MAHANOY TOWNSHIP, Pennsylvania — Suspended by ropes from the top of a giant wind turbine, two men slowly descended down a long, silvery blade. Then they got to work, and from 45 meters above the ground, the hum of a sander filled the air.
For Matt Touchette and Sequoia Haughey, it was another day at the office.
“Pretty gusty wind,” Touchette reported over a crackling radio from his bird’s-eye perch.
Rope specialists like Touchette and Haughey have long filled a variety of niche jobs, such as inspecting big dams, cleaning Mount Rushmore and repairing offshore oil platforms. But as wind farms have sprouted across the United States, rope companies have quickly expanded into a new line of work — fixing turbines so they last longer in the elements.
It’s a dream job for rock-climbing types.
Rope Partner, the Santa Cruz, California, company that employs Touchette and Haughey, was founded in 2001 by an avid climber, Chris Bley, after he learned the ropes, so to speak, from two Germans he met while scaling granite cliffs in California’s Joshua Tree National Park in the 1990s.
The Germans were part of a rope-work team that helped wrap the Reichstag, the building where Germany’s parliament meets, in fabric as an art installation.
The jobs these days involve inspecting turbines, cleaning them and repairing them, which becomes necessary if a blade is struck by lightning or damaged by ice. The blades are made of fiberglass, and repair jobs may involve taking out the old fiberglass and putting in new material, which then needs to be sanded down for smoothness.
At least a handful of small rope companies now work on turbines. Some, like East River Rigging of Brooklyn, New York, are new and do regional rope work of all kinds. Others, like Skala of Reno, Nevada, are longtime rope specialists that moved into wind-turbine work when the boom began several years ago. Rope Partner focuses solely on turbines.
Starting a rope company is not easy. Turbine owners and manufacturers generally demand to see an established safety record. Liability and workers’ compensation insurance can be hard to get, and climbers typically need a certain level of certification from the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians, a trade group, before they are allowed to work on the turbines.
On fair-weather days, the two men’s first step was to make sure the turbine was turned off, so it would not spin while they were on it, a potentially deadly proposition. Then they carefully organized their gear for the day — mixing chemicals to create a gel coating to treat the blades, assembling snacks and suiting up in helmets and ropes.
After vanishing up the tower, the two climbers appeared as tiny specks at the top of the turbine. Each was secured to the top by two ropes. They let themselves slowly down the blade, which was pointed toward the ground, and got to work. An orange extension cord, over 45 meters long, accompanied them, to power the sander.
Some 300 certified rope specialists like them — or rope access technicians — work on turbines in North America, and that number may triple in three years, according to Stomp. Already, he said, demand is so acute that his own rope company, WindSwain, has an eight-week waiting list.
Stomp and others say that no rope expert has been killed or seriously injured on wind turbines. The method is safer and generally cheaper, rope advocates argue, than alternatives such as using a crane or a skybucket.
There are dangers, however. This year, a turbine technician for Skala was high up on a turbine when the blade — whose pitch angle was being adjusted with the aid of one of the manufacturers’ technicians — shifted in an unexpected way, according to Chad Shearer, a training manager at Skala. No one was hurt, said Shearer, who cited a fault in the turbine and said his company complained to the manufacturer.
Standard industrial accidents do happen — Haughey, for example, once got the tip of his finger caught in a moving part inside a turbine, though he was not on ropes at the time. Workers sometimes drop small untethered items, like bolts.
On the chilly day that they sanded the turbine blade in Pennsylvania, Touchette and Haughey dropped nothing, but warned visitors at the base of their turbine to stand upwind, just in case.