We continue the series from The New York Times on the retraining of former coalminers from Wyoming for jobs in alternative-energy.
By DIANE CALDWELL, Oct. 1, 2017 for The New York Times
A View Most Never See
SHAWMUT, Mont.— “You get a view that most people will never see,” as Lukas Nelson, 27, a site manager in Ohio, put it in one of the company’s promotional videos. Only a few towers have elevators, and at Goldwind’s power plant here, the access is by a series of 90-degree aluminum ladders and steel mesh platforms, straight to the top.
It was Saturday morning after the three seminars, and Goldwind safety managers had delivered a brief lecture in a trailer that served as the farm office, warning of perils like rattlesnakes in the tall grasses outside and electrocution from throwing switches in the towers.
The organizers separated the crowd of about 20 into two groups. One would take a tour of the wind farm and substation while the other climbed towers whose blades sat idle. After lunch, they would switch.
In front of the trailer, Chancey Coffelt, 33, Goldwind’s regional safety manager, was showing the climbing group how to put on harnesses — a network of heavy metal clips and rings attached to straps that thread over the shoulders, across the chest and around each thigh. They would latch onto a rope pulley system as they climbed each of four ladders and then hook into a bracket as they reached each platform before freeing themselves from the pulley.
Mr. Davila, the 20-year mine veteran, was standing with members of the second group, chatting about Wyoming’s wobbly energy economy and how wind might — and might not — steady it. “A lot of coal miners don’t like wind or solar, but you need them all,” Mr. Davila said. “It’s like a puzzle you have to solve: just think about how many things we plug in.”
Still, many of the men expressed concern over what the jobs would pay, saying the salaries paled in comparison to what they could earn on an oil rig, for instance.
“It’s so easy to get a six-figure job in the oil industry,” Jesse Morgan, a baby-faced 31-year-old city councilman and back-office worker at a drilling services company, had said over beers at a bar in Casper where he was asked to show ID. “You get addicted to that money.”
But it could be worth taking a pay cut to get out from under the stress of constantly planning for the next layoff, and being able to return home at night rather than working 30- to 40-day stints offshore. The oil field never stops, Mr. Morgan said of his time on the rigs. “It’s 24/7 — you miss birthdays, every holiday.”
As with the other men, Mr. Morgan’s work experience made him an attractive candidate for Goldwind. Accustomed to the industrial behemoths of fossil fuel production, he is familiar with the environment, equipment and procedures of working safely while surrounded by danger — like remembering to fasten the chin strap on a hard hat so it won’t slip off and injure a colleague laboring hundreds of feet below. . .
Interrupted by a Storm
It was after lunch, and Mr. Davila and Mr. Morgan were at the base of one of the wind towers, wearing heavy harnesses and waiting for the first group to finish so they could start the climb. Suddenly, Jason Willbanks, 39, who lost a job as an electrician with a coal company and now drives crews to and from their shifts on coal trains, emerged from within. Walking heavily into the blazing sunlight, he clattered onto the metal platform and stairs. Asked how he was, he shot back: “Sweating like a fat guy at an all-day dance.”
As he pulled off the harness, dropped to his knees in a patch of shade on the grass and rolled onto his back, Mr. Davila offered him a bottle of water from a cooler. “You’ve earned it,” he said.
Not long after, word came from the Goldwind crew: A thunderstorm was heading toward the farm, so the second group could not climb.
“I feel like I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go,” Mr. Davila said, disappointed, gesturing toward the harness. “I wanted to see if I could get up.”
“You’ve just witnessed what it’s like to be a wind-turbine technician,” Mr. Coffelt, the safety manager, said, cocking an ear over one shoulder and suggesting that the group move away from the rattlesnake he had heard. “Imagine if you’re one or two stacks up when you get that alert: right back down we come.” After weighing options, the Goldwind organizers called it a day, offering repeated apologies and promises to get the men back to the site which, over the following months, they did.
Mr. Morgan, who posted a beaming selfie from atop the turbine on Facebook, did not apply for the training program. But Mr. Davila did, and was accepted.
He is torn over whether to enroll, he said. He is desperate for the work but hesitant to leave his wife and home in Gillette, where he has lived since he was 6, for one of the jobs immediately available outside the state. Still, he added with a chuckle, it might be good to move: “Maybe there’s more to the world than Gillette.”
To be continued