Direct Current - An Energy.gov Podcast presents People Powered, a series that brings you real stories of the folks getting their paychecks in the energy sector. There are millions of good-paying jobs in energy, and you’ll get a chance to meet some of the people who have jumped into these fast-growing careers.
In our first episode, we shared Kaly Moore’s story about her path to being a solar construction manager in D.C. Kaly shared why she loves working in solar, how it has helped stabilize and revolutionize her life, and how it feels to make a positive impact on her community every day. Our second episode is all about Michael Flores, a traveling wind technician.
Meet Michael Flores
Michael Flores is a wind technician who travels the country with his dog Riley and climbs 200-foot turbines all day long. (Spoiler alert: his dog doesn't climb the towers.) His job with Renewable Concepts Inc. keeps him on the go, moving from one wind farm to the next every few months — which is just how he likes it.
Michael shared with us how he got his start in wind energy, what it’s like scaling massive wind turbines, what he does when the wind isn’t blowing, and why he’s planning to stick with a career in wind for the long haul.
In the past decade, U.S. wind power has tripled, becoming the largest source of renewable generation in the country. As the U.S. power generation mix incorporates more wind energy, the country will need qualified workers to fill jobs in all roles, including turbine design, project development, construction, operations, finance, and more. Pro tip: don’t miss our career map from the Wind Energy Technologies Office, where you can look at the education path, salary range, job profile, and job skills for these careers.
Since 2016, when DOE first began tracking energy employment in the United States, the sector grew more than six percent by the end of 2019, responsible for 8.4 million jobs. From 2015 to 2019, the annual growth rate for energy employment in the United States was 3%—double compared to 1.5% in the general economy, according to the U.S. Energy and Employment Report. Despite the pandemic, wind energy generation jobs increased by 2 percent during 2020. There are over 43,000 jobs nationwide in wind project construction, with wind energy ramping up as a source of electricity generation in the U.S. Wind represented the largest source of U.S. electricity-generating capacity additions in 2020 (that’s 42% of all U.S. capacity additions).
Want to learn more about how wind energy works? Check out DOE’s energy 101 videos about wind turbines and wind power:
Workforce Ready: DOE’s Workforce Preparedness Programs
The Wind for Schools project helps develop a future wind energy workforce by encouraging students at higher education institutions to join Wind Application Centers and serve as project consultants for small wind turbine installations at rural elementary and secondary schools. More than 145 systems have been installed at host schools across 12 states: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Montana, North Carolina, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Virginia.
The next generation of the wind workforce is gearing up for this bright future. The Wind for Schools project works closely with the KidWind Project and the National Energy Education Development Project to provide hands-on, interactive curricula that are supported through teacher training workshops in each of the states. Our website has a guide to getting started at your school.
Another key DOE program is the Collegiate Wind Competition. It challenges undergraduate students to create solutions for complex wind energy projects through real-world experience as they prepare to enter the wind industry workforce. Participating teams — made up of students from a variety of majors —, design, build, and test a prototype wind turbine; develop a site plan and cost-of-energy analysis for a wind farm; and conduct outreach to the wind industry, their local communities, and local media outlets.
The competition culminates in the spring, when teams conduct final turbine testing and present their work to a panel of wind energy experts. Keep an eye on the 2022 Collegiate Wind Competition to see the 11 college teams in this year’s competition and sign up for the CWC newsletter for updates. Want to jump in? Check out this blog on how to participate in 2023.
More episodes of People Powered will be rolling out soon! Our next episodes in the queue include the story of a building energy analyst who is a first-generation college graduate and daughter of immigrants, and home energy solutions experts who work as “doctors” for homes, diagnosing ailments and treating the homes with all the innovative solutions on offer to keep residents warm in the winter and save energy. Subscribe to Direct Current on iTunes to catch them all.
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MICHAEL FLORES: I was actually 11 years old, and I was passing a wind farm in Tehachapi, California. And I saw them, and just something in my head said I was going to climb them one day.
MICHAEL FLORES: I enjoy climbing. I like learning new things. So every job I've gotten sent on so far, it's been something new that I haven't done before.
MICHAEL FLORES: I may not be going out and saving a life every day, but I'm helping to make our environment a little bit better.
MATT DOZIER: What if you had to climb hundreds of feet in the air to get to work? If instead of a car, a bus, or a train, your commute involved a 300-foot ladder? And sorry — no teleworking in this gig. Think you could do it? Hey Direct Current listeners, this is your host, Matt Dozier. We’ve got another People Powered episode for you today featuring Michael Flores, who you just heard in the intro. Michael’s a wind technician, and he travels from wind farm to wind farm climbing up turbines to work on their inner machinery. Coming up, you’ll hear from Michael about what it’s like to scale the massive towers, what he does when the wind isn’t blowing, and how his dream job as an 11-year-old became a real-life career — one that takes him all over the country with his dog Riley by his side. Speaking of which — you’ll probably hear Riley walking in around in the background of our interview. Just think of it as immersive audio. All that and more, in just a moment.
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MICHAEL FLORES: My name is Michael Flores. I'm currently in Bismarck, North Dakota working on a wind farm in Linton, North Dakota. My job title is, I'm a traveling tech, which is basically I climb up wind turbines and do anything from general maintenances to gen alignments, main bearing retrofits, working inside the hub. So for people who don't know, it's just that circular part you see on the front that’s holding the blades that turn, that's the hub. We get in those and do maintenance in those too.
MATT DOZIER: Nice. Tell me a little about yourself. So where you live, family, kids, where are you from originally?
MICHAEL FLORES: So originally, I'm from Bakersfield, California. I grew up in foster care my entire life. So I don't really have any family. I do consider my foster family, more family than my biological family. I do keep in contact with some of my biological uncles and my younger brother, who was adopted by my foster family so that he could stay with us. Joined the military, they ended up sending me down to Kansas, deployed twice with them, and got out and went to school for wind energy, and so never left Kansas. But now I travel.
MATT DOZIER: So now you leave Kansas all the time.
MICHAEL FLORES: Yeah, I haven't been back to Kansas in eight months.
MATT DOZIER: Really, so okay, what's that like? So you're a traveling tech, you said, you're on the go around the country. So where do you stay, how often are you moving from place to place?
MICHAEL FLORES: So it just really depends on the job that you're doing. I mean, sometimes our company will send someone on a week-long job. I was on a job in Douglas, Wyoming. And that was four-month job that I was there, then we went to Evanston, Wyoming, and we're in Evanston, Wyoming for maybe three weeks. And then I've been in North Dakota now for almost a month. And we still probably have another two months worth of work here. Maybe more, maybe a little less, depending on how the weather decides to play out with us. But other than that, places I stay are hotels, Airbnbs. It really just depends. I mean, I was in Colorado, and I stayed in a cabin. So whatever we find the cheapest best place, we pretty much live there. Right now I'm in a really awesome Airbnb.
MATT DOZIER: So you talk a little bit about your work. How do you explain it when you know you're talking to somebody who doesn't know a whole lot about wind turbines, what you're actually going and doing?
MICHAEL FLORES: So it's honestly kind of hard to explain because a lot of people don't know what a hub is, a nacelle is. I guess the easiest way for me to say it is I'm basically a car mechanic except up in a wind turbine. I think that's the easiest way anyone could ever explain it. Unless you're talking to another wind tech. Probably the most common question we get asked is how you get up them, which most people still don't know, you climb a ladder up them. Some have lifts. But for a majority of turbines, you're climbing them. Every tower is a little bit different height, so some you might be climbing 300 feet, others you might be climbing 250 feet, but it's just a ladder that goes straight up.
MATT DOZIER: Obviously, it's not the kind of career for somebody with fear of heights. Do you have any issues with that?
MICHAEL FLORES: I actually love climbing. I love heights in general. It does suck having to climb some days. I mean, some days you wake up and, you know, you're just not feeling it. We have these things called climb assists, it takes some weight off your body. So that helps us climb. But at the site I’m at right now we don't have climb assists. So we're having to climb those just pure — your entire body weight, without having that extra assistance helping you pull yourself up. And the worst part about it at this job site is that usually I'll climb one tower a day with the climb assist. Right now I'm climbing two towers a day without climb assist. But yeah no, heights, I don't think they're scary. I mean, there's times that we have to go from the nacelle to the hub. And you actually have to climb over the hub, depending on if it's a front entry hub or a rear entry hub. So we're actually sometimes having to crawl across the hub to get inside the blades. So if you're scared of heights, it's not for you. Not at all.
MATT DOZIER: On this job while you're climbing towers twice a day, how much of your day are you spending climbing at this point?
MICHAEL FLORES: When I first started climbing, it was taking me about 15 minutes with the climb assist. Since I've been at this site and had to free climb, it takes me about seven minutes without one. You get used to it pretty easy, especially doing it every day.
MATT DOZIER: It’s a good workout regimen.
MICHAEL FLORES: Yeah, I didn't like food as much as I did, I'd be a lot thinner.
MATT DOZIER: (LAUGHS) So let's talk about a typical day on the job for you. If there is such a thing, describe the kind of work that you're going to do on an average day.
MICHAEL FLORES: So that's day by day. So like the last job I was on, we were doing 10 percent maintenances, which is torquing bolts 10 percent. You do the tower sections, you'd go do the hub domain, you go into the hub where the blades are and you have to torque the blade bolts down. That was 20 percent on that. Then you're greasing the main bearing, you're greasing the yaw deck. You're greasing the generator, you're checking brushes, making sure that brushes are appropriate length so they don't have to go switch them out. Right now I'm on a job where we're doing main bearing retrofits. So what we're doing is we're cleaning out the entire main bearings, we're putting some pre-grease in, pushing out all the old grease. And then we're cleaning out all the old grease in there, then we're checking to make sure that inside the main bearings all good, there's no damage to it or anything, then we're sticking a seal on it, closing it back up, and then we're pumping in new grease so that the new grease is in there running on it.
MATT DOZIER: Okay, so you're tightening bolts, you're changing out grease. You know, there's a lot of stuff here that does sound awfully auto-mechanic-like.
MICHAEL FLORES: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
MATT DOZIER: What — so the bearings, how big are we talking?
MICHAEL FLORES: The entire main bearing is probably four feet tall. It's big, takes two people to do it. So I have a partner with me. He's currently on the job. But it takes about five hours a tower to do. And we do about two a day, and that's wind permitting. But you'd be surprised when you get inside, they're actually really large inside. A lot of people from the distance, it looks kind of small, because no one's ever really up close unless you're working on them. But I'm six feet tall, and I can stand up and still have some space above my head.
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MATT DOZIER: Coming up, the path that led Michael to a career in wind, and how he passes the time when he isn’t climbing turbines.
ANNEMARIE HOROWITZ: Wind power in the U.S. has tripled over the last decade, passing hydropower as the nation’s largest source of renewable energy generation. Along with that rapid growth comes the need for more qualified workers. Turbine design, project development, construction, operations, finance, and more — there are all kinds of career opportunities. And, here’s a Pro Tip: check out the wind career map from the Wind Energy Technologies Office, where you can look up the education path, salary range, job profile, and job skills for these careers. You can find that in our show notes for this episode!
MATT DOZIER: You're working, you said, “wind permitting.” So the wind turbines are working when the wind is blowing — are you working when the wind is not blowing, then?
MICHAEL FLORES: No, we're still working when the wind is blowing. So for the main bearing, in order to clean it out properly, the wind has to be blowing so it can rotate the hub, the blades are rotating, essentially. And when it's doing that it's pushing out the old grease, making it so we can clean it. If it wasn't spinning. If it wasn't rotating, it wouldn't be pushing that grease out towards us. So if the winds aren't high enough, you can't do it because it's not spinning. And then if they're too high, you can't do it because you can't lock it out.
MATT DOZIER: For our interview today, you had some downtime unexpectedly, right?
MICHAEL FLORES: Yeah, no, there wasn't a single turbine running. It's just no wind, so no turbine was spinning. We climbed up there, we sat up there for about two, two and a half hours, called the site manager, let them know, hey, we can’t do it. Sorry. There’s nothing we can do today. That's, they call it standby time. Basically, it's just one of those things where it's not our fault we can't do the work, it's outside of our control. So they're not just going to have us miss out on hours, they're going to still pay us because we're still showing up to work. We're still trying to do it, they give us a certain amount of hours. And it's just one of those things, we can't do work. So they're not gonna fault us because it's not our fault.
MATT DOZIER: What do you do with your downtime while you're out on the road and these different locations?
MICHAEL FLORES: So I usually play with my dog, I bring her with me everywhere. Not supposed to have her in company vehicles for insurance purposes, so I usually fly her out to me, unless I have a friend with a vehicle that's going to the same job site to meet then he just takes her in his private vehicle. But she's always with me. Other than that, I'm watching sports, huge baseball fan, huge basketball fan. And if I'm not watching sports, I'm throwing the ball to her. I love cooking, so I actually cook a lot.
MATT DOZIER: What's your dog's name?
MICHAEL FLORES: Riley. She's a German Shepherd-Rottweiler mix. Two years old.
MATT DOZIER: Nice. That's awesome. You cook for the two of you?
MICHAEL FLORES: Yes, actually. She actually gets a steak every night.
MATT DOZIER: (LAUGHS) Oh, Riley has a good life.
MICHAEL FLORES: Yeah, she's pretty lucky. Anytime I travel. I mean, I take her hiking all the time. If I'm in an area I can camp, me and her will go camping. She loves water. So if I can find a lake, me and her will go to a lake. And she'll just run and play in it all day while I just sit there and read a book or fish, depending.
MATT DOZIER: Let's talk about how you got into this line of work. What made you want to get into wind?
MICHAEL FLORES: I was actually 11 years old, and I was passing a wind farm in Tehachapi, California. And I saw them, and just something in my head said I was going to climb them one day. And so since I've been 11 years old, I've always wanted to do it. And I actually got into it because one of my friends that I knew in California, his dad used to work in oil fields. His dad ended up getting hired by a company to be one of their top safety guys. He ended up moving to Kansas to do the job, which is where I was at because of the Army. So I went visited him and his family. And he basically told me to go to the school. It's called Cloud County Community College. They have a two-year wind program there. So he told me about it, and he's just like, hey, if you go to this school, you know, you'd have a really, really good chance of getting hired on, and he knew I wanted to do it. So applied at the school, got in and did the two-year degree, graduated. And I ended up transferring to a four-year university because I wanted to continue my education, but then COVID hit. I'm not an online learner, I like to be in-person, and I dropped out of school and applied for this company, and I'm in now.
MATT DOZIER: So what kind of education and training do you actually need to get a career in wind?
MICHAEL FLORES: So a lot of times, so you don't need the college degree. I went and got the two-year degree because it was recommended by someone who was high up in safety. Well, for the most part, if you have some type of mechanical degree, you know how to use tools, a company — they're not going to pick you first over someone with a degree — but if the company needs enough help, they're going to take that chance and let you. And even then when you first get hired on with the wind farm, you'll show up, you'll do some more paperwork at the office for like a week. Usually, they'll make you do a climb test beforehand before they ever ship you off just to make sure you're physical enough to get up the tower. And then if you're going to work on a wind farm, they have their own facilities where they'll teach people for about a month, how to work on the specific turbines that they're on. And then once you've passed all the tests at that facility, then they'll send you back to the wind farm that you're originally at. And that's when you'll start working. The more you learn more, you learn how to troubleshoot, you'll move up. But some things that do help is already having a CPR — definitely going to need CPR — OSHA 10 at the minimum. That's definitely a requirement. Actually, those are probably the two big ones right now is CPR and OSHA 10. And they'll pretty much teach you everything else you need to know.
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MATT DOZIER: After the break, Michael’s favorite things about working in wind, and his insider tips for aspiring turbine techs.
ANNEMARIE HOROWITZ: The next generation of the wind workforce is gearing up for the future, with the help of DOE programs like the Collegiate Wind Competition. The annual event challenges teams of undergraduate students to design, build, and test prototype wind turbines. But there’s more to it than just engineering skills. Competitors take on complex real-world challenges as they develop plans for a wind farm, conduct outreach to their local communities and the media, then present their work to a panel of wind energy experts. Search “Collegiate Wind Competition” to follow along in 2022!
MATT DOZIER: What do you like about your job?
MICHAEL FLORES: Money. (LAUGHS) That's a very good reason to keep in this job. Besides money, it's — I enjoy climbing. I like learning new things. So every job I've gotten sent on so far, it's been something new that I haven't done before. So I've gotten to learn a lot in a little bit amount of time. I know people that have been in the wind industry for 10 years that still don't know everything on a turbine because you know, once they think they know everything, they'll come out with a new system or a new turbine or bigger turbine that has more things you’ve got to worry about. And so they'll have to learn something new.
MATT DOZIER: Do you like the travel or is that a bit of a drag?
MICHAEL FLORES: I love the travel. I don't ever want to stay in the same spot for more than a year. So far, our company hasn't put me in the same spot. If I have to, obviously I will. It's a job. It's a career. But I just like the ability that when this job is done, I know that I'll be going to either a different state or a different city. They'll send you to different places, you get to see a bunch of different stuff, you get to experience different cultures, which I think is the best part.
MATT DOZIER: You mentioned thinking of this as a career. Do you think you'll be in wind energy for the long haul?
MICHAEL FLORES: Yes, I want to be in the wind industry until I retire eventually. So I don't know how much longer my body will give me. But I mean, could be done at 55 could be done at 65 If I make it into the corporate world, but I don't want to leave wind energy.
MATT DOZIER: What is this job, and this line of work, meant for you for your life?
MICHAEL FLORES: It's made it a lot easier. I went from having to pinch pennies every second I was in the military to I've never checked — since I started with this company, I haven't checked my bank account. I don't know how much is in my bank account because I haven't checked it. But they pay us well, they take care of us, they like to make sure you're safe. I mean, our project manager will call us and make sure we're doing good, we have everything we need. It's not like most jobs where they just kind of — you have to go ask them for stuff. And I think that's probably the best thing. I've gotten raises already with the company and under a year. And I didn't have to ask for it. They noticed I was working hard. And they gave it to me on their own. I didn't ask him he just called me and he's just like, hey, check your check this week. He's like you should be getting a raise.
MATT DOZIER: Yeah, I don't think a lot of people can say the same for their jobs.
MICHAEL FLORES: Yeah, no, it's nice. They understand and value hard work. And as long as you work hard for them, they're going to show you their appreciation.
MATT DOZIER: Do you ever take a step back and think about how your work is helping advance clean energy, reduce carbon emissions, fight climate change, and things like that?
MICHAEL FLORES: It's so hard talking to people about that type of thing, because you never know where someone stands. I mean, shoot, you can be at a gas station and someone will see the logo on your truck, and they'll start cussing you out. Because, you know, they're against wind energy, and they don't care if it helps the environment or what — they heard something on the news how one killed a bird some time ago, and wind turbines are now the worst things in the world. So it's hard to think about those things when you're not at work. Most times I try and separate work life from being at home. When I am up there, it's kind of awesome to see, because you realize you're doing better for the environment. And you're helping, even though it may not be the biggest help in the world. You know, like I'm not going out — I'm not a doctor helping patients every single day. It's still a step in the right direction. That's the way I see it. I may not be going out and saving a life every day, but I'm helping to make our environment a little bit better.
MATT DOZIER: Yeah, yeah. What would you say to somebody who was interested in getting into a career in wind?
MICHAEL FLORES: I would honestly tell them to get into the construction side of it first. A lot of people, they don't realize what they're getting into. You have to be dedicated to the job. A lot of times, techs are on call during the weekends. You'll work a full week and then you might be on call and you might be working all weekend too, then you'll be working that next week again, too. So unless you're actually dedicated and want to do it, I'd recommend going into the construction side first, because the construction side will show you that type of work. It'll get your foot in the door, it'll show you a lot of different stuff. It will teach you about safety. And I say be dedicated, because it'll take up your time. It has a lot of perks, great pay, they give you time, paid vacations, you know, things like that. Raises, chances for promotions, but unless you're dedicated, I wouldn't do it. Anyone that's dedicated should do it, 100%. But you’ve got to be dedicated, because I was at a site that was understaffed, and they had their tech's working weekends a lot. So it's one of those things. It wears your body out — make sure you're in good shape to be climbing all the time.
MATT DOZIER: Michael Flores, thank you so much for joining me.
MICHAEL FLORES: No problem. Appreciate you.
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MATT DOZIER: That’s all for this episode of Direct Current. To learn more about wind energy careers and see photos from Michael’s office up in the clouds, check out the episode page at energy.gov/podcast. Thank you to my guest, Michael Flores, and to Neal Gyngard from Tower Climbing Grease Monkeys for helping arrange the interview. AnneMarie Horowitz also contributed to this episode, and a special thanks to our intern, Mikayla Tillery, for all her assistance. We have lots more People Powered stories coming your way, including a building energy analyst who’s a first-generation college graduate and daughter of immigrants, and the director of sustainability for a major American city. Subscribe to Direct Current on Apple Podcasts to catch the rest of the series. Direct Current is produced by me, Matt Dozier. Sarah Harman creates original artwork for all of our episodes. This is a production of the U.S. Department of Energy and published from our nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. See you next time.
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