Pair scales giant wind turbines for a living

BOTHELL — For Erik Scudder, hanging by ropes from a 350-foot wind turbine tower is an exhilarating way to make a living.

Not everyone, though, shares his feeling about his job.

“Mothers hate it,” he said.

Scudder, of Bothell, and partner Matt Schutz, of Clovis, Calif., comprise the two-person operation that is Big Stone Renewables.

Their specialty is to maintain and repair electronic equipment on giant wind turbines. Much of their work is done at the wind farms east of the Cascade Range in Washington and Oregon, but the two have worked all around the continent, including in California, the Midwest, upstate New York and Manitoba, Canada.

The towers are equipped with climbing pegs, but otherwise Scudder and Schutz are using ropes and safety equipment similar to that used by rock climbers.

The business partners, in fact, are rock climbers as well and do it for fun on the side. Scudder, a young 47, frequents Vertical World, an indoor climbing gym in Everett.

Combined with an academic background in meteorology and work experience in telecommunications, he has the perfect resume for his job.

Schutz, 32, formerly worked for another company that does wind turbine maintenance. Scudder previously worked for Nextel. The two met when Schutz was living in Seattle and they found that in addition to their experience and hobbies, they shared a belief in renewable energy.

“If it’s coming from somewhere it might as well be coming from somewhere clean,” Schutz said.

He was laid off from his job and then moved to California. Soon after, Scudder also was laid off. In 2011, the two decided to start their own company.

Business was slow at first.

“Being a two-person operation and competing and working with huge multinational corporations, it’s really hard to get your foot in the door. They’re not used to taking a risk on two guys starting up a business,” Scudder said.

Big Stone Renewables had an advantage, however. For most of the larger companies, tower maintenance is a small part of their business. Many don’t do the intricate electronic work in which the Big Stone partners are well versed, Scudder said.

Work has accelerated, and this year Big Stone expects to be in the black, Scudder said.

On the towers, they leave the work on the big parts, such as hubs and blades, to other companies. They’re mostly checking and tuning meteorological and telecommunications instruments, though they will tighten nuts and bolts as well.

Most towers are about 350 feet tall, but many of the newer ones are taller, according to Scudder — up to 450 feet, the equivalent of a 45-story building.

“A project that only takes 5 minutes on ground takes about 20 to 30 minutes up in the air,” Scudder said. “You can’t drop anything. If you forget a tool, or if you drop a nut, or you’ve got a $3,000 anemometer, you can’t drop it. Going back down and picking it up would not be the best thing in the world.”

So far, they haven’t had to do that, Scudder said.

“We’re extremely careful,” he said.

They make sure data feeds are working correctly. That information is vital in documenting weather conditions and measuring turbine performance and output. The power that goes into the grid is measured and closely regulated.

Software problems and connectivity issues are common. Some of the instrumentation is in boxes, either mounted high on the turbines or on the ground. A lot of the work is done on laptops, Scudder said.

“About half our work is done on the ground. Getting that information to where it needs to go is critical. A lot of times, if the cell modem happens to be down, for every day it’s not working, they get fined. (Companies) can rack up thousands of dollars a day in fines because they don’t have this information.”

Sometimes instruments are damaged by weather. Lightning strikes are common. Anemometers, which measure wind speed and other weather factors, are susceptible. The classic type is the three-cup “spinny thing,” Scudder said, but they come in other forms as well.

One time, “we found a sensor just hanging off an 8-foot aluminum boom by its little cable,” he said.

In December the two worked on wind towers near Arlington, Ore., that supply power to the Snohomish County Public Utility District. The Wheat Field Wind Farm is owned by EDPR, a Portuguese company with offices in Portland and Houston. The PUD buys electricity from the company, receiving an annual average of 28 megawatts, enough to power 21,000 homes, utility spokesman Neil Neroutsos said.

Wind farms are owned by a vast hodge-podge of companies, many of which have offices in Houston or overseas, according to Scudder and Schutz.

Much of the data from the turbines is sent to central offices in Houston or elsewhere. Scudder, who was a photojournalist in college, enjoys taking photos on the job, both for documentation and for fun.

“Pictures are actually really important to our clients,” Scudder said. “These guys sit in cubicles. They can talk about it, but a picture’s worth a thousand words.”

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; bsheets@heraldnet.com.

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