Thanks to the coronavirus, we are rapidly heading toward a recession. Lawmakers are scrambling for ways to keep the economy aloft — distributing relief payments, bolstering unemployment, bailing out out hard-hit industries. But these measures are likely to prove insufficient, which is why some observers are pushing for a clean-energy jobs program to revive the economy and restore our national confidence. Jobs in clean energy, they say, would both allow people to pay rent and, crucially, lend them a sense of purpose.
Perhaps no one knows better than Neal Gyngard.
A feeling of peace sweeps over Gyngard when he is 300 feet in the air working on a gently swaying turbine. “There is a slow, steady wind, and the tower moves back and forth, like a boat in the ocean,” he said. “The sound of the wind mutes out everything, and it’s a really calming feeling. You can see for miles — the sunsets, the sunrises — it’s really quite addicting, honestly.”
But the best part isn’t the views or even the serenity, he said. “It’s the feeling you get knowing you are keeping the machines running, that they are powering peoples’ homes with clean energy, and that you are the one keeping them spinning,” he said.
Gyngard has been involved in wind energy for more than a decade, and he may be the only wind industry employee in history who can boast of having deliberately worked his way down.
“I went from being a boss to being an entry-level technician, and I loved it,” he said. “I was on fire for the next two years, I couldn’t get enough.”
He began his career building wind farms in Iowa, New York, Minnesota and Kansas, and eventually moved to Utah and became a site turbine manager at a large wind farm in Milford. But his curiosity about the mechanics of turbines overtook him. He quit his supervisory job, took a 50 percent pay cut, and became a technician. It was a natural for Gyngard, who grew up building cars with his father and grandfather, and who enjoys taking things apart, then putting them back together. “Coming from a poor family, we had to fix whatever we had that was broken,” he said.
In 2012, he created Tower Climbing Grease Monkeys, a social media site for wind turbine technicians, and a Facebook page. Both connect thousands of people in the wind industry, from technicians to industry CEOs, linking workers to each other — as well as to potential employers. (The name comes from a short-lived band the guitar-playing Gyngard formed in 2010 with a few other wind techs.)
He also goes on tours, stopping at wind technology training schools and wind farms to talk about employment and education, and products that he believes can help technicians better perform their jobs. He doesn’t sell them. He just promotes them.
“My bottom line is to make the lives of these technicians a little bit better and have them be a part of the community, just like firefighters and policemen are part of their communities,” he said. “Tower Climbing Grease Monkeys binds them together.” His Facebook page “acts like the water cooler of the wind industry,” he said.
His is an unlikely voice for clean energy, as he is beloved both by climate activists who push for renewable energy and by blue-collar wind technicians in red states who consider him one of their own, people who look to clean energy as a source of work that will keep them in their communities.
“My message to them is not about climate change,” Gyngard said. “It’s not needed with these people. What is needed is facts and information that show we can make energy from thin air. I don’t talk to them about whether or not the planet is warming. I try to meet people where they are. Not everyone is a believer [in climate change.] We don’t talk politics, or about the things that divide us. We talk about the things that bring us together.”
Most wind turbine technicians “just like working with their hands,” he said. “They are not tree-hugging, hippie types. Most technicians are conservative people in conservative areas. I’m just all about the technicians. That’s who I love working with.”
Last year Gyngard spoke to wind energy students at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado. “I think Neal is one of the most positive voices in the wind industry, highlighting the challenging and very dangerous job wind technicians do each and every day,” said Jim Lenzen, assistant director of the school’s renewable energy program. “He treated the students as if they were already technicians. Coming from someone with his amount of celebrity, the students were captivated. They were blown away, not only by how gracious and generous he was, but also how genuinely considerate he was of their well-being as future technicians.”
Gyngard, 35, who lives in Cedar City, in southwestern Utah, grew up in Moreno Valley, California, a town between Los Angeles and Palm Springs.
“I was interested in renewable energy before I became interested in becoming a technician,” he said. “My passions were idealistic. I wanted to give back to the planet. I didn’t want to work for a retailer, or sell insurance. I’d seen Al Gore’s movie. I felt a shift was coming, that we could do better.”
After graduating from the University of California Riverside in 2007, he applied to several renewable energy companies. During the process, he discovered that his uncle had changed jobs from working the Texas oil industry to managing wind turbine construction.
“Uncle Steve gave me a call and told me he needed help with his supply chain,” Gyngard said. “I’d studied business administration, so he brought me to a wind project in Minnesota, then to Iowa where they were building a huge wind project.”
Gyngard learned about wind farms from the supply chain side but switched his focus to the turbines themselves after helping to build the Milford farm, learning how to erect and repair wind turbines. He said that things do break every once in a while, and technicians need to know something about electricity, hydraulics, and mechanics — as well as how to work safely at heights, he said.
“It’s not for the faint or weak of heart,” he said. “A technician must be physically fit. It’s a tough, demanding job, especially in elements where most people wouldn’t want to be outside.”
He still climbs up those towers, whenever he has a chance. “We’ve created modern marvels,” he said. “But often the guys who keep them going get overlooked, and I’m here to shine a light on them. They are renewable energy rock stars.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.