenging year for iron ore and coal,” DeLuca said. “With an uptick in steel production (lately), we expect to see a little uptick in iron ore toward the end of the season. But we’re not going to catch up — we’re not going to make up what we lost in the beginning.”

DeLuca hoped the expected reopening of U.S. Steel's Keetac iron ore mine in Keewatin this month would be a late-season boon as well. It would mean all mines on the Iron Range were running at a time when steel mills usually stockpile iron ore in advance of the Jan. 15 closing of the Soo Locks and the two-month Great Lakes offseason.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think as we recover from COVID, you will see iron ore coming back as steel production comes up,” DeLuca said.

The coming years figure to bring up to $25 million more in port investment, including finishing the total refurbishment of dock walls in the Clure terminal and adding 56,000 square feet of new warehouse space used for rail and truck movements through the port.

“We’re completely sold out of warehouse space,” DeLuca said. “That’s a challenge, but also indicates a degree to which the facility is in use and sought after.”

Because the latest record tonnage figure for wind-energy parts was so robust, Lamb doesn't figure on another record haul in 2021.

“I would not predict we would break any more wind-energy records,” he said. “I think that would be quite the Herculean effort to see that happen again. It takes some luck to have that much freight come through. I do see consistent, steady growth for the terminal in other areas. I do see positive signs — especially as more capacity becomes available to us on the warehousing side.”