Ride the wind

Nevada wind power is growing

Doug Olson of Briggs Electric stands beneath a city of Reno wind turbine he installed at Mira Loma park.

Doug Olson of Briggs Electric stands beneath a city of Reno wind turbine he installed at Mira Loma park.

Photo By kat kerlin

This is the third of a four-part series RN&R’s Green section is publishing in April about breaking into the renewable energy industry. Next week: Agnostic energy.
Briggs Electric, 887-9901, www.briggselectric.com.
Wind industry information: American Wind Energy Association, www.awea.org.

The wind keeps Doug Olson up at night sometimes. The whipping kind that whistles through power lines, cutting through feeble branches and fences, and setting the dogs to howling. On those nights, Olson envisions blades flying from wind turbines and tumbling across roads—a rare, but not unheard of occurrence. He wonders what he’ll have to fix in the morning.

“It’s a moving piece of machinery,” he says of a wind turbine. “The blades are always turning, the generator is always moving, there’s a lot of moving parts. So as far as maintenance goes, it’s a very labor-intensive deal.”

Olson has been an electrician for about 25 years, and he now works for Briggs Electric. He got certified to install solar energy roughly five years ago, but then someone asked if he could install a wind system. Sure, why not? Before he knew it, he was installing nine wind turbines for the city of Reno and getting calls from several other people to install turbines.

“Nevada is not a good wind resource,” he says. “We get a lot of wind, but it’s gusty, and it’s not steady.” Wind turbines need a steady wind to work efficiently. Olson says some models actually stop working if the wind blows stronger than about 45 mph; others may not generate full power until the wind hits 20-25 mph, so the window for power generation is small. Add to that complaints from neighbors about noise and aesthetics and a high cost of construction relative to low energy output—return on investment is about 25 years for residential wind compared to 10 or 15 for solar—and one wouldn’t think the outlook for wind in Nevada would be good.

That said, wind energy is slowly gaining ground in Northern Nevada. The 30 percent federal tax credit on clean energy systems helped fuel that demand. So did a rebate offered through NV Energy on wind installations.

Larry Burton is program director of the utility’s Renewable Generations Program and is also part of the Nevada Wind Working Group. He says participation last fall in the “WindGenerations” rebate program was higher than expected. “The program had a goal of 5 megawatts, and we received about 11 megawatts in applications,” he said. “All 11 megawatts were given reservation notice.” However, that decision means the program is now closed for new applications while changes to the program are considered. Burton says the application process for wind rebates will likely reopen this fall.

Not many people are devoting their entire jobs to wind, but several electricians, like Olson, are adding wind energy to their repertoire.

“I think to get into this right now is a good thought because our world is going to change in the next 20 years,” says Olson.

To break into the wind power industry, Olson suggests a person have a mechanical and electrical background. Truckee Meadows Community College, the University of Nevada, Reno and trade unions offer energy courses. A C2 certification is needed for wind installation. It’s also important to be able to help consumers identify whether wind power is a good choice for them, which can be tricky due to its variability. “And if you’re going to get into it as a business, you have to have a good sense of being able to sell stuff,” says Olson, who does sales, installation and permitting.

“If I wanted to stay working, I needed to go find work, so I had to get educated. That’s a lot of it. But a lot of it is having a good mechanical ability—when the wind blows, it tears things up.”