New Machines, New Skills, New Hope

McKibben-NorthDakotaWindTurbines

Renewable-energy projects are now finding capital faster than fossil fuels. Photograph by Ken Cedeno / Getty

Since our platform name change, each daily post has been either about coffee or about birds. We have not neglected or forgotten our commitment to all the other important environmental, conservation, culture and related themes this platform has showcased, under whichever name. Today, Bill McKibben, one of our favorite sources of both depressing and heartening environmental news, is our go-to for some good news:

North Dakota Oil Workers Are Learning to Tend Wind Turbines—and That’s a Big Deal

I enjoy big machinery, and it punched all those buttons,” Jay Johnson told me. “They really are big, and, if you like machinery, then there you go.” Johnson has one of the jobs that might, with luck, come to define our era. At Lake Region State College, in Devils Lake, North Dakota, he trains former oil workers for new careers maintaining giant wind turbines. The skills necessary for operating the derricks that frack for crude in the Bakken shale, he says, translate pretty directly into the skills required for operating the machines that convert the stiff winds of the high prairies into electricity. That is good news, not only because it’s going to take lots of people to move the world from oil and gas to solar and wind but because people who work in hydrocarbons are going to need new jobs now that the demand for hydrocarbons is dropping. “It’s impossible to overstate the stillness” in the oil fields now, Johnson says. “Nothing is happening, zero work, and it sure is scary.”

But not in the wind industry. Renewables are now finding capital faster than fossil fuels, which means, for instance, that a single utility, Xcel, adds enough capacity annually across the Upper Midwest to power a million homes each year. Johnson was originally a newspaper reporter, but he left that foundering industry and became a wind tech. He’s been teaching since 2009, instructing students on everything from how to climb two-hundred-foot ladders (the school has a training turbine) to how to use drones for inspections.

“Most of the job is general maintenance,” Johnson says, “when you get up to the top of the tower and get into what we call the nacelle—it’s basically a large gearbox and the generator and some control equipment. It weighs eighty thousand to a hundred thousand pounds. So, there’s a lot of changing oil filters, and lots of inspections, and, to everyone’s chagrin, there’s a lot of cleaning. You use a lot of Simple Green and a lot of paper towels.” He added, “There’s a lot of bolt torquing, too. You have to insure everything is nice and tight. Torquing and lubrication. And if it stops working, there’s troubleshooting to figure out why it’s not. That can be one of the more satisfying parts.”

In May, Neset Consulting, a prominent oil-services company in North Dakota, asked Johnson to train some of its employees, who used to work at jobs as, for example, mud loggers—the people who inspect soil coming up from a fracked hole for signs of oil. The first seven of those employees will graduate from Johnson’s course on August 21st. “Operation and maintenance is a big piece of the business. Neset would like to be able to contract those services to the wind industry,” the company’s operations manager told the Minot Daily News last month. I would have liked to discuss the issue with him, but my phone calls and e-mails to the company went unanswered.

That’s a shame, because the company’s story seems fascinating. Its owner, Kathy Neset, got a geology degree at Brown University, “one of those snobby schools, very ultra-liberal,” she told an interviewer a few years ago. “I survived and I am a testament that if you stay true to yourself, you can maintain your identity.” A New Jersey native, she went West to work in petroleum—she was a mud logger herself, and a rare woman in the oil fields; she married a local man, Roy Neset, and in 1980 they founded the company that she has led since his death, in 2005. “The golden era of the hardy pioneer woman has not faded into a shadowy relic of the past,” she said. “Today she may not be breaking virgin sod with a horse and plow, but there remain plenty of challenges on the prairie for a strong and tenacious spirit to test herself against.” By all accounts, Neset has succeeded: her two sons both work in the industry, and, when the state held a celebration in 2014 to commemorate passing the million-barrel-a-day production milestone, she hosted the event, sharing the stage with the governor. A donor to the Republican Party, in 2017 she was touted as a possible Senate candidate.

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