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Wind Turbines Across a Landscape. North Dakota Oil Workers Are Learning to Tend Wind Turbines

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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.

Given all that, perhaps it's not so easy being green for some in North Dakota: on the one hand, it's pretty clear that the state's energy future lies with wind; on the other, the current head of the Party, President Trump, believes that windmills cause cancer and that "when the wind doesn't blow, just turn off the television, darling, please. There's no wind, please turn off the television quickly." So, if the technical transition is relatively simple, the cultural transition may take a while.

Yet recalcitrance about the necessary transition to renewables isn't confined to the right. Labor unions whose workers build pipelines have historically kept the Democratic Party from a more full-throated backing of renewable power. This time four years ago, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. came out strongly in support of the Dakota Access pipeline, even after indigenous protesters had been attacked by security guards with German shepherds at Standing Rock. As Richard Trumka, the president of the federation, said at the time, "Pipeline construction and maintenance provides quality jobs to tens of thousands of skilled workers." In 2018, young activists persuaded the Democratic Party to stop taking money from the oil-and-gas industrybut the A.F.L.-C.I.O. leaned on Party leaders, who quickly reversed course after, as Tom Perez, the head of the Democratic National Committee, put it, "hearing concerns from Labor that this was an attack on workers." Just last month, North America's Building Trades Unions issued new reports insisting that, in the words of Sean McGarvey, the organization's president, "Today's oil and natural gas jobs are better for energy construction workers across the country in both the short and long term." He added, "The research confirms what our members tell us: the career opportunities for renewables are nowhere near what they are in gas and oil, and domestic energy workers highly value the safety, reliable duration and compensation of oil and gas construction jobs." And, in May, the Los Angeles Times reported that gas-union workers, rattled by proposed legislation in the city of San Luis Obispo that would encourage new buildings to use electricity for heating and cooking, threatened a mass protest "with no social distancing."

All of this is understandable, especially since some clean-energy entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk, have decided to be anti-union. But, given climate change and its outsized effects on the most vulnerable communities -- Phoenix set a new record last month, averaging a temperature of 99 degrees for July; a quarter of Bangladesh is under water; and Arctic sea ice is, per usual, at record lows for the date -- organized labor needs to be a big part of the solution. That's already beginning to happen: as more wind energy starts to move offshore, massive new projects are increasingly unionized. Just last month, New York State -- in whose waters a lot of turbines will be built -- told bidders that they will need to pay prevailing wages and make good-faith efforts to sign contracts with unions. A "focus on labor" is "integrated into the DNA of our marquee renewable-energy program," Governor Cuomo's climate adviser, Ali Zaidi, said.

Large chunks of Joe Biden's energy plan are devoted to helping labor make this transition, and one hopes that those trends will continue, because the environmental and economic logic of clean energy is growing steadily more obvious. In many ways, it produces jobs at least as good as those in the oil fields, where boom-and-bust cycles make stability hard. Even climbing ladders may not be an obstacle much longer. "Almost every new turbine has some kind of elevator, some kind of individual personal lift," Johnson said. "It takes a lot of training to develop wind techs, and you can't afford to lose someone because they're long in the tooth. You've got to make things a little bit easier for them as they mature. And we're at a point now where people can retire as a wind tech."

The new industries, at their core, are much simpler than the old, and as a result they're going to relentlessly undercut established ways. Every forecast shows rapid growth in the world's electricity demand, even as we near (or perhaps have already passed) peak oil. Instead of finding a distant pool of petroleum and fracking the subsurface geology to make it flow, instead of shipping the crude to a refinery, and then to a gas station, and instead of pumping it into a car tank whose pistons must then explode it in small bursts to power a ton of sheet metal down a road -- instead of all that, you can let the wind turn a blade, take the resulting power down a wire and into a battery, and run a far simpler motor of a car, or a bus or a train.

"Or a Cat or a dozer," as Johnson points out. Big machinery.

 

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Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...)
 
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