Oklahoma turbine maintenance workers focus on safety
By RYAN MILLER
Oct. 16, 2017
BRECKINRIDGE, Okla. (AP) — For Kalon Moore and Jackson Rollins, it's a sight they never tire of.
Just about every day on the job, the two look out at the Oklahoma landscape in every direction for miles, several hundred feet atop a wind turbine.
"The views are beautiful, especially when it's a sunset," Moore told the Enid News & Eagle .
The two are both wind technicians for NextEra Energy's Breckinridge Wind Energy Center east of Enid. Moore has worked at the Breckinridge site for 2.5 years, and Rollins began in May.
Breckinridge Wind Energy Center is a 98.1-megawatt wind generation plant with 57 1.7-megawatt GE XLE turbines that are capable of generating enough electricity to power 29,400 homes, according to NextEra Energy. The farm serves the Grand River Dam Authority.
Moore and Rollins climb an average of one turbine a day, occasionally climbing multiple depending on the day and situation. The climb takes them about three to four minutes to complete.
They'll stay up in the top of a turbine for about five to six hours on a day-to-day basis. A wind turbine's blades are shut down before they enter the turbine.
Regular maintenance work includes greasing all of the bearings and moving parts of a turbine, checking oil levels and ensuring gears are covered in oil, cleaning radiators, other equipment and other general maintenance work, Moore said.
"It's pretty much like vehicle maintenance. Just a much bigger machine," Moore said.
Generally, wind technicians are required to be in pairs while doing maintenance inside a wind turbine. However, if work requires them to be outside of the turbine on top of it, three workers are required.
When on the outside of the top of the turbine, technicians such as Moore and Jackson repair and maintain numerous instruments on top of the turbine that read wind speed, wind direction and the machines that yaw the turbine into the wind. They also work on the motors that pitch the blades, Moore said.
"The most challenging part is coming in and not knowing what's wrong, and troubleshooting our way to find the problem and repair it, so it's kind of like playing doctor on a machine," Moore said.
Rollins said changing the day's plans and fixing the unknown are challenging, but rewarding.
"I think it's how often plans are changed throughout the day, depending on the needs of the site. We'll start with one turbine doing maintenance, but if a turbine goes down, our priorities change," Rollins said.
Maintaining the turbines and doing repair work is just part of the job though. There's a huge emphasis on safety, and wind technicians go through a large number of safety precautions before they even make the climb.
Moore and Rollins wear safety harnesses, helmets, protective glasses and gloves. Their harnesses also include attached lanyards on the back so that they can remain 100 percent tied off while climbing the turbine or while resting on one of the three or four decks on the way up.
There's also a safety device that attaches to both the harness and a safety cable while the technician climbs the ladder to prevent any potential of falling.
While the wind technicians are making the several-hundred foot ascent up the turbine tower, a separate bag containing a variety of equipment gets raised by a mechanical chain.
The bag holds a safety descent device, which is rescue equipment in case an injury or accident was to happen to one of the technicians. There's also a safety kit with back-up bottled water, two head lamps, several MRE's (ready-to-eat meals), a fire extinguisher, AED (automated external defibrillator) and a first aid kit.
"Personally, I was a little more nervous about working at heights when I first started. But the culture of safety here kind of puts you at ease, you feel comfortable when you know every precaution has been taken to ensure your safety," Rollins said.
Every morning, the workers hold a safety meeting where they talk about the previous day's work, and how they should approach their jobs for the current day, Moore and Rollins said. Following the meeting, the wind technicians do a manual inspection of their harnesses and safety equipment, pack all of their gear and equipment and head out.
Before climbing the tower, Moore and Rollins go through a risk assessment, and then they get to work.
The weather certainly has an effect on their work too, Moore said. Work typically slows down in the summer because of the often high temperatures inside the turbine, and come winter time, they can work quicker and more efficiently.
"Summer is the most challenging time because it's extremely warm in the turbine, and we have to take a lot of breaks and stay hydrated," Moore said.
One thing that surprised Moore about the job was just how much NextEra has taught him. In addition to his wind technician role, he helps with inventory and a number of other things on the wind site.
"They grew me to be more than a wind technician," Moore said. "I expected just to kind of be a technician, but really they teach you management skills, they teach you dispute resolution, they teach you all kinds of stuff."
Moore and Rollins are part of a seven-person wind technician team with Site Manager Jarrod Beckstrom. There are also two high-voltage technicians who cover the region and visit the Breckinridge wind farm often.
In total, NextEra Energy employs about 750 wind technicians across all of their sites, according to NextEra Communication Specialist Tara Tyson. She said the Breckinridge wind site has about 45 landowners involved with the project.
"Over the life of the Breckinridge project, we estimate that landowners will earn a collective more than $37 million to be a part of this project, so it contributes a tremendous amount of money into the community," NextEra Energy Spokesman Bryan Garner said in August.
Additionally, he said the 30-year project will generate an estimated $23 million in additional tax revenue for the community.
A land teams talks and works with landowners for years before a wind project is even built, and continues to work with them after the turbines are built and functioning, Tyson said.
Moore said he and other wind technicians often talk with some of these landowners before and after their wind turbine climbs.
"All of us are from rural Oklahoma, so we know exactly what they're going through. ... Most of the time it's just us telling them kind of about what we do," Moore said.
Moore formerly lived in Enid, but now lives in Cushing. He wanted to take part in something meaningful for his career.
"Out of high school, I couldn't figure out what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something meaningful, and I felt like working in clean energy qualified as meaningful, so I decided to go with wind," Moore said.
Rollins, who currently lives in Enid, said he likes the sense of accomplishment that comes with the job.
"I just like the idea of having something that's very tangible you can accomplish in a day. The idea of a turbine being faulted and by the time you leave it being fixed, I think that's really rewarding," Rollins said.
Moore agreed, saying working on a turbine provides its own satisfaction.
"There's definitely a special kind of feeling when you're able to repair a several-million-dollar machine in a few hours," he said.
Information from: Enid News & Eagle, http://www.enidnews.com