Job with a view

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer March 16, 2011 02:53 pm

North Powder native Curtis Pedro stands perched atop a turbine during a tour of the Elkhorn Valley Wind Farm last week. Pedro, a      technician for Vestas, learned his trade on-the-job. Previously, he worked at wind power facilities in Helix and in Dayton, Wash. CHRIS BAXTER / The Observer
North Powder native Curtis Pedro stands perched atop a turbine during a tour of the Elkhorn Valley Wind Farm last week. Pedro, a technician for Vestas, learned his trade on-the-job. Previously, he worked at wind power facilities in Helix and in Dayton, Wash. CHRIS BAXTER / The Observer
 

Turbine maintenance work brings technician back home

Curtis Pedro spends a good deal of his time in a vertical, columniform world, climbing up, climbing down.

The boundaries of his workplace are close and circular, and the sounds he makes as he moves along a ladder echo, like sounds in some giant tin can. His steps on the rungs echo, his clanking equipment echoes, his voice echoes.

But Thursday, when he popped out the hatch at the very top of Turbine 16, tied himself off and sat perched outside, he savored, along with a reporter who’d accompanied him, a magnificent silence and the awesome sight of rolling sagebrush country spread out for miles down below.

“That’s some view, huh?” he said with a grin.

Not that the 29-year-old Pedro, a maintenance technician at Horizon Wind Energy’s Elkhorn Valley Wind Farm at Telocaset, gets a lot of time to sit and admire the countryside.

THE LADDER LEADING TO THE TOP of a wind turbine looks daunting enough, but climb assist technology makes going up a snap.
THE LADDER LEADING TO THE TOP of a wind turbine looks daunting enough, but climb assist technology makes going up a snap.

On days when he isn’t showing reporters and photographers around, he and his co-workers climb skyward bent on the business of keeping the turbines, all 61 of them, running like finely-made Swiss clocks.

No job’s too big, too small or too tough to handle.

“We change filters, we change oil, we replace parts, we do all the maintenance,” Pedro said. “It’s a little something different every day, and I like the challenge.”

Pedro was raised in North Powder, graduating from Powder Valley High in 2000. After high school, he worked about five years in road construction. Then he applied for — and got — a job with Vestas Wind Systems, the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer.

After a training period, he went to work at the Stateline wind project near Helix in Umatilla County. It was the start of a whole new way of life, but Pedro said he had little trouble adapting.

“I had nothing more than a high school education when I started,” he said. “In training Vestas taught me a lot about basic electrical and mechanical and hydraulics. I’m pretty mechanically inclined so I picked it up fast.”

He worked at Stateline about six months, then moved on to a wind project in Dayton, Wash., still working for Vestas.

He and his family lived there about a year and a half, and intended to stay. They even bought a house.

But back in Union County, events were unfolding that would change Pedro’s life yet again.

Horizon Wind Energy opened the 100-megawatt Elkhorn Valley facility, just a few miles northeast of Pedro’s hometown, in 2007. Shane Kirkland, another fellow raised in North Powder, was in charge of the Vestas maintenance crew there.

Pedro and his wife Jill, who hails from Union, watched and waited and hoped for the chance to head back home. In 2008, Curtis landed his job at Elkhorn.

“My parents and my whole family live here, so it was really nice to get back home,” he said.

 The job at Elkhorn isn’t much different from those Pedro held at the other wind facilities. Technicians check in early morning, read the planning board that lists the day’s activities, gather equipment and supplies and head out to the turbines.

About the only thing that keeps work from being done is severe weather. Towers can ice up, and lightning is a hazard. But computer systems on the ground track everything about the towers, including weather.

On the day of The Observer’s visit, in fact, a lighting storm moved in and the scheduled tour of Turbine 16 was postponed an hour.

The V-82 turbines at Elkhorn are well-built and reliable, so most work is in the way of routine maintenance. It’s a matter of keeping shafts and gears turning, generators running, brakes in good working order.

Once in a while, though, something major does go wrong. Pedro recalled how once, a blade on a turbine had to be replaced using a crane.

Considering the turbines stand more than 300 feet tall, and that workers sometimes have to crawl around outside at the very top, the job looks dangerous.

Pedro is quick to dispute the notion. He said he feels completely safe all the time.

“The number one priority is safety. Vestas really emphasizes it, and they provide us with the best equipment,” he said. “It literally is impossible to fall if you’re taking all the safety precautions.”

For everyday work, a technician wears a hard hat, safety glasses, non-slip gloves and steel-toed boots. Most important, he wears a safety harness tailored to meet the demands of the job.

The harness buckles around the chest and the legs, and lanyards left and right have safety hooks attached. Tie-off points are near at hand everywhere; when a technician moves from one point to another, he ties off with the free hook, then undoes the hook already in service.

Things rarely if ever go wrong, but if a worker did happen to slip and find himself dangling a few hundred feet off the ground, his buddies would know what to do.

“We’re trained in tower rescue and we have descent devices,” Pedro said.

Scaling the tower ladder is no trick at all for the well-equipped technician. The safety harness clips to a “climb assist” cable that effectively reduces a technician’s weight as he pulls upward.

“Climb assist goes up to 135 pounds, so you can figure a 150-pound guy is pulling only 15 pounds,” Pedro said.

Despite all the safety measures and the excellent safety record, Pedro said that some people hoping for a job on a wind farm discover they’re not cut out for it.

Prospective employees do have to undergo a climb test to find out if they’re bothered by heights. Sometimes, they don’t pass.

“We had one guy who was real eager to come to work here but in his climb test he froze halfway up. He just couldn’t go anymore. That was too bad, because I think he would have made a good employee,” Pedro said.

With Horizon hoping to build a second wind farm in Union County near the city of Union, wind turbines are a controversial issue these days.

Many people object to the sight of them, and say they threaten local quality of life. Concerns center on scenic values, wildlife impacts, impacts on property values, possible health hazards.

Debate rages on at public meetings and in the media. Pedro said it’s unfortunate wind power is so divisive an issue, but added that he thinks it’s an important industry.

“I think it’s great for the community. There’s not much around here for work. Most people my age have to go out of town if they want a good job,” he said.

He and Jill have two young sons. Most of all they’re happy to be raising them in North Powder, in a traditional family environment.

“One thing I really like is that the job pays well enough so my wife can stay home with the boys,” Pedro said.