Wind-energy ‘turbine cowboys’ will train in Orlando

September 14, 2013 by  
Filed under Wind Energy Tips

Thousands of wind-energy workers will soon conquer their fear of heights and learn how to service the giant turbines that churn out electricity across the Western Hemisphere by first training in Orlando, a city where the wind is all but useless as a source of power.

Siemens’ $7 million training center, with 50 local jobs paying an average of $83,000 a year, was assembled inside a warehouse near Orlando International Airport. It has three practice towers and a pair of 82-ton “nacelles,” the bus-sized, tower-top modules that each hold three turbine blades and a generator.

Siemens trainers recently gave an Orlando Sentinel reporter a taste of how a “turbine cowboy” — the lingering slang for a service technician — works at great heights.

Luis Valles, a Marine Corps veteran, demonstrated how to inspect a 22-pound safety harness each workday stitch by stitch. The harness is arrayed with a puzzle of hooks and hardware for climbing and working on turbine towers.

The session ended with a simulated two-person escape from a fire in a nacelle, as Army veteran James Tew led the reporter through a hatch to plunge, parachutelike, down a cable to the ground.

Siemens, with 370,000 employees worldwide, is the opposite of cowboy swagger; it exudes professional formality at its long-established Orlando energy unit and prefers to infuse military discipline into its turbine-safety training.

“We want to get a hold of their hearts as soon as they get here,” said Russell Cook, who retired from the Air Force and is now manager of safety training for Siemens Wind Service Americas. “It’s a safe job as long as you follow the rules.”

Kevin McCarty, once a nuclear engineer on submarines and now a Siemens manager for technical training, said his company marries safety with efficiency. For example, technicians execute their checklist using a data-packed iPad as they toil nearly the length of a football field above the ground.

On an actual wind-farm site, workdays start with a long ladder climb through a tower’s interior to reach the nacelle, whose space-shuttlelike doors are then opened for a top-of-the-world view.

“It’s kind of breathtaking,” said Matt Yuenger, a 37-year-old trainer and former service technician whose previous job involved building auto-assembly machinery.

Daniel Lyons, 26, was told at Siemens’ prior training center, in Houston, to think of the views from a turbine as no more unsettling than from an airplane. But Lyons had grown up in Texas drilling water wells — and had never flown.

“When I opened up those doors and I saw for miles and miles and could see the horizon of the flatlands of North Dakota,” said Lyons, recalling his first climb, “it was exhilarating.”

That Siemens Energy Inc. chose such a wind-starved location for its training center is a reflection of the global economy.

Siemens’ wind-related enterprises include a corporate headquarters in Germany; research lab in Colorado; design center in Denmark, factories in Iowa and Kansas; and a sales-and-service headquarters near the University of Central Florida.

And the company’s profusion of turbines — three-bladed behemoths whose spinning tips reach more than 400 feet into the air — are spread across 15 U.S. states and Puerto Rico and from Canada to Chile.

Though Florida and Orlando offered Siemens $650,000 in incentives to land the 50 jobs, the company was mainly attracted to Central Florida by its convenient location within the German technology giant’s growing wind-energy empire.

“We selected Orlando because it offers numerous benefits, including a central location within the Americas,” said Randy Zwirn, the Orlando-based president and chief executive officer of Siemens Energy.

The first cluster of U.S. wind turbines sprouted from hills in California in the 1980s, and the industry grew modestly until tax credits and new technologies fueled a surge.

Nearly 10,000 turbines operating in 1990 grew to 12,600 by 2000 before jumping to 45,100 as of last year, with the newer models costing $3 million each, according to U.S. government data.

The men and few but growing number of women who work on those expensive machines earn a median wage of $48,000 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Some live near and work at “wind farms” that spread out as far as the eye can see. Others are specialists and so travel widely.

Not on their route is the Southeastern U.S., generally a wind wasteland. Florida is home to about 1,000 wind-energy workers, but they labor in 16 factories, producing some of the 8,000 components that go into a turbine, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

At a General Electric Co. plant in Pensacola, for example, nearly 250 employees make 2.5-megawatt turbines headed for Oregon and other sites. It is the largest wind factory operated by GE, the nation’s largest turbine maker.

Ironically, the nation’s largest operator of wind turbines is based in Florida: NextEra Energy Resources, a sister company of Florida Power Light Co., the state’s largest electric utility. NextEra has 9,700 turbines in 19 states and Canada, and more than 130 support jobs based in Florida.

Wind turbines are in 38 states and currently account for more than 3.5 percent of the nation’s electricity, but nine states get more than 10 percent of their power from wind. Siemens alone has installed 4,850 turbines in the U.S., enough to power more than 2.5 million homes.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer will speak Thursday at a formal opening of the new Siemens center, which is expected to train more than 2,400 wind workers a year. or 407-420-5062

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