If you possess a fear of heights, working as a wind turbine technician might not be the right career path for you.
But Michael Slewidge admits he does employ a handful of wind techs who feel a tad queasy standing atop a steel column hundreds of metres off the ground. Thankfully, most of the work is inside the nacelle, the cramped housing that holds all the generating components and electronics.
“They just don’t look down over the edges,” said Slewidge, president of Superior Wind Solutions in Sault Ste. Marie.
“The (interior) ladder can be nerve racking at first but we do have technicians that are afraid of heights that are okay working on the towers, believe it or not."
Clad in body harnesses and fall protection gear, technicians are always tied off for safety, said Slewidge, a former wind tech himself.
He vividly remember his first time up-tower.
“It’s an adrenaline rush, for sure. It changes your perspective because everything’s tougher at 300 feet.”
Even a simple job like greasing a generator bearing becomes a challenge.
“It would be easy if it was on the ground,” he said, “but you have to climb, bring a grease gun, a tool pouch; it’s a process. It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely a satisfying job.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked wind turbine technician as the fast growing job in America in 2020. And the future job prospects in this field figure to just keep growing.
Of course, there’s the global transition toward green, renewable energy but the North American wind farm fleet is aging and new technology is arriving on the scene. The first U.S. wind farms were developed in California in the early 1980s. The oldest Canadian wind farm was Cowley Ridge, built near Pincher Creek, AB in 1993.
In the U.S., wind farms are undergoing “repowering” projects where older 1.5-megawatt turbines are being replaced by 3-megawatt turbines.
Toronto’s Brookfield Renewable Partners announced repowering plans to upgrade its current array of wind farms with larger blades, rotors and software.
Slewidge, who trained as a GE technician and worked for Brookfield in the Sault, started Superior Wind Solutions from scratch in 2016.
It’s actually the second iteration of the company of the same name. The predecessor company was a wind farm developer, involved in the construction of the Prince Wind Energy Project, just west of the city in the mid-2000s, catching the winds off Lake Superior. The wind farm is now operated by Brookfield.
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Today’s Superior Wind specializes in maintenance, repair and troubleshooting work for clients across Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.
This past February, Superior Wind was acquired by RNWBL, a Houston, TX-based company operating in the renewable space. It’s a move Slewidge said was the next logical step to accelerate the expansion of the business, especially in the U.S. where there’s an unlimited amount of work.
Through its linkages with RNWBL, and its line of related products and services, Slewidge is anticipating explosive growth over the next two to three years as they embark on a hiring binge to double their current wind tech work force from 15 to 30 by year’s end.
“You can’t just hire guys off the street and expect them to know what they’re doing.”
Since there’s no official wind tech apprenticeship in Ontario, Slewidge said preferred applicants should have some degree of mechanical aptitude — something they test for — if they’re experienced working in a garage or handling farm equipment.
Slewidge said they’ve plucked a few graduates from Sault College’s mechanical engineering program over the last two or three years. Millwrights and auto mechanics and others in apprenticeships are a good fit, as is anyone trained or experienced in aviation mechanics.
“It’s very similar, precise work.”
The company’s maintenance work can involve switching out main components, like gear boxes, generators, and main bearings, weighing hundreds and thousands of pounds, or dropping an entire rotor blade on the ground using a heavy crane. Or it could involve inspecting, cleaning, greasing, torquing and tensioning bolted connections or diagnosing any failures or issues that could potentially lead to problems.
Safety is always paramount. The buddy system is employed with two techs per tower.
“No one climbs alone, ever.”
Aspiring techs with Superior Wind are dispatched to Team-1 Academy in Burlington for safety training in working at heights, confined spaces, advanced rescue techniques, hazardous material handling, fire safety and first aid.
Once on the job, they’re paired up with the lead technicians and shown the ropes.
Applicants also have to be physically fit enough to climb a ladder inside the tower column that’s 80 to 130 metres high.
The tool bag can weigh between 70 and 100 pounds; luckily, all towers have interior hoists to hook up all the gear a tech will need to do maintenance or repairs.
For the intangibles, applicants must be willing to travel for extended periods and be willing to endure long days, beyond 40 hours, must be willing to work weekends, and be out in the elements.
On the pay scale, entry-level wind techs (Level One) typically start out at a base annual salary of $50,000, plus overtime and expenses associated with travel. More experienced Level Two and Three techs can earn up to $120,000.
Technicians can graduate into field supervisor positions and eventually into operations supervisor jobs. Superior Wind has one ops supervisor for Canada and one overseeing field supervisors in the U.S.
Slewidge’s company provides a pension program with benefits. Lead hands on the job have perks such as full-time access to a company vehicle, cell phones, laptops, whatever business tools are required to help them do the job remotely.
As in many skilled trades, there’s movement by personnel among these niche companies.
“Techs do move around,” said Slewidge, adding they’ve exchanged a few techs with another friendly local competitor in town. “Everyone jumps for an extra dollar an hour.”
The profession has its peaks and valleys in activity. Due to inclement weather, the level of industry activity in Canada will taper off after Christmas and pick back up again towards spring.
Slewidge said the key to retaining experienced workers is to offer full-time work year-round — which the U.S. deal will allow them to do — and accommodating their needs in the field.
“If you have wind experience and you’re not working there’s usually a reason.”