The wind turbine is the modern, high-tech equivalent of yesterday’s windmill. A single wind turbine can harness the wind’s energy to generate enough electricity to power a house or small farm. Wind farms, also called wind plants, are a collection of high-powered turbines that can generate electricity for tens of thousands of homes. In addition to development on land, wind projects are also being developed offshore.
The U.S. Department of Labor breaks the wind energy industry down into three subsectors: Research & Development/Manufacturing, Project Development, and Operation & Maintenance. In addition, support workers such as clerks, lawyers, and database managers provide assistance to workers in these subsectors. Workers can be employed in more than one subsector, and many are also employed outside the renewable energy industry.
Research & Development/Manufacturing
The wind industry is very competitive. There are hundreds of companies that manufacture turbines and related components. Companies are constantly seeking ways to make wind turbines more reliable, efficient, and powerful while keeping costs manageable. In order to achieve these improvements, many different technical workers are employed in research and development. Aerospace, civil (with specializations in construction, geotechnical, structural, and transportation engineering), computer, electrical, environmental, health and safety, industrial, materials, and mechanical engineers design and test the turbines. Meteorologists and other atmospheric scientists help to identify prime locations for new project sites and may serve as consultants throughout the duration of a project. They also work for small consulting firms that provide advice to businesses and homeowners that are interested in installing wind power. Materials scientists design windmill components that can withstand mechanical and environmental stresses. Engineering technicians use engineering, science, and mathematics to help wind engineers and other professionals in research and development, manufacturing, quality control, and many other tasks.
Wind turbines have more than 8,000 component parts, but the three major parts are: the blades (which are made of fiberglass and often more than 100 feet in length), the tower (steel segments that are stacked on one another), and the nacelle (a rectangular box atop the tower that contains the turbine’s gears, generator, other mechanical components, and electrical components). The manufacturing of the three major pieces of a wind turbine and other components is a complicated process, requiring many types of skilled production workers.
Precision machinists use machine tools, such as drill presses, lathes, and milling machines, to produce metal and plastic parts for wind turbines that meet precise specifications. These parts are too small to be produced by automated machinery.
Computer-controlled machine tool operators run machinery that forms and shapes turbine components, such as those that are part of the drive train or generator.
Assemblers use hand or power tools to put together wind turbine parts into larger components. Electrical and electronic equipment assemblers put together complex electrical circuitry in the wind turbine and the components that connect wind turbines to the power grid or other devices.
Welders use heat to join metal pieces, such as cylinders of rolled steel that form turbine tower segments. These workers may also oversee machinery that performs these tasks.
Quality-control inspectors make sure that manufactured parts and systems meet industry and government quality standards and work correctly. Since wind turbines are so expensive and massive, it is extremely important that manufacturing errors are caught and addressed before the wind turbines are actually assembled and installed.
Industrial production managers plan and coordinate all work activity on the factory floor. They determine the types of equipment that should be used and if new equipment is needed, manage workers and production schedules (including scheduling overtime), and troubleshoot any labor or mechanical problems that emerge in order to keep production running smoothly.
The U.S. Department of Energy reports that “building a wind farm is a complex process. Site selection alone requires years of research and planning. And the proposed site must meet several criteria, such as developable land, adequate wind, suitable terrain, and public acceptance. In addition, wind turbines must be deemed safe for wildlife, particularly birds, and be sited away from populated areas because of noise and safety concerns.” A variety of skilled workers select the site, ensure that it will not adversely affect the surrounding environment, and install turbines and support structures.
Land acquisition specialists create and implement land acquisition plans for new wind development sites. They work closely with government officials, community organizations, and landowners to generate support for proposed projects. Not everyone may want a wind turbine or wind farm in their “backyard,” and land acquisition specialists must address the concerns of reticent individuals and organizations in order to convince them to allow construction. Land acquisition specialists also work with scientists, engineers, and site assessors to ensure that the area is appropriate for developing wind technology. Once the land is selected, land acquisition specialists work with lawyers and permitting specialists to lease or purchase the land.
Asset managers are responsible for the financial aspects of the project during its early stages. They make sure that the project’s owner will earn maximum profits, and they manage the project’s budget and finances.
Logisticians keep the transportation supply line working efficiently. They make sure that turbine components and building materials are delivered on time so that construction is not delayed and money is not wasted.
Wildlife biologists study the wind farm’s potential effect on local wildlife, especially birds and bats. They create reports that detail the environmental impact of proposed wind energy products on local wildlife and provide suggestions on how builders can eliminate or reduce harm to local wildlife.
Geologists study the topography of proposed wind farms in order to make sure that the ground can support massive and heavy wind turbines. They offer advice on where to place the turbines and how to build the foundations.
Environmental scientists help wind farm developers comply with environmental regulations and policies. They ensure that sensitive natural areas near proposed wind farms are protected.
Once the site is selected and the land purchased or leased, construction of the wind turbine or wind farm can begin.
Construction laborers prepare the site for erection of the wind turbines. They clear debris, trees, and vegetation from the site; build surrounding infrastructure such as roads or storage buildings (with the help of construction equipment operators and trades workers) and break up the ground in preparation for construction.
Crane operators use cranes to lift the turbine components off the trucks when they arrive. They place the first segment on the ground, and then gradually stack the other components atop one another, as they are joined by other workers. Once the tower has been erected, crane operators place the nacelle on top of the tower and then attach the blades.
Electricians connect the turbine’s electrical components to the power grid. To do this, they use power tools such as saws and drills, and hand tools such as pliers, screwdrivers, wire strippers, and conduit benders.
Construction managers oversee the planning and building of wind turbines or wind farms. They manage workers, organize and supervise the various construction phases, order supplies, arrange deliveries, and otherwise keep everything running smoothly.
Operation & Maintenance
Wind turbines are expensive and complex pieces of machinery. It is extremely important that they are kept in top condition via regular maintenance, sensor calibration, and general upkeep. A broken or malfunctioning wind turbine means the loss of energy generation and the loss of earnings for its owner. Due to its large size and speed, a faulty turbine can also damage nearby turbines or injure or kill people on the ground. Wind turbine service technicians, sometimes called windsmiths, are responsible for this maintenance and upkeep. They climb the towers to perform maintenance, repair broken components, and otherwise bring malfunctioning turbine components back to working order. They may be responsible for regular maintenance of anywhere from one turbine to hundreds of turbines on a large wind farm.
Support workers perform clerical duties; supervise workers; manage computer databases; oversee advertising and marketing campaigns; respond to press inquiries; maintain records; educate the public; and do many other tasks. Secretaries, receptionists, customer service representatives, advertising and marketing workers, media relations specialists, personnel and human resources specialists, lawyers, accountants, information technology workers, and educators are just some of the types of support workers who are employed in this industry.
- Bioenergy/Biofuels Workers
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