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How to patch a wind turbine

Don’t die. That’s job one. It’s not a gimme.

Job two, in comparison, is rather mundane: fiberglass repair mostly.

“It’s kind of like fixing a tooth cavity,” says Jason Litton, a Cody-based rope-access technician. The “cavity”, in this case is a hole, or crack, in a turbine blade, likely the result of a lightning strike, falling ice, or wind-borne projectile. “You grind away all of the broken and decayed material, then fill it back in, and smooth it out… but with fiberglass.”

It’s not the type of labor one might expect to earn $25 an hour and a healthy travel per diem for. Until you consider job one, and the specialized set of skills needed to pull it off while performing “dentistry” on a sheer, vertical surface, suspended in space.

Any number of miscues can be fatal 300 feet above the high desert prairie. A sharp edge on the structure could cut your ropes. You could cut your own ropes with a power tool, or corrosive chemical. An improperly fastened harness could unbuckle. A wrench could fall from above. A lightning bolt could strike from the sky. Electricity could arc from a high-voltage cable. An unlocked turbine blade could lift you 400 feet higher into the sky, turn you upside down, and drop you. The list goes on.

Dual rope systems provide built-in back-ups against system failures.(Winter Ramos)

Dual rope systems provide built-in back-ups against system failures.(Winter Ramos)

And, of course, there’s the wind. During a good breeze a nacelle (the boxy housing atop the tower) pitches and sways like a boat on the sea. Motion sickness is a genuine possibility.

Life gets shakier still as you rappel from the nacelle roof, and down the slender blade. Ropes swing and tangle in the wind. The roar of moving air smothers verbal communication, even with radios. One hundred fifty feet below a nacelle and above the sage, on the side of a bucking blade — they can seem determined to throw you in gusty conditions — is about as isolated and inhospitable a place to operate a paintbrush as you’re likely to find.

In Litton’s words,“It can get a little rowdy.”

Rowdy, but with the proper training, experience and execution, surprisingly safe. Wyoming has never recorded a serious injury or death on a rope-access job in the wind industry.

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Divide that zero by the 1,006 turbines in perpetual need of inspection, maintenance and repair around the state and the quotient is a workplace safety rate that’s the jewel of Wyoming’s energy sector.

So keep reciting the statistics. Maybe they’ll help settle your nerves when you toss your ropes into the wild blue and lower yourself into the Wyoming wind.

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