A View Most Never See

SHAWMUT, Mont. — If a big worry for would-be solar installers is staying balanced while ferrying heavy glass-sheathed panels around a roof, for potential wind energy technicians it is whether they can climb more than 200 feet in broiling heat or icy cold and emerge into the gusts to fix machinery. Still, the Goldwind technicians say working so high up is one of the job’s best features.

“You get a view that most people will never see,” as Lukas Nelson, 27, a site manager in Ohio, put it in one of the company’s promotional videos. Only a few towers have elevators, and at Goldwind’s power plant here, the access is by a series of 90-degree aluminum ladders and steel mesh platforms, straight to the top.

It was Saturday morning after the three seminars, and Goldwind safety managers had delivered a brief lecture in a trailer that served as the farm office, warning of perils like rattlesnakes in the tall grasses outside and electrocution from throwing switches in the towers.

The organizers separated the crowd of about 20 into two groups. One would take a tour of the wind farm and substation while the other climbed towers whose blades sat idle. After lunch, they would switch.

In front of the trailer, Chancey Coffelt, 33, Goldwind’s regional safety manager, was showing the climbing group how to put on harnesses — a network of heavy metal clips and rings attached to straps that thread over the shoulders, across the chest and around each thigh. They would latch onto a rope pulley system as they climbed each of four ladders and then hook into a bracket as they reached each platform before freeing themselves from the pulley.

Photo

Members of a training group putting on harnesses before climbing a wind tower in Shawmut, Mont.

Credit
George Etheredge for The New York Times

Mr. Davila, the 20-year mine veteran, was standing with members of the second group, chatting about Wyoming’s wobbly energy economy and how wind might — and might not — steady it. “A lot of coal miners don’t like wind or solar, but you need them all,” Mr. Davila said. “It’s like a puzzle you have to solve: just think about how many things we plug in.”

Still, many of the men expressed concern over what the jobs would pay, saying the salaries paled in comparison to what they could earn on an oil rig, for instance.

“It’s so easy to get a six-figure job in the oil industry,” Jesse Morgan, a baby-faced 31-year-old city councilman and back-office worker at a drilling services company, had said over beers at a bar in Casper where he was asked to show ID. “You get addicted to that money.”

But it could be worth taking a pay cut to get out from under the stress of constantly planning for the next layoff, and being able to return home at night rather than working 30- to 40-day stints offshore. The oil field never stops, Mr. Morgan said of his time on the rigs. “It’s 24/7 — you miss birthdays, every holiday.”

As with the other men, Mr. Morgan’s work experience made him an attractive candidate for Goldwind. Accustomed to the industrial behemoths of fossil fuel production, he is familiar with the environment, equipment and procedures of working safely while surrounded by danger — like remembering to fasten the chin strap on a hard hat so it won’t slip off and injure a colleague laboring hundreds of feet below.

Chelsae Clemons, 26, a technician at a Goldwind plant in Findlay, Ohio, said the emphasis on safety and training was part of the program’s value. Among the few staff members at the seminars with a bachelor’s degree, she had worked in a lab at a hospital and had little relevant experience when she decided to pursue a career in renewable energy. In Gillette, she told the crowd, “They’re giving certifications I had to pay for.”

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