Altamont Wind Farm Visit

June 15, 2023

There is something about craning your neck upwards and staring at the heavens that really makes you understand the scale of the climate transition. As we stood at the base of a wind turbine at Altamount Pass, we had to do exactly that to take in these massive structures. The height of the turbine was taller than any building in Berkeley (at 430 feet tall, these turbines tower over the 307-foot tall Campanile). The diameter of the blades of the turbine was the length of a football field. Wind turbines are massive, beautiful pieces of energy infrastructure and we desperately need so many more of them. 

Currently, wind power makes up less than 8% of California’s electricity generation and just over 10% nationally. To reach California’s decarbonization goal of a 95% reduction in emissions by 2050, wind will need to supply 25% of California’s electricity generation. Considering the future expected increase in electric load to replace fossil fuels from transportation, heating and other end uses, the grid needs an almost 500% increase in wind generation capacity in the next three decades. To me, these figures can often feel abstract, more like moving around pieces of a power grid board game than building something physical. But seeing these turbines in person and meeting the people making the climate transition happen made it all feel real. After all, the climate transition is already having profound impacts on the economy. There are over 100,000 people employed in the wind industry and wind turbine technician is the second fastest growing profession in the United States.

Meeting these wind turbine technicians was my personal highlight of the trip. For hours we learned about the demands of their jobs. Days start at 6 AM, with many technicians waking up before 5 AM to make the lengthy commute to the wind farm. Once at the job site, the technicians haul 70 backpacks up a 400-foot turbine to ensure it is running properly. They often must withstand inclement weather (working in the rain and cold as long as there is no lightning) and extreme heat (the turbine engine room can reach 130 degrees during the summer). A job can take anywhere from 2 to 14 hours, and technicians often do not know their assignment until they arrive. Often, the only company they will have at the top of the turbine is from curious crows and hawks. Simple tasks we take for granted, such as going to the bathroom, present additional difficulties hundreds of feet in the air. 

For many of us who have long been passionate about addressing climate change, hearing what drives wind farm technicians to come to work was illuminating. Kate Eger, BERC co-president, summarized it well: “It was really interesting to learn about the different motivations that brought people to wind farms more broadly. Some people were interested in the technology because it's a stable and steady job, others are interested in being a part of the fight against climate change. One woman was just really passionate about wind turbines specifically and wanted to get involved. It was a helpful reminder that there are myriad roads that lead towards renewables, and it's our job to make sure that the transition happens quickly.”

For the 20 of us BERC members who craned our necks at Altamount Pass, what we saw was eye-opening. Yes, these turbines are enormous. But so is the scale of the climate transition. It gives me a great sense of hope and gratitude that there are so many brave souls, like those we met, who climb hundreds of feet in the air through strenuous conditions to help power the energy transition.