Wind farm draws from local workforce

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer May 12, 2010 03:14 pm

Kraig Jacobs, a Vestas inventory coordinator based at Elkhorn Valley, is an Eastern Oregon University graduate and former Les Schwab employee. He says he applied to work for Vestas because he wanted to become a part of the growing wind energy industry. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH/Observer photo
Kraig Jacobs, a Vestas inventory coordinator based at Elkhorn Valley, is an Eastern Oregon University graduate and former Les Schwab employee. He says he applied to work for Vestas because he wanted to become a part of the growing wind energy industry. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH/Observer photo
After Horizon Wind Energy proposed building the 300-megawatt Antelope Ridge Farm near Union last year, a storm of controversy swept over Union County.

Many questions arose, this among them: Will the project create a meaningful level of permanent employment for local workers?

Opponents who worry about impacts to scenery, wildlife, real estate values, tourism and more are saying Antelope Ridge won’t yield enough full-time, year-round employment to justify the possible risks.

Horizon, on the other hand, differs.

While the company waits to hear whether its site certificate application will be approved by the state, the company points to the Elkhorn Ridge Wind Farm, the 100-megawatt facility it opened near North Powder in Union County in 2007.

There, three people are employed by Horizon, and a dozen more by turbine maker Vestas.

All work full time, and most were drawn from the local ranks of working folk.

“I answered an ad, got hired and trained at other sites before coming to work here,” said Vestas lead technician Mike Killgore, a Union resident who grew up in Tollgate and worked as an HVAC technician in the Walla Walla area before taking his job at Elkhorn.

Killgore said he moved back to Union County six years ago. Then he saw an ad for a job at the Elkhorn site.

Benefits included company-provided training. He saw it as a chance to take off in a new direction.

“It sounded like an exciting career, something that would really interest me,” Killgore said. “It’s challenging, and I’m happiest when I’m challenged.”

Shane Kirkland, who works for Vestas as the Elkhorn site manager, said he oversees former loggers and millworkers, diesel mechanics, an electrician, even a couple of men who used to work for Les Schwab Tires.

Kirkland was born in La Grande and raised in North Powder. After high school, he moved to the Pendleton area, where he worked for Keystone RV.

He met a man who was working in the wind energy industry and decided that’s what he wanted to do, too. He got a job as a technician at a wind farm in Helix, and turbines have been his life ever since.

He said the work never bores him. For one thing, it’s given him the chance to travel.

“I’ve worked in Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Canada. There are endless opportunities for people who want to get into the business,” he said.

The pay isn’t bad, either. Kirkland said Vestas employees at Elkhorn get between $16 and $25 an hour — depending on their job assignments — plus benefits.

Kirkland said there is enough work at Elkhorn to go around. Employees stay busy with scheduled maintenance and also stand ready to deal with emergencies as they arise.

“Sometimes there’s an issue with hydraulics or filters. Something gets plugged up,” he said.

Vestas workers all go through extensive company training, which includes safety procedures. Those being hired for new wind projects come on board months in advance and learn their jobs at existing facilities.

Kirkland said Elkhorn employees work five days, 40 hours a week. Plus, Vestas maintains an on-call schedule for problems that might come up on a weekend. At times, technicians travel to other sites.

Kraig Jacobs, a 1994 graduate of Eastern Oregon University, is employed as Elkhorn’s senior inventory coordinator, but he isn’t limited to work on-site. He has charge of inventory throughout an entire region, and often travels to other wind farms.

He said he worked 12 years at Les Schwab before coming on board for Vestas. He applied at Vestas because he liked the idea of going to work in a newly emerging energy industry, he said.

“I thought it was an interesting industry and a growing one and I wanted to be a part of it,” said Jacobs, who lives with his wife and two sons in La Grande.

He said he has no regrets about switching jobs.

“It’s been a good career change,” he said.

Kirkland said he thinks the wind energy industry will continue to grow and offer job opportunities.

He said that many colleges are offering courses in wind turbine construction and maintenance. Taking those courses is probably the best way to break in to the business now.

“I know two guys from La Grande who are enrolling in college in Vancouver,” he said.