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What It Takes

Relay specialists help keep the electrical system safe and reliable

September 12, 2023 | Jason Kuiper | OPPD at work, OPPD employees, What It Takes
relay specialists
Senior relay specialists Micah Vogel, left, and apprentice relay specialist Jake Paasch work in a substation operating and maintaining the relays, or switches, that help keep the electrical system safe. Photo by Danielle Beebe-Iske

From the control rooms of power plants to deep inside substations, you’ll find a small, specialized group working behind the scenes to keep some of OPPD’s most important systems safe.

They are relay technicians, and they work in OPPD’s Substation & System Protection department. The utility’s 19 relay specialists are responsible for building, installing, programming and maintaining the relays, or switches, that protect OPPD’s vital substation and power plant equipment.

Protective equipment like transformers and breakers are monitored by relays in the utility’s 130-plus substations. In OPPD’s  six generating stations and peaking plants, protective relays monitor and protect systems and equipment including the plants’ generators.

“The work they do may not be as visible as some of the other crafts,” said Brandon Parmer, manager of Substation & System Protection at OPPD. “But we rely on what they do to keep our electrical system healthy and reliable.”

Relay specialists work all over the utility’s 13-county service territory. Wherever electricity flows, there are systems and equipment that need protection.

What is a relay? 

A relay is a microprocessor-based device that monitors the flow of electricity through substation equipment, Parmer said. They do the same thing in power plants, but instead of monitoring substation equipment, they monitor the unit’s generator. Think of them like a breaker in a house. When an electrical circuit is overloaded, the breaker trips and shuts down the circuit and everything that is fed by it.

A relay will “trip” whenever it senses a problem in the power system – known as a fault. Protective relays sense these faults and send signals to continue operating or to trip. A trip affects breakers and other equipment and disconnects equipment to isolate the fault. That isolation prevents damage to important power system assets.

“In many instances, protective relays can also restore power automatically once the fault has cleared,” said Micah Vogel, Senior relay specialist at OPPD. “Sometimes in less than a blink of the eye.”

Doing the job

There are about 7,000 relays throughout OPPD’s electrical system.

How often each relay needs inspecting varies based on the relay’s location. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) requires inspecting and testing of relays on the 161 kilovolt (kV) transmission system every five years. NERC regulates transmission lines of such high voltages as they are part of the bulk electric system.

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Micah Vogel inspects an electro-mechanical differential relay as Jake Paasch looks on. The relay has reliably been in use for decades thanks to proper monitoring and maintenance.

Vogel was recently doing that testing at a substation near 90th and Pacific Streets in Omaha. He spent a week performing functionality testing there, ensuring that all the relays were operating as they should.

A relay specialist uses a laptop and test set to simulate a fault. Doing so verifies the protective relay responded correctly. Relay technicians must be able to read schematics and  prints.

Relay techs use the same equipment in power plants and peaking stations, but there they are testing to see how relays for the generator and other power systems are working.

“Any system or piece of equipment used to run the plant – like circulation water pumps or fans – has a protective relay,” said Greg Geiger, field supervisor of Substation Construction at OPPD.

What it takes

“We look for highly detail-oriented people,” Parmer said.

Relay specialists at OPPD need an associate of applied science degree in electrical/electronics controls. OPPD’s System Protection department also hires people with instrumentation and controls backgrounds, Geiger said.

A four-year apprenticeship program is required to become a relay specialist. An apprentice becomes a first-class relay specialist after testing. The position is the highest-paid craft at OPPD, Parmer said.

Currently, three relay apprentice specialists are going through OPPD’s apprentice program.

Vogel started at OPPD in 2008 and has been in System Protection the entire time. Vogel is from Orange City, Iowa, in the northwest corner of the state. He heard about OPPD from Brian Kramer, senior director of Utility Operations Construction & Maintenance. Kramer is from the same area and attended the same trade school – Northwest Iowa Community College.

“I heard it was a great company to work for,” Vogel said. “My background in industrial instrumentation and control and system protection fit the role. I knew Brian and he was the department supervisor at the time. He encouraged me to apply.”

Complex work

Relay specialists can work at a substation for a week, like Vogel did recently. The next week could be spent in a power plant.

“One of the things I really like about system protection is that it can vary so much,” Vogel said. He spoke during a break from testing work inside a switch gear room at the substation near 90th and Pacific Streets.

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“We have a good System Protection team,” said Micah Vogel, left, with Jake Paasch. “If you have a question, no one has a problem dropping what they are doing and helping out.” Photo by Danielle Beebe-Iske

“Sometimes you have a day like today, where you are out at a substation doing preventative maintenance and switching out transmission or some distribution circuits.”

Variety in the work is one of the best things about the job, Vogel said. But it can also be one of the biggest challenges. You can spend a lot of time working on a project and get familiar with it, and then you switch to something else. It might be months before you return to a similar project, he said.

“I write myself a lot of notes,” Vogel said. “We have a good System Protection team. If you have a question, no one has a problem dropping what they are doing and helping out. Nobody makes you feel like you’re not doing a good job if you don’t remember every single thing. We have good support throughout the department.”

Interested? Try job shadowing

Anyone interested in the trade should shadow a relay specialist, Vogel said. Job shadowing gives a baseline knowledge of the job. Plus, it shows a potential employer the person is interested enough in the field to take that extra step. And education in the electronics field plays a big role in getting a job in the field.

Vogel worked in industrial instrumentation and control before starting at OPPD. In that job he was measuring the flow of process fluids instead of measuring the flow of electricity.

Vogel is proud of his team and his craft.

“Nothing runs without electricity. It’s rewarding to be part of the team that provides it.”

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 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.

View all posts by Jason Kuiper >

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