Wind-Service No “high anxiety” here!

Working high above the ground, service technician Michael Richter maintains wind turbine gearboxes around the world and climbs the equivalent of Mount Everest each year.

Michael Richter’s workplace is very cramped, very hot – and very high up. Richter is a service technician specializing in wind turbine gearboxes. His work takes him up into turbine nacelles, over 300 feet above the ground. Each nacelle houses a driveline, generator and control system, so space is at a premium. When the wind starts to blow and the blades start to turn, the cramped compartment soon turns very toasty: temperatures can reach 120 degrees!At least the climb isn’t (usually) too hot and sweaty. Most of the taller wind turbines are fitted with tiny elevators, capable of holding two people with minimal luggage. “But it’s not always like that,” says Richter. Many wind turbines have no motorized climbing aids at all, and then the job turns physical. Clambering up and down the ladders of up to three wind turbines a day is strenuous enough to take a toll; last year, the Belgian engineer climbed a vertical distance equivalent to the height of Mount Everest and more.

Video: No "High Anxiety" here

The video provides an insight into Michael Richter's special workplace and illustrates in which heights the maintenance of wind turbine gearboxes is performed.

70-ton gearboxes

Richter and his 25 specialist colleagues around the world circle the Earth several times each year on their mission to service wind turbines in Europe, Asia, Australia, and North and South America. Minor repairs can be made directly inside the nacelle, but if m­ajor repairs are needed, the gearbox – which can weigh up to 70 tons – must be lifted out of the nacelle by crane and driven away on a heavy-duty transporter. This means several days of hard work.As a rule, gearboxes last for 20 to 25 years. To be able to resist the powerful forces acting on them, they need regular maintenance. Many of the 30,000 wind turbines in the U.S. are covered by service contracts. “We’re experiencing a regular boom over here,” says Marcel Pooth, Head of ZF Wind Energy Service. Business is good, as it is in Europe, with good prospects in China over the medium to long term. Pooth believes ZF is in a perfect position to respond to the growing demand. “First, we’re well placed to service our own gearboxes, and second, we also service and repair products built by third parties,” he explains. Transporting gearboxes that each weigh many tons is expensive and time-consuming, which is why a worldwide presence is so important. ZF has multiple service centers in Europe and the U.S. But the company also has a presence in other markets, such as India and China.

Not a job for life

Richter is based in Lommel. But he rarely works in Belgium – maybe a couple of weeks each year. “Most people only do this job for five to 10 years. They usually give it up once they start planning for a family,” says Kris van Rompaey, who heads the field service team. Richter himself doesn’t look upon it as a job for life. “In a few years’ time, I’ll be repairing gearboxes back at the plant. Which won’t be much different – just not so high up,” he smiles.

Pictures: Thorsten Futh

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