Enjoying the view

It takes a certain kind of individual to climb 300 feet in the air every day to do your job, but with safety as their byword, wind energy service technicians love what they do

Land Acquisition Manager Curtis Nordick, right, answers questions from people in attendance recently at the Red Pine Wind Project community open house.

It takes somebody special to be a service technician in the wind energy industry. Not only are they tasked with performing routine maintenance, testing and troubleshooting electrical, mechanical and hydraulic components and system and replacing worn-out or malfunctioning parts, they have to climb 300 feet in the air every day to do that.

But several technicians in attendance at the EDF Renewables Red Pine Wind Project community open house recently in Ivanhoe said they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’ve said many times that if this job was on the ground, I wouldn’t do it,” Wood Lake native John Parsons said. “There’s just something about being a couple hundred feet up in the air. Nobody has a better office view than I do.”

With the exception of lightning storms and extreme blizzards, the technicians spend 365 days a year working on the Vestas turbines.

“They’re magnets for lightning,” Omar Rubalcava said. “So as long as it’s not lightning, we’re working. If it’s snowing, we’re working. When we’re not out at the turbines, we always have plenty to do. We have lots of safety stuff to do, like with watching videos and inspecting harnesses.”

It’s vital that technicians are always aware of weather conditions.

“If there’s lightning within a 30-mile radius, we’re not allowed to climb,” Kentucky native Hayden Rosenberg said. “We have to evacuate the area. We get a warning for lightning that is within a 60-mile radius. We’re always tracking the weather. We have an app that helps us do that, but we also have radio communication, too.”

Rosenberg said climbing up the wind turbines felt a little “crazy” at first, but that you just have to trust the equipment. Several different types of equipment were on display for people to view.

“Safety is our number one priority,” Rosenberg said. “This (lanyard) can hold 3,700 pounds I believe. So if I fall, I’m 100 percent sure this stuff is going to hold me. It’s a little nerve wracking when you’re up there the equipment has been put to the test and I trust it.”

Rosenberg said the positioning lanyards are inspected quarterly, while other items are inspected monthly.

“Safety is no joke around here,” he said. “That’s why we also have this emergency response station. It has a bunch of rescue devices. If me and Jon are up tower working, we’d have his ape escape, we’d have mine, we’d have Tractel, which is another rescue device that stays in the tower and then we bring our own up, so we’d have four rescue devices up there for two techs, along with fire extinguishers and first-aid kits.”

Currently, eight technicians manage Red Pine’s 100 wind turbines.

“The rule of thumb is one tech per 10 turbines,” Rosenberg said. “So we have 10 technicians here and then we also have management and other people who come and go.”

Rosenberg said Red Pine has two different models of wind turbines.

“It’s kind of hard to tell from the ground,” he said. “But we have 50 V110s and 50 V110s. That’s just the blade length — the circle it makes is either 100 meters across or 110 meters across.”

Parsons said the Vestas turbines are made by a Danish company.

“EDF bought Vestas turbines,” Parsons said. “Vestas is the second-largest company in Denmark. It costs more money to make them in Denmark and have them shipped here, so they have a plant in Colorado where they make them. So all these came from Colorado.”

It takes teamwork to keep the turbines in good working order.

“We always go in teams,” Rosenberg said. “We never go to a turbine alone. We do lots of greasing and lots of torquing. I’m a Tech 1, so it’s the lower of the tech levels. The more advanced techs can do the high-voltage stuff. I can only work below 50 volts and do minor troubleshooting here and there.”

Parsons said every day starts nearly the same way, with everyone gathering at 7 a.m. inside the maintenance building in Ivanhoe.

“We kind of talk about what we saw the day before, what we did and some stuff that’s coming up,” Parsons said. “Then we look over the monitors, which gives us a big overview of what the towers are doing, and we’ll go through our plan for the day.”

Rosenberg said they utilize SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition).

“It shows the entire park and we can see what an individual turbine is producing,” he said. “I can see what the wind is like over there. There’s 10 of us and it’s all our project together. We’re here on the weekdays, fixing and doing services. And then on the weekend, we have a crew on call that will be on that SCADA, watching to make sure no turbine goes down. If they do, we’ll come in and fix them.”

With most having worked together since the start in September 2017, it’s not surprising they’ve developed a strong sense of camaraderie.

“We’ve kind of grown as a site,” Parsons said. “All of us techs have built a relationship working together. You get to that point where you’re not just looking out for yourself — you’re looking out for your friend.”

Rubalcava said it’s his co-workers who make the physically-demanding job better.

“The guys you work with make it bearable because there’s days where it’s hot and you’re sweating and miserable,” he said. “There are days where it’s really cold. But you have music going on in the background and the guys working around you make your job easier.”

Rubalcava said it can get pretty windy working 300 feet off the ground.

“I’ve never been scared of heights, but when you’re up that high, it makes you think twice,” he said. “But you get used to it. You truly do.”

While transitioning out of the Army, Rubalcava said he learned about the wind energy industry and began working toward getting a degree.

“I was stationed in El Paso, Texas, at the time,” Rubalcava said. “A site manager from Tyler showed up at our school and said who wants jobs in Minnesota? So I raised my hand and here I am.”

Rubalcava said he appreciates the hands-on aspect of his job.

“I’m more hands-on than sitting at a desk,” he said. “I like taking things apart and putting them back together. You have to have a very unique work ethic to be in this industry. For the most part, none of us are lazy. None of us work slow. If you do, you pretty much get run over. We’re a fast-paced, getting dirty, getting grease all over kind of people. That’s the nature of the job.”

Parsons said the crew usually jams out to music while doing daily stretches in the morning.

“We stretch every morning as a group,” he said. “You want to stretch and try and keep your body in shape. If you roll an ankle when you’re up tower, you’re not going to be able to climb down, so that puts a lot of stress on your partner. So you want to make sure you’re in the best shape possible.”

Having the right clothing to wear and equipment to use is also necessary.

“The nice thing about Vestas is that when it comes to ordering clothing and gear, they’re really good,” Parsons said. “If I need a new pair of boots — I think these are only a month old but the composite toe was kind of showing and they don’t want electricity conducting through them — so I was told to get a new pair of boots.”

Rubalcava said techs are required to wear hardhats, goggles and gloves at all times. They also make sure to attach cell phones, radios and tools so they don’t get dropped.

“Even if you were to drop a small washer or bolt from that high up, by the time it gets to the ground, it could break a windshield,” he said.

Parsons said in addition to his role as a tech, he’s also taken on a safety role.

“I’m in charge of all the safety throughout the sites,” he said. “We have such a great safety culture here, which is something that we, as a whole site, can be proud of. We take it very seriously.”

Most of the technicians wrote the name of somebody they love on the back of their gloves.

“It’s so when you’re climbing, you know to be safe,” Parsons said. “It was kind of a cool thing we do.”

Parsons, a Minnesota Army National Guardsman, was working at a grain elevator in Redwood Falls right after he got out of boot camp when he decided he wanted to “change it up a little bit.”

“I had somebody tell me I should do something that I’ve always wanted to do,” Parsons said. “I remember being a freshman in high school and they had a career fair at (Southwest Minnesota State University). There was a booth that (Minnesota West Community and Technical College) had about wind energy. When I was thinking about what I wanted to do, I remembered that and said, ‘You know what? I want to climb wind turbines.'”

Parson gave his two weeks notice and enrolled at MnWest, where he got his associate’s degree two years later.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for (instructor) Gary Olson,” he said. “He heard Vestas was hiring. I got an interview with them and a couple months later, they called and said they’d love to have me work with them.”

Rosenberg said he never wanted a desk job either and found wind energy to be a fascinating option when his dad was rattling off 50 different jobs he might want to pursue.

“They’ve never put up any turbines in Kentucky, so I thought wind tech seemed kind of cool,” he said. “So I went to school, got an associate’s degree in it and then these guys came through and did some interviews at my school (in Iowa). They hired me and I came here.”

While the rainy weather likely kept some families away, there was still a steady flow of people coming in to learn more during the community open house.

“I think it’s really great,” Parsons said. “It’s nice to see some of the landowners and some of the local people — ones we see outside of Veire’s in the morning. “It was nice to see people had an interest in what we do.”

EDF Project Development Manager Shanelle Montana said they have a lot of landowner outreach events, such as dinners, but that children aren’t usually in attendance.

“This is one of the few events that we’re able to do that includes the community and kids,” she said.

Montana the wind project has created economic development in the form of indirect payments and families coming into Lincoln County especially, but primarily through property taxes paid through production tax.

“Wind development has production taxes though the state of Minnesota and then that gets kicked back to the counties and townships,” Montana said. “A project of this size is estimated to be about $1 million annually, split between townships and counties, that gets pumped back into the community.”

Montana said she was just talking with a county commissioner and learned that broadband throughout Lincoln County is one of the projects the county is looking at using some of the money for.

“I was so thrilled to hear that,” she said. “Wind is clean and the money stays local, so it’s a win-win.”