“You want to climb to the top of a wind turbine?” asks Mark, one of the wind farm technicians. “One of them is down for maintenance today so here’s your chance!” My mind races through some excuses: it’s too high, I might get a heart attack climbing 350 ladder rungs, I don’t like heights, I haven’t even put it on my bucket list!
Three of us are working on a wind farm for a couple of months, conducting a bird and bat mortality study. All of our work has been focused on the ground at the base of the turbines where we diligently search 50-meter radius circles for dead birds and bats. Now we've been offered the rare chance to climb to the top. The other two excitedly say ‘yes.’ I have to do it.
Safety is of the utmost importance in the tower climbs. We are fitted with safety harnesses and helmets, sign a waiver, then drive out to the tower. The techs unlock the door. Entering the tower, I am expecting to see a nice set of spiral stairs like you might see in a civilized lighthouse, but no, it’s a steel ladder and we will have to climb it straight up for 28 storeys! There are three platforms along the route to rest on, the techs assure us. There is also a safety line on to which we clamp our ‘fall arrest’ lanyards.
Inside the first section
The techs tell us it’s an absolutely perfect day for a climb: not too hot and not too cold. In winter, they have to work in subfreezing conditions inside that metal tube; in summer, the sun beats on the tower and heats it up like an oven. We start to climb, one at a time. The first 80 foot (25 m) section is tough but we all make it to the first platform to rest. The next stretch is even longer, and it turns out to be a killer. I had to stop a few times along the way to rest, my arms burning from pulling myself up (I learned later I should have done all the work with my legs) and my leg muscles feel more rubbery with every step. My heart is pounding and I worry about having to inconvenience the staff with an emergency rescue. But nothing untoward happens and I keep going.
Now, I’m resting every twenty feet of ascent (I know, I need to exercise more!). We take a break at the next platform, then it’s off for the last 25 meter ascent. It was definitely the toughest but I paced myself and finally made it into the big chamber at the top: the nacelle.
Inside the Nacelle
While my heart and breathing rate slowly recover, the technicians tell us how they do this every day. Sometimes they have to climb up as much as three or four times a day! Needless to say, they don’t need to go to a gym. They do the climb in as little as three minutes. It took me a good 25 minutes! (Later, they tell me there’s a ‘climb assist’ cable which takes about 40 kilos off your apparent weight and lets you scoot up there in no time! I guess they wanted me to pay my dues!)
We’re in the nacelle, a big fiberglass enclosure that holds all of the mechanical and electrical bits. There’s the rotor that has three 45-metre long blades attached to it. Gears can change the blade pitch to start and stop the rotor. Next, there’s the gearbox that steps up the slow-turning rotor shaft from 20 rpm’s to another shaft turning 1200 revolutions per minute. The fast shaft connects to the generator where all that mechanical energy is converted into electricity. Each wind turbine has its own weather station that enables it to automatically ‘yaw’ into the wind for maximum wind energy harvesting. This particular wind turbine produces almost 2 megawatts of pollution-free electricity, enough to power over 300 homes with no pollution. Computers control everything automatically. At the office many miles away, operators can easily shut the turbines down remotely by feathering the blades into the wind.
Emerging from the nacelle
The last step is to climb out of the nacelle and out into the open air! We’re all going to climb through a hatch and on to the top. I climb one last ladder, a mere three meters. I stick my head out into the sunshine and my breath is taken away. I’m almost 100 meters up and can see for dozens of kilometers. There are puffy cumulus clouds dressing up Lake Erie in the distance and farmers are cutting their soybeans. It’s a glorious rural scene.
I’m instructed to immediately latch on with my lanyard to a hard attachment. I climb out and sit down to enjoy the view. The wind turbine blades are feathered so they’re not turning right now and the wind is blowing a stiff breeze. I can feel the tower gently swaying from side-to-side which is somewhat unnerving but they are designed to do this. The rest of the crew comes up. Five of us are sitting on top. We all take obligatory pictures of each other.
Strapped on tight!
The technicians have no fear of standing straight up and moving around. There’s not a lot of room on the top. It’s maybe two meters wide with sloping sides. I stay sitting down, firmly tied off. I don’t relish a gust of wind picking me up and dangling me off the side.
From below, a pair of curious turkey vultures soars up to check us out. We’re in their airy domain.
After ten minutes, we get back into the tower. It’s much easier going down. Gravity’s doing the work and it only takes five minutes to descend.
My body’s a bit sore right now but it was definitely worth the effort.
View from the top: the reward for a few minutes of hard climbing.