David Pham chuckles when asked to describe what a typical day looks like.
“It’s different from one day to the next,” says Pham, Liberty’s Manager of Transmission Operations for the Central Region. “There is no typical. There might be days where it’s slow and we’re just treading along … then ‘BOOM!’ we might not even have time to get a drink or take a break.”
He and his team of engineers and dispatchers are responsible for monitoring the “big-picture” view of Liberty’s electric grid in the Southwest Missouri region, which also includes service to areas in Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
“We have real-time visibility into our distribution,” he says. “We monitor the health of it.”
Monitoring the health of the electric grid is a huge undertaking, but Pham sees the job as a challenge that he enjoys taking on each day.
Overseeing energy management
Pham began his professional career by stepping into the operations center in Joplin 18 ½ years ago. He never left.
He started fresh out of college and having earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in electrical engineering. He’s also a certified professional electrical engineer for the state of Missouri.
“I started (college) as a computer major,” he says. “That was a field my dad signed me up for. I learned it was not really something I was interested in. I have an uncle who was an electrical engineer, and I had always looked up to him.
“I started as an Energy Management System (EMS) engineer, working on the system and the application that monitors the power system. After about eight years or so, I moved over to this role, overseeing the operation of the energy management system.”
The system operations team is comprised of 10 members. In addition to Pham, there are seven system operators and two EMS engineers.
The operations team monitors and controls the high-voltage system, ensuring that it runs within the required parameters.
“This is the power system that supports everyone’s lives,” says Pham. “If anything happens to the high-level system, everybody’s lights go out. We want to maintain it and keep it reliable.”
How best to describe the central hub of the operations center … A war room, perhaps? The bridge of a starship?
It’s probably a little of both. A series of large, backlit LED screens shows the flow of electricity throughout the grid. The color-coded lines show transmission circuits that are open and those that are closed in an east-to-west flow through the Central Region. Substations have their own color as do the different voltage levels. At the far end are large monitors that keep track of incoming weather systems.
All of it paints a real-time picture of the grid and allows Liberty to closely coordinate with the Southwest Power Pool, which manages the wholesale power market in the central U.S.
It’s a lot to take in.
“In here, we are always watching, monitoring and controlling anything that is 34,000 volts and up, all the way up to 161,000 volts,” says Pham. “We have visibility of all the equipment out in the field, the voltage levels, and the line-flow levels.”
Before the installation of the LED screens, the grid map was updated with colored tape and magnets on a map on the wall. Advancements in technology have definitely been a game-changer for the systems operations team.
“It does help (by allowing us to have more) situational awareness of the system,” says Pham. “We now have access to real-time data coming in from the field.”
Renewable energy has also become an important component of the job as well.
“It can be a very controversial topic but overall, I think it’s a good thing,” he says. “The access to cheap power we have (from Liberty’s wind farms) also means lower fuel costs.”
While the system operation team’s work isn’t something the public sees, it’s critical to Liberty’s commitment to operational excellence in delivering safe, reliable energy to its customers.
As he reaches the end of each workday, Pham’s job satisfaction can be easily measured by one simple metric.
“If I can keep people’s lights on, I feel good about it.”