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Demand High for Substation Work: Antiquated infrastructure fuels need for trained lineworkers

Newkirk Electric Associates’ Benton Harbor, Mich., 345-kV substation upgrade project | Newkirk Electric Associates
Newkirk Electric Associates’ Benton Harbor, Mich., 345-kV substation upgrade project
Newkirk Electric Associates
Published On
Sep 9, 2021

Aging infrastructure, increasing demands for electricity and the transition to renewable energy are fueling contracts for substation work. Those factors are also driving the need to keep training lineworkers, who as apprentices receive 1,000 hours of substation-­related instruction, and substation technicians, who graduate from separate 7,000-hour apprentice programs.

“Substation work has absolutely increased,” said Damien Phillips, substation division manager for New River Electrical Corp.’s Ohio region.

Phillips oversees the work of 250 lineworkers and substation technicians. He estimates that New River, which began as a substation contractor in 1953 in Westerville, Ohio, has about 50 active substation projects in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. The company is also working on additional projects through its Cloverdale, Va., office. 

New River has intensified efforts to cultivate a culture of safety beyond apprentice training. 

“This is dangerous work, so having to do it faster entails more risk,” Phillips said.

The company regularly reinforces OSHA standards, familiarizes lineworkers and substation technicians with the controls for equipment and tools they will be operating, and encourages a “brother’s keeper” attitude about workplace safety, Phillips said. 

Newkirk Electric Associates Inc., Muskegon, Mich., has specialized in high-­voltage electrical systems work since 1961. It too has seen a rise in substation work for the 225 lineworkers and substation technicians it employs, while serving clients in 38 states. 

“About 50% of the work we do involves replacement of aging infrastructure due to population growth and business development,” said Jeff Valensky, substation superintendent for Newkirk. “In many cases, we’re working in substations that were built at the very beginning of the power grid.” 

Those antiquated systems, which contain oil circuit breakers and copper conductors, require installation of newer equipment, including smart grid technology and fiber optic cable to support light speed controls that make troubleshooting power outages easier and improve emergency response. 

“Sometimes, there’s no more real estate for a much-needed expansion, so we have to construct additional satellite substations,” Valensky said. “That folds into the infrastructure replacement as well.”

In the last two decades, Newkirk Electric Associates has turned its attention to renewable-energy projects such as wind, solar, biomass, hydroelectric and landfill generation, “which are huge,” Valensky said. “These are turnkey projects.”

Newkirk and New River have been decommissioning substations for which they’ve held maintenance contracts for years, but the work doesn’t end there. 

New utility companies use those substations to reinforce the power grid, Valensky said. “Because we’re already familiar with the locations and equipment, this gives us a good chance of getting these maintenance contracts.” 

“A lot of substation technicians like this work and say it gives them a reason to see more of the country,” Valensky said.

Newkirk’s Alma, Mich., substation 46-kV bus/switch replacement | Newkirk Electric Associates
Newkirk’s Alma, Mich., substation 46-kV bus/switch replacement
Newkirk Electric Associates

Phillips and Valensky believe training and apprentice standards do a good job of preparing lineworkers and substation technicians, but both expressed concern over the sheer number of skilled electrical workers needed for the future. 

“You still have large numbers of substation technicians and linemen retiring in the next five or so years,” Phillips said. “It seems doubtful the pipeline of young people interested right now is going to fill the gap.”

To help bolster numbers, New River visits trade schools to talk up the work style and employment opportunities, Phillips said. 

Along those lines, American Line Builders Apprenticeship Training (ALBAT) in Medway, Ohio, is doing its best to enhance the teaching setting for lineworkers and substation technicians. Nearly 200 substation technician apprentices are currently enrolled. An indoor, mock substation was constructed in 2020, and ALBAT is aiming for completion of another in late fall.  

“The newer substation will allow us to provide more hands-on training for apprentices in a more realistic atmosphere,” said Kevin Castle, director of the ALBAT program. “It’s a reinvestment in the school with the intention of improving the quality of our apprentices while meeting the training demands from the field.”

About the Author
Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at sdegra...

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