The blade runners powering a wind farm in West Virginia

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/11/28/the-blade-runners-powering-a-wind-farm Click thru to see the action in these shots. Very impressive.

THE BLADE RUNNERS POWERING A WIND FARM

In West Virginia, a crew of five watches over twenty-three giant turbines.

Photography by Philip Montgomery

November 21, 2022

The Pinnacle wind-power plant extends for roughly four miles in the northeastern corner of West Virginia. Twenty-three turbines dot the spine of the Appalachians, irregularly spaced along the mountain ridges. The towers, supplied by Siemens Gamesa, rise three hundred feet, looking like giant pinwheels amid a rolling landscape of small towns and windy roads. The rotating blades can be seen from Maryland and Pennsylvania. Down below is Mineral County and its county seat, Keyser, a former manufacturing and railroad hub that overlooks a branch of the Potomac.

Five full-time employees maintain the turbines. Each tower has an internal ladder. After climbing to the top, the workers can investigate errant temperature readings—the gearbox can overheat—or worrisome signals from the tower’s sensors. Once a year, the team adjusts the calibrations of the blades, checks the tension on bolts, and tests the structural integrity of the equipment. Cleanliness is important to the successful functioning of such a delicate apparatus, and the employees take pride in their work. They often lug up a trash bag filled with rags, and use Simple Green cleaner to leave the towers gleaming in the sun. This is the first generation of West Virginians to trade work underground for work up high.

TK alt.
Three hundred feet above the ground, two Pinnacle workers, Tyler Simmons (top) and Isaiah Smith (bottom), inspect the inside of a wind turbine. Cleanliness is essential for such a delicate apparatus. Each turbine blade spins up to sixteen times a minute.

The state, once shackled to a coal economy, now has about four hundred turbines, which collectively can produce about seven hundred and fifty megawatts—enough to power more than two hundred thousand homes. The crew in Keyser is managed by James Adkins, a forty-six-year-old who used to work in a big-box store. Though the turbines require only a small crew to keep them running, Adkins emphasized that Pinnacle’s installation of the wind farm “created hundreds of jobs—local people and unionized jobs.” Pinnacle’s parent company has a program that takes laid-off coal-industry workers and retrains them for clean-energy jobs. The company also stops by schools, giving children a chance to try on hard hats and to learn about the advantages of wind energy. Extracting coal is dirty work—in 1993, the Baltimore Sun quoted conservation officials as saying that runoff from mines had made the Potomac branch as toxic as battery acid.

Pinnacle turbines dot the skyline in Keyser, West Virginia.
Pinnacle turbines dot the skyline in Keyser, West Virginia, where, according to Andrew Cosner, a twenty-one-year-old technician, some residents remain hostile to the new wind farm: “They say it ruins the landscape and it’s ugly.”
A worker wearing gloves inspects a hose attached to a hydraulic pump.
Brandon Kisamore inspects a hose attached to a hydraulic pump used to tighten bolts.
An aerial view from a wind turbine, looking down at two cars.
Kisamore notes that, from the top of a tower, you can “see how small the cars are.”

All the same, Adkins and his four colleagues have had trouble convincing their neighbors of the value of wind farms. The newest member of the crew, Andrew Cosner, is twenty-one, and the grandson of a coal miner. “People are, like, ‘I don’t understand why this is such a big thing,’ ” he said. “They say it ruins the landscape and it’s ugly.” Brandon Kisamore, a thirty-nine-year-old who joined the Pinnacle team after his job at a coal-fired plant was eliminated, has decorated his desk with a “Friends of Coal” decal, to remind visitors that locals are in this together. But he sometimes faces hostility when he goes into town wearing a Pinnacle uniform. “They think the power’s going somewhere else,” he said. “It goes into the power grid, but they don’t understand.” One time, Adkins was waylaid by an older woman in Keyser, who insisted that the turbines were blowing snow from the mountains onto the town’s streets. “I tried to explain, ‘That’s not how they work,’ ” he said. “She wasn’t angry, but she was confused.”

A man stands in the nacelle of a wind turbine.
Smith stands in the nacelle of one of the turbines just before daybreak.

This collection of photographs, by Philip Montgomery, calls to mind Lewis Hine’s famous images of laborers constructing the Empire State Building, and also the iconic 1932 shot of ironworkers casually dangling their feet off an I-beam, far above Rockefeller Center. At the Pinnacle facility, however, many of the workers deal with an initial fear of heights. Kisamore says that it took him three months before he could go up a tower without feeling sick, and Adkins urges students at the local community college who hope to work at Pinnacle to do a test climb of a tower. “You could waste two years of your life and find out you just can’t handle the job,” he said.

For workers who can conquer their fear, though, it’s beautiful up there. Cosner said, “I’m never afraid of looking out, because you don’t realize how high up you are.” The team’s day often starts at around 6 a.m. “It’s real nice then,” Kisamore said. “You can see the sun come up.” 

D. T. Max

Two men work side-by-side at two desks.
Kisamore (left) and Smith. “We can reset the turbines from our desks,” Kisamore says. The pitch of the blades can also be altered remotely. The Lamborghini poster was a gift from his son; the “Let’s Go Brandon” flag came from his mother-in-law.
A worker services a wind turbine.
Simmons services one of the Pinnacle farm’s twenty-three turbines. Once a year, the team adjusts the calibrations on the blades, checks the tension on bolts, and tests the structural integrity of the equipment.
A technician's hand is covered in grease after removing the excess from the catch tray of a turbine.
A technician removes excess grease from the catch tray of a turbine.
Pinnacle's five full-time employees gather for a team meal at the wind farm.
From left to right, Simmons, Cosner, Smith, Kisamore, and Adkins, Pinnacle’s five full-time employees, gather for a team meal at the wind farm.
A view of the hills of Keyser, West Virginia, from the top of one of the turbines.
A view of Keyser, West Virginia, from the top of one of the turbines.
A line of wind turbines stretches into the distance.
Roughly forming a straight line, the turbines swivel in the wind, which usually comes from the west. The blades are a hundred and seventy feet long, and James Adkins, the lead wind technician, says that from the top you can hear “a swishing noise.”
A man emerges from a turbine's nacelle.
Simmons emerges into a turbine’s nacelle. To get to the top of a tower, workers must climb an internal ladder. They wear a safety harness connected to a rail. “It’s like climbing a tunnel straight up,” Adkins says.

Drone footage by Johnny MilanoPublished in the print edition of the November 28, 2022, issue, with the headline “Blade Runners.”

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