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Automation techs are on the ground floor of emerging technology

September 7, 2022 | Jason Kuiper | OPPD at work, OPPD employees, T&D
automation technicians
Automation technicians Jon Willey, left, and Chad Boyce check a recloser near near 108 and Ida streets. The location is part of OPPD’s pilot smart grid. Photo by Danielle Beebe-Iske

The pair work out of a lab under the stairs affectionately dubbed the “Harry Potter room” by some.  It’s a little cramped, it’s a little stuffy and it isn’t marked – but that hasn’t stopped Chad Boyce and Jon Willey from cooking up a little magic out of their space in OPPD’s Elkhorn Service Center.

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Chad Boyce, left, and Jon Willey work in their lab, dubbed the “Harry Potter room” by some, at the Elkhorn Service Center. Photo by Danielle Beebe-Iske

OK, “magic” might be a step too far, but the two automation technicians have been building and experimenting with some pretty advanced equipment. And they’ve helped deploy such equipment around various areas all throughout the utility’s service territory.

“We’ve been installing these recloser controllers that we’ve built, that’s been keeping us busy,” said Jon Willey, showing off one of the recent models he and Boyce have built in their lab. “There will potentially be hundreds of them that will be added onto our system, it’s pretty exciting to see this project grow from where we were just a few years ago.”

The reclosers are similar to a circuit breaker in the field, which allows OPPD’s operators at the Energy Control Center to monitor a circuit remote. About 20 reclosers were previously installed with other equipment, such as faulted circuit indicators and capacitor controllers, in the smart grid area located in north Omaha. The equipment works together to give the operators real-time indications and helps to assist with outage response activities.

A day in the life of automation technicians

Most days, Willey and Boyce come to work and the first thing they do is check EMS – the Energy Management System – to see what is going on with the equipment they are responsible for on the distribution system or if there are any emerging issues that could impact operations.

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Jon Willey uses a bucket truck to reset a faulted circuit in a north Omaha neighborhood. Photo by Danielle Beebe-Iske

They two are also responsible for the controllers that are used to monitor the distribution network located downtown in  underground vaults. The controllers provide remote indication of the downtown network. They also provide control functions for the Operations staff at the Energy Control Center.

The equipment and systems Willey and Boyce monitor are complex, so the pair have studied and learned new skills. Both previously worked at OPPD’s Fort Calhoun Station. They ended up transferring to the utility’s Metering Services department after the 2016 decision to cease operations at the nuclear plant due to financial reasons.

On other days they work on power quality issues, which could include installing capacitor controllers. Those controllers help with power factor correction and can bring voltage up when needed, depending on certain “set points,” such as temperature, current or voltage. The pair recently installed capacitor controls in the Weeping Water area.

Other metering techs work with Boyce and Willey on two-month rotations. That process helps increase the knowledge base for what automation techs do, and could even lead to future roles in the department.

Emerging area

“I saw this as a groundbreaking role,” said Boyce, a journeyman electrician before coming to OPPD. “I saw the potential in the role and applied and knew this was where I wanted to be, a part of the growth.”

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Chad Boyce examines a recloser in his office, a storage room turned automation laboratory at Elkhorn Service Center. Photo by Danielle-Beebe Iske

Boyce completed a five year apprenticeship program with IBEW Local 22. He supported work as an electrical contractor during a refueling outage at Fort Calhoun Nuclear station. When an opening for a maintenance electrician spot at the plant came open, he applied and accepted the job in the fall of 2011. He later became a senior electrician in 2014.

Willey started working for OPPD part time in 2006 at North Omaha Station. A few years later he became a full-time employee as an equipment operator at the station. He took power plant technology classes at Bismarck State College, which helped him land a job as an apprentice in Fort Calhoun Station’s Instrument and Control department in 2009. He became an Instrument and Control Coordinator in 2014.

Willey then transferred to Nebraska City Station as a Senior Instrument and Control Technician in 2016. He worked there for a year, then learned of the automation technician role.

Both men enjoy challenging work and were eager to learn new skills. They became automation techs about the same time.

A growing role

OPPD President and CEO Javier Fernandez talks about transforming OPPD to be a utility of the future and about new roles and skills OPPD will need. Automation technicians are among the roles that John Staup, OPPD’s director of Talent Acquisition, has cited as areas of future growth. Such roles play a part in the digitalization of the utility. Some of the future jobs at OPPD will require different skill sets, such as automation skills, Staup said.

For Willey, there is also the satisfaction of working with different areas of OPPD.

“We get to go all over and work with multiple work groups throughout the territory,” Willey said. “Learning about the new technology and working through the different challenges has been rewarding.”

From their nondescript lab, Willey and Boyce cover the whole service territory, wherever there is distribution automation equipment. They are excited about what the future holds for their role and for OPPD.

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About Jason Kuiper

Jason Kuiper joined OPPD as a communications specialist in 2015. He is a former staff writer and reporter at the Omaha World-Herald, where he covered a wide range of topics but spent the majority of his career covering crime. He is a graduate of the University of Nebraska at Omaha and has also appeared in several true crime documentary shows. In his free time he enjoys cooking, spending time with his wife and three children, and reading crime novels.

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