Wind Turbine Technician

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The sun warms the earth, but not all areas are heated evenly. Warm air rises, and cool air moves in to replace it. Wind results from the air movement. When harnessed, wind is a natural source of renewable energy that is non-polluting. Turbines are machines that produce energy by revolving. Technology has enabled humans to convert the power of wind into a reliable source of electricity by means of wind turbines.

Wind turbines resemble windmills mounted on tall towers. The towers are several hundred feet high, which is where the wind is stronger and more turbulent. Most of the contemporary wind turbines have three blades that face the wind, which makes them spin. The length of the blades is proportionate to the height of the tower. The blades can spin as fast as 200 mph. In addition to the tower and blades, wind turbines have a hub, or nacelle. The nacelle is filled with the parts needed to convert wind power into usable electrical power (i.e., a generator). Altogether, a wind turbine has as many as 8,000 components functioning to produce thousands of watts of electricity. Wind turbines are built on land and on platforms offshore in large bodies of water. They’re usually constructed in a group called a wind farm. Wind farms can generate as much electricity as a nuclear power plant.

Wind turbine technicians, a.k.a. windtechs, are the workers who install all the components and keep everything working smoothly. Power companies depend on a consistent flow of power and part of a technician’s job is to minimize downtime. Once a wind turbine installation is complete, windtechs must clean, inspect, maintain, and service everything. Most technicians work full time and are on-call for emergencies. The job sites are frequently in remote areas, and most work is performed outside. Windtechs are part of a team but may work alone on some jobs.

Safety is a primary concern for all workers. Because of the height at which they work and the inherent danger of working in high winds, technicians must wear safety harnesses. Windtechs also have to understand electricity. They are exposed to toxic chemicals, and there’s no leeway for mistakes. Workers undergo extensive training before starting the job.

As the demand for renewable and green energy continues to escalate, the number of wind turbines and wind farms will increase. Jobs for wind turbine technicians are the second-fastest growing occupation in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2017) expects a staggering 96 percent increase in windtech jobs between 2016 and 2026, which is much higher than the 7 percent increase predicted for all other occupations during that time period.

What Does a Wind Turbine Technician Do?

Wind turbine technicians ensure that wind power equipment operates efficiently. Their work requires them to climb very tall ladders while carrying heavy parts and safety gear with them. Working inside the nacelle requires the ability to function in small, cramped spaces. Windtechs working on towers may have to rappel to the area that needs service.

If they are working on a new installation, windtechs test the equipment and how it is operating to diagnose and remedy potential startup problems. Existing installations must be routinely inspected and tested. Every part of the wind turbine must be checked, which includes the tower as well as the blades and equipment inside the nacelle. Technicians must be able to accurately troubleshoot electrical, hydraulic, and mechanical components. Any malfunctions must be diagnosed and parts quickly repaired or replaced.

Wind turbine technicians also collect data for analysis. They are proficient at math and complex calculations. An understanding of electronics is essential for testing and calibrating control systems. Windtechs are responsible for servicing and maintaining electrical transmission systems, which may be located underground or underwater. Their communication skills enable them to relay information in writing or verbally to managers. Every windtech knows first aid and how to administer CPR.

What Are the Requirements to Become a Wind Turbine Technician?

Wind turbines are highly technical. Individuals who install, maintain, and repair them must be specifically trained in the technology involved. Although some training is acquired on-the-job, workers need to have served an apprenticeship or completed relevant coursework. Technicians must also complete safety training.

A wind turbine technician cannot be afraid of heights as most of the work is done several hundred feet in the air. He or she must be physically strong and able to ascend and descend ladders. Excellent communication skills are necessary while working with other windtechs to keep everyone safe. Good technicians are detail oriented and have the ability to keep precise records of their work. Windtechs are able to work with others on their team, but are also able to make critical decisions when working independently.

Mechanical skills are essential. Although they can be learned while training, individuals who are experienced in other mechanical fields will understand wind turbine technology more quickly. According to voluntary information submitted to Payscale (2018) by 293 technicians, the highest paid workers are skilled in industrial hydraulics and electronic troubleshooting. Electronic troubleshooting usually includes systems troubleshooting. Technicians with expertise only in systems troubleshooting earn as much as 11 percent less than their coworkers.

What Are the Steps to Becoming a Wind Turbine Technician?

Wind turbine technicians may obtain entry-level positions without prior training, but they are the exception rather than the rule. The technology and safety procedures mean that nearly all windtechs have served in an apprenticeship or attended school. Four of the common steps to becoming a technician, and average completion time for each, are detailed here.

Step 1: Obtain a high school diploma or GED (4 years).

To be eligible for most windtech programs, students need to have completed at least one year of algebra with a C average. They should take as many more math classes as they can, as well as courses in computers, electronics, and science. Shop instruction or other classes that teach students how to work with their hands to fix mechanical things are advised. Sports and physical education classes can help develop the physical stamina required of wind turbine technicians. Volunteering or working with an electrician can help develop additional electrical skills. Students must take all required classes and maintain the minimum grade point average needed to attend a trade school or community college to complete their training.

Step 2: Become an apprentice or attend classes (several months to several years).

Apprenticeship applicants must be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma or GED. Department of Labor (DOL) apprenticeship standards require 144 hours of coursework and 2,200 hours of paid, on-the-job training for each year of the apprenticeship. Entering a location in the Apprenticeship Finder Tool can help individuals find companies in their area that sponsor apprentices.

Technical school or community college coursework usually takes two years to complete. Graduates may earn a certificate of completion or an associate in applied science (AAS) degree. The U.S. Department of Energy maintains a list of wind energy education and training programs. The list is searchable by state and type of institution. Students can obtain certificates or degrees online or on-campus.

Wind energy curriculums typically include subjects such as aerodynamic theory, technical math, design principles, environmental concerns, instrumentation, control systems, electronics, and hydraulics. Every student learns job safety procedures as well. The time to complete varies by student and school, with some programs taking as little as nine months.

Vendors offer training on installing, maintaining, and repairing their equipment. Completion time can range from a few days to several months.

Step 3: Acquire an advanced degree or certification (several months to several years).

Wind turbine technicians need a variety of skills to progress beyond entry-level jobs. Students who obtain advanced degrees in subjects such as engineering, design, renewable energy and sustainability, and wind farm development will find their skills in demand. Technicians can also obtain certifications of additional training and abilities through industry associations. The Global Wind Organisation (GWO) certifies training providers. Following is a sample of certification programs:

  • HYTORC is a vendor of industrial bolting systems. They offer courses in safe bolting practices and principles. They teach students how to use tools and safe procedures for connecting components under high pressure in extreme conditions, including when hazardous materials are present. Their courses are approved by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).
  • The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) offers an electrical safety in the workplace (NFPA 70E) course. Students learn safe work practices to avoid electrical injuries such as shock, arc flash or blast, and electrocution. Coursework includes training for working with electrical distribution systems and (de-)energizing power circuits. Students receive a certificate of educational achievement at completion.
  • The OSHA 10-hour Construction Training Program is designed to teach entry-level construction workers how to recognize and prevent safety hazards at a construction site. Students learn to recognize hazardous materials or situations and how to communicate the information to others. They also learn safety procedures when working on or around cranes, rigging, scaffolds, and ladders. Additional lessons teach how to use personal protective equipment, how to protect oneself from falling, and extrication procedures in the event technicians are “struck by” or “caught in between.” Technicians also learn how to safely use hand and power tools. Their knowledge is tested throughout the program, and they must pass a final exam with 70 percent accuracy. Graduates receive a certificate of completion and a DOL wallet card.
  • The American Red Cross provides the mandatory first aid and CPR certifications.

Step 4: Obtain licensing (timeline varies).

Certifications and licenses are not the same. Employers require all windtechs to have a valid driver’s license as job sites are often in remote areas. A self-employed technician is considered a contractor. Most states and municipalities require contractors to be licensed. Wind turbine technicians may be employed by public utilities and other power-generating companies who obtain all licenses and permits. Otherwise, all windtechs are advised to reach out to their local government offices to ensure they have all necessary credentialing prior to beginning work.

How Much Do Wind Turbine Technicians Make?

Salaries are dependent on experience, education, and skills. Payscale collects data from four categories of workers: wind turbine technician; turbine technician; wind technician; and wind technician I. The average hourly wage ranges from $21.35 for a wind technician I to $23.58 for a wind technician. Entry-level technicians average up to 6 percent less than their co-workers. Experienced workers can earn up to 34 percent more than the average. Few technicians have more than 20 years of experience as they tend to advance to other positions.

The BLS (May 2017) reported that 4,390 wind turbine service technicians were employed nationwide. They earned an average of $56,680 annually and the following percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $37,850
  • 25th percentile: $44,550
  • 50th percentile (median): $53,880
  • 75th percentile: $66,330
  • 90th percentile: $80,170

The salaries can vary according to the industry in which the technician is employed. The BLS reported the May 2017 median salaries by industry as follows:

  • Electric power generation: $58,430
  • Professional, scientific, and technical services: $50,680
  • Utility system construction: $49,840
  • Repair and maintenance: $47,250

Median salaries are the wages at which half the technicians earned more than that amount and half earned less.

Cities That Have the Highest Pay

The BLS (May 2017) reported the following cities as having the highest average annual pay for wind turbine service technicians:

  • Duluth, MN-WI: $69,100
  • Vallejo-Fairfield, CA: $57,040
  • Bakersfield, CA: $51,250
  • Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX: $50,390

The State of Minnesota gets half of its power from renewable energy sources. Electricity produced by wind energy costs less than electricity produced by natural gas or coal according to 2017 statistics. The population of Duluth has declined at a time when job opportunities have increased. The greatest number of workers have white-collar jobs, and the area pays a premium to attract blue-collar workers.

The Vallejo-Fairfield area is subject to gusty winds, which have been put to advantage in producing electricity. The area is home to small wind turbine installations as well as 6,800 acres of commercial wind farms generating hundreds of watts. The demand for windtechs continues to increase, with high wages paid to attract workers.

Bakersfield is located in Kern County, California, which in 2015 was ranked number one in wind power capacity nationwide. The nearby Alta Wind project was the largest wind farm in the U.S. at the time. Completion includes 600 wind turbines, creating a demand for wind turbine installers and service personnel. Wages are high in order to attract qualified windtechs.

Additionally, Houston bills itself and nearby areas as a global center for wind energy. Houston is home to dozens of companies involved in all aspects of the production and transmission of electricity from wind. Wind turbine technicians at all skill levels, from design to manufacturing to installation to power generation, transmission, and storage are needed.

States That Have the Highest Pay

The BLS (May 2017) reported the following states as having the highest average annual pay for wind turbine service technicians:

  • West Virginia: $64,860
  • Iowa: $62,320
  • Colorado: $61,450
  • South Dakota: $61,190
  • North Dakota: $60,360

West Virginia has been hard-hit by the decline in coal mining, but miners happen to have skill sets that transfer well to working on wind turbine installations. Because so many individuals left the state when their coal mining jobs disappeared, those who remained are in demand for green energy jobs like windtechs.

By 2017, Iowa was getting more than 36 percent of its energy from the wind. The state ranked third in the U.S. for capacity, number of wind turbines, and power produced. Although local schools offer wind turbine technology training, not enough students enroll. The shortage of trained technicians has led to higher wages for the available workers. The job situation is much the same in Colorado and the Dakotas. For varying reasons, trained windtechs are in short supply. As more wind farms are built or scheduled for construction to meet growing green energy demands, the need for technicians remains greater than the supply.

What Is the Career Outlook and Progression for a Wind Turbine Technician?

Wind turbine technicians are needed nationwide for current projects, and more will be needed in the future for new installations. As noted earlier, the predicted growth in job openings for windtechs is increasing at a much faster rate than other occupations nationwide. As soon as training is completed and job experience obtained, wind turbine technicians are not expected to have difficulty in finding steady employment. Some reports indicate that students are being hired before they complete their education, due to the urgent need for more technicians. They receive extensive on-the-job training, too.

The next big employer for trained windtechs is predicted to be offshore wind farms. The number of offshore wind farms is expected to increase dramatically in the future, and technicians who have experience with installations on land will be in high demand for the more lucrative offshore positions.

In addition to the skills needed to install, maintain, and repair wind turbines, workers are needed for the technical and logistical aspects of developing new wind farms. Experienced technicians can expect to advance to positions such as project managers, researchers, and environmental directors. Other career paths include:

  • Wind turbine inspector
  • Renewable energy experts
  • Electrical energy generation specialists
  • Manufacturing

Technicians may also transfer their expertise to other renewable energy fields like hydropower.