NaturEner: Creating green energy to power 100,000 American homes

By Kristi Calvery for the Valerian

160817-thevalerianarticle Wind turbines stood tall amidst the tumultuous grey clouds building in the sky, as I pulled into the lot at NaturEner. Up close, the large structures seemed formidable. Not long after I entered Howard Cliver’s office, his cell phone buzzed with a notification, “lightning detected at seven miles away.”  However, Cliver, the Site Manager of Glacier Wind Farms, sat coolly in his leather chair. “All the guys will be heading in now,” he said as he glanced at his phone.

At the Glacier Wind Farms, everyone takes the lightning seriously because each metal tower reaches 300 feet into the sky. To keep employees safe, Cliver said NaturEner contracts a company to track and predict lightning using satellites, similar to the system airports use. When the system detects lightning 30 minutes away, all NaturEner employees are notified, and they come back to the office, Cliver said.

Lightning is just one of the extreme weather conditions that can slow down work or stop energy production at the windfarm. Common of the region, temperatures can drop below zero during the winter months, and Cliver said, “We don’t get out and work on the turbines when the temperature reaches below  negative 25 degrees. ”

Also,  although the windfarm needs wind to produce energy, Cliver said the wind turbines will automatically cutout (stop spinning) at very high wind speeds. The unpredictable Montana weather can make Cliver’s job challenging, but he said he likes the variety that comes with his work, and he has learned to be flexible with more than just the weather.

Typically, Cliver arrives at work at 6 a.m. before the rest of his crew. He unlocks the doors and takes a walk around the facilities, he said. Then he looks for safety concerns before he sits down at his desk and generates reports determining how many turbines will be down for the day, he said. Before the crew arrives, he spends time checking the weather and making a plan for his crew.

When his crew arrives at 7 a.m., Cliver said they have an informal meeting, which they call “stretch and bend.” The morning briefing captures any safety concerns before the crew heads out to the field for regular maintenance, repairs, to perform maintenance audits, and to gather inspection data among other tasks.

Cliver usually spends most of his day at the office making sure that the wind energy being produced is at its maximum capacity. He frequently checks the monitors which show real time displays of how much wind energy each turbine is producing.

Additionally, he plans for weekly, monthly, or annual projects. “At the beginning of next week we start our blade repair campaign,” he said. During the campaign, the company will bring in a contractor, who will repair and administer maintenance to any blades with divots or other problems. Cliver said the goal is to have each turbine perform at maximum generation. There are also other tasks such as parts inventory or monthly substations inspections, which Cliver is in charge of.

Although Cliver admits the position comes with challenges, he enjoys it because, “there is always something to learn because of the changing technology.” Cliver also feels a bond with the rest of the employees at NaturEner, and he tries to find better ways to be a team leader.

Cliver said the Rimrock and Glacier sites provide around 75 jobs; consequently, “the company is small and provides a family like atmosphere.” Beyond working with his crew, Cliver likes to hunt and fish with the guys.

One employee, Tim Moylan, works as a Quality Auditing Wind Technician, at Glacier Wind Farms. He said the company offers a great work environment, and he loves working outdoors. “The view in the morning and the sunsets at night make this job unbeatable,” he added.

Another feature of NaturEner that is unique is their philanthropic philosophy. Cliver said their company does a lot of volunteer work. This year NaturEner employees helped with the Earth Day cleanup in Shelby, donated money to the walking path in Cut Bank, and volunteered many hours in school programs at Shelby and Cut Bank. NaturEner also plans to buy a pig from the 4-H auction this year, so that all of the employees can enjoy a family barbeque. This philosophy of gratitude comes from Cliver’s understanding, “If it wasn’t for the community, we wouldn’t be here.”

As the Site Manager of the Glacier Wind Project, Cliver didn’t spend years preparing through a traditional education, but instead, he started as a ground level technician and worked his way up. Along the way, he had some very unique training experiences with manufacturing companies in places like Denmark, Germany, and Sweden.

A seasoned veteran in the wind energy field, Cliver was originally from California, and he worked on the very first commercial wind project in the United States, which was Oak Creek Energy. That company started in 1978 and he worked at Oak Creek Energy in the 1990’s after a three and half year stint in the Navy. Cliver has now worked in the wind energy industry for 19 years.

Cliver started working for NaturEner in March 2010 when his brother, the original site manager, called him about the position. Cliver grew up in a small town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with around 3,500 people, so Montana’s rural location next to the Rocky Mountains was a big pull. Now, Cliver said, he and his son don’t want to leave.

Fortunately, Cliver and Moylan are at a company with plans to continue their projects and expand. Candace Saffery Neufeld, Chief Operations Officer of NaturEner, said the company is finding methods to increase their viability, and they are currently looking to develop wind sites in Alberta, Canada through an affiliate.

Neufeld joined NaturEner about six months ago because NaturEner has done something she hasn’t seen other renewable companies do before. Instead of waiting for infrastructure changes or new policies, she said NaturEner has shown innovation through solutions like balancing their wind power and scaling it to the grid. Neufeld said although there are transmission and policy challenges for the wind industry, NaturEner has proven it is able to leverage the existing infrastructure and policy environment successfully. She said she is excited to work with NaturEner because of their unique approach to integrating renewable energy.

Neufeld said, “Our Montana wind farms produce enough green energy to power 100,000 average American homes a year.” She believes this is just the beginning, now that the company is successfully balancing its own renewable generation, it sees that there is significant potential to not only scale its development efforts but also to service other intermittent types of energy sources. The future of renewable energy has a very positive and exciting outlook. Neufeld said there is increasing evidence of positive leadership and advocating for the industry.

One example of this is the commitment made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President Barack Obama, and President Enrique Peña Nie at the North American Leader’s Summit. On June 29, the Office of the Press Secretary for the White House released a statement summarizing this commitment:  “We announce a historic goal for North America to strive to achieve 50 percent clean power generation by 2025.”

Neufeld admits the company has lately seen a depressed value of wind energy because of other sources of energy like the market influx of natural gas; however, she said she hopes that wind energy continues to grow to a point where renewable energy can contribute significantly to base load power supplied to the consumer.

The push for renewable energy is arguably justified. The Unites States Energy Information Administration reported, “In 2015, the United States imported approximately 9.4 million barrels per day of petroleum from about 82 countries.”

Neufeld said besides cleaning up our energy generation, one of the chief reasons to support renewable energy, is “it creates a level of national security.”

Original Article: The Valerian