“Mike, I hear there’s a new wind farm being built down here in North Dakota, Why don’t you go up and talk with them?” were roughly the words of Michael Henning’s father-in-law. In 2007, this was one of the first large-scale wind farms in the U.S., developed by ACCIONA. Was this the ultimate opportunity to move to his wife’s family state?
Our work responsibilities often occupy a third of our daily lives and frequently shape where and how we live. For Mike Henning, this new step in his career was an extension of his personal and family life. He had long considered moving to the area and changing his career path, which at that time involved maintaining HVAC equipment on military bases in the U.S. Air Force.
Explaining the decision, he recalls, “We both had pretty solid careers there and basically dropped everything to make this opportunity. So, I’ve taken my opportunities with ACCIONA as a life-changing deal. I gave up everything that I had to make this move across the country.”
An early career in the U.S. Air Force
Mike speaks deliberately, choosing his words carefully. Throughout the interview, it becomes clear that he is a family man, and his life decisions have been influenced by the well-being of his family as well as his own professional progress. Raised in Illinois, he started working early, and as he looks back, he expresses satisfaction with the evolution of his career, closely tied to ACCIONA and the development of wind power in the U.S.
“I’m not one for going to school. I currently do a lot of research into things [at ACCIONA], but I guess formal school is not for me,” he says about his education. Joining the U.S. military at the age of 18, he explains, “When you join the military, you get to pick a career choice […]. After your basic training, you go to a technical school, and then they teach you a career path.” In his case, he specialized in the maintenance of AC systems on air bases.
When choosing his path, he soon learned a valuable lesson: “I did learn early on that they said you want to definitely do troubleshooting and corrective work instead of installation because installation, you use your back, and with the troubleshooting, you use your brains,” he says with a smile. “So I’ve always studied to be the best troubleshooter.”
“I’ve always studied to be the best troubleshooter.”
After the completion of his active duty service, Mike continued his civilian work as a contractor for the Air Force.“I was actually a civilian contractor for the government working at their medical facility on the base that I had actually worked on.” In addition to gaining work experience, the Air Force also provided him with the opportunity to meet his wife.
A wind farm up on the hill
Mike and his partner continued with their respective careers, and soon their first child arrived. And with him, a change of course. “My wife is from this area, which she grew up, 12 miles from where this wind farm is. So we were back on vacation, and just had our first child and we thought that we should move closer to family at some point.” Then came the life-changing suggestion from his father-in-law, “There’s a wind farm being built on the hill…”
At first glance, one might say that wind energy and military HVAC equipment inhabit very different worlds. However, there was a clear connection: “The heating and air conditioning control systems operate on the same principles as all the communication and the control systems of the wind turbines. Understanding how those work is relatively the same. Once you get a grasp on the heating and air conditioning controls, things are pretty easy,” he explains. So, he decided to take the leap, “I came up and kind of talked with them a little bit and applied.”
“I decided I was going to try to make the best of every opportunity that’s afforded to me.”
As is often the case with crucial decisions, not everything was as simple as passing a successful interview. Now there were doubts to navigate. Should he leave his job? Did it make sense to move with his entire family? “So I had to make a decision to move across the country, you know. But I think for my family, I think it was the best decision to try to make that move.” And once he did, he was clear about one thing: “I figured I’m not going to drop what I have and not make the best of it. I’m going to try to make the best of every opportunity that’s afforded to me. So I put in extra effort to make sure that I understand everything that I need and why we do the business that we do.”
Being there right from the start
Today, Tatanka Wind Farm can power 60,000 homes, making it at the time ACCIONA’s largest wind farm in the U.S. Located in a remote area of North Dakota, facing harsh winters, its construction and maintenance posed numerous challenges. Mike’s bet was not without risks: it was a new company in the country, an emerging energy sector, and a move across the country. But the decision was made: “I was one of the 1st 10 technicians hired within Acciona North America […] They were actually building foundations. They hadn’t put up the wind turbines yet, so I started from the very beginning.”
“I was one of the 1st 10 technicians hired within Acciona North America”
Before starting work, the team embarked on a transatlantic journey to better understand the pioneering technology, “They sent us over to Spain, so we came over to follow some of the maintenance roles.” Visiting wind parks in Navarra and Tarragona, they familiarized themselves with maintenance. Upon returning, Mike witnessed the construction of Tatanka: “We were watching the substation be built. We also watched the construction of the operation and maintenance building and how they built that, which is beneficial now.” The fate of the colossal park with 120 turbines and the life of a family man were now intertwined.
16 years of growth and learning
Mike and Tatanka have been together for over sixteen years since that August of 2007 when he signed his employment contract. His first position was as a park technician, where he gained firsthand knowledge of turbine operations for six years. After that stage, a new opportunity arose: “Then at that point, the lead position had opened up. So I applied to be a lead technician, and I did that for eight years until 2021.” His role would change significantly: “That kind of transitioned me out of working in the turbines to doing more of the planning of operations, planning the maintenance, making sure we can keep things on track and on target.”
“My goal, first and foremost, is the safety of the crew of the technicians that I have on site.”
Finally, in 2021, he reached his current position as the site manager. After all this time, he speaks of Tatanka as if it were a living being under his care. And as if each turbine and each employee were a member of that body. After all, he saw it being born and knows its inner workings after years of inspecting them as a technician. “In my current role, my goal is to make sure that the turbines, first of all, are productive, that they’re available and, first and foremost, is the safety of the crew of the technicians that I have on site.”
A tough (and valuable) lesson
In every hero’s journey, there are setbacks along the way that forge character. And Mike’s story, the transition from a regular technician to Site manager, is not without them. When he had been a technician for four years, an opportunity for a promotion came up: “A lead position had opened up, and I had applied for it, and was told by management that everyone would get an opportunity to interview for it.”
Ultimately, he didn’t get the position, but the experience was a great spur for improvement, “That probably lit a fire under me that made me want to be better than everyone else… You just have to have what you know what drives you, what fuels the fire. And sometimes being passed up for an opportunity can light that fire.” And he concludes, “I think that is probably my driving factor, you know, missing an opportunity that I thought that I was prepared for and looking back maybe I wasn’t prepared at that time. But I think that certainly put me in a position to understand that I needed to work harder.”
“I’m not sure I would have become a lead or a site manager if I wouldn’t have started here from the ground.”
In the end, patience and tenacity paid off, “I’m not sure I would have become a lead or a site manager here at this wind farm if I wouldn’t have started here from the ground… Sometimes you got to start at the bottom and work your way to the top, and you’re not going to make it on the first year. It takes time.”
Alongside personal growth challenges, there’s the challenge of the wind farm itself. Here, Mike explains that Tatanka’s energy production depends on factors beyond turbine capacity, such as transmission line capacity, Power Purchase Contracts (PPC), and energy demand. “I know what my wind farm’s capable of and would like to take it to peak performance,” he says.
Curiosity is the mother of professional growth
Returning to his daily work, Mike emphasizes the crucial importance of safety: “I think if I can give [my workers] all the tools and knowledge that they need, then they’re going to go home safely. The biggest contribution I can have is to make sure everybody goes home to their family, and that’s basically my goal here.” But who are the members of that workforce? How did they get there? How can they grow within the company? “We don’t have just wind turbine technicians or anything like that. We can have anywhere from a diesel mechanic to an Industrial Mechanic . So everybody brings something different, and they’ve seen something different in their life that can help add value to the team.”
“Everybody here brings something different, and they’ve seen something different in their life that can help add value to the team.”
Often, these candidates come from diverse backgrounds, much like Mike years ago. “One guy was a diesel mechanic and he applied here but didn’t get a call. So he was a mechanic for a couple of years and then he was still fascinated at how wind energy was made, so he applied again. So we’ve got him on board.” Training is crucial, “We’ll take about anybody that’s interested, that wants a job and wants to be here. Because we basically have said we will train them to do what we want them to do. If you have no training, we don’t have to untrain bad habits.”
“Those hungry for knowledge are going to be some of the top performers of the team for sure.”
In summary, sometimes curiosity and eagerness weigh more than the resume, “I think the trainings are enough to get them curious, to start asking questions. If they’re truly interested, they’re going to ask questions, and they’re going to be always there asking why and when. You can see that they’re hungry for knowledge. And those are the ones that are going to be some of the top performers of the team for sure.”
Mike is clear about the secret to growing in a company like ACCIONA: “If you put your heart and soul into something, it’s going to reward you in the future. You may not see that reward and it may not look like it’s going to be attainable at first. But like most people say, good things come to those who wait, right?”
Relaxing and unwinding with the family
The protagonist of this interview has witnessed Tatanka’s evolution up close and now occasionally oversees another park in North Dakota. He admits that he has often found it challenging to disconnect from a job that he lives with passion and intensity. Fortunately, he has learned to take care of himself and enjoy time with his family, “Once winter’s done setting in here, my family and I, we’ve taken an enjoyment in camping. We find different areas of the camp where we can explore different areas, go on hikes, do some fishing, things like that.”
Additionally, they reserve a yearly trip with their two children, “We always try to make at least one trip a year where we travel to a destination across the United States to give our kids a little bit of culture so they can see something different. We’ve gone everywhere from Nashville to Yellowstone, making bigger road trips to go see different parts of the country and tasting its beauty.”
Life is made up of choices
Was his gamble worth it in the end? Mike responds emphatically, “I basically put my whole hand into this to make this decision. And ACCIONA has rewarded me with opportunities moving forward with that, and they’ve allowed me to grow within myself. A lot of my challenges were communication issues in the beginning and how to communicate. So I’ve learned to process that and communicate with others and things like that.” And he concludes, “So, yeah, I don’t think that I would make any other decision. Moving here for my family was the best decision I made.”
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