What the clean energy future looks like from a 262-foot wind turbine


This is the June 24, 2021, edition of Boiling Point, a weekly newsletter about climate change and the environment in California and the American West. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.

Hundreds of feet above the ground, suspended by ropes and battered by powerful winds, Matthew Kelly is living his best life.

Kelly is a wind turbine technician, and my colleague Brian van der Brug recently took pictures of him repairing a fiberglass blade at a wind farm in California’s Montezuma Hills, at the northeastern end of the Bay Area. Brian’s pictures are worth a thousand words and then some. Here’s a shot of Kelly perched on the damaged blade, putting his rock climbing background to good use:

Rope Partner's Matthew Kelly repairs a 148-foot-long fiberglass turbine blade.

Rope Partner’s Matthew Kelly repairs a 148-foot-long fiberglass turbine blade.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

And here’s Kelly lowering himself to the ground after 10 hours suspended from the top of the 262-foot tower:

Matthew Kelly lowers himself to the ground from a wind turbine.

Matthew Kelly lowers himself to the ground from a wind turbine.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

These photos took my breath away. They also made me think about two topics I’ve covered recently: The future of energy jobs as the United States transitions from fossil fuels to renewables, and how wind and solar farms can dramatically reshape landscapes.

Let’s start with jobs.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that wind turbine service technician will be the country’s fastest-growing occupation this decade, with employment expected to increase by 61%, from 7,000 to 11,300 jobs. (Solar panel installer is third on the fastest-growth list, with a projected 51% increase in jobs.) Median pay for a wind turbine technician is $56,230 per year, or $27.03 per hour — well above the national median wage of $41,950, or $20.17 per hour, according to the federal agency.

Kelly works for Rope Partner, which is based in Santa Cruz and was founded by rock climber Chris Bley in 2001. Bley was inspired by a chance encounter in Joshua Tree National Park with two German climbers who made a living scaling construction sites and churches that needed repairs. His timing couldn’t have been better, given the rapid growth of the American wind energy industry.

Kelly found his way to the “rope access” profession in 2018, after graduating college with a degree in environmental science and policy. Here he is again on that blade at the Shiloh II wind farm, which is owned by San Diego-based EDF Renewables, a subsidiary of the French electric utility EDF. You can see the repair-in-process Kelly has been working on below his feet:

Rope Partner's Matthew Kelly adjusts a positioning ring line.

Matthew Kelly adjusts a positioning ring line.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Rope Partner has a roster of about 100 technicians, according to the company’s vice president of business development, Lucas Llado. Many of them are climbers, rafters, skiers and other adventurous outdoors types who spend part of the year scaling wind turbines. The winter months are the slowest for repairs, with jobs picking up as the weather improves in the spring.

“These guys are nomadic by nature,” Llado said. “It’s kind of a lifestyle alignment that allows these technicians to make a living working off of rope, and also getting to see parts of the country or the world, wherever we’re working.”

At the high end, Llado said, top-level technicians can make six-figure salaries, often without a college education. And the work is crucial to the clean energy transition. Wind turbine blades erode over time, reducing power production. They can crack from the stress they’re under, or suffer damage during transportation. Lightning strikes can also require fixes.

“It’s like your car. You need to maintain it to perform,” Llado said. “You can do it preemptively and avoid a large bill or wait for something to break.”

That’s where Kelly and his coworkers come in. Here he is climbing a ladder within a 262-foot tower at Shiloh II. Once he emerges at the top, he’ll rappel down the length of the 148-foot blade in need of repair:

Rope Partner's Matthew Kelly climbs a ladder inside a 262-foot-high tower at the Shiloh II wind farm.

Matthew Kelly climbs a ladder inside a 262-foot-high tower at the Shiloh II wind farm.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Here he is alongside the fiberglass blade, preparing to receive a bucket of tools and supplies being lifted from below:

Rope Partner's Matthew Kelly guides a bucket of tools and supplies.

Matthew Kelly guides a bucket of tools and supplies.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

And here’s his colleague Lloyd Hardin down on the ground, helping to manage the ropes as the bucket gets lifted up:

Rope Partner's Lloyd Hardin helps manage the ropes.

Rope Partner’s Lloyd Hardin helps manage the ropes.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Kelly told me this is his “fourth season” scaling wind turbines, and it’s safe to say he enjoys his job. He likes being able to work half the year and “explore other things” the rest of the time. He’s also a fan of the sweeping views from the tops of the towers.

“It’s pretty great to turn my back or turn my head and have a little lunch break right up in the air,” he said. “It’s a pretty unparalleled situation. And just being at the whims of the element — the winds, the rains, the cold, the hot.”

I recently wrote in this newsletter about the aesthetics of wind and solar farms, and talking with Kelly brought me back to that debate. Are large-scale renewable energy facilities a beautiful sign of a better future, or ugly eyesores on otherwise gorgeous landscapes? And will opposition to these facilities based on their visual impacts slow the transition away from fossil fuels?

Admiring Brian’s photos, it’s hard for me not to think the wind machines look nice — especially with sheep in the foreground, and later with the blood moon lunar eclipse in the background:

Sheep graze at the Shiloh II wind farm.

Sheep graze at the Shiloh II wind farm.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Turbines spin as the blood moon lunar eclipse sets behind the towers of the Shiloh II wind farm on May 26, 2021.

Turbines spin as the blood moon lunar eclipse sets behind the towers of the Shiloh II wind farm on May 26, 2021.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

That said, I live in a big city, not a rural town where people expect uninterrupted viewsheds. There’s an incredible diversity of opinions on this topic, as the responses I received to last month’s newsletter showed. I shared many of the responses in this Twitter thread, from the emailer who compared opposing renewable energy over visual impacts to “complaining that your tea has gone cold while the Titanic sinks” to the many readers who argued that solar panels should go on rooftops, not wild landscapes.

“A core part of being an environmentalist is preserving the natural beauty of the scenic landscape for present and future generations,” one person wrote. “I’d like to see the reaction of all the environmentalists if they proposed building wind turbines and small solar panel farms in the San Francisco Bay and the surrounding hillsides of Marin County and Berkeley.”

Several emailers pointed out that those suffering the most from energy production aren’t the largely white towns seeing solar farms and wind turbines go up, but rather communities of color breathing polluted air and drinking contaminated water from the extraction and processing of coal, oil and gas. Those fossil fuel facilities aren’t known for enhancing the scenery, either.

“Who consulted poor communities about their aesthetics before smelly…



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