Wind turbine technicians in demand

KANSAS - Justin Copeland fought fires for a living, patched the injured as an emergency medical technician and refueled everything from airliners to bush planes in Alaska. Now he wants to settle down.

So he plans to clamber up tall, tall ladders several times a day to earn a paycheck turning wrenches at an altitude that could make an acrobat dizzy.

In times when it seems no jobs are out there, maybe the solution is to look up there. Copeland is among a corps of wind technicians in training — ambitious and daring men and women filling an exploding demand for workers who can tend to giant windmills — in a rare field that needs more workers.

"I support clean renewable energy," said the 37-year-old student at Cloud County Community College. "But if there's a job in it, that's the big thing.


With just enough training in mechanics, electronics and computer know-how, instructors say just about anyone with the perseverance — and arms beefy enough to climb 27 stories one rung after the next — can fashion themselves into a wind technician in one year.

From there, the possibilities seem to expand endlessly with the chance to get in early on an industry that's essentially government-mandated to grow, and grow fast.

Housed in a strip mall, the wind technician school is the only place in Kansas and one of the few in the region teaching the trade. Indeed, across the country the opportunities for learning the rather specialized work are spread thinly.

A freshly certified wind technician might expect to start at $18 or more an hour, with plenty of chances at steady overtime, and a reasonable hope to move into management within a few years and pull down six figures. Take that, English majors.

Although the United States surpassed Germany last year as the world's largest harvester of wind energy, wind turbines still account for less than 2 percent of the country's electricity. The Obama administration aims to push that to 20 percent by 2030.

Already, the industry can't make turbines fast enough — even though many otherwise-ready-to-go projects are stalled by America's frozen lending markets — to keep pace with state and federal requirements pressuring utilities to harvest more wind and other renewable sources for electricity.

In 2007, it put up 3,188 turbines. On average, one technician can keep 10 wind turbines pumping electricity into the grid. The industry says it needs to triple the rate at which it's been installing towers to meet the goals set by the Obama administration.

"Our installed capacity is growing at a pretty rapid rate," said Julie Clendenin, a spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association. "The training for the wind technicians needs to keep up."

And that means some of the 5 million green-collar jobs that President Barack Obama promises to create over the next 10 years. The wind energy industry estimates it will provide 500,000 of those jobs — a number inflated by projections of spin-off industries. Still, it will take 30,000 manufacturing workers to create the turbines, towers and blades that turn wind into watts. An additional 55,000 will pour the concrete, operate the cranes and turn the bolts needed to plant the sequoia-like towers.

Then comes work for the wind farm caretakers.

The job is not for the faint of heart or the frail of arm. A particularly fit technician can scramble from ground to turbine in perhaps five minutes and expect to feel biceps burning from the effort upon arrival.

What waits is a room the size of a small bus smelling heavily of grease and crammed with motors, gears, a generator and sundry electronics. A typical turbine contains 8,000 parts, and the largest can churn out 3 megawatts of electricity. That puts the technician at the center of some complicated machinery and working on high-voltage circuitry.

If the wind on the ground is moving gently at, say, 10 mph, it will blow harder up here, and the whole thing sways from side to side. It's akin to moving through ocean swells on a very large ship. All the while, the room shifts to the left or right to keep its nose pointed into the wind. Under stronger winds, technicians have been known to vomit.

Most days, a technician will perform maintenance or fixes that could keep him — the fledgling field is dominated by men — in the cramped fiberglass cabin for one hour or for several. It can be bone-chilling in winter or suffocating in summer.

And there are times when wind technicians must lift themselves through a ceiling hatch, hook their body harness to the roof and walk about to make sure the three blades — each longer than a blue whale — remain fastened tight.

"I really find it pretty exciting," said Lucas Chavey, who went from earning a bachelor's degree in physics to training for wind energy to teaching at Cloud County Community College. "But you definitely need to deal with heights."

One man was killed and another was badly hurt in August 2007 when a wind turbine tower near Wasco, Ore., snapped in half. But comprehensive statistics on the dangers are elusive in an industry so relatively small and new.

Students at the Concordia school seem more fascinated than intimidated by the prospect of working so high above the ground. Cloud County has so far turned out fewer than two dozen wind technicians, some of whom complete training in a one-year certification program and others who pursue a two-year associate's degree. But it expects to produce more than 100 graduates in the spring of 2010.

"I'm getting used to the phone ringing every other day asking how to get into the field," said Ruth Douglas Miller, Wind Applications Center director at Kansas State University. "And I can tell them it is very easy to get a job."

That's part of what's drawn self-employed Fairway electrician Walter Klammer to commute to classes three-plus hours away in Concordia. He likes the greenness of the technology and the appeal of an industry in its infancy. He toys with the dream of learning the business as a technician and maybe developing his own wind farm on land in Nebraska.

He's logged more than 300 skydives. But ask him about working atop a windmill, and his grin reveals a touch of anxiety.

"I might be scared at first, but I think I can get used to it," the 45-year-old said. "I guess we'll see."


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