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Fixing wind turbines for a living requires courage

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Maybe you think they're royal. Perhaps you think they are an eyesore. No matter how you feel about wind turbines, there will be a lot more of them in the coming years. And someone has to keep rotating each of them. In fact, wind turbine repair technician is projected to be one of the fastest growing jobs in the US this decade, with at least 5,000 new roles by 2032. One onshore wind veteran who has been working for 13 years told WIRED about what it's like.

first things first: If you hate heights, becoming a wind turbine technician probably isn't the career for you. Certainly, we have people who are not comfortable with heights who have been successful at work. But I can safely say that you are climbing 300 feet per day. (Sometimes literally: Old wind farms have turbines you can climb up using ladders, although most places now use a lift or trolley system.)

A mechanical background or electrical background is helpful. I got a job at a builder right after high school and worked there until the housing market crashed around 2008. That's when I decided to enroll in a one-year vocational program for training in power generation, with the main focus being wind energy. I was hired right out of school and basically traveled to the United States as a wind technician. Around that time, a greater emphasis was placed on wind generation. And indeed, that push has not stopped. We're in a world right now where we're just trying to survive. I really want to strengthen renewable energy as the primary means of power generation moving forward. Some of my best days at work have been when I was the first to touch the ground on a new technology, figure it out, and respond before anyone else could.

It's a blue-collar job, right? It's 7 to 3, 7 to 5, five days a week. You will be required to take on-call and overtime work on weekends. So you're out of the ground, you're out of the elements. This is the biggest challenge. In the Midwest, I go from one extreme to the other – hot, humid summer months and then freezing cold months. You dress according to the weather. Almost every company I've worked for gives you an allowance for gear like balaclavas, hand warmers, foot warmers, coverall bibs, heavy jackets.

On a typical day, you come in with your team and assess the health of the wind farm. (You usually work in teams of two or three – and you spend more time with them than with your family.) If there's a problem with the turbine and it's not running, you fix that first. However, most of the time you are just there performing routine maintenance. Do you know when your car needs oil change, tire rotation, air filter change? The same applies to wind turbines. We need to lubricate the bearings. We torque all the bolts and make sure nothing is loose. We change the oil and clean the turbine. If a farm has, say, 100 turbines, you have 200 maintenance checks to do that year. An investigation usually takes a whole day, and you're doing it four, five days in a row. Work can be monotonous. It is also labour-intensive. If something like a gearbox or generator fails, those are big, heavy components – those can be the hardest days.

The work has improved in the last few years. Companies are beginning to tailor turbines to the technician. So, you know, you don't need to operate your body in a way that's not natural. Or they make it easier to reach things up the stairs so you don't put yourself in a compromising position. The job isn't just about returning the turbines to service. It's about doing that and going home the same way you came to work.

You may be an owner-operator, where you report to the same site every day, or you may be a traveling wind technician. There are contracting companies that have people who do anything from repairing components to major overhaul projects.

For an owner-operator in the US, you can expect to make anywhere from $25 to $50 per hour. If you have more than five years in the industry, and are very competent at your trading, you can probably expect to earn somewhere between $35 to $40. If you're in a union—I'm in the Utility Workers Union of America—it's between $50 and $65 an hour. I've worked both union and nonunion jobs.

I have 13 years in this field, my colleague has 10 years, and we are considered experienced in a way that is not common in most industries. There is still a sense of innovation there, and there are plenty of opportunities for anyone who wants to pursue a career. You know, the sky really is the limit.

-As told to Caitlin Kelly