Operators use advanced systems, skills to manage electric grid
In a dark, windowless room at a Great River Energy location, a mosaic of 50-inch monitors displays information about the electric grid that supplies power to consumers around Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Operators monitor the grid 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, working twelve hour shifts. Each operator has a two-year degree and must pass a test to become federally certified. Only then can they go through a 12-18-month Great River Energy training program on the specific system used in the control room.
The system operations control center monitors the power grid and ensures that any issues are resolved quickly and efficiently. Operators ensure there is an appropriate supply of power while addressing maintenance issues and complications from severe weather.
Production of energy should constantly be equal to the amount of energy demanded, as energy from the plants is instantly sent to consumers, not stored. Indicators such as frequency levels help operators to ensure that production and demand remain balanced.
“If there is more energy demanded than what is being produced, frequency falls,” said Gordon Pietsch, Great River Energy’s director of transmission planning and operations. “The power stations automatically respond to the frequency deviation by injecting more steam into the turbine, which produces more electricity.”
If demand for electricity exceeds expectations, additional units are brought online. These “peaking stations” can take as little as eight minutes to start producing electricity.
The control room wasn’t always so laden with technology. Dick Pursley, manager of system operations at Great River Energy, has worked in the industry since 1989. When Pursley began his career, there was often one computer for the whole department. He recalled a time before digital alarms, when “printers would spit out alarms and you’d have to sort through and rip the papers. Now, you can store, filter and sort alarms, and look for keywords. The new technology is way more efficient.”
The innovations in technology have also allowed computers and machines to fix problems on their own. Pietsch noted that “the electric industry has changed from humans operating the system to computers operating the system. The only real human intervention today is in the coordinating of outages and restoration of the system–the computer runs it most of the time.”
Technology has also made the job easier for humans when they do need to intervene, such as facilitating safe and efficient power restoration following an outage.
Operators must also adapt to energy trends, such as the continued growth of renewables – particularly distributed energy resources, such as rooftop solar installations. Traditional generation resources could be ramped up and down as needed; this control isn’t possible with wind and solar generation.
Increased reliance on technology has also opened the door for possible security threats. While there is still the physical threat of the control room being operated by those with negative interests, cybersecurity has become a more prominent concern for system operators. Great River Energy policies and regulations include physical access controls such as keypads and card entry, as well as cyber precautions such as private networks, firewalls, consistent monitoring and patch management to help guard against cybersecurity concerns.
With all the advances in technology and new challenges facing operators, it may seem as if everything in the industry has changed or will change in the near future. Industry veterans have seen the shift from entirely human-reliant operations to increased dependence on computers, as well as the gradual move from nonrenewable sources of energy to the popularity and integration of solar and wind.
For Pursley, however, one thing has remained constant. “The main focus will always be keeping the lights on–and doing it affordably.”