Storage, Wind Power

Making the Blade Photoessay: How and Where Wind Turbines Get Their Swoosh

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.

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!”

Click next below to see the step-by-step process.

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Annual inspection of one of the two main moulds in the main shell area.

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Steve Ward attaches suction pads to the dried girder in order to lift it from the mold and transport it to a different station.

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Suction pads from a girder mover.

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Workers apply several layers of fiberglass to the blade.

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A worker pours resin onto a sheet of fiberglass.

 

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Each blade is meticulously sanded by hand using hand sanders.

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Each blade is meticulously sanded by hand using hand sanders.

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Two half-finished blades sit side-by-side on the factory floor. 

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A worker trimming the blade.

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Seven blades can be seen in various stages of completion.

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Dom Posteraro sands the edge of a blade.

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Sanding the edge of a trimmed blade.

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More sanding!

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Two sanders and one trimmer working on the same blade.

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Three different activities taking place on the same blade: sanding (at the far tip of the blade); small repairs (in the middle of the blade); and curing the fiberglass (at the right, under the pink plastic).

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A metal tip is applied to blade #51.

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Final sanding before painting.

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A blade is moved by overhead crane to the painting section.

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Two workers use rollers to hand-paint the blade.

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The completed blade on right is being slowly lifted into the shipping crates, while another blade (left) is being painted.

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Completed blades waiting to be transported to an installation site.

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Finished blades being lifted onto a truck for delivery to the installation site.

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Finished blades being lifted onto a truck for delivery to the installation site.

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A truck leaves the PowerBlades factory to deliver a completed blade to an installation site in Ontario.