When the wind isn’t blowing or a sweltering summer day drives up demand for cool air, OPPD still has to generate electricity as reliably and efficiently as ever.
That’s why the utility uses balancing stations, also known as peaking stations, a dependable way to keep power flowing uninterrupted to customers. Powerful, gas-driven turbines spin at blinding speeds to generate electricity quickly, and sometimes on short notice, when other sources dwindle or demand rises.
Inside every balancing station is a group of professionals – watchful, fast to respond, good at fixing problems – who make sure everything is running smoothly.
“You need a technical mind,” said Peter Pearson, a peaking station technician at OPPD’s Sarpy County Station in Bellevue. “You need to be able to troubleshoot on the fly. Some of these units are older, and there are a lot of things that can break down. We have to go out and assess problems, figure out whether it’s this part or that part or something else.”
Balancing station technicians monitor and maintain generation units throughout OPPD’s service territory. Their work behind the scenes ensures that customers rarely, if ever, have to think about their electrical service even when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
Demand for these technicians is only going to grow over the next few years as OPPD brings more stations online.
Power with Purpose seeks to produce up to 600 megawatts of utility-scale solar and 600 megawatts of utility-scale natural gas. The two new balancing stations will help fulfill the natural gas part of the equation.
Balancing stations use natural gas or fuel oil to spin turbine blades. The turbines heat and compress the fuel, creating tremendous pressure that then turns an electricity-producing generator.
As OPPD pivots toward renewable energy sources, balancing stations are still a must-have to supplement the work done by wind farms, solar arrays and other generation, or to boost generation when customer demand calls for more electricity. When summer heat or frigid winters stress the grid, the stations help shoulder the burden.
“There’s a lot of job security,” said Wade Hatzenbuehler, a peaking station operations coordinator. “It just seems like it’s the future.”
When OPPD needs to shut off one of its coal-burning units for maintenance, balancing stations help carry the load. When major storms cause outages in Nebraska or elsewhere in the central United States, the stations provide extra power to assist other member utilities within the Southwest Power Pool, a regional transmission organization that helps utilities offer reliable power.
OPPD has benefited in recent years from a strong pool of candidates interested in balancing station technician jobs, said Jeremy Kellner, a peaking station supervisor at Sarpy County Station. Many job-seekers apply from within the company.
Balancing station technicians come from different backgrounds, but most have strong mechanical skills. Others worked as electricians, steam fitters, machinists, or instrument and control technicians and spent time at other OPPD plants. A lot of the core knowledge comes from on-the-job training, but experience in a related discipline helps.
“With balancing station jobs, there’s definitely a lot of interest,” Kellner said. “That’s nice to have. We’ve got a good base of knowledge. We’re really fortunate to have the people we do.”
At OPPD’s Sarpy County Station, balancing station technicians work in shifts and take turns in different roles.
Sometimes, they’ll monitor the generation units from a large computer bank.
On other shifts, they’ll inspect units for wear and damage, fix broken equipment and replace parts to avoid future issues. They might also find themselves driving a forklift to haul a new shipment of parts or meet a truck that’s delivering fuel.
“It’s always something different,” Pearson said. “You’re not just coming in and sitting at a desk.”
The job is a challenge, especially for newcomers. Despite prior experience at a South Dakota utility, Pearson said he worked more than six months in his current role before he felt acclimated. To prepare workers, OPPD provides both on-the-job and classroom training throughout their apprenticeships.
Shane Jensen started at OPPD nearly 24 years ago, first in operations at North Omaha Station. Then he moved to the machine shop, making use of his machine tool and design degree from Southeast Community College in Milford.
But work as a balancing station technician intrigued him. A few months ago, he started a three-year apprenticeship at Sarpy County Station. After 5,600 hours of on-the-job training, he’ll finish the apprenticeship and become a balancing station technician.
“I’m still learning,” Jensen said. “It’s like drinking from a fire hose. Sometimes it can seem a little overwhelming, but you just have to take it piece by piece.”
Some moments are trying.
Occasionally, a turbine won’t start, and the reason isn’t immediately clear. Energy marketers will call, asking for more power to meet the demands of the Southwest Power Pool. Some repairs take five minutes, others five hours. The job requires a clear head, good communication, dedication and teamwork.
“When you’re under the gun, it can get stressful,” Jensen said.
Kellner recalled one simulated outage, a training exercise, where a coil on one of the breakers overheated. The breaker room filled the room with smoke. The problem was minor and easily fixed, but at the time, no one knew the cause.
The balancing stations also continue to face supply chain challenges, with long waits for replacement parts. Problems can arise at inconvenient times as well, including weekends and holidays.
Overall, though, the job is rewarding, technicians say. It’s also in-demand, with no shortage of work in the future.
“Every day I come here, my days fly by,” Hatzenbuehler said.
The “What It Takes” series explores the fascinating, fulfilling and sometimes surprising jobs available at OPPD, and what it takes to get hired for those jobs.
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