• TheConfused Father

Why do our lights stay on

So most people who don't work in the power industry don't think about why lights come on when we flip a switch, except for the rare time it doesn't. Heck, worrying about that exact situation is a major part of my job and I don't think about it most of the time I walk into a room. Electricity is an essential part of our day to day lives in this country but a lot of us don't actually stop to think about the power we are using until it stops working. There is a lot of effort on the part of a ton of people in order to try to make sure that we don't have to think about it. It just happens. I love electricity, I have ever since I was a child and I am sure I will talk about it in a lot of future posts but today I want to talk about the people involved in that process. Two people in particular. Two people that as of the moment I am writing this, have been on the clock and keeping the lights on in a small Kansas town for over 21 hours straight.

A little background, there are three main types of power companies in the United States. There are utilities, which are investor-owned companies that produce and deliver power to a large area. Rural Electric Cooperatives (REC) are companies that distribute power over smaller areas and are owned by their members. And municipal electric systems, which are cities that buy power from a utility or REC and distribute it to their citizens and businesses. Our company, my father and I's, works for the electrical municipals of Kansas to help cover areas that they are not staffed appropriately to handle. Anyway back to the story, late last night, the lights went out in a small town somewhere in Kansas, which will remain nameless for privacy reasons. The operators, returned to the power plant to investigate the problem while the linemen started investigating the lines throughout town. So when there is a problem in an electrical system there are a series of breakers and fuses similar to what you have in your home, only on a much larger scale, to help the workers diagnoses the problem. Upon entering the power plant, they notice that the tiebreaker was open which usually indicates a problem fairly far upstream. Following protocol, the operators isolated the power plant and started up the cities backup generation (most remote towns in Kansas have them). They then brought the feeders back online one by one till all the people in the city had power again. This is the part where most people stop caring, or even realizing there is a story. Most of us see the lights go out, grumble out how it sucks for the realistically short time we are out of power then go cool when the lights come back on and go on with our lives. Or the power goes out in the middle of the night (the most common time the power goes out actually) and is back on before we ever realize there was a problem at all.

But this is actually when the real work starts for the operators. Starting a generator is what they are trained for, it is what they practice and the thing they are excepting to do when they walk into a dark power plant in the middle of the night. The hard part is usually figuring out why the power when out in the first place. Electrical protective schemes are not an easy thing to understand and even harder still to troubleshoot. A lot of times this is where we get involved. That is was we train for, it is what we do. And last night when they needed help figuring out what literally when bump in the night, they called us. And Bruce, our best troubleshooter went out and spent the night and most of the morning helping them figure out they had a winding fault in there tie transformer. For those of you who don't know what that means, it is not good... at all. We will go over that more in-depth later but for now all you need to know is it is not a piece of equipment that most people keep spares of lying around. Tie transformers are usually custom made with lead times of over half a year. Needless to say that generating for that period of time is not financially responsible. Nor is it realistic when you only have two power plant operators on staff for the whole city and it takes both of them to run the power plant. So as soon as we knew what the problem is we started making phone calls to everyone we could think of to see how fast we could get one for the city. Luckily, after about 60 different conversations, it turns out that another one of the municipals here in the state had a similar transformer on-site waiting to be installed in the fall once their load drops off. Even better they were willing to give it to the city, under the understanding that the city would order(and pay for) a replacement. Cranes and shipping trucks where scheduled by the end of the day. The new transformer should be in place and online by mid-afternoon tomorrow. Alls well that ends well right (assuming it all goes as planned). But what about those two power plant operators that have been keeping the lights on since last night and will have to keep running those engines till whenever the transformer is installed tomorrow? If all goes well, the people in that small town won't even notice the transition back. The lights will just stay on and other than that period of time last night, they will never know the difference. Like I said as much as we all use electricity most of us never think about it. Those two will run that power plant for almost 48 hours straight without stopping, shut the generator down, go home, and enjoy a well-served Sunday off. Other than a possible mention in that small-town newspaper, it is improbable that anyone will thank them. It is just all part of the job. For them and every other emergency power responder out there. So when going to turn off your light to go to sleep tonight just try to remember, someone is working hard so you control when that light turns off.

But more on that another time, in the meantime I hope this message finds you in good health and of a sound mind. I am just a confused father from Kansas wondering...



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