When repairing wind turbines became his full-time job five years ago, Josh Crayton was awed by what he calls "the fantasticness of it all."
"It didn't seem real," Crayton, an avid rafter and rock climber, recalled of his first days at Rope Partner, a Santa Cruz, Calif., company. "To get to use my climbing skills and my rope knowledge was great."
Rope Partner soon had him climbing up 260-foot turbines with a rope, a harness and a partner. Once he got to the top, his tasks on wind turbine blades could involve everything from repair to cleaning to even painting. At any point in the year, his work locations could range from the Midwest to Texas.
However, extreme weather, such as high winds, also came with the territory -- which is why many days had him only "hoping to be in the air all day," Crayton said. He soon became accustomed to a transient lifestyle that shipped him across the country to various wind farms for weeks at a time.
"It's difficult work," he said. "You receive an itinerary, jump on flight and travel to the spot. Assuming all of your materials and bags make it with you, you'll start work the next day."
Many of the world's wind turbines are starting to age. According to the American Wind Energy Association, there are now more than 197,000 turbines in the world. In the United States, there are more than 36,000. Both numbers are growing rapidly, which is why avid outdoors enthusiasts like Crayton are finding themselves increasingly in demand.
Two prevailing forms of repair dominate the industry. One has repairmen using machinery like cherry pickers to reach the blades. But another growing practice puts workers like Crayton to the top without all the expensive equipment. Like rock climbers, they reach the top with their arms and legs and little else.
Spending the day hanging out
The method appears to have at least two major advantages. "It's far more cost-effective and generally safer, because you have a main line and safety line," said Christyne Mortensen, an office manager at Ropeworks Center of Excellence, another organization that employs rope workers to fix turbines. "We have easier access and can go anywhere on the turbine."
Based in Reno, Nev., Ropeworks employs about 50 workers who repair wind turbines across the country and in some cases internationally. As wind becomes more prominent in regional electricity systems, the need to keep wind turbines running efficiently has become more critical. Then there is the economic factor: "All those big companies want to save money," Mortensen said. Taking machinery out of the question helps lower the cost.
Rope workers tend to cluster in the windier parts of the country. They're housed in hotels and typically work a 10-hour day. As in their rock climbing forays, they customarily enjoy lunch with a view, packing food like chili and canned soup up to the top of a turbine, which typically stands 300 feet high.
A job can take anywhere from a few days to months. At Ropeworks, a job will usually take two weeks. Repairs on wind turbines can be for a variety of reasons. At Rope Partner, which does similar work, Mason Baldwin lists wear and tear from debris and repairing the turbine blade's fiber glass as typical tasks.
"Like in car, mechanical parts are going to fail," said Baldwin, an office assistant at Rope Partner.
Much of the work could change as existing turbines continue to get older. "It's young industry," Baldwin said. "We probably don't even know what we'll have to deal with in future as problems start to rise and machines start to age."
What happens to blades as they age
Employees of Ropeworks, which was known as Skala until technology tester Mistras Group purchased it this past December, mostly come from rock climbing backgrounds. Mistras, which tests many aspects of wind turbines, purchased the company to "complete our portfolio to provide a one-source solution for the wind industry," said Ralph Genesi, Mistras' group executive vice president of marketing and sales.
"Blades happen to be an area right now that are seeing a lot of damage as they get older," Genesi said, adding that fluctuation in the climate can cause blades to separate and disbond.
One of Mistras' reasons for the acquisition lies in supporting Ropeworks' growth. It amounts to a bet on the growth of what is still a small industry. Genesi estimates that about 15 rope-climbing turbine repair operations exist. He sees room for expansion. "As [wind farms] get larger, they're going to have to be more reliable," he said.
While rope workers tout their technique as a cheaper alternative to using machinery, there are still tasks where both methods might intersect. Heavy machinery might be hard to transport to remote areas where wind farms are often located, but they can lift technology up to the turbines that can used to methodically detect early signs of blade cracking, for instance. Still, in terms of the actual repair itself, rope workers usually do the trick.
To affirm the safety of the job, both Ropeworks and Rope Partner require their workers to be certified by the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians before being hired. The SPRAT certification is a weeklong class offered across the country.
Training keeps the accident ratio low. Off the top of her head, Mortensen can recall two accidents, one resulting in death, where both people didn't have their ropes properly tied.
To be sure, rope climbing jobs aren't limited to green energy. While Rope Partner, according to Baldwin, does the "occasional kind of screwball job," Ropeworks has recently expanded into repairing oil rigs.
As for Crayton, he has since come down to earth and works as a blade services manager for Rope Partner, a role he said he grew into. Still, he sometimes goes aloft to do the work that originally drew him in. For him, the thrill hasn't gone away.
"It's fantastic because it offers a little bit of a better life," he said.