Dry Spell: A Q&A With World Wind & Solar Manager Alex Castanon

Repairing twisting blades in the firmament sounds like something from a Tolkien novel. But for Alex Castanon, maintaining wind turbines is a 9 to 5 that has kept his hands occupied for 24 years. Here he describes the process—and the view

How did you get into the wind industry?
I started back in 1987 as a field technician’s helper, when I didn’t know anything about wind. You are always supposed to work in pairs—one person has to stay at the bottom while the other guy is up top. If anything happens, the guy at the bottom can radio for help. So each technician has a helper, and that’s how I got my training—hands on. After that I became a technician with an assistant, doing everyday repairs. Each turbine usually has two or four maintenance cycles of the year that involve checking oils, greases, and some torques (when you tighten up a bolt). I did that for a while and then I became a crane operator, and then I moved to supervision. That’s pretty much what I have done for the past 24 years

It sounds dangerous.
Maintenance isn’t dangerous as long as you’re following procedures. Of course if you’re not, it’s easy to be in danger. There are very high standards today for safety in the wind industry. For some turbines, you are not supposed to be exposed outside on top of the cell in wind speeds over 40 mph. That means you can work inside the cell but not on top. There are some components that you need to check and replace that are exposed on top of the cell, like the wind vane and anemometer. As long as you follow procedures with wind limits, you will be okay. I’ve never fallen or tripped.

If the winds are hazardous, do you get the day off? Is that called a ‘wind day’?
If the winds prevent you from climbing, then you just don’t climb that day. The repair can wait. Normally there is a lot of shop work or training to do, though, so it’s just called ‘a high wind day.’ Sometimes the wind is too high for a few days or a week.

How do you get up to the turbine and generator?
Inside the tube tower there is a ladder that reaches to the top, and it has a safety cable. Each time you climb a turbine, you have to wear a safety harness, and you tie it to a safety cable. As you climb, the safety mechanism follows you and if you slip, that thing catches and grabs. Depending on the turbine, you can take your belt off once you get to the enclosed part.

What typically goes wrong with a wind turbine?
A turbine is like a car. They come in batches, so it’s like I have 50 Toyotas that are all identical, but what breaks isn’t always the same. You get to know the turbines very well, because you’re basically working on the same one every day for years. On the older machines, as the wind picks up, things get destroyed a little more easily. Parts come loose inside of the cell.

How many different wind farms do you service?
Locally, we help about five companies. We also go to Hawaii, Washington, Colorado, Minnesota, Vermont—we’ve been everywhere, but we’re based right here in Tehachapi.

You said you’ve been in the industry for 24 years. How have you seen it change in that time?
It has changed a lot. There used to be a bunch of little turbines and now they are much bigger. Before, they used to be 65 kilowatts with little turbines, and now its 2 to 3 megawatts.

Has popular opinion about wind power changed over the years?
Wind power has its pros and cons. Bunches of people are against it and say it’s loud, but wind is clean energy. It works with nature and it doesn’t bother anybody. It depends on how people look at it, I guess. A lot of people don’t know how turbines work; they just don’t like them, and I am not sure why. I love wind power. I have been in this business and have had a steady job for these 24 years, so I like the turbines. I’ve gotten to know them pretty well working on them every day.

What does the future of wind energy look like to you?
The tax credit just passed so that’s a good thing for all of us. I believe we are going to continue to put more wind turbines up for at least the next two years. After that, only time will tell. If [the government] extends the credits, that would be great, and if they don’t then turbine growth will be in question. If I had to make a personal prediction: [wind development has] been ongoing for the last 24 years, so I think they are going to continue to expand.

Do you ever take time to enjoy the view from the top?
When I get up there, I do my work and then occasionally I’ll take a five or ten minute break and just watch the view. I am sure everyone enjoys the view once they’re up there; I do.