Power From The People

15 May 2015 Power From The People


A warm, personal story about the lives and challenges of energy workers “behind the light switch,” especially those who operate Pacific Gas and Electric’s solar, hydro and nuclear power plants.

First aired: Spring Semester, 2015 ·


[upbeat music]

[power failure]

Elisa: What the…

[switches being flipped]

Elisa: …no! Ugh, why now? Mom, the power went out! 

Cleo: Everyone knows that feeling of agonizing frustration when they’re in the middle of something really important, and bam! the power goes out.

Elisa: Ugh, I hate that.

Cleo: But have you ever wondered who’s behind the scenes to make sure the electricity comes back on?

Music: And the world is made of energy / And the world is electricity…

[”Energy” by Apples In Stereo continues]

Cleo: My name is Cleo.

Elisa (sp?): And I’m Elisa.

Cleo: And we’re students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We took a class that focused on the growing global demand for energy.

Elisa: Our professors and mentors took us to Northern California on a whirlwind tour of the state’s electricity generation. 

Cleo: They coordinated with Pacific Gas and Electric…

Elisa: …or PG&E for short…

Cleo: …a main supplier of energy for the area.

[uplifting music]

Cleo: Over the course of a week, we toured PG&E’s solar, hydro, and nuclear power plants. We learned a lot about how various energy sources worked.

Elisa: But something else really surprised us: just how interesting it was to talk to the people operating the plants.

[plane flying overhead]

Cleo: Our plane flew into San Francisco early Friday afternoon. The next day, we woke up at 5am and drove high up in the Sierra Nevadas to Spalding Lake, which serves as a reservoir for a hydroelectric facility.

Elisa: Those of us who fell asleep on the way woke up to a dramatic change in scenery.

[optimistic piano music]

Cleo: Suddenly, we were surrounded by pine-covered mountains.

Elisa: It was so beautiful. One minute, we’d be surrounded by trees, and the next, a valley would open up in front of us, enclosed by huge mountaintops. 

Cleo: It was apparent that our love for the scenery was shared by the employees we met there.

Elisa: Phil Lee is an engineer who works in the drum powerhouses, where water from Spalding Lake ends up.

Cleo: After speeding down the mountainside in huge tubes, the water runs through large wheels and turbines that spin PG&E’s generators.

Elisa: Phil had some really interesting things to say about how he started working in power generation.

Phil Lee: I kinda fell into power generation. I had the choice when I graduated to go into manufacturing cars or going into power gen, so I worked at a steam plant. But I would say that out of all power generation, hydro is one of the most beautiful ones to work in. You know, driving out, this is what you do on your weekends when you hike, right? You go to these reservoirs and you look at them.

Cleo: Phil is one of a handful of workers who are on site at any given time. Because there are so few people and they spend so much time with each other, it was clear they were all really good friends. After all, they’ve gone through many stressful experiences together…

Elisa: …which we got to hear about. Even without understanding all the mechanical details, it’s easy to imagine what the situation must’ve been like.

Speaker: We get into some crazy scenarios. I’ll give an example of one: we overtraveled the TSV on Spalding Unit 2. We had to pop it back the other direction, so what did they teach you in engineering school on how to do that, Phil?

Phil: Don’t get yourself in that situation to begin with.


Speaker: So we find ourselves in those situations quite often, right? And this wasn’t, it wasn’t really our fault. We’re sitting there scratching our heads like “how are we gonna do this.” Literally, we had sledgehammers beating on this thing and that’s not gonna work.

Phil: And I’m just like “just go do it man, it’ll be fine!” and they’re like “No, dude, we can’t just go push on this.”

Speaker: I was sweating bullets.


Elisa: Watching them joke around with each other gave us a good sense of how close the plant workers were.

Cleo: It was really fun.

Elisa: We ended up staying for a while after the tour just listening to them tell stories. 

Cleo: But eventually we had to leave. 

[guitar music]

Cleo: From high up in the mountains we traveled more than 400 miles south of the California coast to the charming city of San Luis [unintelligible]. The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant sits close by.

Elisa: But much like the drum hydro plant, Diablo Canyon seems far removed from any civilization. 

Cleo: Perched 85 feet above sea level, overlooking the Pacific ocean, Diablo is tucked between two hills in California’s southern coastal range.

Elisa: The majority of the view was taken up by two tall concrete domes and a huge imposing brown building with narrow slit windows.

Cleo: We were led outside by Brian Cunningham, the plant supervisor of Nuclear Environmental Services, to see where the water comes from that’s used for cooling within the plant.

Brian Cunningham: Out here you’ll have some seals hanging out, we often have otters rafting in here, so our intake coves created somewhat of a marine sanctuary, and then our break waters have actually created a habitat as well. We have a robust marine monitoring program — I’ll talk about that a little more — we manage debris and do a lot of oceanographic surveys, and that’s a lot of fun.

Elisa: I would love to work in a place where I can glance outside and see otters. But the plant does have some effects on the environment.

Cleo: That’s true. Brian told us that the warm water flowing out from the plant is affecting the environment around Diablo.

Brian: There have been impacts, the most dramatic being that you can look at the rocky area along here versus rocky areas you’ll see elsewhere on the coast and they’re relatively barren. There’s loss of algae there.

Elisa: We were told that when the power plant stops operating, the plant and animal life will return to normal within two to three years. While the employees get to work in beautiful natural settings every day, the locations also create challenges.

Cleo: In the case of Diablo, because it’s located on the water’s edge and surrounded by tectonic faults, people are worried about earthquakes.

Elisa: Which is a legitimate concern, right? The Fukushima disaster happened because of an earthquake that led to a tsunami.

Cleo: But really, it was just the tsunami that the Fukushima plant couldn’t withstand. At the Diablo Education Center, John Lindsey, a media relations representative for PG&E, highlighted the difference between Fukushima and Diablo. 

John: When the earthquake hit, it was a 9.0 on the Richter scale, and the plant did fine. Problem was, the plant was built almost at sea level. Thirty minutes later, they had a 45-foot tsunami that came and it flooded their basement generators. Diablo Cave, if you look over there, we’re actually built 85 feet above sea level. The largest tsunami we’d probably ever see along our coastline, at most, would be 30 feet. 

Elisa: However, people aren’t just worried about earthquakes because of Fukushima. There are concerns that Diablo’s seismic risks have not been well-assessed.

Cleo: Staff at the plant say they’ve added features and structures so the plant can better withstand a major earthquake.

Elisa: But the issue certainly hasn’t been resolved. 

Cleo: There’s also public concern about nuclear waste. Nuclear waste remains dangerous for a very long time after it’s generated, so it must be handled carefully. 

Elisa: Finding long-term solutions for storing the waste is a problem that hasn’t been solved.

[introspective guitar music]

Cleo: Another issue that California power generation is facing is the drought. 

Elisa: California has been in a drought for almost four years now. The lack of water is affecting agriculture and increasing the possibility of wildfires. 

Cleo: It’s affecting the lives of many people, too. We talked to George Matsumoto, a scientist and educator at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, who told us how the drought is constantly affecting his daily life.

George Matsumoto: Everybody’s trying to do their part. I don’t water my yard, I’ve got rain collection buckets underneath all my downspouts and, to my son’s great shame, I even have five-gallon buckets in the shower, so as he’s waiting for the water to heat up, I ask him to save that water so we can use it to water the plants that we do have in the yard.

Elisa: Hydroelectric plants use water to generate electricity by harnessing the energy of the water as it travels down from higher places, so the drought has been causing big problems for hydro as an energy source. 

Cleo: At PG&E’s headquarters, the employees told us that demand for energy peaks twice on a typical day: once in the morning when people are getting ready for work, and once in the evening when they come home. 

Elisa: Careful management of different energy sources is needed to handle this double peak. 

Cleo: Consistent energy sources, like fossil fuels or nuclear power, can produce power whenever needed, but sources like solar and wind can only produce power when there is sun or wind. 

Elisa: When there isn’t enough of those, something else needs to kick in. 

[educational music]

Cleo: Here’s how it works: your home and all the power companies are connected to the grid. When you wake up and start using energy, power companies increase their electricity production. 

Elisa: But when solar panels start producing a lot of electricity in the middle of a bright, sunny day, power generated from hydro or fossil fuels can decrease. 

Cleo: Then, when the sun goes down, solar panels stop generating electricity, and another power source has to pick up the slack.

Elisa: Otherwise, people’s lights go out. Hydro power can make up for other energy sources during times of peak demand. A hydro plant has the ability to store water in reservoirs. 

Cleo: But Brandon [inaudible], one of the hydro operators, told us that because of the drought, hydro can currently supply only one of the two peaks per day.

Brandon: We’re simply meeting demands. We don’t even have enough water right now to supply a double peak. We’re only doing the afternoon peak because of the drought situation. We’re relying heavily on gasses and nuclear.

Elisa: And the drought is affecting more than just hydro power, as C.B. Hall, a manager at PG&E, explained.

C.B.: So the drought is serious right now for us, but hydro to be honest is not the high priority when it comes to water. Water is– it’s first about people, it’s about agriculture. Power is third-tier priority.

Elisa: Cleo and I thought it was really interesting to hear about how the natural setting…

Cleo: …the mountains, the geology, the recent drought…

Elisa: …are affecting power generation. 

Cleo: Some of our classmates have a different takeaway.

Elisa: We’ll let them tell you about it.

Jake: Thanks Elisa. I’m Jake.

McKenzie: And I’m McKenzie.

Jake: For us, one of the coolest parts of the trip was seeing what it was like to work at one of these power plants.

McKenzie: One of the workers, [inaudible] is the generation supervisor at Drum Switching Center, which manages generation at the local hydro facility.

Speaker: Hydro-operations is interesting because it’s real-time, and it’s happening all the time. It doesn’t stop; even when we take our two-week outages, that’s only a two-week outage on the Spalding Drummer 5 unit. All the other units are still run, we’re still delivering water in other areas. It makes it fun. Something you never even thought about comes up every day, and you’re learning.

[country music]

McKenzie: Speaking with Willy really opened our eyes to the fact that power generation is real-time. Energy demand is constantly changing during the day. 

Jake: At the drum switching center, we spoke with John James. He’s been a hydro operator for over 10 years. From the control room, he can remotely see every stream and power station that PG&E has in the area. He and his coworkers adjust the hydro generation on an hour-by-hour basis. 

McKenzie: This schedule is based on two factors: predictions of demand and power generation by other types of energy — particularly renewable, since they’re more variable.

Jake: But anything can happen. If a machine at another power plant happens to break, the power demand doesn’t change. So that plant might call hydro and ask them to cover for them for an hour until they fix the machine.

McKenzie: John James said being an operator is a 24/7 job. There’s got to be at least one person on shift at all times, and there’s usually many people there on a weekday. 

[steady beeping]

McKenzie: Beeping alarms, accompanied by descriptions on his computer screen, would alert him if something was off. 

Jake: We only talked to him for about 15 minutes, and it beeped quite a lot.

McKenzie: True, the ones we heard were just low-level alarms, but it made us realize that there are a lot of people who are actively acknowledging these alarms and making sure that everything is running smoothly. But you know, for me, it was at Diablo when I realized just how intense power generation can get. Nuclear operators need to closely monitor the reactors by looking at temperatures, pressures, and more. And the most intense part? They have to make decisions in seconds.

Jake: For some operators at Diablo Canyon, out of every five weeks they work, they spend one week just training. 

McKenzie: John Lindsey helped put this ratio in perspective.

John Lindsey: Our operators spend 20 percent of their time in training. So if your physician spent 20 percent of his or her time in training, you probably couldn’t afford to go see a doc. If your airline pilot spent 20 percent of their time in training, you probably couldn’t afford to fly, right? In fact, our operators get over 400 hours of training per year. It’s phenomenal.

McKenzie: Jeff Davis, one of the supervisors in charge of training the operators, explains why training is so tough.

Jeff Davis: We have no requirement for them to be perfect. We have a requirement for them to be excellent. The only way we’re gonna get that is to just kick the living snot out of them as often and frequently as we can in as many different ways as we can. We need them thinking. The more they’re thinking, the more they’re reacting by using thoughtful, considered actions to be successful. That is our goal for training.

Jake: It sounds exhausting.

McKenzie: But it’s just part of the job. And the people working at the power plants, be it at Drum Powerhouse or Diablo Canyon, were just so passionate about working there.

Jake: Here’s Ray [inaudible], a [inaudible] operator at the Drum Spalding Hydro Facility. 

Ray: I think my favorite part is showing people these places we have. A lot of people think PG&E owns Spalding Reservoir and it’s just a recreation facility. A lot of people that come there don’t even know that we’re constantly monitoring the lake elevation and they don’t even realize that there’s powerhouses connected to the downstream side of it, so it’s really neat to show them how we’re providing power and water for the whole county to use.

McKenzie: I think it’s cool, knowing that your job directly affects your community. But it wasn’t just Ray. All of the workers we talked to were so excited about their own power plants. 

Jake: C.B. Hall had a story about that.

C.B.: When I first started working for PG&E, I got to visit hydro, solar, Diablo, and at every single one of those places, the people working there looked me right in the face and said, totally sincerely, “this is definitely the cleanest, cheapest form of energy.”


Jake: Of course, they can’t all be right. 

McKenzie: At least we know that they really do believe in what they’re doing.

Jake: To the workers, power generation isn’t just their job, it’s their life. Often, we hear about the challenges of the energy industry. The people we met are working on these challenges on a daily basis.

McKenzie: Hearing their stories made energy production feel more personal to me. I may not think of our experience with PG&E every time I turn on a light switch, but each time I think of hydro power, I’ll remember Willy and Ray.

Jake: And when I think about nuclear power, I’ll think of John Lindsey talking about how much time is spent in training. I could never imagine putting 20 percent of my working time into just training.

McKenzie: We learned a lot about energy on our trip, but what made it memorable was meeting all the workers and learning about their stories.

Jake: It’s really the people that make it all happen.

Music: And the world is made of energy / And the world is electricity / And the world is made of energy / And there’s a light inside you / And there’s a light inside me…

[”Energy” by Apples In Stereo continues]

Speaker: This program was produced in Terrascope Radio. It’s a class developed by the MIT Terrascope program in collaboration with the MIT program in Comparative Media Studies. Terrascope is part of MIT’s Office of Experiential Learning. Thanks to Samuel Barring, the director of Terrascope, and the administrator, Deborah [inaudible]. We’d also like to thank Ari Epstein, the instructor of Terrascope Radio, the teaching fellows, [inaudible], as well as the wonderful people at PG&E. Special thanks to Hal Gustin, our alumni mentor, and C.B. Hall of PG&E for organizing our amazing trip.

Music: And the world…

This radio piece was produced by:



Sarah Grenzel

Alexa Jaeger

Jennifer Lo

Cleo [inaudible]

McKenzie McDonald


Laurel [inaudible]

This story and others from Terrascope Radio can be found on the Public Radio Exchange, prx.org.

[music fades out]