Four people are assembling puzzle pieces with icons of scales, a gavel, and a document. One person is on a ladder, one is seated, and two are standing. Utility poles are in the background.

Day in the life of Power System Dispatchers

The Western Area Power Administration operates an electrical power transmission system spanning 15 states and five regions, facing diverse climate and topographical conditions. At the heart of this operation are the Power System Dispatchers, generally known as North American Electric Reliability Corporation Certified System Operators. Day in and day out, WAPA’s dispatchers ensure the safe and reliable operation of the bulk electric system within their footprint. 

These highly trained and experienced individuals carry out the “high-wire act” to keep the system balanced and safe for those who depend upon it. The complexities of real-time operations; the intricate balancing of power generation and transmission-to-load usage; and balancing planned and unplanned outages while providing safe and reliable power: these rank among the most complex and challenging jobs in the industry. 

Daily, the dispatcher has the responsibility and authority to take or direct timely and appropriate actions to ensure the reliable operation of the bulk electric system during routine and emergency operations. A complex choreography keeps the system stabilized and functioning safely and efficiently. 

It’s a balancing act!

Safety reigns supreme in dispatcher operations, primarily safeguarding personnel and the public. Supervisory Power System Dispatcher Robert “Pete” Miller emphasizes, “A system operator’s first and foremost concern is the safety of the people working on the system. After that, they’re thinking about what the voltage and frequency is doing, whether the system is stable, what secondary effects will happen if I make a change to the system, can the system handle it, and how it will affect the rest of the interconnected electrical system.” 

So, how does dispatch work? When a Power Marketing partner sends a power schedule through a market exchange, they accompany it with an “e-tag,” or simply a tag, indicating the origination and destination points along the transmission system.  These tags are then carefully assessed at the interchange desk, verifying their accuracy to ensure a clear path to their destination. 

Lingo lesson: An “e-tag” is an electronic agreement to purchase power between the transmission and sale process. It outlines the specifics of the transaction, including the quantity of electricity to be transmitted, power source and destination, and delivery terms. E-tags are essential for managing the movement of electricity across the transmission grid, ensuring efficient and reliable operations while adhering to regulatory requirements. 

When a “tag” is received in the dispatch center, it enters the interchange desk. This is where a dispatcher performs the day-ahead preschedules, ensuring that their schedule is correct, and the hour-ahead preschedules in real time to account for discrepancies while simultaneously ensuring WAPA’s transmission system has enough capacity to transmit or move the power. The purpose of this desk is to ensure that they don’t overload the system and that there is enough generation and transmission to meet the needs specified by the tags. 

Electron superhighways

“Think of it like cars going down a highway,” explains Power System Dispatcher Bill Lawrence. “Each car is a certain number of megawatts. At some point, there may be too many cars on the road, which would cause congestion, so you may decide to redirect the cars to avoid that. If we’ve maxed out the amount of power the scheduled lines can handle, we have to either redirect it where capacity is available or cut power based on what can be sent over the lines to avoid any issues. The schedules occur before sending the power down a path, ensuring enough capacity on the system is available to handle it.” 

Once the interchange desk has scheduled the tags, the balancing desk takes over the management of power flow. This involves several steps. First, the available generation is matched to the load. Then, the load versus resource balances for utility customers are monitored. Finally, operating reserves are established and monitored to accommodate for any unanticipated changes. The ultimate goal is to maintain the system’s frequency as close to 60 hertz as possible, while ensuring that the generation is balanced with the usage. 

Power System Dispatcher Jamey McCain explains it this way, “Balancing is being prepared for something to trip off and determining how to respond by bringing more power online. There are a lot of different ways to make the adjustments. Some reserves can be brought online when needed, such as putting another [hydropower] generator online to cover for an outage. However, that affects the scheduled water flow for that day, which can have a ripple effect elsewhere in the system, so we’re constantly looking for the best ways to keep the system balanced at our 60 Hz stability point.” 

Maintain the system safely

Planned and unplanned outages happen regularly due to maintenance or natural phenomena disrupting parts of the system. That’s where transmission operations come into play. Transmission operations involve directing actions during power system equipment outages and disturbances, writing and executing switching instructions for power system equipment, known as switching programs and controlling power system voltages. 

Lingo lesson: A “switching program” directs the field to which steps to perform and in what order. It’s a step-by-step process that specifies which elements need to be removed from service, ensuring those working to maintain the system stay safe.

A typical day for Transmission System Operation, or TSO worker, depends on the day of the week. Power System Dispatcher Mark Shoeneman explains, “At the beginning of the week, crews head out to take equipment out of service that requires maintenance. At the end of the week, we see return switching to put equipment back into service.” 

“We write the procedures to remove parts of the system and put them back into service,” explains Power System Dispatcher Tara Rupp. “This is done routinely and during unplanned outages. When maintenance is required, many steps must occur for repairs to take place safely.” 

Incorrect analysis could lead to grave consequences, including loss of life, catastrophic equipment damage and power outages to large areas of the power system. The potential for such severe outcomes underscores the importance of the dispatchers’ work and the need for utmost caution and responsibility in their decisions. 

Rupp emphasized, “The guys in the field are very good at their jobs and don’t need us telling them how to do it. But they don’t know the bigger picture and what needs to happen for them to do their jobs safely. The main component of our desk is maintaining system reliability. When a crew member goes out to repair something, they need a clearance to know what’s hot and what’s not.” 

Shoeneman adds, “It’s a good feeling knowing that everyone’s all right and they performed the job safely.” 

The control room’s Transmission System Operations desk, a crucial hub between generation, transmission, and WAPA’s customers, plays a pivotal role in maintaining system reliability. The work is intricate and precise; there is little room for error. Different issues can arise on various desks, including generation trips, transmission line trips, equipment failure, disturbances from other areas, and system-wide issues. 

Though there are disturbances that can only affect one of the desks at a time, typically, they involve multiple desks, and when that happens, usually, the TSO desk is the lead. They are responsible for coordinating and reenergizing when the system goes dark, or a disturbance occurs. The Operators undergo rigorous training on various disturbances each year. NERC requires them to train on interconnection-wide disturbances that have led to implementing their restoration plans, ensuring they are always prepared. 

Diving into the details

When it’s necessary to investigate an unexpected outage or determine what could happen to the system if parts of it were de-energized, a specialist can safely use an offline testing environment without disturbing the power grid. In some WAPA areas, that’s the job of the Real-Time Engineer, whose function is vital to the decision-making process, whether for planned or unplanned outages. The Transmission System Operator performs this function in other WAPA areas. 

The RTE conducts real-time reliability studies in close coordination with the TSOs, a testament to the collaborative spirit that underpins our operations. They provide options for system configurations and switching activities, ensuring compliance and providing modeling support, oversight, and technical recommendations, all of which are crucial for maintaining the stability and safety of the power grid. 

Outages are examined as snapshots and processed through specialized software, followed by contingency analysis to identify potential issues. This approach allows for testing different scenarios and solving problems offline to understand how changes will affect the system. 

These positions require Power System Dispatchers to coordinate internally and externally, taking action when necessary to stabilize the electrical system and prevent safety incidents and catastrophic failures. Their role is not just complex, but also carries a significant responsibility, underscoring the trust that is placed in them. 

Shoeneman remarks, “If people like solving puzzles, this could be an excellent job! You have to figure out what to replace if we take one piece out of service so we can continue to provide power. It’s a tremendous responsibility and very detail oriented.” 

In our next ‘Day in the Life’ article, Closed Circuit will delve into the power generation side of the bulk electric business. We will explore the intricate processes and the many factors that go into bringing energy to our friends and neighbors, providing a broad understanding of the energy generation process. 

To read more about other jobs at WAPA, visit this story on WAPA’s Journeymen. 

A man in a blue hoodie sits at a desk with multiple computer monitors displaying complex data and graphs, focusing intently on the screens.
Interchange Power System Dispatcher Bill Lawrence reviews energy tags for accuracy.
A man and a woman sit at a desk covered with papers and blueprints, reviewing and discussing plans. Multiple computer monitors are visible in the background.
Transmission System Dispatchers Mark Shoeneman and Tara Rupp review switching in preparation for the days work.
A man sits at a desk with multiple monitors, looking at a binder with charts and graphs. He is focused on the binder while surrounded by computer equipment.
Balancing Dispatcher Jamey McCain reviews a procedure for the Northwest Power Pool Reserve Sharing Group activation.
Two men are in a control room discussing. One is seated at a desk with multiple computer monitors, and the other is standing on the other side of them. Various technical equipment and data screens are in the background.
Interchange dispatcher Bill Lawrence and Balancing Dispatcher Jamey McCain coordinate on schedule cuts for a path curtailment.

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Last modified on June 21st, 2024