What I learned at the top of a wind turbine

Duke Energy Renewables President Rob Caldwell climbs to the top of a wind turbine to see how his teams harness wind power

I arrived before sunrise at the Los Vientos Windpower Project in Texas and joined the crew during their hour-long safety briefing. Climbing 300 feet to the nacelle of a wind turbine is hazardous so every day starts with a safety discussion.

We talked about what they learned from recent maintenance projects and safety precautions such as avoiding dehydration and heat exhaustion. Snakes, insects and heat were mentioned more than once. Then we warmed up with stretching exercises. The team filled extra-large thermoses with water and checked their gear before heading out for the day. This was already night and day from my usual morning routine. 

After the safety briefing, the wind turbine team warms up with stretching exercises.

Since becoming the president of Duke Energy Renewables, I’ve worked hard to stay connected to our teams in the field. Unfortunately, sitting behind a desk makes it difficult to get a glimpse of the experiences and challenges our teams face. To understand what goes into harnessing natural resources and generating renewable energy for our customers, I needed to “climb a mile” in their shoes. 

The Duke Energy Renewables team manages over 4,000 megawatts of renewable energy. Many of our facilities are in rural areas in Texas, Wyoming, California and Oklahoma that experience extreme conditions: snow, heat, humidity, hail, torrential rainstorms, high winds and grueling heat.

Wind technicians go through over 50 hours of training before they are assigned to a field position. I underwent a modified version of the training so I could use the safety gear and techniques to climb a turbine. I also learned ways to maneuver the equipment in an emergency. Dangling from a rope and rappelling down a pole had its challenges, but it barely gave me a glimpse into the fatigue my arms would endure during the actual turbine climb.

Rob Caldwell in the nacelle of a wind turbine at Duke Energy's Los Vientos Windpower Project in Texas.

When I arrived at the wind turbine, I was already sweating. But it wasn’t until I put on all the gear that I realized the physical and mental weight of what I was about to do. One of our wind technicians took pity on me and handed me a pink bandana to wear under my helmet. It would be my way to honor breast cancer survivors. I was inspired by the message and appreciated the fact that my pink bandana would keep the sweat from rolling into my eyes.

The climb to the top took me about 40 minutes. Not bad considering the 95-degree heat and 100% humidity. My arms were tired – I was surprised by how much upper body strength was required. I drank three bottles of water and rested a few times along the way, but I made it.

Once we got to the top, the crew looked at me and said, “OK, now get to work!” Once you get to the top, a wind technician’s responsibilities just begin.

At the top, techs have several hours of electrical work to complete before descending. I also learned that some of our technicians make the climb several times a day. Planning is a must. You don’t want to get to the top and realize you forgot a tool or the proper oil required for the job.

After enjoying the views, it was time to descend. I was warned the climb down can be more difficult than climbing up. Ropes get tangled, lighting is scarce and you’re tired. I decided to use the lift to get to the bottom. What took me 40 minutes to climb took the lift about five minutes to get me to the bottom. I can certainly appreciate the value of that piece of equipment!

Overall the experience was humbling. It gave me a greater appreciation for our team. They are what makes us accomplish our mission of producing renewable energy and are the heart of our business. It also gave me more insight into the work they accomplish every day. The crew was so helpful and took time to explain safety precautions and tips along the way. Their passion for their careers and their camaraderie really shined through.

This experience gave me a new understanding of the importance of establishing safety procedures for our team, ensuring they have the proper equipment needed to complete their jobs and a pure appreciation of what our folks do to bring energy to the communities we serve.