Power plant workers include power plant operators, power distributors, and power dispatchers. In general, power plant operators control the machinery that generates electricity. Power distributors and power dispatchers oversee the flow of electricity through substations and a network of transmission and distribution lines to individual and commercial consumers. The generators in these power plants may produce electricity by converting energy from a nuclear reactor; burning oil, gas, or coal; or harnessing energy from falling water, the sun, or the wind. There are approximately 47,000 power plant workers employed in the United States.
Power Plant Worker Career History
The first permanent, commercial electric power-generating plant and distribution network was set up in New York City in 1882 under the supervision of the inventor Thomas Edison. Initially, the purpose of the network was to supply electricity to Manhattan buildings equipped with incandescent light bulbs, which had been developed just a few years earlier by Edison. Despite early problems in transmitting power over distance, the demand for electricity grew rapidly. Plant after plant was built to supply communities with electricity, and by 1900 incandescent lighting was a well-established part of urban life. Other uses of electric power were developed as well, and by about 1910 electric power became common in factories, public transportation systems, businesses, and homes.
Many early power plants generated electricity by harnessing water, or hydro, power. In hydroelectric plants, which are often located at dams on rivers, giant turbines are turned by falling water, and that energy is converted into electricity. Until the 1930s, hydroelectric plants supplied most electric power because hydro plants were less expensive to operate than plants that relied on thermal energy released by burning fuels such as coal. Afterward various technological advances made power generation in thermal plants more economical. Burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, or gas) creates heat, which is used to make steam to turn turbines and generate power. During the last several decades, many plants that use nuclear reactors as heat sources for making steam have been in operation.
Today, energy from all these sources—hydropower, burning fossil fuels, and nuclear reactors—is used to generate electricity. Large electric utility systems may generate power from different sources at multiple sites. Although the essentials of generating, distributing, and utilizing electricity have been known for more than a century, the techniques and the equipment have changed. Over the years the equipment used in power generation and distribution has become much more sophisticated, efficient, and centralized, and the use of electric power exceeds the demand for workers.
Power Plant Worker Job Description
Workers in power plants monitor and operate the machinery that generates electric power and sends power out to users in a network of distribution lines. Most employees work for electric utility companies or government agencies that produce power, but there are a small number who work for private companies that make electricity for their own use.
In general power plant operators who work in plants fueled by coal, oil, or natural gas operate boilers, turbines, generators, and auxiliary equipment such as coal crushers. They also operate switches that control the amount of power created by the various generators and regulate the flow of power to outgoing transmission lines. They keep track of power demands on the system and respond to changes in demand by turning generators on and off and connecting and disconnecting circuits.
Operators must also watch meters and instruments and make frequent tests of the system to check power flow and voltage. They keep records of the load on the generators, power lines, and other equipment in the system, and they record switching operations and any problems or unusual situations that come up during their shifts.
In older plants auxiliary equipment operators work throughout the plant monitoring specific kinds of equipment, such as pumps, fans, compressors, and condensers.
In newer plants, however, these workers have been mostly replaced by automated controls located in a central control room. Central control room operators and their assistants work in these nerve centers. Central control rooms are complex installations with many electronic instruments, meters, gauges, and switches that allow skilled operators to know exactly what is going on with the whole generating system and to quickly pinpoint any trouble that needs repairs or adjustments. In most cases, mechanics and maintenance workers are the ones who repair the equipment.
The electricity generated in power plants is sent through transmission lines to users at the direction of load dispatchers. Load dispatcher workrooms are command posts, where the power generating and distributing activities are coordinated. Pilot boards in the workrooms are like automated maps that display what is going on throughout the entire distribution system. Dispatchers operate converters, transformers, and circuit breakers, based on readings given by monitoring equipment.
By studying factors, such as weather, that affect power use, dispatchers anticipate power needs and tell control room operators how much power will be needed to keep the power supply and demand in balance. If there is a failure in the distribution system, dispatchers redirect the power flow in transmission lines around the problem. They also operate equipment at substations, where the voltage of power in the system is adjusted.
Power Plant Worker Career Requirements
Most employers prefer to hire high school graduates for positions in this occupational field, and often college-level training is desirable. If you are interested in this field, focus on obtaining a solid background in mathematics and science.
Beginners in this field may start out as helpers or in laborer jobs, or they may begin training for duties in operations, maintenance, or other areas. Those who enter training for operator positions undergo extensive training by their employer, both on the job and in formal classroom settings. The training program is geared toward the particular plant in which they work and usually lasts several years. Even after they are fully qualified as operators or dispatchers, most employees will be required to take continuing education refresher courses.
Certification or Licensing
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulates power plants that generate electricity using nuclear reactors. The NRC must license operators in nuclear plants, because only NRC-licensed operators are authorized to control any equipment in the plant that affects the operation of the nuclear reactor. Nuclear reactor operators are also required to undertake regular drug testing.
Although union membership is not necessarily a requirement for employment, many workers in power plants are members of either the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers or the Utility Workers Union of America. Union members traditionally have been paid better than nonunion members.
Exploring Power Plant Worker Career
There is little opportunity for part-time or summer work experience in this field. However, many power plants (both nuclear and nonnuclear) have visitor centers where you can observe some of the power plant operations and learn about the various processes for converting energy into electricity. You might also locate information on this field at libraries, on the Internet, or by contacting the associations listed at the end of this article.
Employees in the power plant field work in several types of power-generating plants, including those that use natural gas, oil, coal, nuclear, hydro, solar, and wind energies. Because electric utility companies have dominated the energy field, most power plant workers work in electrical utilities. Government agencies that produce power are also employers, as are private companies that make electricity for their own use. Employment opportunities are available in any part of the country, as power plants are scattered nationwide. Approximately 47,000 power plant workers are employed in the United States.
People interested in working in electric power plants can contact local electric utility companies directly. Local offices of utility worker unions may also be sources of information about job opportunities. Leads for specific jobs may be found in newspaper classified ads and through the local offices of the state employment service. Graduates of technical training programs can often get help locating jobs from their schools’ career services offices.
After they have completed their training, power plant operators may move into supervisory positions, such as the position of a shift supervisor. Most opportunities for promotion are within the same plant or at other plants owned by the same utility company. With experience and appropriate training, nuclear power plant operators may advance to become senior reactor operators and shift supervisors.
Salaries for workers in the utilities industry are relatively high, but are based on skills and experience, geographical location, union status, and other factors. Operators in conventional (nonnuclear) power plants earned an average salary of $53,170 in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The lowest paid 10 percent of workers earned less than $34,250, while the highest paid 10 percent earned more than $71,820 annually. Power distributors and dispatchers earned a median salary of $59,160 in 2005. Operators in nuclear power plants averaged $66,230 annually in 2005. Salaries ranged from less than $51,370 to more than $87,100. In many cases, employee salaries are supplemented significantly by overtime pay. Overtime often becomes necessary during power outages and severe weather conditions.
Since power plants operate around the clock, employees work multiple shifts, which can last anywhere from four to 12 hours. In general workers on night shifts are paid higher salaries than workers on day shifts. In addition to their regular earnings, most workers receive benefits, such as paid vacation days, paid sick leave, health insurance, and pension plans.
Most power plants are clean, well lighted, and ventilated. Some areas of the plant may be quite noisy. The work of power plant workers is not physically strenuous; workers usually sit or stand in one place as they perform their duties. Risk of falls, burns, and electric shock increases for those who work outside of the control room. Workers must follow strict safety regulations and sometimes wear protective clothing, such as hard hats and safety shoes, to ensure safety and avoid serious accidents.
Electricity is needed 24 hours a day, every day of the year, so power plants must be staffed at all times. Most workers will work some nights, weekends, and holidays, usually on a rotating basis, so that all employees share the stress and fatigue of working the more difficult shifts.
Power Plant Worker Career Outlook
Consumer demand for electric power is expected to increase in the next decade, but power-generating plants will install more automatic control and computerized systems and more efficient equipment, which should limit the growth of operating staffs. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that employment opportunities for power plant workers will decline through 2014, but opportunities may improve as a result of the Bush administration’s plans to construct new electric and nuclear power generating plants. Workers who have knowledge of computers and automated equipment will enjoy the best employment prospects.
Most job openings will develop when experienced workers retire or leave to go into other occupations. Jobs in electric power plants are seldom affected by ups and downs in the economy, so employees in the field have rather stable jobs.