Hanging from a rope 150 feet in the air might sound like a bad dream to some. But for rock climbers in need of a job, wind-turbine maintenance is a perfect fit.
As California continues to pursue renewable energy policy, small businesses have popped up to make sure those big blades keep turning.
“We’re training lots of people," said Molly Myall, senior project manager with Rope Partner, a company that employs rope workers to clean and fix wind turbines. "A huge indication is the number of resumes that come in. We’ve seen a huge upswing in that.”
The job consists of repairing damage from ice and lightning, replacing fiberglass panels, and cleaning off gear oil and smoke residue. The workers are harnessed and suspended with ropes, sometimes trailing long electrical cords attached to power tools.
Avid rock climber and environmentalist Chris Bley learned about rope workers during a visit to Germany in 1999. A few years later, he founded Rope Partner in Santa Cruz. When he started it was a one-person operation; now he has 50 employees, many of whom are climbers like him.
“The folks who work for us work really hard," he said. "There’s a huge safety factor. They have to be solid employees. But there are days when there’s standby, when the weather might not be so good. That creates the opportunity to go to a local crag and go climbing. It’s a unique culture.”
Over the last decade, California almost doubled the amount of power it gets from wind. The state now produces enough wind energy to power a city the size of San Francisco.
As the wind energy industry grew, so did Rope Partner. Today, it has an office in Montreal and a sister company in Berlin. Bley and his team provide services all over the country and in parts of Mexico.
“We just work all over," Bley said. "Wherever there are wind turbines we work. There’s a lot of excitement because there’s good potential. It’s a robust industry.”
Before someone can tie in and start fixing turbines, Rope Partner – like many other companies – has their workers test with the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians. SPRAT offers a certifying process that is recognized as the standard for safety.
“Certifications have skyrocketed over the last few years,” said Peter Lance, executive director of SPRAT.
From 2008 to 2010 the number of workers who received certification jumped from 490 to 1,158. In a recent SPRAT survey, about 30 percent of rope access technicians said they work on wind turbines at least once a year. About 2,900 rope access technicians have been certified over the last decade. Certifications last for three years.
Despite optimism in the industry, some people believe California should be further ahead. The first commercial wind farms in the country were installed in Altamont, Tehachapi and San Gorgonio passes. By 1995 the state produced 30 percent of the world’s wind power. Today California is credited with providing 11 percent of global wind power.
The American Wind Energy Association ranks California third in the nation when it comes to wind power installation, behind Iowa and Texas. Iowa gets the biggest slice of its overall power from wind at roughly 15 percent. And Texas produces more than twice as many megawatts of wind power as California and Iowa combined.
Currently California gets about 3 percent of its power from wind. The California Wind Energy Association projects that number will jump to 5 percent by 2013 and by 2020 that number could possibly be as high as 20 percent. The challenges are mostly technical and not insurmountable, said Nancy Rader, executive director of the association.
It’s mainly about “policy leadership,” Rader said. “We’re a huge state. We’ve got to be a policy leader to a renewable energy future.” And to a certain extend, she said, the state is. “We’re dealing with the integration challenges before anyone else. In California we’re integrating it into our grid.”
Gov. Jerry Brown recently approved a bill requiring 33 percent [PDF] of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2020. Right now roughly 18 percent of California’s power comes from renewable sources. Detractors say the bill will hurt the economy. But, critics of carbon-based fuel have argued jobs like cleaning wind turbines will go a long way towards offsetting any losses.