How do you build a wind turbine? Climb, fly, rattle and trip -- Not always in that order

Oct. 8—LOWVILLE — There are two things that are especially attractive for construction workers about building a wind project: the super-sized equipment used to build the towering turbines and the allure of the view — and the adrenaline rush — at the top.

Seventeen years ago, Elton E. Quotskyva of Illinois embraced an opportunity to become a member of the Ironworker Union Local 112 after building houses and doing general construction for years — a choice he said changed his life.

The first job the union sent Mr. Quotskyva on was at a wind farm in Bloomington, Ill.

"I remember driving out there, thinking the entire time, 'I hope they let me climb these things," Mr. Quotskyva said. "I wanted to climb. I wanted to be up top and just be a part of it, and then when I showed up, a guy had broken his hand that morning up top (of a turbine) ... so I got to take over for him. I did a good job out there. They liked me and I climbed for the next ten years after that."

He is currently the construction manager for Tennessee-based Barnhart Crane and Rigging, the subcontractor for the general contractor, Wesson Group, in charge of building Invenergy's Number Three Wind project in Lewis County. Barnhart is responsible for erecting the 27 wind turbines.

"Climbing is a young man's game," said Mr. Quotskyva, "We obviously have a lot of older gentlemen that just can't climb anymore. Physically it's just not a possibility, but they still are very, very good at rigging and some of the stuff we do on the ground in preparing pieces to go up."

Shawn P. McGovern, 26, of Barneveld, has been a climber on just a few jobs since joining the Utica-based Ironworkers Union Local 440 in June 2020, but he knew right away he wanted to go "up tower."

He did and he is a tower leader for a climbing crew on this build.

"I had a couple of real good guys that were tower leads. They kind of took me in and showed me the ropes. They taught me pretty much everything that I know now," he said.

The crew Mr. McGovern leads is also called the "top out" crew. It is their job to maneuver, place and secure the turbine parts brought to the top of the towers by massive cranes.

"We got a pretty good crew. Most of them are new to wind so they all came on, they learned quick and we got in a groove, so it's all worked very well for us," said Mr. McGovern. "These are new towers for me — I haven't done these Vestas (turbines) — so it was a little learning curve in the beginning, but I think we got it now."

According to Mr. Quotskyva, constantly evolving technology in the wind industry keeps his job interesting and is one of the reasons Barnhart's standard operating procedure is to start with training.

"We travel into these little small towns in New York with these iron workers that have never seen a turbine, so we have to train them how to do what we do," Mr. Quotskyva said. "It usually takes a little time for a crew to gel. I usually say after we've got about three turbines in, we're rolling pretty good."

Describing the pre-gel training phase as sometimes "tedious... and frustrating," Mr. Quotskyva said bringing the team together is ultimately "very rewarding when you finally get to see the fruits of your labor."

While building the turbines is straightforward, working with so many different personalities coming from different backgrounds and a number of different states is often the most challenging part of this kind of work for everyone involved, according to a number of people working on the project including Mr. Quotskyva.

He said over the years, he has learned how to deal with people better. "I'm still learning," he said.

On this build, however, the crew hasn't had as much drama so far and he has seen some talent in the new people he's working with, which always catches his eye for future projects.

"This crew right here, they're killing it. They're on fire. They're a tight-knit group, they're getting along and everybody really knows their role — what they're supposed to be doing and when they're supposed to be doing it, so the training part is already done," Mr. Quotskyva said. "That's huge."


Like with most industries, wind tower builders have their own verbal shorthand and in many cases it is descriptive, colorful and a little cheeky.

Crews "fly" or "trip" turbine parts weighing thousands of pounds via cranes of varying sizes to be guided into place by the up top climbers, fitted on studs or connected with bolts and secured with nuts "rattled" to tightness and precision torque with a power tool.

All of it is big. All of it is heavy.

It takes two cranes working in tandem to trip the tower base sections called "cans."

Once the base can is placed it is carefully leveled "to a percentage of a degree of plum."

"The connection between the first two cans is a big connection," Mr. Quotskyva said, noting that there are 144 bolts that weigh 80 pounds each secured with 75-millimeter (almost 3-inch) diameter nuts.

The bolts get pre-placed so they can fly with the cans, as does the 140-pound tool used to secure the nuts.

"It's so heavy that we have to hang what's called a tool balancer above it," Mr. McGovern said. "It's like a yo-yo — it comes down and takes a good chunk of the weight of the tool on the system, so we're lifting it up and moving it around for all 144 connections. Otherwise, the guys just couldn't do it."

On the waist-high platform, the climbers guide and secure the next can to be "stacked" as the crane floats above them. Once all the nuts have been torqued, the cranes grab the next can and the process is repeated until either the crane being used can't reach any higher, so another crane will finish the stacking, or the tower base is complete.

The final can in the tower is called the spike.

There are two turbine models being used in the Number Three project — five older GE 2.33 megawatt turbines with a 263-foot (80 meter) tower consisting of three cans and 22 Vestas V150s which are among the tallest and biggest energy producers on the market, with a five can tower standing just under 350 feet (105 meters.)

The process for putting turbine nacelles, hubs and blades together is different for each model.

Nacelles are the command centers containing the hydraulic, mechanical, electrical and computer equipment that turns the wind into energy and sends that energy through power lines to the electric grid. It also has sensors on top and controls inside that allow it to detect and react to wind direction and speed.

The blades attach to the turbine at the hub, which spins as the blades get pushed by the wind. Together, they are the rotor.

Nacelles "yaw," which means they turn to get the rotor into the wind being harvested.

GE turbines have a nacelle that is pre-assembled, only needing the addition of a generator and a high-speed coupler, but is otherwise ready to work, according to Mr. Quotskyva.

The rotor is built on the ground where the blades are bolted to the hub and lifted as a unit to the awaiting top out team standing on the spike.

"When we trip that rotor, that's actually pretty cool. I like doing those," Mr. Quotskyva said.

The much larger Vestas nacelle gets taken apart when they first arrive, configured with permanent walls and rebuilt with all of the necessary equipment in the large interior space. The hub gets attached before they are sent to the top.

To trip the nacelle and hub is to fly what looks like a space craft of some sort and it is no small feat.

"We're hoisting 389,000 pounds, 105 meters (about 345 feet) in the air. That's about the biggest lift we've got," Mr. Quotskyva said. "We've got weather blowing in, but we're committed. The thing is with 400,000 pounds, it (the nacelle) doesn't really move a lot. With the blades it's a different story. They're designed to catch the wind and move."

Each 74-meter (242-foot) fiberglass blade is lifted separately with hydraulic clamps that release by remote control after it has been secured on the hub.

Once all three blades are installed, the rotor has a diameter of 150 meters (492 feet).

All of that lifting to skyscraper heights takes an extremely large crane and a few 600-foot ropes called tag lines to keep the load steady.

The largest crane being used on Number Three is a 3 million pound crawler crane with a far-reaching lattice boom rated to lift up to about 880,000 pounds (440 tons.)

Because of its weight, the crane is disassembled and trucked from an individual or group turbine location to another where they are reassembled.

Mr. Quotskyva said the heavy component lifts, the top out teams grabbing the flying components from the crane and securing them, the millwrights' work taking apart and putting sixty crane pieces back together are the most dangerous parts of turbine construction and Barnhart's Safety Officer C. Matthew Tabor, a traveller from Indiana, agreed.

"Out here, we evaluate the risk. Everything we do involves risk. Right here, we're getting ready to lift the rotor," Mr. Tabor said before the GE components were moved to the tower top, "We've got two cranes and there's a lot of things to take into account there. Our job is to go out, evaluate the risk and look at how we can lessen that risk for our guys."

Communication between the people on the ground and those in the air is key to keeping the process safe.

As parts move, the people running tag lines, the top out team lead and crew bosses can be heard on the radio letting the crane operator know what can be impossible for him to see, like the proximity to trees on the other side of the load and the direction adjustments needed to get the massive components positioned correctly on awaiting studs.

In locations where turbines are grouped together, the crane "walks" the short distances between using cleared tracks when power lines were buried by another sub-contractor, Resource Environmental Solutions LLC.

Before the walk, Mr. Tabor and his colleagues test the dirt tracks for stability, noting soft areas that need to be reinforced with "crane mats" made of 12-inch by 22-inch squared-off oak tree trunks bolted together to disperse the crane's weight, keeping it from getting stuck.

"We absolutely destroy these things (mats). Some of them are like toothpicks when we're all done," Mr. Quotskyva said.

The frequent rains in August and September created extremely muddy conditions that made the work more difficult.

"New York is tough: the mud, the rain, the slop. I mean, we're out here with equipment trying to build a crane out in a field — I think it's got a 420-foot stick (boom) in it — but you can't drive around out there (with the wet ground). It's a mess," he explained.

When the wind is up, rain is coming down or lightning flashes within a 30-mile radius, climbers descend and turbine building pauses for safety's sake, so when those weather circumstances arrive unexpectedly, Mr. Quotskyva and his crews can be caught at a difficult time to stop.

"If you've cut the crane loose from the spike then you're committed. It can't set overnight without the nacelle," he said. "One week we probably got lightning four times. We had a blade halfway up and the lightning just popped up out of nowhere right over Lowville, right in this area. It can be a sunshiny day and all of a sudden it just clouds up and lightning pops up and shuts us down."

The pristine white gleam of turbines after they have been built does not happen by accident. All of the components are washed completely before they are installed and great care is taken to make sure they don't get dirty inside or out when they are being moved or secured.

Peter C. Geelan, construction manager for Chicago-based Invenergy, which owns the Number Three project, said that climbing inspectors from Invenergy, Vestas and Wesson will go up together in the turbines later this month to do a final inspection, looking for any incorrect detail, even chipped paint chips or missed dirt, to make a final punch list.

Once that list is completed, the turbines will be classified as "mechanically complete."

While the perfectionism can be frustrating for the builders, they also get it.

"I look at it like this: you wouldn't pay for a new car with dirt and smudges all over it and chips in the paint when you go to pick it up. Invenergy doesn't want their new turbines to be that way either," Mr. Quotskyva said.

Mr. Geelan said there is not much left to do to complete Number Three.

The permits for road bores under state Route 12 were received this week from the Department of Transportation which will allow the electrical system to connect.

The point of interconnection and substation is substantially complete, which means they are finished enough that Invenergy can start to move forward with them even though there may be some minor items to do on punch lists.

There is still about 150 feet of rock that still needs to be removed for the transmission line to be substantially complete and there is less than a mile of collection line that still needs to be finished.

"That sounds like a lot, but we had 195,000 feet of collection line to install, so four to five thousand feet is very small for us," he said.

After completing electrical testing from Oct. 10 to Oct. 21, Number Three can connect to National Grid. The GE turbines are in the process of being pre-commissioned and will been seen spinning in "pinwheel" mode. The wind can move them but the power is not yet connected. Once the project is fully connected to the grid, turbines will be commissioned.

Number Three also just surpassed 300,000 worker hours with no accidents requiring more than a band-aid since the build began.

"We have a very safe and experienced good crew out here that have done a very good job for us. And yeah, we're only as good as the people that are building it for us," said Mr. Geelan.

As of Tuesday, with clear skies in the forecast for the rest of the week, Mr. Geelan said he is confident not only that Mr. Quotskyva and the Barnhart team will finish erecting the final four towers by the middle of next week and that they will be mechanically complete by Oct. 25, but that the entire build will be done by the end of the month and Number Three will be producing energy.

Mr. Quotskyva will meet his mid-October goal to be done with the build and avoid the mess he found himself in last year.

"We got caught on Tug Hill for three months in the snow," Mr. Quotskyva said. "I had three turbines left. I was running top out and a crane froze one night and it didn't thaw out for three months... We went and checked on it every day. That's all that we could do — wait for the weather to break. It takes a long time here."

That should not be a problem this year.

As he watched the well-orchestrated movements of the final GE rotor placement, Mr. Quotskyva remarked. "It's pretty smooth. Isn't it cool? It hasn't gotten old yet."

"At the end of the day, maybe five years from now, I may be rolling down (Route) 12 and I can look around and say, 'I did that.'"

He smiled and nodded as he watched, looking pretty happy about it.