Wind turbine electricians, also known as “wind techs,” assemble, wire, and maintain the tower and turbine assemblies that generate clean wind energy.
Wind energy is at the cutting edge of a new era of sustainable, environmentally-friendly power generation. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), wind energy was the number one source of new generating capacity in the United States in 2015. All those wind projects had the effect of reducing carbon emissions by 132 million metric tons – equivalent to taking 28 million cars off the road.
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How a Wind Tech’s Day Starts
The day starts early for wind turbine electricians. Although wind is vital to propelling the massive blades — some nearly 150 feet long — no one wants to try to work 400 feet in the air on a rattling tower in 20-knot winds. The adiabatic cycle that prevails in most of North America means that wind speeds tend to be lowest in the early hours of the morning, and that’s when wind techs climb the towers.
After meeting with their team at a central maintenance depot, it’s usually a long, dusty drive down a lonely road to get to the tower they will be working on. Wind farms tend to be in remote places in the first place, and it’s critical that the towers are spaced far enough apart so each has unimpeded airflow to pass through the rotors— at least 10 rotor diameters of clearance. A high-energy wind farm can run to thousands of acres in size.
Others are located on towers built on the sea floor, out in coastal waters where the wind blows almost constantly without obstruction. Boat or helicopter rides to work are the order of the day for wind turbine electricians servicing such farms.
Wind Turbine Electricians Work in High and Small Spaces
Wind techs have to overcome two common, contradictory phobias: fear of heights and fear of confined spaces.
Although towers reaching heights of 200 feet off the ground are common, once techs climb to the top they have to squeeze into spaces barely big enough to squeeze into. The streamlined housing is designed to be streamline for aerodynamics, but does not provide easy access. They are crammed full of machinery, much of it in motion, and parts of it energized with 600 volts of electricity.
Safety, then, is a prominent concern for wind turbine electricians. They attempt to work in low-wind conditions and exercise common precautions for working at heights, with safety harnesses using multiple attachment points. They will usually try to feather the turbine blades, or turn them into the airflow so they no longer have the aerodynamic bite required to turn, so that the generator will be shut down while they are working on it.
New Designs Mitigate Old Hazards
But there are still significant dangers. The wind and height are enemies that require constant vigilance. The light weight of the equipment is another hazard—it’s estimated that one out of every hundred turbine blades will simply break eventually, potentially putting a dangerous imbalance into the spinning turbine– or a guillotine blade slicing down from overhead toward techs working on the ground.
New tower designs take some of the dangers out of the job. Vertical windmills, shaped like corkscrews or even more exotic tubular shapes, leave all the operating machinery at ground level, making servicing it safer and more convenient.
Collecting and Transmitting All That Electricity
Although the energy is clean and abundant, it has to be harvested in dribbles. Most individual turbines put out less than 2 megawatts at peak capacity, or enough to power about 300 homes—not bad, but not enough to keep the lights on in a city. So the 600 volts each turbine churns out has to be combined with power from the surrounding generators, and then jumped up to more than 30,000 volts with transformers to be efficiently injected into high-capacity transmission lines for the long trip to the urban centers where it will be consumed.
Wind turbine electricians have to install and maintain the wiring to and in the transformer banks and work with electrical company linemen to make the connections to the larger power grid.
Becoming a Wind Power Technician
One important factor to consider when looking for work as a wind turbine electrician is that the jobs are clustered primarily in parts of the country where the wind blows most. Even in those regions, for reasons of noise, safety, and unimpeded airflow, wind farms are typically located far from urban centers. Long commutes go hand in hand with being a wind turbine electrician and relocation might be necessary to follow the work.
Standard Training Through a Trade School
Most candidates enter the field through various technical and trade schools. Two-year community college programs, such as this one in Wind Energy and Turbine Technology at Clinton Community College in New York, turns out graduates who are immediately prepared for wind power technician positions.
Even after being hired, most wind technicians can expect to spend up to a year as an apprentice before moving up to journeyman level as an electrician. They will undergo 144 hours of technical instruction and more than 2000 hours of on-the-job training in electrical, safety, and mechanical systems maintenance before being allowed to work without supervision on wind turbines.
Using Your Background as an Electrician to Become a Wind Tech
The high demand for wind turbine electricians combined with a lack of qualified candidates means that many will be hired and trained on the job, without extensive preparation. However, wind power companies prefer candidates with at least some electrical experience, so technicians intending to apply directly without previous wind power experience might choose to pursue a conventional electrician apprenticeship to gain qualifications before jumping into wind energy.
Apprentices, journeymen, and master electricians can become wind power technicians with relatively little specialized training. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) has jumped in to help journeymen members make the transition to wind turbine work with special training, such as is conducted at this new facility opened in Nebraska in 2009.
Wind Power Technician Salaries
According to the AWEA, the wind power industry added 15,000 new jobs in the U.S. in 2014, a 20 percent increase. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts an astounding 108 percent growth in the wind energy field over the next decade, which means there will be a huge shortage of wind electricians. Job prospects are excellent for anyone entering the field in coming years.
The BLS numbers are also rosy for salary prospects. The median salary for wind turbine technicians in 2015 was $51,050. Entry level wages for apprentices are around 60 percent of journeyman wages, and the top ten percent of turbine electricians made more than $71,000 annually.
In 2016, jobs for wind turbine electricians included:
- Entry-level wind turbine technician in Iowa – $16.50/hour with full benefits
- Wind Turbine Technician in Oklahoma – $20 to $28/hour
- Electrical and Instrumentation Technician in California – $100,000/year
Most wind turbine electricians work a regular schedule but should expect some emergency calls for service, and might have their workday oriented primarily around wind patterns, starting early in the morning and ending early in the afternoon.