by David Callis, Vice President of Statewide Services for the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association
For most of us, nothing is more beautiful than a towering mountain vista, a scenic green valley or uninterrupted acres of farmland. As we drive across our state, it’s easy to let our minds wander as we admire nature’s handiwork.
For others, however, what constitutes beauty is decidedly different. If you ever take a ride with an engineer or lineman from an electric cooperative, you’ll discover that fact. Often, they are more apt to admire the wires, poles and substations as these are the major elements of their working “landscape.” Sounds far-fetched, but it happens.
We frequently joke about the engineers who design our electric systems and the operating personnel who run them. (For example, how do you tell an introvert engineer from an extrovert engineer? It’s easy: The introvert engineer stares at his shoes; the extrovert stares at your shoes.) However, there really should be a sense of awe involved when you consider the feat of taking 161,000 volts of electricity and safely bringing it to your house in a voltage that can power your bedside clock.
The next time you drive down the road, take a look at the expanse of electric wires running alongside. Before even one span of wire is strung, it takes a coordinated effort from a lot of people. System engineers have to determine the need for the line and the voltage required. Staking technicians have to determine the best route and design for the line. Linemen then do the dirty work of putting the poles into the ground and hoisting the wires safely into the air.
While those are the most visible of the co-op staff that you may never see, there are more people even farther behind the scenes: the purchasing agents who buy the correct equipment, the warehousemen who load the supplies, the office personnel who do the paperwork and the supervisors who coordinate the process.
Many others play critical roles every day, too, in building and maintaining the electric system around you. While the work they do isn’t very sexy, it is vital in ensuring that the lights come on every time you flip that switch.
Technologies in our industry are constantly changing and present another challenge in maintaining your electric service. Co-op managers have to evaluate which of these new technologies will improve your service, yet be cost-effective in an industry where 75 percent (or more) of our costs goes to purchasing wholesale electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Just as technologies are always changing, our employees must also adapt. To keep their skills sharp, continuing education is a must for co-op personnel. Some is handled in-house and at monthly safety meetings. Other educational opportunities involve more intense training due to the complex nature of the work.
At a recent conference, engineers, linemen and other workers from Tennessee and Kentucky met to gain more knowledge and insight on some of the challenges facing their electric distribution systems. Topics ranged from “Amorphous Core Transformers” to a discussion of wood poles — sessions that would put anyone but industry professionals to sleep in a hurry. Other topics covered the latest technology in LED lighting, mobile computing and substation security.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of personnel from various co-ops coming together is the sharing of problems and solutions. For example, one engineer told how his co-op had a rash of blinks and outages due to wildlife causing shorts on certain pole-mounted fixtures, new equipment that wasn’t damaged and hadn’t malfunctioned. The solution? A quarter turn in the base of the device took away the perch for a bird. It was a simple solution for a frustrating problem — for the engineer and member alike. Because of his sharing of that information, co-op members across the states could benefit from the exchange of information.
Whether the discussion involved investments of hundreds of thousands of dollars in communications equipment or the no-cost turn of a screw, every aspect of the meeting focused on one issue: keeping the lights on. While not perfect — heat waves and summer storms take their toll — our electric cooperatives do a remarkable job of supplying our members with electricity. So much so that they make a difficult job look easy.
Our employees take pride every day in providing service to our members, both in the daily work and the never-ending honing of their skills. The next time you take that drive to admire the scenery, take another look at the poles and wires. Try not to think of them as an eyesore. Think of them as the end result of someone’s hard work.
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