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Power Plant Operator


Description

Turning on the television involves a lot more than just pressing the button. The television is plugged into an electrical network that eventually ends up at a generating plant. Whether it is coal, natural gas, oil, wind, water or nuclear power all of these sources create electricity. A power plant operator is the person who monitors and operates equipment and switchboards in power generating plants. It is their main priority to ensure that energy flows efficiently, safely and economically and that it goes where it is supposed to.

Power plant operators control and distribute the power among the generators, turbines, boilers, and other equipment in the plant and combine the energy to emit to users in various regions. They constantly monitor instruments and gauges to keep the voltage at the right level and keep everything running safely.

From day to day, a power plant operator's job is fairly routine, unless an emergency occurs. When and if that happens, it is the operator's job to react quickly in a calm and collective manner. They need to know what to do when an emergency situation arises, for example, prioritizing what the most important steps are and what needs to be done immediately and what can wait.

Power plant operators also do repair work, if need be. Usually, they shut down the system so that they can safely fix a problem. Reading the blueprints of the power system, they can fix problems without causing power outages by diverting energy around. Power plant operators may also answer phone calls from customers have power outage problems.

With new technology, computers do a great deal of the manual work once performed by power plant operators. The computer lets the worker know when there is a problem. Sometimes, an operator may have to stop a generator, disconnect it from the circuit, make changes and then reconnect and power up the generator. In older plants still lacking in technology, operators may walk around manually checking gauges, generators, turbines and other equipment.
 
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  Average Earnings  
Lowest 10% of Earners:
$31,290
 
Median Salary:
$49,920
 
Highest 10% of Earners:
$67,950

  Interests and Skills  
Power plant operators need to be team players. Each member of the power crew depends upon one another and open communication lines are very important, especially in the case of an emergency. They need to constantly keep up-to-date with technological advances, since computer systems are constantly upgrading. They should be logical, practical and be able to react calmly and efficiently in emergency situations. Finally, good problem solving skills and hand-eye coordination are winning qualities of a power plant operator.
 

  Typical Tasks  
  • Operate reactors, turbines, boilers, generators, condensers and auxiliary equipment in hydro, thermal and nuclear power plants to generate electrical power
  • Coordinate, schedule and direct generating station and substation power loads and line voltages to meet distribution demands during daily operations, system outages, repairs and importing or exporting of power
  • Start up and shut down power plant equipment, control switching operations, regulate water levels and communicate with systems operators to regulate and coordinate transmission loads, frequency and line voltages
  • Monitor and visually inspect power plant equipment and equipment indicators to detect operating problems and make adjustments or minor repairs as required
  • Adjust boiler controls to provide steam at specified temperature and pressure for turbine loads according to power demands
  • Adjust controls to regulate speed, voltage, and phase of incoming turbines to coincide with voltage and phase of power being generated
  • Complete and maintain station records, logs and reports
  • Since people require electricity 24 hours a day, power plant operators work long shifts -- usually 12 hours per shift. By working longer shifts, operators get more days off in order to rest up for the night shifts. Power plant operators work inside control rooms, or among the machinery and equipment in power plants. Those in the control room sit in front of computers, monitoring energy flow. Operators working outside control rooms take care of generators and equipment and must take safety precautions against falls, electrical shocks and burns.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Power plant operators work for electric power generation, transmission and distribution companies, or they work at power plants.

  Long Term Career Potential  
What does the future hold for power plant operators? With experience, they can work toward being a control center supervisor, which would mean eliminating working night shifts. They could use their skills to become tradespeople, mechanics or engineers. They may also become the director of operations or move into other management positions.
 

  Educational Paths  
Power plant operators receive their training either through informal, on-the-job training or through an apprenticeship program. Trade certification can be obtained either through an apprenticeship program or after several years of work experience. While trade certification is not mandatory in all areas to become a power plant operator, it can be a requirement for many employers and can also help secure employment Importantly, to work alone in a control center, a power plant operator needs to be certified by the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC).

Apprenticeship programs involve a combination of on-the-job training and classroom instruction. A pre-apprenticeship course may also be available which takes about five to six months to complete at a community college and is designed to help you get connected with a good company to apprentice with. It is important to apprentice with a reputable company as that is your education. While some apprenticeship programs may not require a high school diploma, it is important to note that employers generally prefer to hire high school graduates.

Apprenticeships can vary, however a typical apprenticeship lasts four to five years. The apprenticeship is a paid position, however wages are about 50 percent of what an employer pays the journeyperson, with yearly increases. After successfully completing the apprenticeship requirements, their industry training and apprenticeship office awards the power plant operator a certificate of completion.
 

Sources:
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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