As construction continues on the three new wind turbines atop Pillar Mountain, towers are beginning to rise and a new skyline is growing.
Stop by the construction site, and you’ll see dozens of men working, connecting fasteners, setting grout and stringing cable. Chances are, however, your eyes will be drawn to one thing in particular — the crane.
Since Friday, progress on Pillar Mountain has been measured by the work of the cranes there and at Samson Tug and Barge in Womens Bay, where components are being offloaded from a barge.
Only a handful of people in Alaska are certified to operate the special equipment brought in to work on Pillar Mountain, and if you ask them, they’ll tell you about the challenges this job brings.
“This is for the community, and that puts a lot of stress,” said Kris Sockwell, the Kodiak foreman at Samson Tug and Barge.
On Tuesday, Sockwell sat in the cab of one of Samson’s cranes, setting turbine blades onto idling super-long tractor-trailers. A light drizzle fell, and as Sockwell picked up another 120 foot-long fiberglass blade, the wind suddenly picked up, spinning the blade and sending its edge careening toward the crane’s red-painted boom.
On the ground, waiting for just that moment, were eight Samson crewmen holding guide ropes that dangled from the blade. They dug in their feet, but at first the momentum of the blade dragged them, their Xtratuffs gouging a wake of thick mud. Slowly, they brought the blade to a halt and uneventfully lowered it onto the flatbed.
“(The blades) are so fragile, there’s no margin for error,” Sockwell explained. “It’s completely different from containers.”
At 13,000 pounds apiece, the nine blades are the lightest pieces of the project that have crossed the Samson dock this week. The three steel turbine tower bases moved Friday each weighed 138,000 pounds. That’s equivalent to 30 Ford F-150 pickup trucks.
After those were the 108,000-pound tower midsections, tower tops (68,000 pounds), the tower nacelles (117,000 pounds), and rotor hubs (44,000 pounds).
The heavier jobs required two cranes working in tandem, Sockwell on one and fellow crane operator Eric Beattie on another.
Sockwell has been a certified crane operator for three years, and has lifted heavier things before — a bridge girder in Seward, for example, that weighed 168,000 pounds — but given the fragility and the high profile of the job, lighter doesn’t make easier. “It hasn’t been the heaviest, but it’s definitely been the trickiest,” he said.
Tricky as it is, getting the blades and bases off the barge is only half the challenge.
Atop Pillar Mountain, the job of maneuvering the pieces into place falls to brothers Kit and Erik Sundsten. Both are longtime crane operators, and while they work in the same industry, frequent travel means they don’t often see each other. Now, they’re working Erik’s backyard. He’s lived in Kodiak with his wife for 7 1/2 years. “We talk often about work, but it seems like every couple of years we get to work together,” Erik said. “We work real good together.”
That’s a critical factor when two cranes are lifting a bulky object together. “You have to trust them; you have to trust the other crane operator,” Erik said. “One guy can ruin it for everybody.”
For most of the last week, that teamwork has been even more important. Dense clouds and fog have covered Pillar Mountain’s summit. “Half the time, you can only see 100 feet, which is only a third of the boom,” Erik said. “Radios is the answer. Signaling in the fog, half the time it wouldn’t work.”
On Wednesday, the sun finally emerged above Kodiak, and Erik sat behind the controls of the enormous 384 foot-tall crawler crane atop Pillar, holding a turbine blade in place as it was attached to a hub.
It’s his first job working that crane, which is so large there are only three or four in all of Alaska, rented and brought in special for each job. “With that long boom, you have to have patience and take your time,” he explained.
The crane’s enormity means each movement has to be done slowly, and Erik has to adjust for delays as movements are translated across 1,000 feet or more of cable. “The timing is way different,” he said. “It’s a lot of line out there.”
With good weather expected through the weekend, any rapid progress will be visible from the base of Pillar as tower midsections and tops are hoisted into place. The farthest west turbine is expected to be topped first, and work will progress in order on the turbines to the east.
If the weather turns bad and the wind blows, the cranes will still be on hand, ensuring that though the cradle may rock, it will not fall.