Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers - What They Do

Electricity is one of our nation’s most vital resources. It powers everything from light bulbs and appliances that you use around your house to supercomputers that power the Internet. From the moment you flip the first switch each morning, you are connecting to a huge network of people, electric lines, and generating equipment. Power plant operators control the machinery that generates electricity. Power plant distributors and dispatchers control the flow of electricity as it travels through a network of transmission lines from the power plant to industrial plants and substations, and then flows through distribution lines to residential users.

Power plant operators control and monitor boilers, turbines, generators, and auxiliary equipment in power-generating plants. They distribute power among generators, regulate the output from several generators, and monitor instruments to maintain voltage and regulate electricity flows from the plant. When demand changes, power plant operators communicate with dispatchers at distribution centers to match production with system the load. On the basis of this communication, they start and stop generators, altering the amount of electricity output. They also go on rounds to check that everything in the plant is operating correctly and keep records of switching operations and loads on generators, lines, and transformers. In all of these tasks, they use computers to report unusual incidents, malfunctioning equipment, or maintenance performed during their shifts.

Nuclear power reactor operators perform similar tasks at a nuclear power plant. Most start working as equipment operators or auxiliary operators. At this stage, they help the more senior workers with equipment maintenance and operation while learning the basics of plant operation. With experience and training they may be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as reactor operators, making them authorized to control equipment that affects the power of the reactor in a nuclear power plant. Senior reactor operators supervise the operation of all controls in the control room. At least one senior operator must be on duty during each shift to act as the plant supervisor.

Power distributors and dispatchers, also called load dispatchers or systems operators, work for utility companies, non-utility generators, and other companies that access the power grid. They control the flow of electricity through transmission lines to industrial plants and substations that supply residential and commercial needs for electricity. They monitor and operate current converters, voltage transformers, and circuit breakers. Dispatchers also monitor other distribution equipment and record readings at a map board—a diagram of the transmission grid system showing the status of transmission circuits and connections with substations and industrial plants. In doing this, they communicate closely with power plant operators, energy traders, and local utilities to route energy from generating stations to customers.

Dispatchers anticipate changes in power needs caused by weather, such as increased demand for power on a hot day or outages during a thunderstorm. They also react to changes in the structure of the grid due to transformer or transmission line failures and route current around affected areas. In substations, they operate and monitor equipment that increases or decreases voltage and they operate switchboard levers to control the flow of electricity in and out of the substations.

Work Environment

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers held about 49,000 jobs in 2020. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers was distributed as follows:

  1. Power plant operators - 33,600
  2. Power distributors and dispatchers - 10,000
  3. Nuclear power reactor operators - 5,300

The largest employers of power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers were as follows:

  • Utilities - 71%
  • Government - 16%

Operators, distributors, and dispatchers who work in control rooms generally sit or stand at a control station. The work requires constant attention. Workers also may do rounds, checking equipment and doing other work outside the control room. Transmission stations and substations where distributors and dispatchers work are typically in locations that are separate from the generating station where power plant operators work.

Because power transmission is both vitally important and sensitive to attack, security is a major concern for utility companies. Nuclear power plants and transmission stations have especially high security, and employees work in secure environments.

Work Schedules

Because electricity is provided around the clock, operators, distributors, and dispatchers usually work rotating 8- or 12-hour shifts. Work on rotating shifts can be stressful and tiring because of the constant changes in living and sleeping patterns.

Education & Training Required

Operator and dispatcher jobs require at least a high school diploma. Workers with college or vocational school degrees will have advantages in finding a job, as well as more advancement opportunities, especially in nuclear power plants. Although it is not a prerequisite, many nuclear power reactor operators have bachelor's degrees in engineering or the physical sciences.

Workers selected for training as power plant operators or distributors undergo extensive on-the-job training and classroom instruction. Several years of training and experience are necessary to become fully qualified.

In addition to receiving initial training, a power plant operator, distributor, or dispatcher, is required to spend a certain number of hours each year taking refresher courses. Operators train on plant simulators designed to replicate situations that could occur at the plant. Similarly, dispatchers and system operators train extensively on power system simulators to keep skills sharp to prevent blackouts.

Certifications Needed (Licensure)

Some power plant operators, distributors and dispatchers must earn and maintain licenses. The specific requirements vary by job function and jurisdiction.

Power plant operators not working in a nuclear facility are often licensed as engineers or firemen by State licensing boards. Requirements vary from State to State and also depend on the specific job function of the operator and the license needed.

Nuclear power reactor operators must pass an examination and maintain licenses administered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Before beginning training, a nuclear power plant operator must have 3 years of power plant experience. At least 1 of the 3 years must be at the nuclear power plant where the operator is to be licensed, and 6 months should be as a nonlicensed operator at the plant. Training generally takes at least 1 year, after which the worker must take an NRC-administered written examination and operating test. To maintain their licenses, reactor operators must pass an annual practical plant-operating exam and a biennial written exam administered by their employers. Reactor operators can upgrade their licenses to the senior-reactor-operator level after a year of licensed experience at the plant by taking another examination given by the NRC. Individuals with a bachelor's degree in engineering or the equivalent may apply for senior operator's licenses directly if they have 3 years of nuclear power plant experience, with at least 6 months at the site. Training includes simulator and on-the-job training, classroom instruction, and individual study. Experience in other power plants or with Navy nuclear-propulsion plants also is helpful. Although waivers are possible, licensed nuclear power reactor operators and senior operators generally have to pass a new written examination and operating test administered by the NRC if they transfer to another facility.

Power distributors and dispatchers who are in positions in which they could affect the power grid must be certified by the North American Energy Reliability Corporation (NERC). There are three types of certification offered by NERC: reliability coordinator, transmission operator, and balancing authority. Each of these qualifies a worker to handle a different job function. Distributors and dispatchers who distribute power within local utilities generally do not need to be licensed or certified.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)

Electric company recruiters generally look for individuals with strong math and science backgrounds for these highly technical jobs. Understanding electricity and math—especially algebra and trigonometry—are important, although workers learn many of these concepts and skills in specialized training courses. Workers should also be good at working with tools. Problem solving is an important part of most electrical workers’ jobs, so recruiters usually look for people who can easily figure out how things work. Successful utility workers are generally good with mechanics and enjoy fixing things.

In order to measure these aptitudes, many companies require that their workers take the Power Plant Maintenance (MASS) and Plant Operator (POSS) exams administered by the Edison Electrical Institute. These tests measure reading comprehension, understanding of mechanical concepts, spatial ability, and mathematical ability.

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