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National Grid system operator helps keep the lights on

By Cindy Atoji Keene

As a grid operator, Matt Powers is under considerable pressure to deliver reliable electricity around the clock, even when a freak weather storm creates short circuits or a road digger accidently cuts through a local cable. As a controller at the National Grid system control center in Northborough, he and the 58 other operators can monitor almost the entire electrical transmission system for New England, working from eight 23-inch monitors on his desk. The panels give him information on all overhead and underground conductors, from 2,400 volts to 46,000 volts. He communicates remotely with electric utility linesmen and other crew to quickly repair lines and restore power. “Electricity is one of our most vital resources, and we’re on the front lines, ensuring that it’s delivered reliably and safely to consumers and businesses,” said Powers, 38, who started as a linesmen and then moved in-house, training on the grid operations nine years ago.

Q: Can you explain the basics of the electric distribution system?
A: Electricity comes from the power plant, and from there is pushed out into transmission lines. These transmission lines feed into substations, then out to the power lines. This is where the public is more aware of the electricity, as you can often see the power lines along the road. The transformers there look like little gray cans on the poles; these set the voltage down from 13,800 to where it’s safe to flow into secondary circuits in your house. A lot of people don’t have a clue about this stuff, and why should they? As long as the lights go on when they hit the switch, that’s what counts.

Q: What does the control room look like?
A: When I first walked in here nine years ago, I thought, ‘This looks like NASA mission control.’ I might get a call: ‘Revere Street in Everett, Pole 2439 on fire,’ and I’ll call for a line truck and then I can actually follow it on a GPS screen to help them navigate in the right direction. One another screen, I might be able to pull up a substation, and by clicking on an arrow, see not only that substation but also how the main electrical line runs into town. Still another console can show where people are calling from to report outages. At the front of the room are six 70-inch screens that display local news and weather that effect operations.

Q: Clearly this is a job that needs to be staffed at all times – what is your work schedule like?
A: It’s hectic; we do 12-hour shifts, including nights, weekends, and holidays. I work three nights, 5:30 p.m.-6 a.m., then I’m off; switch to days, 5:30 a.m.-6 p.m., and then rotate again. It’s like groundhog day. And it’s not necessarily quiet at night. Underground circuits are tough to work on; setting up in the middle of the road and unscrewing the manhole cover can mess up traffic, so we are often directing these crews during the night.

Q: Are animals and trees a big problem?
A: Despite our best protective measures, squirrels and raccoons get into equipment and can complete the circuit between a live conductor and a housing or cover. This not only electrocutes the animal but can wreck havoc, causing damage that may lead to outages. National Grid has also spent a lot of time and money in tree trimming. It could be a blue-sky day, but when a branch decides to snap, it will snap, also causing problems with lines.

Q: What sort of decisions do you need to make while on the job?
A: Any time the phone rings, it could be a crisis. I’m the one running the show when the fire chief up in New Hampshire calls and says, ‘We need this de-energized now,’ because a live wire is on a car after an accident. They can’t get near the car until we de-active the wire. I immediately need to start formulating a plan as to how to take care of the issue while keeping customers with electricity. I have the ability to open up a circuit breaker, and with one click of a mouse, control electricity to 2,500 people.

Q: It’s apropos that your last name is “Powers.”
A: Yes, when I get calls at work, some people have said to me, “You've got the Power, Powers. I've also been called "Max" Powers, "Super" Powers, and “Austin” Powers.

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