Saturday, February 1, 2014

If a turbine falls in the forest ...

Every so often I go through this old blog and sometimes I find something I've almost forgotten that seems worth airing again. 

Here's one:

There are some kinds of work that require the most perfect, precise planning. These are very few, in my opinion. Most jobs have their surprises. And then there are types of people who think that prior planning for everything is the hallmark of the professional. Holders of this opinion are fairly common, because it's taught at colleges and universities, especially in the business and administrative classes.

The theory is that it's the job of the modern manager to anticipate every eventuality, perform total "due diligence" and have a plan in hand at all times.

But my job isn't like this, and while I often make detailed, extensive plans, my personality has evolved over the years to the point where I actually enjoy those surprising days when nothing goes according to plan.

Yesterday was one of those days.

Our wind power research crew was scheduled to motor over to Newport, Maine, with a truckload of tools and equipment to begin the dismantling of a Bergey 10KW wind turbine. This is parked in a field not far from town, and the owners have come to dislike it, and want it gone. They want to run cattle in the field, and they want their young children to be able to play there without having to warn them about the tower. It doesn't help their opinion of it that it produces very little power on this site, and that it has already fallen down once. It isn't very well installed, and they've come to fear it in wind storms, which are frequent in this neck of the Maine woods.

(By the way, any wind turbine will do this, produce inefficient quantities of power, if not properly sited. Be sure to consult with a qualified anemometrist and have your site tested before investing in an expensive wind turbine. Steer clear of the contractors who are selling these things until you have your site's wind numbers and an independent power production estimate. The contractors often don't know how to properly measure the wind or find the precise wind map data, nor how to interpret it for a given site. Their job is to sell you the machine, otherwise known as a pig in a poke, if you don't take this advice. And they don't mind selling you the follow-up service when it doesn't work, or falls down, or whatever, either.)

We were to be helped in this endeavor by some experienced Bergey operators, Verne LeCount of MOFGA, and his regular consultant in all things renewable, Dr. Jay LeGore, a retired materials science academic and engineer who lives in our area and who experiments with solar, biofuel and wind systems. I've handled a lot of towers, but I'd never lowered a Bergey, so I was pleased to have them there. I also figured they could help pass some knowledge on to our two student apprentices.

Of course, they motored to the site in Jay's white Prius. Not trying to be stereotypical at all.

Anyway, long story short, we assembled our equipment, began the lower, which uses an electrical winch, and things were going well until...

the winch cable was frayed at the half-way point!

How this damaged bit of cable found it's way onto our winch drum is an interesting mystery. The winch had been systematically checked, and the cable completely replaced, just a few short days ago.

The supervisor (me) was on hand for this process and watched the wind worker spool most of the cable onto the drum. But I didn't watch it all. It's also possible that the tangle that caused the fraying occurred out of sight.

Suffice it to say the wind power crew and their supervisor are undergoing a process of memory- and soul-searching this weekend...

Ultimately, snafus like this are the supervisor's problem though.

Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, a great read I plan to require for all our Sustainability Design and Technology students, suggests that mechanical work of this kind has what other forms of professional work in this country increasingly lack: an objective standard of performance.

Managers in today's society, he suggests, can "spin" their performance endlessly, because often there's no way of telling whether or not they are actually producing good management.

He likens their predicament to that of the Soviet apparatchik, who has to have two whole spearate languages, one in "party-speak" for spinning her performance, another in more realistic and/or colorful Russian for trying to get things to work at all.

Good management is like composition or poetry. There's a lot of room for opinion. The eternal rhetorician's question, "what is good, Phraedrus?" applies. Since most students at colleges or universities are studying for these white collar types of jobs, they have to be taught, if possible, good judgment on questions like a good format for a report, or a good way to summarize a policy. Objectivity is difficult with such nebulous problems. Students grow up learning that effort and application will put them ahead of the pack, not necessarily being correct or right.

But for an old-fashioned machinist or wind engineer, or a climate scientist, for that matter, there are objective and time honored standards like "square," "level," "within tolerance," or "within specifications" (as opposed to without), and objective devices to use to gauge the quality of what is produced. The supervisor comes by with his level or gauge or micrometer, and the thing either is or isn't right, runs or doesn't run, produces the expected kilowatts per hour, or doesn't. Your planet either heats up and people begin to die, or it cools off and we manage to avert disaster.

Or, almost as obvious, and thus objectively, and with less time clock to run out while spinning endless excuses, your turbine is down on the ground safely.

Or not.

Crawford also notes that technical work is a "stochastic art" in that outcomes are inherently unpredictable and subject to intervention of random variables. Craftsmanship is found when the craftsman (or craftsperson, if you prefer) has mastered the process of his or her labor, including learning to cope with random problems.

I've come to think of teaching and mechanical work as having this stochastic feature in common.

Teaching is stochastic in that you never know when a teaching moment will occur, and the teacher has to be light on her feet to capture the moment, give the timely lesson, and drive it home. In today's distraction filled world, young minds are open to change only for very short windows. You can't afford to waste any of these window-open periods. A superb teacher is probably one who knows how to create those teachable moments really well, even predictably, and follow them up with the right lesson every time.

Anyway, this is all a very philosophical way of saying, we almost killed our wind turbine here. The day was saved mostly by experience. We had three grizzled veterans of many a battle with renewable energy equipment, including among the three, two PhD's, one of which was in engineering, and enough experience and coolness that we could talk it out calmly, study the problem, and come up with a solution.

We improvised a back-up system to support the weight of the turbine and tower while we passed the frayed cable, and then "sistered" in a reinforcement for the frayed section. The frayed wire plus sister wire held until the very last minute of the lower. We're actually not sure why it parted in the end. That will have to wait for a careful autopsy of the damaged equipment. This made for a "hard landing," but the damage was limited to one tower section, for which there is already a replacement on-site.

Following the final short drop, our two apprentices were somewhat shaken. The day's stress had shredded their nerves already, and the noises of twanging wires and twisting tower were truly scary. No-one was ever in any real danger; We made sure of that. We were all very close to the tower, though, fielding different bits of it, the way the manual says. The apprentices were at the head, fielding the blades to keep them from the ground, when the tower fell it's last two feet right next to them. They immediately let go their blades and ran!

But the tower was already almost down when this happened, so the only way it could really have hurt them was if they had ignored the instruction not to get under it at any point.

Even so, they were shaken by the noise and sudden movements of the big scary tower.

But the experience just shrugged their more aged shoulders, tidied up a bit, and headed for lunch.

Disaster averted. Lessons learned. One for the casebook.

When I repair that winch this week, I'm thinking I'm going to spool all the wire on there myself. Every inch.

But then I think again. How do we learn to be the most responsible and capable people we can be, if we don't get given the chance to make mistakes, even expensive ones, and live through them? Especially when the standards are objective, like these are.

And while we may not be training blue collar technicians and certified engineers with our Sustainability Design and Technology program, we do need to train our people to deal with objective facts, such as climate emissions reductions, and to not spin their results.

It also occurs to me that if things do go to crap with the climate, we will need a few people seasoned in handling emergencies, too.

No comments: