Tumcumcari's School's Grads Snapped Up by Wind Industry
Casey West performs maintenance on wind turbines, a job that requires her to climb hundreds of feet into the sky on towers that support the turbines’ massive blades.
“It’s absolutely amazing to be able to have an office that high up in the air while knowing you’re doing something for the environment and getting electricity to people’s homes,” she said.
West, one of only a few female wind turbine technicians in the world, has climbed a 260-foot wind turbine tower 50 times since she started.
That first time, “They tell you not to look down, but I looked down,” she said.
“I know people who freeze up,” she said. “It’s like being up on stage.”
She’s still getting used to working that high. Sometimes, the wind sways the turbine tower back and forth. “It’s kind of a soothing effect for me,” she said.
“It’s kind of like being on a boat, like going over waves in a boat. On a calm day, you don’t even feel the wind. It’s like being on still water,” she said.
As a child, West learned about mechanics at her father’s auto shop in Moriarty. In high school, she took a diesel mechanics class and a welding class. She planned to study welding in college until she learned about the wind technician program at Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari.
When she graduates next semester, she’ll join a fast-growing field where graduates are snapped up by companies building and servicing wind turbines around the world.
“It’s cool to be one of the few girls in the field,” she said. “I’ve always been kind of a tomboy.”
Mesalands is the only college in New Mexico and one of only a few in the nation with a wind turbine on campus.
Jim Morgan, director of Mesalands’ wind research and training center, said the school received a $2 million federal grant in 2006 to start the program. It was a challenge to buy a turbine at the time because orders were backed up for three years. Turbines generally go for between $1.3 million and $2.2 million.
In 2007, Morgan lined up a $2.3 million General Electric 1.5-megawatt turbine, the most popular model used in the United States. GE delivered the turbine to the campus in 2008. The inaugural wind energy class at Mesalands started that year and helped install it. Installation cost $1 million.
Since 2009, 115 students have received an associate degree in wind energy technology from Mesalands, and 145 students have received a wind technician occupational certificate.
Wind energy instructor Andy Swapp said in the two years he’s taught at Mesalands, he’s had students from 27 states, Canada, Mexico and Liberia. Two of his students came from the oil industry wanting to work in green energy instead of fossil fuels.
“If you’re drilling for oil, it’s boom or bust,” Swapp said. “Wind power is the fastest-growing occupation in the U.S., and it’s steady. It’s a good, stable career.”
Wind power companies regularly call Mesalands Community College looking for employees. A wind tech with an occupational certificate starts at $19 per hour. Some companies may require a tech to climb a turbine tower a certain number of times before they move up the pay scale. A wind tech might become a construction superintendent overseeing an entire wind farm and make $45 to $50 per hour, Swapp said.
The occupation requires mechanical, hydraulic, electrical and computer knowledge, plus the ability to work around electricity safely, Swapp said.
Students train on a 20-foot ladder before they ever set foot on a wind turbine. Students take climb tests early in the semester and must withdraw if they can’t overcome their fear of heights. Swapp said he’s had only one student withdraw.
Kenneth Brennan, resource manager at Granite Services, a company that services wind farms, said techs caught climbing a turbine without a full-body harness are fired. Granite requires techs to be re-certified in safety every year. They must have another tech with them on the job in case they need to be rescued. Most importantly, they must be confident climbing.
“If someone is afraid of heights, they have no business being at the top of a wind turbine,” Brennan said.
Over the years, manufacturers have built turbines ever taller because there is less turbulence in the air farther up, which allows the blades to spin faster, he said. “The more efficiently a blade can catch the wind, the more power it can transmit into the generator,” he said.
Researchers are continually coming up with new designs. There’s even a design for an airborne wind turbine, Brennan said.
The American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, reported that the U.S. wind industry saw $13.8 billion in new investment in 2016. The United States has more than 52,000 wind turbines operating in 40 states plus Guam and Puerto Rico.
Sara MacNeil is a reporter at ABQ Free Press Weekly.