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What It Takes

Crucial group helps restore power, keep crews safe

November 6, 2023 | Grant Schulte | OPPD at work, OPPD employees, power outages, What It Takes
Jake Anderson, a distribution system operator, works at OPPD's Energy Control. Distribution system operators do vital work to ensure that crews in the field can perform their work safely and that outages affect customers as little as possible.
Jake Anderson, a distribution system operator, works OPPD’s Energy Control. Distribution system operators’ work is vital in ensuring that crews in the field can perform their work safely and that outages affect customers as little as possible. Photo by Danielle Beebe-Iske

A house catches fire. A car hits a power pole. A tree falls onto a live, overhead wire.

Any time an emergency triggers an outage or creates an electrical hazard, OPPD jumps into action with troubleshooters and line technicians in the field. Those responders are guided by, and work closely with, a group of specialists behind the scenes in a crucial, high-stakes job.

Distribution system operators (DSOs) are the air traffic controllers of OPPD’s restoration efforts, providing clarity and guidance in even the toughest of situations. DSOs work proactively to minimize the size of outages, oversee restoration efforts, talk directly with 911 dispatchers in emergencies, and – most importantly – ensure the safety of OPPD’s field workers.

“It’s a very fast-paced job,” said Jacob Anderson, a distribution system operator at OPPD. “You never know what’s going to happen in a given day. Every day is different.”

When troubleshooters discover the cause of an outage in OPPD’s distribution system – the neighborhood circuits that feed electricity to homes, schools and businesses – their first call is to OPPD’s Energy Control Center. There, in a highly secure, state-of-the-art facility, DSOs help tackle the problem.

Always new challenges

At the scene of an outage, OPPD troubleshooters search for a cause and relay what they’ve observed back to a DSO. The DSO takes detailed notes, issues instructions and helps formulate a game plan to ensure a safe and fast restoration.

“When a circuit locks out, it could be in one of 500 places,” Anderson said. “We typically use our experience and knowledge of the grid to try to find the cause.”

Once the cause is found, DSOs use their computers to isolate part of the affected circuit so that OPPD workers can safely approach it.

How they proceed depends on dozens of factors that DSOs must consider.

Can the troubleshooter handle the job alone? Or does a line crew need to help haul equipment and tag-team the work?

Did the outage happen on an easy-to-reach street pole, or at a backyard transformer surrounded by overgrown trees?

Are they dealing with a clear, sunny day at noon, or a moonless, 3 a.m. winter storm? Are trees in the way? Is a pole on fire?

For more involved, late-night jobs, DSOs call one of OPPD’s equipment shops and ask the workers there to prepare the necessary parts for line crews. Storeroom clerks gather necessary materials, including wire, fuses, transformers and more.

At the same time, DSOs work remotely – and often creatively – to reroute power to as many affected customers as possible. Customers who receive power through one neighborhood circuit can sometimes get electricity from another. Rerouting power, known as switching, serves as a temporary fix for customers and buys time for OPPD to make permanent repairs.

Staying cool

DSOs monitor OPPD’s distribution system at all hours, year-round. Even on slow days, their job demands quick thinking, excellent communication skills and the ability to remain calm under pressure.

“You’re part detective and part puzzle solver,” said Matt Shantz, manager of Distribution Operations. “You’re trying to diagnose what the problem is, and then at the same time, you’re also trying to figure out how to work around the problem so that you can get it fixed.”

When troubleshooters discover the cause of an outage, their first call is to OPPD’s Energy Control Center, where distribution system operators like Jake Anderson help tackle the problem.
When troubleshooters discover the cause of an outage in OPPD’s distribution system, their first call is to OPPD’s Energy Control Center, where distribution system operators like Jake Anderson help tackle the problem. Photo by Danielle Beebe-Iske

When a major storm rolls through OPPD’s service territory, DSOs take a big-picture view. In a widespread outage, DSOs may be working with two dozen crews at once and must prioritize.

“Does it seem overwhelming at times? Absolutely,” Anderson said. “But with a lot of repetition and experience, you just get used to it. You know what’s expected of you and what you need to do.”

Safety is paramount. DSOs are responsible for telling field workers when lines are de-energized, and field workers cannot begin repairs until a DSO has cleared them.

“It definitely takes someone with an ability to problem solve, multitask and think on the fly,” Shantz said. “During a storm, you might have 20 different crews you’re working with, while at the same time having to diagnose and problem-solve different issues.”

Working with first responders

DSOs and their coworkers, system operations specialists, also have a direct connection with Douglas and Sarpy County 911 services, whose dispatchers notify OPPD about pole crashes and fires. With house fires, OPPD disconnects power to protect firefighters.

The July 2021 storm that caused widespread outages was a big challenge, but one where DSOs rallied behind a shared mission. DSOs and many others in the Energy Control Center worked 16-hour days for seven days straight to restore power to customers.

“It was very busy and stressful, but also very rewarding,” Shantz said. “It takes a lot of people to get the lights back on in a situation like that. We’re just one piece of that.

“At the end of the day, the main job of a DSO is the safety of our crews in the field and of course keeping the power on for our customers.”

Not all calls are emergencies. DSOs also handle switching for routine equipment upgrades and maintenance that are needed to keep OPPD’s grid reliable and resilient.

The right stuff

Anderson, a Lincoln native, graduated with an energy generation and operations degree from Southeast Community College in Milford. OPPD wasn’t hiring DSOs at the time, so he took a similar job at Commonwealth Edison, a utility that serves Chicago and northern Illinois. He returned to Nebraska and joined OPPD in March 2022.

Back in high school, Anderson experimented with electronics while building subwoofer speakers for his car. The work was fun, interesting and a constant challenge. The degree program at Southeast Community College seemed to be a good fit, and it opened a lot of doors. Graduates have landed jobs in power plants, ethanol processing, wind farms and wastewater management facilities, among other industries.

“If you like to tinker, if you like to know how things work, if you’re a good problem solver, it’s a good fit,” Anderson said.

As Southeast notes on its website, DSOs and others like them are ultimately helpers: “Students in our program do their job so everyone else can do theirs.”

“These are careers that help more people on a daily basis than just about anything else,” said David Madcharo, program chair of Energy Generation Operations at Southeast Community College in Milford. “The impact of electricity on the world, it’s amazing.”

Many paths to the job

DSOs come from a variety of backgrounds. Some have worked in power plants. Others were line technicians, or electricians, or in the military. Others, like Anderson, did the same job at different utilities.

Shantz said OPPD recently created an associate DSO position, similar to an apprenticeship, to expand the candidate pool and encourage more applicants who are willing to learn on the job. In past years, OPPD required DSOs to gain experience at another utility or in another position within the company.

The job is likely to see big, exciting changes in the next few years with the adoption of Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). AMI technology will provide OPPD and customers with more real-time information.

AMI will allow distribution system operators to respond more quickly and isolate outages with greater precision. When 911 dispatchers call to report a fire, AMI will let OPPD turn off power remotely rather than in person, as is necessary now. Anderson is a fan, having used AMI at his previous utility operations job.

“It’s a great tool to have,” Anderson 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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About Grant Schulte

Grant Schulte joined OPPD as a content generalist in 2022. He is a former reporter for The Associated Press, where he covered the Nebraska Legislature, state politics and other news for a global audience. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa and a proud Hawkeye. In his free time he enjoys running, reading, spending time with his wife, and all things aviation.

View all posts by Grant Schulte >

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