To build or maintain today’s colossal wind turbine towers, you either need an absolute monster of a crane – or something like this. The KoalaLifter self-climbing crane is quick, compact, handles heavy loads and creeps up turbine towers of any height.
Wind turbines are becoming some of the world’s largest machines, with some offshore giants standing hundreds of meters tall. And since nearly all of them are horizontal-axis “fan on a stick” type designs, you typically need to lift the heaviest components up from the ground to the top of the tower for installation, maintenance or decommissioning.
To give you a sense for the size of the crane that requires, skip to somewhere around 1:45 in the video below, which shows German company Enercon installing one of its 5.56-megawatt turbines. That’s a quarter of the power the biggest ones are shooting for, but it runs 160-m (525-ft) blades, so the generator nacelle has to be considerably higher than that, and the crane needs to be even higher.
E 160 EP5 Hämelhausen
But here’s the thing: you’ve already got a tower, why move and erect an entire separate crane? So Enercon, in partnership with Dutch company Lagerway, set about building the “world’s first self-climbing crane for wind turbines.”
The Lagerway LCC140 Climbing Crane is a bit of a monster in its own right. It takes 11 trucks to transport, for starters, it weighs 270 tons, and you need another, smaller crane to lift it up and attach or detach it from the tower. It’s also only suitable for purpose-built turbine towers, since its upper and lower sections connect to the tower using reinforced holes in each section of the turbine tower as connection points.
But it can be set up or torn down in a single day, and once it’s latched on, it’s able to climb up the tower as it’s built, then lock on and hoist loads up to 140 tons with its own 33-m (108-ft) mast and 46-m (151-ft) boom.
In 2021, Enercon used a prototype LCC140 Climbing Crane to build and install its first turbine, an E-136 EP5 not much smaller than the one in the first video. Take a look at that process in the video below.
ENERCON Climbing Crane / ENERCON Kletterkran
Very neat! But still quite a beefy and cumbersome solution. Enter Spanish company KoalaLifter, which is working to commercialize a turbine-climbing crane that should work with a variety of different tower types, and is so much smaller that it rocks up on a single 12-m (40-ft) truck.
All you need set up is the first section of the tower, after which the KoalaLifter truck backs right up to it, and hydraulically jacks the KoalaLifter up to vertical, positioning it against the tower. At this point, it doesn’t need any special holes or attachment points, it grabs onto the tower using a pair of collar-like straps. Once that’s secure, it extends its inner section upwards, and another pair of straps secure that to the tower. From there, the bottom section straps can be loosened or retracted, and the bottom section can lift itself up. Rinse and repeat.
You can see the KoalalLifter process in the sexy (but very slow) render video below. We’re going to go ahead and recommend you scrub through it for the interesting bits:
Or indeed, check out a real-life test video from earlier this year instead. The video below shows the company’s first KL-N30 commercial product in action. It’s a considerably more humble little crane than the LCC140, lifting only 30 tons. But it’ll operate in any wind conditions, and can climb up 100 m (328 ft) of any given tower in just 45 minutes, operated by a single technician on the ground.
KL-N30 First Commercial Product
It remains unclear to us exactly how the KoalaLifter’s straps reach around the tower and grab on without sagging; the render video makes it look like there are some kind of magnetic crawlers bringing them around the mast, but reality may be a little less fun.
The company has set about embiggening the KoalaLifter to make it appropriate for larger, heavier projects. But both the upcoming KL-N80, which will lift 80 tons, and the King Dingaling KL-Gorilla crane, which is designed to hoist as much as 150 tons, are still designed to fit on a single truck that can lift them vertical to grab onto the bottom of the tower.
It’s also working on a barge-carried KL-Offshore product, which could be considerably larger and more powerful, since it’s freed from the constraints of truck-based transport. This version would need to be deployed by crane, off a wave-compensated platform, but it could build and service even larger turbines.
While the KoalaLifter could prove a very convenient and cost-effective option for onshore wind farms, it’s potentially be an absolute game-changer for offshore work, where towers can reach ridiculous heights, and the kind of crane ships required can cost millions upon millions of dollars a week, only to be shut down if the weather’s not pretty much perfect.
KoalaLifter is just getting started in a commercial sense. It’s entered into a joint venture with a Brazilian company to run a service in the South American region, starting with nine machines by 2026. We look forward to seeing what kind of contribution it can make at scale.