Job opportunities for power plant operators are on the decline, and
competition is stiff for the jobs that remain. But someone still has to make
sure the lights stay on.
Electricity is always available -- or so we think -- until it suddenly
isn't there. When the electricity goes out, the lights go out, we can't recharge
our mobile devices and the refrigerator is strangely silent.
Fortunately for us, this scenario doesn't happen often. That's because
there are operators working around the clock at power plants to make certain
that all of our electrical requirements are met.
What They Do
There are three main types of plants: hydroelectric (powered by flowing
water), coal-powered and nuclear. There are other types of plants, too, such
as wind farms, biomass and solar power plants.
Power plant operators perform a variety of tasks. They may handle tours
of the facility. They check gauges to ensure pressures are consistent. And
they report technical information to other companies. In essence, the operator
is responsible for doing whatever needs to be done to safely and efficiently
deliver electricity on a 24-hour basis.
Rob Littell is the operations supervisor at the Shasta Dam in California,
which produces hydropower. "If an alarm comes in, or a unit trips or someone
notices something unusual, operators respond to 'fix the problem' if they
can," he says.
"There are basically two classifications of our operators here," adds Littell.
"We have control operators who are a roving type of operator. The roving operator
is responsible for inspections of all project facilities and equipment that
delivers water or power and supply craft (electricians, mechanics, electronics
technicians) and engineering support. They make the equipment safe for the
crafts to work on. They are also responsible for the manual operation of the
project equipment that delivers water or power."
Senior control operators at the dam are responsible for the remote operation
of all the facilities via a computer system, adds Littell. These operators
are responsible for the entire project during normal working hours.
They respond to alarms and emergencies, and deal with the public. They
are also responsible for ensuring the delivery of power and water. They coordinate
outages and cooperate with other agencies.
Jesse Hilderbrand is the site/office manager for PaTu Wind Farm in Wasco,
Oregon. He says his duties take many forms. Primarily, he keeps track of energy
generation forecasting. That means he lets the utility companies know how
much energy the wind farm is going to generate on an hourly basis.
In addition, Hilderbrand repairs and maintains the site office, takes inventory
of spare parts and does some public relations. "I offer tours and there are
weekly substation check-ups -- checking battery fluid levels, nitrogen gas
psi and a few other things," he says.
"I assist the contracted company that performs maintenance on the turbines
by watching the [computer system] and relaying any important information."
Learning the Ropes
Training to become a power plant operator is ongoing. Darrel Aulbrook
is the field crew leader for a hydro power plant. He says the industry is
always changing, and requirements and duties of power plant operators change
"An employee should have a minimum 12th grade education, five years related
experience or educational degrees in electrical theory/engineering, ability
to read and understand blueprints and operation manuals for generators, and
experience in a machinist field/tool and die," he says.
"In addition, computer use, [vehicle licenses], first aid/CPR and good
physical health are other attributes a person could have that can be assets."
Several years of on-site training and experience are required before operators
are fully qualified. Even fully qualified operators and dispatchers must take
regular training courses to keep up their skills.
Employers are interested in people with strong math and science backgrounds.
Students interested in the field should consider taking classes such as physics,
algebra, pre-calculus, geometry, computer science and English.
A power plant operator must be able to deal with unforeseen situations
in a safe and timely manner. Strong communication skills and the ability to
work well with the public are important traits.
Life of An Operator
The work of power plant operators is demanding. Rotating shift work can
be tiring, and the ability to respond to emergencies means that operators
must live close to the generation station.
Exposure to hazards is another downside of the job. Hazards include harsh
outdoor conditions, chemicals, contamination, falls, burns and electrical
shock. At the same time, operators must be prepared to work in a high-security
environment because power plants are vulnerable to attack.
The path to becoming a power plant operator is not easy. It requires determination
and the right combination of skills. Be prepared to spend your working life
training and re-training as the industry changes.
Aulbrook has been in the industry for 10 years. "All of the variances in
work duties make this position interesting... as opposed to day-to-day duties
being repetitive," he says. "This, in my thoughts, makes this a great [job]."
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