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Daniel, a hispanic man in his 30s, sits in his car on a sunny day.

Daniel Contreras

Job Title
Wind Turbine Technician
Duke Energy
University of Maryland College Park B.A., Communications, 2007-2012
Pinnacle Career Institute Certificate, Wind Turbine Training, 2019-2020

I highly recommend that anyone considering becoming a wind tech gets into good shape before starting work. That doesn’t necessarily translate into looking like a Greek god, but when you get to a tower, you have to climb it.

The Profession

A wind turbine technician does two principal things. One is maintenance. Once you become a wind turbine technician, that's probably the first thing that they're gonna have you do. There’s a lot of grease that builds up in the hub of the turbine, the place where the blades and the main shaft meet. So they’re going to hand you a cleaning bottle and make sure everything is nice and tidy. That’s what maintenance is for—just making sure the turbines run as long as possible without any problems. There are also more complicated aspects of the job. Once you take on more responsibilities, you’re going to have to change the oil in the main bearing. That’s the part that supports the turbine’s rotor. You also have to grease the blades, because anything that’s wrong is going to need grease. However, the kind of maintenance you do also depends on the type of turbines you’re working on. Some turbines are composed of mostly electrical components, but others include a mix of electrical and hydraulic parts.

That brings me to the other part of the job: troubleshooting and repair. For about a year and a half, I’d been working on General Electric (GE) towers. Then I got an assignment to go to Kansas and do some troubleshooting. At that point, I thought I was ready to troubleshoot a GE turbine, but the one in Kansas was actually a Siemens. The GE turbines were largely electrical, but the Siemens towers were a combination of electrical and hydraulic components. I was super nervous. None of us knew what the problem was. We did routine maintenance and climbed back down the tower, but when we tried to start it up again, there was a problem. We all climbed back up the tower and tried all kinds of things. We even called more experienced techs for their advice. Then one guy on the team finally asked me about a blue handle. He said, “Did you leave it up or down?” I told him I put it down and he said it had to remain up. So I climbed the tower and flipped the handle and it worked. It was just that small little thing. Sometimes the solution can be something super simple. That experience actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because when you’re troubleshooting, there’s room for learning.

The Hardest Parts

Traveling became difficult. The way the job works is that you typically work 4-6 weeks on and then you get what’s called an R&R. Rest and relaxation. An R&R is between 7 and 10 days where you get to see friends and family. After about two years, it really got to me. My dad was in Maryland. My mom was in North Carolina. I had a girlfriend in Virginia at that point. After a while, it gets kind of exhausting trying to see everyone. You also want to use that time to actually relax because it’s a very physically demanding job. I gained all this weight during COVID just sitting around and working on school, but I lost 15 pounds while working. I was climbing every day and my body was just shedding the weight.

The Best Parts

Once you do the climb, you’ve got a minute to breathe up there. It’s beautiful from the top of the tower. The GE towers are taller than the Siemens towers, which means the views are even better. You just open the hatch, stick your head out, and you can see everything.

Personally, though, my favorite thing was going into the hub. It’s kind of a badge of honor because, when you first become a wind tech, you’re going to do a lot of grunt work. And one of the first things they’re going to have you do is go into the hub and clean it. That’s the test to see if you’re really cut out to be a wind tech because most people are scared of doing it the first time. They don’t want to walk through the blades and climb down in there. What if something goes wrong? You’re by yourself in there. You need the confidence to do it, so it’s really like the first big step of the job.

Daniel stands on top of  wind turbine to make repairs in his protective hat, suit, and harness.
How I Got Here

After college, I was so lost. I mean, I had no idea what I wanted to do in life, so I became an actor. I started off as an extra and showed up for the paycheck, but I eventually wanted more money, so I started doing commercials. I started taking classes to help me memorize lines and talk and smile. Just the basic things that an actor does. It was fun for a while, but the pay was so inconsistent. I’d never had a financial safety net. I never had savings. I was always living paycheck to paycheck. Even when I did come into a big chunk of money, I didn’t know how to manage it. I would just spend it, so I told myself that if I wasn’t a successful actor by the age of 30, I would switch careers.

The biggest thing for me was that I wanted financial stability. I knew I didn’t want to sit in an office all day either. That wasn’t really my style. I grew up as a boxer and soccer player. I liked to be outside. I was a very physical person. One day I was sitting around with my dad looking for jobs online. He wanted me to find something that I liked doing but, at the same time, I had chosen acting because I liked it. He pointed out that that hadn’t exactly worked out well for me. So we were Googling jobs when a photo of a guy climbing a wind turbine appeared. My dad said he could see my face light up. We started doing some research. It was the fastest-growing industry in the United States. The pay looked good. I started looking into classes that day, but I also knew that I didn’t want to repeat another 4-year program. I saw a couple of 2-year options, but I eventually found an online program through the Pinnacle Career Institute that I could complete in 8 months, which was perfect because this was all happening right at the beginning of COVID. I had recently filed for unemployment. In Maryland, if you’re in school, then you don’t have to search for work. That meant I could collect my unemployment checks while I was enrolled in the program. It all lined up perfectly. I completely dedicated myself to school and earned straight As.

Even though the program was mostly online, they sent me out to Kansas City, Missouri, to do safety and climbing training during the last 4-6 weeks. It all takes place in a big warehouse where you get to have hands-on experience with different parts of the turbine. That’s where you get a really good sense of what actually goes into climbing these turbines that are anywhere between 100 and 150 yards up in the air. There are different kinds of ladders and latch safes for hooking up to those ladders. There’s also safety and rescue training, which you practice on your classmates and dummies. It’s designed to show you how to move the body of someone who is either unconscious or injured. It was a really cool experience.

The day before graduation, my school counselor called me up and said Duke Energy was interested in hiring me. That’s how high the demand was for people who could work on these turbines.

A small window within a wind turbine that looks down all the way to the grass below.
A Typical Day

All the companies are going to give you a company truck. You can’t drive your own personal vehicle out onto the farms and remote locations where the turbines are located. So the first thing you’re going to do is drive over to the shop where you’ll have your morning meeting and discuss safety and your assignment for the day. After that, you’ll get together with your crew, which is usually between 3-5 people. Then you’ll gather all the tools you need before driving out to the job site. When you get to the turbine, you call the Renewable Control Center  (RCC) so they can verify that you’re at the right turbine. You also tell them how long you’re going to be working. The RCC is basically in charge of checking up on you to make sure that you’re safe. If you say you’re going to be working for two hours, then they’ll call you after two hours to make sure that you’re back down on the ground and that the turbine is running.

After you check in with the RCC, then you get to work. The pace you work at is largely up to you and your crew. If you're doing maintenance, usually you always have the same guys on the crew. However,  sometimes there are people that get sick, and there are injuries. Maybe someone takes a vacation, then the crews mix up. Because I was a traveling technician, I would typically be out at one site for six months before moving on to the next. So at every site, I had my core crew I was working with. It was like meeting my whole new family for the next six months.

Wind techs tend to travel a lot, and life out on the road can get a little lonely. It can be easy to resort to bad habits. If you’re a drinker, I’d recommend not drinking during the week. The last thing you want to do is be hungover at a job where you have to risk your life or the lives of other people. In my case, I didn’t mind traveling. I don’t have kids. I didn’t have a  girlfriend. Plus, the best thing about traveling is that you get a per diem, which can add up to an extra $20k a year. That’s on top of the starting salary, which is between $55k and $70k. The way per diem works really just depends on your company. For instance, some companies will give you a larger per diem and put you in charge of booking your travel and where you stay. In my situation, Duke Energy gave me a smaller per diem, but they took care of everything—hotels, travel, and airfare. It’s also very easy to get overtime. You could probably work every day of the week if you want, depending on the company. It’s actually a great career if you’re trying to get yourself set up financially, particularly because there aren’t many opportunities to spend the money that you’re making when you’re on the road.

Everything also has to be fire resistant when you’re working, both pants and long-sleeve shirts. Fire-resistant gear (FR) isn’t very breathable. It’s hot. When I was working in Harlingen, Texas, it would get up to 105 degrees in the towers. The heat for me was much worse than the cold. In Bad Axe, Michigan, you’d get 3-4 feet of snow and temperatures that got down to -10 degrees. Sometimes you’d have to take a snowmobile to reach the turbines. But the FR also kept you warm. It protected you in case you fell or slipped or bumped into something.

There was actually a guy who was in a similar situation as me. He had been a farmer and wanted a new career. He had a daughter that he wanted to be able to support financially. He didn’t go to school to become a wind tech. I think he found some loopholes in the training, but he did what he needed to do to get certified to work. When he got to the site in Michigan, he didn’t have his own fire resistant clothing, so he had to borrow some that didn’t quite fit him. He had also never climbed before. So, one day on the job, as he was nearing the top of the tower, he had some sort of panic attack. He got off the ladder and I looked to my partner who was giving me a signal that something was wrong. I climbed up as fast as I could and found him on the yaw deck. That’s the first platform you arrive at. He had his hands over his face and he was crying. He was nervous. He couldn’t even stand up. I remember he looked right into my eyes and said, “Do I have to back down?” I told him, yes, he had to go back down. I had an SRK on me. It’s called a Self-Rescue Kit. I learned how to use it in school. Basically, whoever is injured, or in this case, panicking, can be hooked up and lowered down. When I told him that, he said there was no way that was happening. He didn’t want to be lowered down, so I decided that we would climb down together with him above me, and me hooking on to every latch on the way down. I was holding him and his legs were shaking. I told him that, if he fell, then so did I. We only had one safety line. It took us about 40 minutes to get down, whereas it would usually take me 5-10 minutes on my own. That was my first year on the job.

The Workplace

Every single site has its own operations and maintenance building. It’s where the tools are stored and where the computers are kept. There’s a breakroom for you to put your lunch in. There are even showers. One thing people don’t really know about being a wind tech is that it’s a very dirty job. You have to do some research to figure out which soap works best for removing the elements from you. For me, it’s Pine Sol. It’s heavy-duty. I can even put it in the washing machine with my work clothes to get all the grease out. So there are showers on site for people who don’t want to shower back at their hotel.

The hours are also pretty routine. Most days start at 7 am and are done by 3 pm. However, if you’re at a site that’s running low on people, you might work from 7 to 5 or 7 to 7. Again though, there’s tons of room for overtime. There’s always work that needs to be done. And even with R&R time, you still get two weeks of paid vacation plus all the standard holidays off.

Myths of the Profession

One big question I always get is, “Do wind turbines kill birds?” That couldn’t be further from the truth, though. I’ve been to sites where there are thousands of birds maneuvering around the turbines and they’re fine. Every now and then some will hit the turbine and die, but it’s no different from cars or glass buildings in cities.

When I first became a wind tech, the thing I was most attracted to was being outside and being active. I didn’t want that 9 to 5 office job where you’re sitting at a computer in front of a desk. But there are going to be days that you spend in the office. There’s always going to be paperwork and meetings and computer programs that you have to be familiar with. It’s another reason I’d recommend going to school. In school, they teach you how to work with computers and the kind of technology that you’ll need to use as a wind tech.

Advice for someone thinking about going into the field

I highly recommend that anyone considering becoming a wind tech gets into good shape before starting work. That doesn’t necessarily translate into looking like a Greek god, but when you get to a tower, you have to climb it. When you climb, you have safety gear on that can weigh between 50 and 60 pounds. That includes a harness and whatever tools you have on you. Of course, when you do climb, you use something called climb assist which essentially helps reduce the weight of the safety equipment and tools. But you’re still climbing between 100 and 150 yards every day. Depending on what site you’re at, the climb assist doesn’t always work. That means you’re free-climbing. It really just is backbreaking work.

It’s also important for you to do as much research as you possibly can. Ask yourself if you’re tough enough to do it. There’s a kind of honor in being a wind tech because you’re making sacrifices. You’re risking your life and you’re in charge of the lives of other people. You have to ask yourself if you’re ready for that. For that reason, I would recommend going to school for it, because you can’t really put a price on your life. The safety procedures they cover in school are things that you’re going to carry with you forever. I strongly believe in that investment.

Advice to My Younger Self

Complacency is going to be your worst enemy, especially if you want to survive. One time, I realized that I had forgotten to latch on my harness when I went into the hub. So, if I had fallen, I would have just dropped straight to my death. That’s just complacency. When you start getting more comfortable with the job, you might find yourself up at the top of the tower thinking about a song you just heard or food, but you have to remember to latch on.

Also, find a mentor as soon as possible. For instance, when I first got to the Michigan site, I’d never driven a truck before in my life. Someone had to show me how to put it into four-wheel drive. I had also never worked with tools and I had no background working with electrical components. I was fairly lost and a little more behind than most people who are attracted to working in this field. However, I had a friend named Anthony on the job. He gave it to me straight. He showed me what I needed to be doing. He told me to keep a notepad on me so I could always write down any information I was learning. I really watched what he was doing on the job and saw what worked for him. I just copied that. If it works for someone else, then it’ll probably work for you too.

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As told to Matt Jones
DATE: 2022-11-06