Linemen specializing in power station, substation, and relay work – also referred to as power generation maintenance electricians – literally work with the power that runs the nation. Wielding the tools and specialized skills required to manage equipment that stores and distributes gigawatts of electrical current takes a special kind of professional with a keen sense of safety and protocol.
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The Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State produces an average of 57.5 gigawatts (57,500,000,000 watts) of power each day. With the US Energy Information Administration reporting that the average American household uses 29.9 kilowatts (29,900 watts) daily, the electricity produced at Grand Coulee everyday is enough to power 1.9 million homes.
Think about that. As a power generation maintenance electrician you would work with the same amount of electricity that 1.9 million residential electricians would work with combined.
According to American Electric Power (AEP), by the time electricity makes the journey from a power station to a substation distribution point it is measured at as many as 500,000 volts. Power generation maintenance electricians manage this extremely high-voltage input as it runs through substation step-down transformers to be distributed at less than 39,000 volts through the power lines that deliver electricity to homes, businesses, schools and hospitals within a community.
Powerhouse, Substation, and Relay: Understanding the Phases of Electrical Production, Storage and Distribution
Power generation electricians are classified by their ability to manage the three major elements of electrical production and distribution– powerhouses, substations, and relays:
Powerhouse – Also referred to as power stations or power plants, this is where alternating current (AC) electricity is generated. As a turbine spins in a magnetic field, voltage is produced. Depending on the power station, up to 24,000 volts are produced by the turbine before being sent to a step-up transformer. The step-up transformers then increase the initial 24,000 volts to as many as 500,000 volts to be transmitted through high voltage power lines and distributed to substations throughout a large city or region.
Substation –The high voltage electricity that enters these step-down substations is transformed to a safer, more usable level before being transmitted to homes and businesses within a community.
Relay – Controlling the input and output of this massive amount of power as it is produced, stored and distributed requires specialized, high-voltage relays. A relay is simply a switch that is activated by a specified amount of current. For example, if you want to avoid shorting out a circuit from a power surge you can install a relay that will activate the circuit breaker if a fault is detected. This is known as a protective relay. In the context of powerhouses and substations a relay specifically refers to a transformer differential relay. This is a protective relay that trips a circuit breaker when a fault is detected, saving the transformer from damage.
Job Duties Performed in Powerhouses and Substations
Power generation maintenance electricians perform similar duties in powerhouses and substations. The duties primarily revolve around the systems used to transform the voltage– either from lower to higher voltage, or from higher to lower voltage.
When power generation maintenance electricians work in a powerhouse they are dealing with electricity that is traveling from the source of production to a stepping-up station where transformers increase voltage. At the power generation phase, duties can include:
- Mechanical work with transformers for varying levels of voltage
- Rerouting power to better supply the grid
- Working with low and medium voltage motor control centers (MCCs)
- Switchboard testing and maintenance
- Working with many kinds of actuators
- Isolating equipment for power outages
- Working with three-phase transformers
- Working with buck and boost transformers
- Using trapped key interlocking systems
The stepping-up station uses the same components as a step-down substation; essentially it is a substation with transformers that work in the opposite direction. At stepping-up stations and step-dwon substations electricians deal with transformers and the relays that protect them. Duties here involve:
- Fuzzing to test relays for high voltage during maintenance
- Cleaning high voltage circuits
- Maintaining and repairing bus units
- Cleaning, refilling, and maintaining oil coolant
- Circuit breaker maintenance and testing
- Maintaining and repairing switchgear and insulation
- Maintaining and repairing battery systems
These job duties will involve:
- Knowing about electromagnetic induction
- Understanding the electromotive force
- Understanding flux saturation levels and CT saturation
- Knowing about phase displacement
- Knowing about grounding, ground testing, and feedback
- Knowing all details about transformers
State Licensing Requirements and Professional Certification Options for Power Generation Maintenance Electricians
State, regional, county, and city jurisdictions can each set their own licensing requirements for power generation maintenance electricians (some jurisdictions use the term “license,” others use the term “certification”). In some jurisdictions, power generation maintenance electricians may be subject to special licensing requirements, while in other jurisdictions these roles may be covered by an industrial electrician license.
To know exactly what is required where you live, check with your local jurisdiction’s regulatory agency or your local representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).
We can speak in general terms about the licensing process for electricians specializing in powerhouse, substation, and relay repairs/installations. This progresses through three levels:
- Apprentice – As a new electrician you’ll receive education and supervised on-the-job training at this level for four to six years. When you’re nearing completion of your training you typically take a test to advance to the next level.
- Journeyman – At this level you can work more independently and perform specific duties unsupervised. After around two to four years you may be eligible to move to the next level upon passing an exam.
- Master – At this level you can lead projects as a foreman and work independently on all jobs associated with being a power generation maintenance electrician.
Certifications for Powerhouse, Substation, and Relay Electricians
There are several national organizations that offer powerhouse, substation, and relay certifications. Some jurisdictions may require that you go through one of these national organizations as part of your local licensing process. Other jurisdictions may not require that you have a certification from a national organization, but may recognize the certification as a competitive professional qualification.
National certifying organizations usually offer these certifications separately. Examples of national certification organizations include:
- AVO Training Institute for substation maintenance electricians
- AVO Training Institute for relay technicians
- National Center for Construction and Education Research (NCCER) for power generation maintenance electricians
Power Generation Maintenance Electrician Salaries
The US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks salary data for electricians who work to repair and maintain powerhouses, substations, and relays. Today this is one of the highest paying jobs for electricians in the nation, with salary figures that keep growing:
- $65,950 – national average salary in 2011
- $67,380 – national average salary in 2012
- $68,270 – national average salary in 2013
- $70,110 – national average salary in 2014
- $72,450 – national average salary in 2015
The BLS also keeps track of salary data by state, and reports the following as offering the highest average salaries in the nation in 2015:
- Average – $85,120
- Top 10 percent average – $96,700
- Average – $85,290
- Top 10 percent average – $101,890
- Average – $85,610
- Top 10 percent average – $109,600
- Average – $87,060
- Top 10 percent average– $113,210
- Average – $91,790
- Top 10 percent average– $117,880
The following salary figures, sourced in July 2016, represent the types of salaries available to properly credentialed power generation maintenance electricians. These are shown for illustrative purposes only and are not meant to represent job offers or provide an assurance of employment or level of pay:
- Substation Electrician with the Bonneville Power Administration (federal) in The Dalles, Oregon and Wenatchee, Washington: $91,250
- High Voltage Transformer/Substation Electrician with the University of Iowa in Iowa City: $50,968
- Relay Test Technician with the Modesto Irrigation District in California: $70,990 – $95,472
- Relay Electrician with Seattle City Light in Washington State: $100,922 – $110,261
- Supervisor of Energy Systems with Rochester Public Utilities in Minnesota: $80,307 – $118,096
Top Employers of Power Generation Maintenance Electricians
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the following industries as the top employers for powerhouse, substation, and relay electricians:
- Electric power generation, transmission, and distribution – 15,060 employees nationwide
- Local government agencies – 3,120 employees nationwide
- Commercial and industrial machinery and equipment – 760 employees nationwide
- Company and enterprise management – 620 employees nationwide
- Federal government agencies – 590 employees nationwide
Main employers in major markets throughout the United States include:
- National Field Services
- Schneider Electric
- Critical Electric Systems Group (CESG)
- Seminole Electric Group
- JEA (Jacksonville Electric Authority)
- City of Jacksonville
- TAW (Tampa Armature Works)
- Link Staffing Services
- VSE Corporation
- Northrop Grumman
- Electric Power Systems, International
- San Diego Gas and Electric
- Human Potential Consultants
- Great Southwestern Construction, Inc
- Management Recruiters of Indianapolis
- Electric Power Systems, International
- Gaylor, Inc
New York City
- TRC Companies
- Clean Energy
- Essential Power LLC