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Winds of Change

April 1, 2009
Growth in the renewable generation market has fueled the need for a unique breed of skilled workers.

Americans' demand for clean, reliable energy has blown the door wide open for electrical contracting firms specializing in wind farm work recently. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the U.S. wind energy industry installed $3 billion of new generating capacity in the first quarter of 2008 — enough to power 400,000 homes. Wind projects also comprised 30 percent of all new power generating capacity in the United States in 2007. Although wind power makes up only 1 percent of the nation's electricity consumption today, by 2030, 20 percent could come from wind energy, says the Department of Energy.

“It will take a huge amount of effort to reach this goal, but if we're successful, we'll be able to create hundreds of thousands of jobs for electricians and electrical contractors,” says Jim Johnson, senior mechanical engineer for the Wind Technology Center Program operated by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Department of Energy (DOE).

Electrical contracting firms are not only installing single turbines for homeowners and businesses, they're also wiring hundreds of turbines for utility-scale wind farms. While wind farms are a side business for some contracting firms, they have evolved into a major part of some companies' portfolios. Muth Electric, a Piedmont, S.D.-based electrical contracting firm, for example, wired its first wind farm eight years ago. Since that time, its electricians have wired 500 towers on 30 wind farms.

“This market is just going to keep expanding, so we're continuing to pursue it,” says Paul Muth, vice president of project operations for Muth Electric.

Working on wind farms (see “How To Achieve Success in the Wind Industry” on page 25) is not the only opportunity for electrical contracting firms to break into the renewable energy market. Some businesses are helping homeowners and companies to reduce their dependence on utility power, cut energy costs and conserve the environment.

For the past seven years, PowerPlus Electric, Piedmont, S.D. has installed wind turbines ranging from 2kW to 100kW for residential and commercial clients. The installed cost of the turbines ranges from $14,000 to $90,000, depending on the size and number of turbines. PowerPlus first conducts a site survey to find a location free of obstructions, designs a system based on the needs of the client, and then installs the foundation and turbine. Typically, it takes two days to install the small-scale wind turbines — one day for the trenching and concrete and another day for setting of the turbine and completing the electrical work.

With the rising cost of energy, the firm is in a good position to take advantage of future opportunities in the renewable energy market, says Mark Holstein, project manager for PowerPlus Electric.

“We have some of the best wind in the nation, and we wanted to take advantage of that,” he says. “Right now it's fairly competitive, but sales for renewables are only going to get better over time.”

Training technicians

With the industry growing by leaps and bounds, developers, vendors and utilities are screaming for qualified electricians and wind technicians (see “What is a Wind Technician?” on page 24), says Scott Anderson, the dean of business and technology for the Wind Turbine Technology Center at Highland Community College in Freeport, Ill., which is one of about a dozen schools offering degrees for wind turbine electricians.

“We needed qualified people yesterday,” says Anderson, who helped his college start up a two-year associate's degree in wind energy in August 2008. “They want us to train people, and get them out the door as fast as we can — so they're ready to go, out of the box.”

The wind developers often snap up young high school graduates with a mechanical aptitude and pair them with experienced wind technicians or electricians. In fact, many try to hire them right out of a wind training program, Anderson says.

“We've had guys show up at our door and say that they wanted eight of our students,” Anderson says. “I told them that they had only been in class for a month-and-a-half. It would be like hiring an electrician who has never pulled a fuse.”

A local wind developer contacted his community college about launching a wind training center a few years ago. After doing some research, Anderson quickly found 565 open jobs in Illinois for wind turbine technicians. At that point, not a single school was offering a two-year degree for technicians. With the construction of a $750,000 training center, however, the college is able to churn out the next generation of wind turbine technicians through a combination of hands-on and classroom training.

“We would not be able to do this if we did not get support from the local industry,” says Anderson, whose school owns about $200,000 worth of equipment and is looking to purchase a wind turbine. “If you start an English program, you need a chalkboard, a room and a book. Here you need specialized equipment.”

To quickly train the next wave of wind workers, community colleges are offering both one-year or two-year training programs. Mike Schmidt, a wind energy technical program director at Laramie County Community College (LCCC) in Cheyenne, Wyo., advises his students to opt for the two-year degree to gain more technical education.

“The industry is not having a hard time finding people to do basic lubrication and maintenance,” says Schmidt, a master electrician who helped launch the new training program at LCCC. “They're having a difficult time finding people with the skill set needed to work on high-tech machines, and you can't get that background with a one-year certificate.”

Sharpening skill sets

While community colleges are training everyone from high school graduates to middle-aged Americans to work as wind turbine technicians, industrial electricians often already have many of the skills they need in their back pocket. With some on-the-job training, vendor workshops and safety lessons, electricians can quickly get up to speed. The large utility-scale wind turbines are essentially a large industrial electromechanical system with sophisticated controls, a state-of-the-art power conversion system, hydraulics and mechanics, Schmidt says.

The wiring of the turbines is typically done in the factory, and all the control wiring is already in place when the electricians and technicians arrive on-site. Rather than having to size conductors or design wiring schematics, the electricians are there to interconnect the different sections of the towers and connect the underground collection system to the pad-mounted transformers or to the high-voltage switchgear at the bottom of the tower.

In many cases, union electricians don't work with hydraulics, lubrication or mechanical equipment, so technicians normally take care of this work on a wind farm project. Many times, however, the skill sets can cross over on a wind farm, where multiple trades are working together for a common goal — to get the wind farm up and running.

“This industry is not set up in a manner where people are boxed into specific trade skills,” Schmidt says.

Working on a wind farm

Once electricians and wind technicians are armed with knowledge, they need to gear up for the day-to-day working conditions on a wind farm. While the actual work isn't much different than other kinds of industrial work, the environmental conditions can throw some workers a curveball. Unlike plant electricians who spend most of their days inside, wind wiremen always work outside. Mike Brummitt, a supervisor and general foreman for Henkels & McCoy (H&M), Blue Bell, Pa., has wired five wind farms, and every job has entailed work during the winter.

“When it's 80°F outside, it can be pushing 100°F in the tower,” he says. “In the winter, it's freezing in there.”

Climbing the towers day in and day out takes a special type of person as well, Brummitt explains. While he describes the view from the top of the 285-foot towers as phenomenal, he concedes that workers need to be in top physical condition. At times, they may feel seasick when the tower sways, and can get affected by the loud echoes within the tower.

When working on a wind farm, electricians not only contend with the physical demands of the job, but they must also often live out of a suitcase on the road. In many cases, they travel from project to project, work 10-hour days, seven days a week and only go home to see their families every few months. For that reason, it can be challenging to find wind farm workers who are willing to travel and work under such a tight schedule, says Clint Grassmick, director of north central operations for Henkels & McCoy.

Fortunately, Henkels & McCoy has a core group of five electricians who travel from one wind farm to the next. Over the years, Brummitt and the electricians have become like family, he says. By developing a close friendship, they're able to work like a well-oiled machine on a wind farm project. Brummitt and his crew typically turn over one turbine a day by working 10- to 12-hour shifts seven days a week.

“We're all out here because we enjoy the work, and it's different than working in a plant day in and day out,” he says. “It's hard working on the road and being away from our families, but the hours and the money is a big part of the draw.”

One reason why electricians — as well as contracting firms — are pursuing this type of work is due to the potential for profitability. These fast-track projects can be completed in four to 12 months, and workers can earn about $20 to $24 an hour as a wind turbine technician, and earn even more as an electrician. Most electricians who work on wind farms take in well over $100,000 a year, thanks to so much overtime.

Brummitt estimated that he earns about double what he would make by working as an industrial electrician. Electricians can easily earn $100,000 to $130,000 per year, but they have to make the tradeoff of a lack of family and home life, Brummitt says. While wind farm work has its challenges, Brummitt says he enjoys fast-paced projects and seeing a job go from bare dirt to completion.

“When we're about half-way through a project, the manufacturers start commissioning,” he says. “Seeing these turbines start spinning and producing electricity while you're still on-site is great. It's satisfying to know you had a part in it.”

Fischbach is a freelance writer based in Overland Park, Kan. She can be reached at [email protected].

What is a Wind Technician?

Many times, electricians wire the farms and are on-site throughout the construction process. Once the towers have been built, the wind turbine technicians usually take over the operation and maintenance tasks. Here is a breakdown of the difference between a technician and an electrician specializing in wind work.

Entry-Level Wind Turbine TechniciansWind ElectriciansPayment per hour $20 to $24 an hour with full benefits Earn more than $100,000 per year Training One-year certificate or two-year associate's degree from a community college. On-the-job training. Responsibilities Check the bolt torques on the machine, troubleshoot system faults and perform service and repair on faulty equipment, reset the controllers, perform a hydraulic assembly rebuild, and assist with a transformer changeout. Splice and terminate underground cables and connect cables to an underground collection system.

How To Achieve Success in the Wind Industry

Henkels & McCoy, one of the nation's largest electrical contractors based in Blue Bell, Pa., broke into the wind energy business four years ago and has since wired five farms. Clint Grassmick, director of north central operations, says his company learned the following lessons since completing its first project — the Twin Groves Wind Farm in Ransom, Ill.

  1. Get your costs down in order to win work.

  2. Assemble a core team of electricians that can travel with you from job to job.

  3. Expect setbacks such as inclement weather, but stay on top of the schedule through good planning, smart scheduling, and foreseeing any obstacles before they impact production.

  4. Refine your work plan on each job function because it's repeatable many times over.

  5. Keep your electricians safe from hazards like lightning strikes, high winds and falls through on-site safety meetings, safety procedures and by investing in the latest tools and personal protective equipment.

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