In Her Element: How Kristen Hough Left The Coal Mines And Started Climbing Wind Turbines
October 09, 2017
Standing on a 10-foot-wide platform 365 feet above the rolling green hills of Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia, Kristen Hough looks tiny. The winds at this height are strong enough to spin a 500,000-pound wind turbine at 14 revolutions per minute. One strong gust could push a person over.
But Hough, 28, also looks unafraid. A wind technician, Hough is part of a team that is responsible for the electrical and mechanical upkeep of 61 turbines here that can produce 185 megawatts of energy — enough to power an entire city. She makes the climb to the top of a wind turbine at least once a day. At that height, Hough is in her element. “Even climbing the turbines [the first few times], it was so exciting that I knew it was what I was supposed to do,” she says.
Hough’s shift typically begins each morning at 7 a.m. when lead technician Mitch Burns assigns Hough and her five teammates to either handle routine maintenance — like tightening bolts and greasing gears — or troubleshoot problems. For instance, if the temperature in the gearbox appears a bit high, Hough needs to figure out why and fix it. Sometimes she can resolve the issue with a few taps on her laptop, but it -often requires hands-on attention instead. That’s when Hough gets out her safety gear and starts the long ascent to the top of the turbine.
Although the height frightened Hough at first, now it’s just a dizzying reminder of how drastically her life has changed. Born on a farm in Saskatchewan, Hough moved with her family to Tumbler Ridge when she was 16. Like many of the other 2,000 Tumbler residents, she went straight from high school to one of the town’s three coal mines, where she operated heavy machinery and served on the rescue team for eight years. Though she loved living in Tumbler, mining began to bore her. “I wasn’t learning anymore,” she says. Intrigued by a new wind farm on the other side of town, Hough signed up for a wind turbine technician course at the local community college in the winter of 2015. One year later, she had her certification and landed a job with GE to maintain the turbines at Pattern Energy’s Meikle Wind. It was a smart move. Coal prices had crashed, and in 2015, the Tumbler Ridge coal mines were closing down. At the same time, wind farms were cropping up all over the U.S. and Canada, making wind technicians one of the fastest-growing professions in both countries. Demand for technicians at Meikle was so high that GE asked Hough to recruit her most talented classmates.
Out of all of those new hires, Hough remains the first – and likely only — female wind technician in western Canada. Though extreme, Hough’s status reflects the gender imbalance plaguing all sectors of technology. A recent white paper by GE reported that women hold just 13 to 24 percent of the tech-related jobs at major tech companies. As companies like GE launch initiatives to support more women in STEM, the trend should begin to shift, but in the meantime, Hough remains an anomaly or, as she puts it, the lone “girl” at Meikle. That’s not to say Hough feels out of place among her male colleagues. As her team’s environmental health and safety coordinator, she makes sure everyone gets home safely every day. She’s also excited to be part of Canada’s push into renewable energy. Wind power capacity already meets 6 percent of Canada’s energy needs, enough to power over 3 million homes, according to the Canada Wind Energy Association. To Hough, that shared experience overshadows any gender differences. “It’s nice to feel like a team growing together,” she says. Hough urges more women to join her burgeoning profession, a job that brought her to new cities like New York City, Dallas and even Quebec, where she spent a month in training. “This is such a new industry that you can do anything you want,” she points out. “You can work overseas or you can work offshore. There are so many options. I haven’t looked back yet.” Why would she when the view from the wind tower holds so much promise?