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  September 10th, 2023 | Written by

The Complexities of Transformer Transportation in the Power Industry

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Upgrading power plant infrastructure is crucial for the energy industry. It’s essential in preventing widespread grid issues and enabling the green energy transition, but it can also be more challenging than it appears. Transformer transportation carries a unique set of issues.

Shipping a transformer from a manufacturing plant to its installation site may seem straightforward compared to larger grid considerations. Despite this appearance, transporting industrial-size transformers requires thorough planning to avoid costs and minimize lead times. Organizations must consider these six complexities for effective transformer shipping.

Vehicle Restrictions

One of the first logistical obstacles businesses face is only select vehicles can transport transformers. A grid-scale transformer can weigh over 170 tons and be as tall as a two-storey house. Most equipment cannot safely transport loads that bulky.

Rail transport may seem like the ideal solution given that mass, but railways present unique challenges, too. Trains need specialized freight cars called Schnabel cars to support large loads while preventing the expensive equipment from colliding with other railcars. Some substations may also be inaccessible by rail, further minimizing these options.

Logistics providers will likely have to transport transformers along roadways — if not for the entire journey, then at least to and from railways. That requires heavy-duty lorries capable of carrying abnormal loads.

Abnormal Load Permits

Legal guidelines further complicate transformer transportation. The government classifies anything weighing more than 44,000 kilograms or wider than 2.9 meters as an abnormal load. Industrial transformers far exceed these measurements, requiring special permits and notification periods.

Logistics services transporting these loads must register through the Electronic Service Delivery for Abnormal Loads (ESDAL). That process will notify police and highway authorities, as they may have to shut down some roads, inspect bridges, move power lines or go over the planned route for any potential issues. In many cases, companies must file ESDAL applications several months in advance.

Moving abnormal loads outside the U.K. involves even more regulatory issues. In addition to checking with local authorities, shipping companies must review destination customs and transportation restrictions.

Route Planning Challenges

The ESDAL notification process entails route planning, which can be challenging when dealing with large transformers. As with all transport, finding the most direct and efficient route is generally best. However, some direct paths may be unavailable because of the transformer’s size.

Bridges and overpasses may be too low for lorries carrying transformers to go under. Some smaller roads to substations may have bends too tight for long specialized vehicles to manage. There may be sufficient space in other cases, but only if authorities clear the area first.

Intermodal transformer shipping requires even more planning. Scheduling specialized road vehicles, railcars and ships and determining which routes are safest and most efficient for each can take considerable time and effort.

Equipment Availability

Transformer transport stakeholders must also consider the availability of the equipment they must use. Schnabel cars and abnormal load-capable lorries are less common than smaller, less specialized alternatives. Consequently, it can take more planning and earlier action to reserve them.

It’s also important to consider loading and unloading. Every location where transformers move on or off a vehicle must have a crane capable of lifting hundreds of tons. In some areas, there may be size constraints, too, further restricting the range of applicable equipment.

Key stakeholders must determine what kinds of transportation, cranes and any supplementary equipment they need early. That may require reviewing routes to check for space restrictions. Companies might also have to work with different logistics providers than they usually do to find the machines they need.

Time Consumption and Costs

All these other transformer shipping complexities mean shipping this equipment can be time consuming and costly. Specialized vehicles are often more expensive than their more widely available counterparts and there may be legal fees to consider. Businesses should also plan on higher labor costs from the time it takes to complete the process.

The law forbids vehicles carrying loads over 80,000 kilograms to go over 40 miles per hour on motorways and 30 mph on other roads. On some streets, it may be necessary to go even slower to be as safe as possible. As a result, routes can take longer than GPS software suggests, so power companies must take that into account.

Given these delays and expenses, careful financial planning is necessary when transporting transformers. Businesses may have to schedule other large expenditures around these shipping times.

Transformer Shipping Best Practices

Given these complexities, power companies and their supply chain partners must approach transformer shipping carefully. The process can seem intimidating, but with enough preparation and following a few best practices, businesses can mitigate these costs and disruptions.

Using reconditioned transformers instead of brand-new ones when possible is often the most cost-effective route. Refurbished equipment has significantly shorter lead times than new alternatives, mitigating the impact of shipping delays and offsetting logistics costs. These recycled components are also more sustainable than new transformers, which aligns with net-zero energy goals.

It’s best to plan as far ahead as possible. Finding vendors offering the right equipment at the right time can take some research and gaining government clearance is even more time consuming. Last-minute adjustments are also more problematic when the load is more tightly regulated, so businesses should plan all transformer transportation months in advance.

Given the complexity of these logistics decisions, some businesses may consider using artificial intelligence (AI) to find the best way forward. Companies using AI to analyze and recommend ideal routes have saved 15% to 60% in time, distance and fuel. Those savings significantly mitigate the financial and scheduling toll of transporting large transformers.

Transformer Transportation Requires Careful Attention

As the nation’s energy needs evolve, substations will need new transformers. Supplying that need means power companies and supply chain organizations must consider how to approach transformer transportation. Failure to plan these routes thoroughly can result in substantial delays and cost overruns.

Knowing what to expect is the first step in overcoming obstacles. When businesses understand the complexities of transformer shipping, they can manage it more effectively.