From Scott Carlberg

Plugging in an appliance is a simple thing, but getting the power to your plug takes many people. So this Labor Day Energy Consumers of the Carolinas tips its hat to a few people who represent the hard work of so may people in the energy business.

The magnitude of people keeping the lights on is massive. 1.9 million people in the U.S. in electric power generation and fuels. (Source)  The most visible power employees are line workers, and there are almost 115,000 (more than 7,500 in the Carolinas) (Source) (State-level employment statistics here.)

Utility workers are close-knit people who care about their customers. For example, even before Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas, electric utilities from all over had mobilized more than 40,000 workers to respond. (Source) That is special in today’s workplaces.

So here is the first installment about a few people who get up each morning, or work the night shift, to keep your power on.

Sharene Pierce is the general manager of grid management at Duke Energy. She’s responsible for about 60 engineers and technicians who monitor substations, power poles and lines that make up the distribution system in seven states.

Inside the Distribution Control Center in Charlotte, employees monitor the energy grid 24/7 and correct any issues that affect energy generation and delivery. At the control center, employees can see energy being transmitted in real time and spot issues as they emerge. With new technologies being installed, they can fix some problems remotely and more quickly than ever, which means fewer and shorter outages for customers.

Pierce has worked at Duke Energy since she was a student at NC State University 19 years ago. She said with all the advancements in technology, it’s hard to believe this work used to be done manually or on paper. “We’ve gotten to the point now, that every power line that we have are actually depicted in the software that we have.”

In part of the center Pierce’s team of technicians and engineers are grouped together. One of them is Sarah Kutcher (right), who graduated from Clemson University as an electrical engineer in 2010 and has worked at Duke Energy since. As a grid engineer, Kutcher studies how to reroute power using switches and circuit breakers during unplanned outages or when crews need to de-energize a portion of the grid to work safely.

She’s also optimizing self-healing technology, an automated network that will shorten outages. The technology is installed between substations, so when a car hits a pole for example, the self-healing devices will automatically sense the disruption and isolate the damaged section of the grid. Then, the electricity will be rerouted from an alternate source and fewer people will be without power.

At the other end of that system is Duke Energy line worker Ariel Martin (left), who loves the idea of being outside, working with her hands and learning new skills. And when the power is out, she gets to help turn it back on. “That makes you feel good.” she said.

Linemen install, maintain and repair high-powered electrical lines, scale poles to repair overhead lines, and inspect lines in need of repair or replacement. In some cases, they install underground lines. It’s a job that often finds them working outdoors at a time when everyone else wants to be indoors, safe and protected from the elements.

The physical and mental challenges make the work exciting and rewarding. She’s been at Duke Energy for only a year, and, she said, probably would’ve done linework sooner, but there are so few women in the profession that she didn’t think it was an option.

About the job, Martin said, “This was way outside the box for me, but someone told me about it, and I think I said, ‘I wish I could do something like that,’ and he said, ‘why not?’”

That encouraged her to attend a four-month program where she learned to climb, make repairs and understand electrical systems. She came to Duke Energy in an entry-level groundman position after graduating, and any doubts she had about fitting in or keeping up are gone.

“Sometimes I have to adapt the way I do things because I’m smaller and maybe not as strong as some of the guys here,” she said, “but you find a way.”

Martin said, “Decide what you want to do, do it, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.”

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Thanks to Duke Energy Illumination for permission to use these stories.