Working with wind Power by Richard Brown

I had spent a decade working away in the heavy industry sector. Far from home, on ships, floating process platforms, shore based plants and isolated construction sites. Industrial edifices. Monuments to man’s greed placed upon earth’s oceans and on her most remote headlands and promontories. 

As a Mechanical Tradesperson, I would commission and maintain huge turbines, pumps, process plant modules and install the hundreds of kilometres of steel pipes that accompanied them. Years of industrial work can be tiring, not just on the body, but the mind. I decided to switch to working in an allied industry considered cleaner and greener by popular consensus. I would discover the truth of the matter to be far different from the cover story.

…and so began my foray into the ’renewables’ sector as a Mechanical Wind Turbine Technician for one of the largest manufacturers of wind turbines on the planet. 

Before I begin, I must detail the origins of said company. Formed by a merger in 1892, it was at one stage one of the worlds largest, being worth 130 billion dollars in 2001. With an all encompassing portfolio of businesses, from finance to aviation and healthcare, it helped develop the minute man nuclear war head. It is still one of the worlds biggest finance companies. 

A flight to Perth, Western Australia, a few days induction training on computers, a discussion about tower rescue(without any real demonstrations or access to actual rescue equipment), we set off for a wind farm at the base of the Australian Snowy Mountain Range near Cooma, in New South Wales. With an old Iphone 4, a Dell Laptop and an Amex card thrust upon us by our corporate counterparts to pay for fuel and accomodation(that no-one would accept), we touched down in Canberra A.C.T., picked up a Herz hire car and set off for the drive to Cooma. As Travel Techs(travelling wind turbine technicians), we would assist the wind farm in conducting service and repair of Chinese built company turbines in a field of around 180.

Upon leaving our assigned lodgings at a local bed and breakfast, we set off early in our vehicle through snow covered farm land to the maintenance building we would be working out of. First impressions were predominantly of the huge turbines, that blanketed a once far more natural landscape. Each tower is built on a foundation of hundreds of tonnes of buried concrete and reinforcing steel.

A daily routine consists of a morning meeting, then the assignment of tasks. Tools, grease, oil and parts are placed into lift bags and onto the back of 4wd utility vehicles for the drive to the first turbine of the day. With a central winch inside the turbine tower, the bags are linked in daisy chain fashion and hauled up the tower. A ladder must be climbed to gain access to the ’nacelle’ at the top of the tower(the fibreglass enclosure that houses the gearbox and alternator). Tasks include pumping up to 30 cartridges of grease into bearings, laying on ones side in a compartment and removing old grease from and re-lubricating the massive yaw gear, all with the aid of a scraper and a pair of rubber gloves. Mounting bolts must be torqued with a large hydraulic torquing cassette and hydraulic pump. The propeller hub and it’s pitch drives needs to be be maintained and greased in the same way, which is accessed via an external hatch once the prop is isolated and made safe. Gearbox oil in the hundreds of litres needs to be changed periodically. Newer turbines have automatic greasers for major components, permanent jib cranes for lifting of supples externally, as well as internal personnel lifts. However due to the field owner not wanting to spend as much money upon purchase, the turbines in this field lacked any of the features that would make maintenance easier.

Turbine maintenance is oily, greasy and monotonous work. Staff are underpaid for the work expected of them, their wages never meeting the renumeration levels of their desk bound corporate counterparts. With regular turbine break downs, maintenance and the corresponding repair backlogs, labour requirements are increased even more. Due to lean maintenance budgets, understaffing is usually a big issue. 

For those that are happy with the average pay, oily, greasy work, constant climbing, high work loads and extreme monotony, such work could be viewed as a life calling. For most however, one brief foray is enough. And so my time with the big company came to an end. I packed my things, left my cheap phone, laptop and Amex card in a cupboard at work, then headed home.

What does one make of all this talk of wind turbines? What of the birds that strike the spinning blades? The animals that move through the labyrinths of steel towers erected in their once semi wild homes?

The question should not only be whether wind turbines are a better way to produce energy. 

After all, it has been convenience and human laziness that got us into this mess in the first place. 

A world that is lesser in every way than it once used to be…in form, in function, in real community and in plant and animal diversity…polluted, overrun by super cities and bound in thouands of kilometres of highways and fences.

A planet overrun by the lie of progress. To do what is right? An old, outmoded concept largely left behind by those that value progress and prosperity over the vibrant and healthy beating heart of a healthy world.

Energy has provided us with many things. Industrial power facilitates the refrigeration of the massive warehouses that store our food, the instant heating and cooling of our homes, the nightly illumination of our cities, our ability to process human waste, refine all the steel and aluminium that heavy industry requires, run factories and pump or desalinate water.

A human age that values expedience and convenience over care for the planet, animals, plants, community, ecosystems and each other. Instant gratification at the push of a button. 

A poor trade indeed.

Is replacing one form of energy with another the correct approach when the end result (planetary degradation) is the same? 

Should using less resources as an individual and changing wasteful human behaviours be the step taken before thousands of hectares of wild land is covered in wind turbines? 

What are the ethical, practical and physical limits we should place upon our living Earth and when should we choose to stop being consumers and once again become gardeners?

Is a greener world better than a more electrified world?

Could using less power, planting more trees, growing more of our own food, closing the waste loop, valuing community over corporatism, and life over technology be a better way than clearing more land for wind farms?

Could the increased demand for power created by an ever growing global economy(and the unrealistic concept of exponential financial growth) be the justification to clear ever more wild land for wind farms? 

I shall let you be the judge.