Quay County Sun - Serving the High Plains

By Steve Hansen
Correspondent 

Hub-jumping, anyone?

Mesalands gives close-up look at wind turbine class on site.

 

November 1, 2017

Steve Hansen

Desiree Walker pauses for a photo on top of the wind turbine's tower.

I stopped at "hub-jumping."

I was wearing the harness and could secure one of its life-line lanyards to the safety rail with a "lobster claw," but my brain would not let me crawl down the hub. That's the nose-cone in front of the turbine blades of Mesalands Community College's wind turbine generator.

It would have involved looking directly down to the miniaturized desert landscape 254 feet below.

I wasn't about to stand up, either. My rational brain said I was tied down and secure, but the part that gets dizzy near the top of a stepladder said, "No."

Still, I felt victorious Thursday afternoon as I sat on the fiberglass roof of the wind turbine's nacelle (that's nah-SELL), the cabin on top of the tower around which the turbine's 100-foot-tall blades rotate.

I had fulfilled one of my "bucket list" to-dos, which was merely to climb to wind turbine's top with a camera and do some journalism.

Standing and other daring acts at the top may be on a later list. Maybe.

"Anyone want to do a hub jump?" Andy Swapp, an instructor for Mesalands' wind energy program, shouted down the nacelle hatch to the students who had found perches amid the machinery packed into the cabin.

"Not today," one said.

Victor Franklin of Clayton was apparently feeling braver.

He came up through the nacelle hatch, attached the lobster claw to the hub rail and crawled his way down to what looked to me like the edge of the world and looked back in triumph after his feet found a firm spot below the hub's hatchway. Wind energy technicians have to make hub jumps to gain access to some key controls on a panel inside the nose-cone.

Later, I suggested to him that he must have advanced to where he respects the nacelle's distance from earth but no longer fears it.

"I was going 'oh (expletive),oh (expletive),oh (expletive),' all the way," he said.

Overcoming fear of heights is part of the training for student wind technicians, Swapp said.

For a more advanced student like Desiree Walker, hub jumping is already routine.

Walker is also a barrel-racer on the Mesalands rodeo team, so she is no stranger to overcoming fears. She had no problem sitting on the hub for some pictures.

The nacelle's interior looks like the engine room of a submarine, crowded with motors, conduits, meters and other mechanisms. You have to make your way past the main turbine shaft, covered by a green steel cylinder, to get anywhere.

Walker found her way to a nook equipped with a laptop and near the control buttons, just in front of the rectangular casing that encloses the generator, which the turbine shaft spins to make electricity

Swapp directed her from the other side of the turbine shaft to rotate the nacelle so it pointed at Tucumcari Mountain, while Lowen Munsen, another student, looked over the nacelle hatch to provide visual guidance like a soldier in a tank turret.

Before the climb, Swapp had Walker activate the systems that stopped the wind turbine, turned on the tower lights, and froze the wind turbine's position.

In the nacelle, she also rotated the turbine blades to "rabbit-ears" position-two angled up, the other pointed down before steering the nacelle to point at Tucumcari Mountain.

Aside from overcoming the fear of long vertical drops and acquiring knowledge of electrical theory and wind turbine mechanics, wind energy tech students have to achieve high-level physical fitness and stay in shape.

Swapp invited me to climb because my bicycle training route often takes me past the college.

"I can tell you're in pretty good shape because I see you riding by all the time," he told me.

This conditioning got me up the tower but did not make it easy.

When you climb a 25-story ladder, you have to stop once in a while. That's why there are three platforms between the ground and the nacelle.

To climb to the first platform, I was attached to a "climb-assist."

I switched on the climb-assist and the leg straps on the harness tightened and it yanked me up the ladder for a few steps. Just as I got into the rhythm of this machine, it jerked me to a stop. Yank, climb, stop, again. The climb-assist and I kept up this argument to the first platform.

One of the students opened the hatch door as I climbed, and I followed patient instructions from Dennis Earl, a student from Nara Visa, to "tie-off," attaching a lanyard to a wall plate with the lobster claw, then detaching the "cable grab," a device that connects the harness to a cable that runs down the center of the ladder and keeps you from falling if you slip.

But I abandoned the climb-assist.

Without the climb-assist, the climb was steadier, if unrelieved, and monotonous, since I looked only at the pale yellow wall in front of me as I trudged up the rungs.

When I ran short of breath, I leaned back against the tower wall, looked up, and saw I wasn't even half-way to the next platform.

So I caught my breath and kept climbing. Sweat trickled from the hard hat and my hands in leather gloves were wet but kept a steady grip on the ladder sides.

I learned that you tire less if you raise your grip to only eye-level for each step and use the wall behind you for support.

Still, as Swapp advised his students and me several times, you never get complacent, even as the climbing and procedures become routine.

I was panting like a dog in July when I reached the second platform to greet Swapp and the other students.

I paused long enough to recover, then tackled the climb to the third platform, which was no easier.

Earl was assigned to coach me, because after he guided me though the instructions, then waited for me to plod up the next platform, he completed his climb quickly. That's why the other students respectfully called him the "spider monkey."

From the third platform, it was two step-ladder-height climbs to the nacelle with all its mechanized glory and the top with all its vertigo.

Coming down was much easier, and at the bottom, Swapp activated controls that freed the turbine blades to be driven by the breeze and the nacelle to position the blades into the wind.

While the Mesalands wind turbine operates mainly for training, it provides 1.5 megawatts of power, enough to serve about 750 homes at any given time, when operating at full power. When operating, it energizes the Mesalands campus, Swapp said, and produces revenue from Excel Energy as it feeds most of its power into the electric grid.

The Mesalands wind energy program has awarded 156 certificates and 142 associate's degrees in wind energy since the program began in 2009, Kimberly Hanna, Mesalands' director of communications, said. In addition, 500 technicians have been certified in the past year through a contract with Granite International, a subsidiary of General Electric.

While I would not recommend wind energy technician as a second career choice for a retiree, I would certainly give it a thumbs-up for energetic young adults looking for a career that involves high skill and high adventure. And high pay. Newly minted wind energy technicians can command more than $42,000 a year, according to the Payscale.com website.

 

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