An industrial wind turbine is a complex machine made up of hundreds of moving parts, but it takes just three of them to make the magic possible: the blades.
Wind turbine blades harvest energy from currents of air, but they don’t come off an assembly line like widgets. Indeed, it’s difficult to appreciate just how much effort and care goes into crafting them until you see the process up close.
That’s why I was recently honoured to be the first professional photographer to lens the shop floor at PowerBlades Industries in Welland, Ontario. The company is a Canadian subsidiary of German wind turbine manufacturer Senvion.
PowerBlades opened last year to support the growth in renewable energy in Ontario spurred in turn by the province’s Green Energy Act. As of this week, the company will have fabricated 78 fiberglass blades, each 45 meters long and up to three meters wide, for dozens of 2.05 MW Senvion turbines.
Each Senvion turbine generates enough energy to light up about 1,000 homes.
Birth of a Blade
Inside PowerBlades, overhead cranes move girders and blades from one part of the building to the next. Here, 136 production workers, machine operators, and office staff work on various stages of blade production, including lay-up, lamination, curing, sanding, painting, inspection, repair, finishing, loading, and transport.
Blades begin their lives in the plant’s Main Shell Area, where workers lay sheets of fiberglass mat and resin into a pair of side-by-side proprietary molds each about 50 meters long and four meters wide. Each blade is built up in two halves, split down the long axis like a pea pod.
Once the resin cures, workers carefully glue the two halves together. Eight to 10 workers then physically climb into the blade to scrape out excess glue from the inside. They then apply heat to finish the curing and gluing process.
Going Over the Wall
Crane operators then gingerly lift the blade to the first of several finishing stations in a delicate process known as “going over the wall.” Over the course of several weeks, operators will lift and shift each blade to a variety of finishing stations for trimming, laminations, adding minor hardware (such as receptors and the pointed tip), sanding, painting, and “root end close out,” which involves installing a plywood attachment that seals off the base of the blade.
Like sculptors, workers swarm over every inch of the blade with palm sanders, painstakingly and meticulously smoothing out bumps and imperfections, before the cranes again hoist the blades to the painting section.
Buckets and Rollers
The final phase of finishing is refreshingly low-tech—four painters, two on each side, attack each blade with rollers. Each takes two coats of paint, about 15-20 gallons in total. On average, it takes a couple of days for the team to finish its work.
Gantry operators then lift the finished blades one final time into shipping crates and convey them out of the building into the storage yard. From there, Senvion’s clients truck them to installation sites.
The crew at PowerBlades take great pride in their work, knowing that they are not only making a good living, but also slowly-but-surely reducing their province’s dependence on natural gas and nuclear energy.
“We’re so proud to be working here,” explained Adam Chevalier, a 28-year-old production worker. “To have a job, first. And then to have a job that is doing something good for the environment, renewable energy, it’s great!”
Joan Sullivan is an independent photographer with a passion for renewable energy. Since 2009, she has documented all construction phases of a dozen wind energy projects, and is currently the official photographer of Canada’s largest wind energy construction project: EDF EN Canada’s Rivière-du-Moulin project near Chicoutimi, Quebec. Recently, she began work on a photography book that will showcase the many talented men and women who are literally building the nation’s clean energy future.