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Capturing the wind

Modified: Friday, Jul 11th, 2008

The view from the top, 220 feet up, is just one of the perks of working as a wind technician. The blades of each turbine, pictured here, are 125 feet long. HERALD PHOTO/Erin Buller

Work on wind turbines ‘gets in the blood’

To get to work he leaves his house every morning in Morgan, Utah at 5:45 a.m. and drives to the wind farm just east of Evanston for a 7 a.m. meeting.

He says he loves his job as a wind tech and wouldn’t do anything else.

Joseph “Blue” Nalder began working at Florida Power and Light’s Wyoming Wind Energy Center in Evanston in 2003. Before that he worked for the wind turbine manufacturer, Vestas, a company out of Denmark.

“There’s something about the turbines. It gets in your blood or something,” Nalder said.

Born and raised in Wyoming, Nalder said he’s lived all over Wyoming and has spent the last 10 years in Morgan.

He said FPL, out of Juneau Beach, Fla., is the largest producer of wind power in the nation.

“This site is spread out compared to most,” Nalder said as he navigated the red dirt and gravel service road at the FPL site. “There’s something like 43 miles of road.”

He said the 80 1.8-megawatt windmills sit on private and state land, mostly the Broadbent family and the Sims family lands, he said.

Nalder said he enjoys actually working on the mechanical and electrical aspects of the turbines, rather than being stuck in an office all day.

“There are multiple reasons to be at a turbine,” he said. “This turbine is faulted, but we’re also in the middle of annual services.”

Each turbine is 220 feet tall from the ground to the center of the blade hub and each blade is more than 125 feet long. The whole thing, made of metal and fiberglass, weighs about 270 tons.

He said wind techs work on a buddy system, with at least two people at any given site at a time for safety precautions.

As he latched himself into a harness and pulley system, he said the climbing isn’t too bad.

“There are 218 ladder steps. I counted them the first time I climbed a turbine,” Nalder said. “But once we get up there, there’s no going back and forth. We’re there till the job’s done.”

And sometimes that time is 8 or 9 p.m.

“We shoot for 3:30 p.m. each day, making it an eight hour day, but that doesn’t always happen,” Nalder said.

Renewable energy

With eight full-time wind techs and four “central maintenance itinerants,” the site generates enough energy for about 43,000 homes.

Mike Cadieux is the site manager and said all the energy is sold to Iberdrola Renewables, a company out of Portland Ore., who then distributes it from there.

He said wind techs need a high school education and electrical and mechanical backgrounds as they’re working on the generators and motors of the turbines.

Cadieux said the turbines are a way to generate clean, renewable energy and emit no pollutants into the air or water.

They require little land, less than one acre per turbine, and surrounding land can be used for other purposes, he said.

“The animals don’t care at all. We find cows and antelope napping in the shade of the turbines,” he said.

How it all works

Nalder said the blades start turning when the wind is about 10-11 miles per hour. He said to determine the height of a turbine, FPL does “wind studies” for two to three years before developing a site.

“You want to capture the best wind and that’s how high the turbines need to be,” Nalder said.

He said the “rotor” consists of the hub and three blades, the whole thing called a nacelle, a French word for “small boat or enclosure” (according to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary).

The entire nacelle houses the gearbox, generator and the transformer and swivels to face the direction from which the wind is coming.

“The tip of the blade is moving up to 130 miles per hour,” Nalder said. “Every one turn of the rotor, the generator has 111 rotations.”

He said the mechanical energy is then transformed into electricity that is sent down the turbine on electrical cables to a nearby substation.

From the substation, Iberdrola Renewables takes over managing transmission to its wholesale customers throughout the west.

The turbines are designed to operate in winds of up to 56 miles per hour.

Nalder said they remotely monitor all the turbines and when something’s wrong, that’s when a tech is sent to do the mechanical, electrical or hydraulic work.

“My favorite part is being out here working on the turbines,” he said. “My favorite is the electrical part, but you have to know how to do all three.”

Nalder’s regular buddy, Jake Stiglitz, who lives in Evanston, agreed.

“I could spend all day at the top of a turbine,” Stiglitz, a 2004 Evanston High School graduate, said. “It does get in your blood. I’ve talked to some guys and that’s what they all say.”

Stiglitz has only working for FPL since December, but wants to stick with it.

“Anything I can do to stay home every night is great,” the former oil field worker said.

The buddies said they talk about hunting, fishing and on Stiglitz’s part, motorcycles, when they’re getting greasy and dirty from hydraulic fluid or some other task high up in the air.

Stiglitz said you can’t be afraid of heights or enclosed spaces to be a wind tech.

“It takes me about six and a half minutes to climb a turbine,” he said. “And the very top makes a great place to have lunch.”

A lunch where he’s strapped into a harness attached to the nacelle, of course, he said.

Nalder said he doesn’t think wind energy is going anywhere any time soon.

“I think this is a good job to have,” he said.

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