Line Contractor

What’s the Difference? Experts talk about work in transmission, distribution and substations

Getty Images / PCH-Vector
Getty Images / PCH-Vector
Published On
Sep 9, 2021

We asked experts to explain the different skills and interests needed to work successfully in transmission, distribution and substations. 

Steven Kunsman, vice president and general manager of substation automation for North America at Hitachi ABB Power Grids, Raleigh, N.C., said the move toward electrification is bringing the traditional lines between transmission and distribution closer together, but their safety aspects remain unchanged.

“The fundamental difference is the higher the voltage increases, the greater requirements to adhere to keep a distance. From the protection and control aspects, distribution systems are typically simpler, incorporating primary protection and then a form of backup protection,” Kunsman said.

Transmission systems are more complex today due to the advanced applications and higher system availability requirements.

“The protection and control systems in transmission systems deploy redundancy as a main requirement to improve system availability and to allow for a failure or maintenance activities to occur with the transmission system still energized,” he said.

Kunsman also explained that, because distribution system outages impact fewer customers than transmission system outages, technical personnel need to fully understand the total system impact and potential consequences.

Dave Torgerson is the chief operating officer at Valard Construction, Henderson, Nev. Torgerson and his company are steeped in the high-voltage electrical industry, be it in transmission, distribution or substation. 

He listed “problem-solving, facing challenges, finding friendship, earning trust and respect, serving as a mentor, being spirited yet detail-oriented, realizing the importance of the work you do, being reliable, acting as your brother’s keeper and working safely,” as important parts of the job. 

When a person enters the industry and moves through apprenticeship and additional training, you see and feel the pride that is passed down from those that came before and know the work is rewarding and meaningful, as is the progress a person makes. 

“As time passes, you recognize how important the training and hard-won experience really is,” Torgerson said. “While there are many ways to participate in the industry, providing and maintaining the electrical grid is critical to providing the things we take for granted. When Mother Nature or humans interfere with these systems and we are called out to respond, it’s on those days that you realize how important your position is and why the things you’ve learned over the years are so valuable.”

John Beringer, transmission, transmission and distribution division manager at Parsons Electric, Minneapolis (an ArchKey Solutions company), and Courtney Cooper, vice president for line construction at Sachs Electric Co., St. Louis, (an ArchKey Solutions company), agreed that “the two primary elements of success for working with high-voltage transmission, distribution lines or substations center around safety and quality—being both mentally and physically present, along with a high level of attention to detail. In our experience, these are critical success factors regardless of whether you’re working with high-voltage transmission, distribution lines or substations.”

Being able to identify the potential hazards and understand the proper PPE and equipment for the job are important baselines for Behringer and Cooper. More important, and crucial to making sure the work is done safely, is knowing how to perform work on energized facilities, in the case of distribution and transmission work, and how to properly de-energize the equipment and create safe work zones.

“Ensuring a quality installation, by staying attentive to the details, is another critical skill required for this line of work,” Behringer and Cooper said. “In most cases, you only have one chance to get the work done right. Whether that’s due to working on storm restoration to return power, or building a substation that serves thousands of customers, the attention to detail ensures that the installation is done correctly and is built to withstand both time and the elements.” 

Steve Hauser, CEO of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies (AEIC), Birmingham, Ala., discussed the evolving technical knowledge needed for substation work. 

“The changing demands on our nation’s electricity infrastructure are creating demands for new innovative technology that will provide new functionality. This, in turn, will create a demand for new skills that build on our traditional engineering and operations capabilities,” Hauser said. 

“Of course, we will still require new engineers with traditional power systems training to replace the increasing number of our current workforce reaching retirement age,” he said. 

“However, this incoming workforce will need IT skills on top of the power systems training. For example, Intel and other tech companies have recently launched an effort to ‘virtualize’ substations in the future. Several AEIC member utilities are involved in these projects, which promise to substantially increase functionality and reduce the cost of building new substations. Other technologies are also being introduced that rely heavily on advanced computational capabilities demanding a new set of skills for our engineers and technicians,” Hauser said.

About the Author
Gordon Feller

Gordon Feller

Gordon Feller has worked to bring new ideas into the electrical contracting world since 1979. His articles have been published in more than 30 magazines, and he has worked with dozens of utilities, associations, investors and regulators. Reach him at...

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