Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers control the systems that generate and distribute electric power.
What they do
Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers typically do the following:
- Control power-generating equipment, which may use any one type of fuel, such as coal, nuclear power, or natural gas
- Read charts, meters, and gauges to monitor voltage and electricity flows
- Check equipment and indicators to detect evidence of operating problems
- Adjust controls to regulate the flow of power
- Start or stop generators, turbines, and other equipment as necessary
Electricity is one of our nation’s most vital resources. Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers control power plants and the flow of electricity from plants to substations, which distribute electricity to businesses, homes, and factories. Electricity is generated from many sources, including coal, gas, nuclear energy, hydroelectric energy (from water sources), wind, and solar power.
Nuclear power reactor operators control nuclear reactors. They adjust control rods, which affect how much electricity a reactor generates. They monitor reactors, turbines, generators, and cooling systems, adjusting controls as necessary. Operators start and stop equipment and record the data produced. They also respond to abnormalities, determine the causes, and take corrective action.
Power distributors and dispatchers, also known as systems operators, control the flow of electricity as it travels from generating stations to substations and users. In exercising such control, they monitor and operate current converters, voltage transformers, and circuit breakers over a network of transmission and distribution lines. They prepare and issue switching orders to route electrical currents around areas that need maintenance or repair. They detect and respond to emergencies, such as transformer or transmission line failures, which can cause cascading power outages over the network. They may work with plant operators to troubleshoot electricity generation issues.
Power plant operators control, operate, and maintain machinery to generate electricity. They use control boards to distribute power among generators and regulate the output of several generators. They monitor instruments to maintain voltage and electricity flows from the plant to meet fluctuating consumer demand throughout the day.
Operators, distributors, and dispatchers who work in control rooms generally sit or stand at a control station. The work requires constant attention. Workers also may do rounds, checking equipment and doing other work outside the control room. Transmission stations and substations where distributors and dispatchers work are typically in locations that are separate from the generating station where power plant operators work.
Because power transmission is both vitally important and sensitive to attack, security is a major concern for utility companies. Nuclear power plants and transmission stations have especially high security, and employees work in secure environments.
Because electricity is provided around the clock, operators, distributors, and dispatchers usually work rotating 8- or 12-hour shifts. Work on rotating shifts can be stressful and tiring because of the constant changes in living and sleeping patterns.
How to become a Power Plant Operator, Distributor and/or Dispatcher
Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers typically need a high school diploma or equivalent combined with extensive on-the-job training, which may include a combination of classroom and hands-on training. Many jobs require a background check and screenings for drugs and alcohol.
Nuclear power reactor operators also need a license.
Many companies require prospective workers to take the Power Plant Maintenance and Plant Operator exams from the Edison Electrical Institute to see if they have the right aptitudes for this work. These tests measure reading comprehension, understanding of mechanical concepts, spatial ability, and mathematical ability.
Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers typically need at least a high school diploma or equivalent. However, employers may prefer workers who have a college or vocational school degree.
Employers generally look for people with strong math and science backgrounds for these highly technical jobs. Understanding electricity and math, especially algebra and trigonometry, is important.
Power plant operators and dispatchers undergo rigorous, long-term on-the-job training and technical instruction. Several years of onsite training and experience are necessary for a worker to become fully qualified. Even fully qualified operators and dispatchers must take regular training courses to keep their skills up to date.
Nuclear power reactor operators usually start working as equipment operators or auxiliary operators, helping more experienced workers operate and maintain the equipment while learning the basics of how to operate the power plant.
Along with this extensive on-the-job training, nuclear power plant operators typically receive formal technical training to prepare for the license exam from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Once licensed, operators are authorized to control equipment that affects the power of the reactor in a nuclear power plant. Operators continue frequent onsite training, which familiarizes them with new monitoring systems that provide operators better real-time information regarding the plant.
Nuclear power reactor operators must be licensed through the NRC. They typically begin working in nuclear power plants as unlicensed operators, where they gain the required knowledge and experience to start the licensing process. To become licensed, operators must meet training and experience requirements, pass a medical exam, and pass the NRC licensing exam. To keep their license, operators must pass a plant-operating exam each year, pass a medical exam every 2 years, and apply for renewal of their license every 6 years. Licenses cannot be transferred between plants, so an operator must get a new license to work in another facility.
Power plant operators who do not work at a nuclear power reactor may be licensed as engineers or firefighters by state licensing boards. Requirements vary by state and depend on the specific job functions that the operator performs.
Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers who are in positions which could affect the power grid may need to be certified through the North American Electric Reliability Corporation’s System Operator Certification Program.
The median annual wage for power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers was $85,950 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $49,730, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $117,130.
Overall employment of power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers is projected to decline 16 percent from 2019 to 2029. Although electricity use is expected to grow, technological advances and greater efficiency are expected to reduce employment.
Power plants are becoming more efficient and, in many cases, have higher electricity-generating capacities. Modernized control rooms in power plants will also provide workers with more information and automate some tasks. As a result, workers are able to work more efficiently, which limits the opportunity for new jobs. Similarly, these efficiency gains are expected to affect employment of nuclear power reactor operators, which is also projected to decline over the decade. No new nuclear plants have opened since the 1990s, and although some are in the application process, opening a new one may take many years.
The projected employment decline for power distributors and dispatchers is due to advances in smart-grid technology. Some tasks that dispatchers perform, such as rerouting power during an outage, can be automated. However, some distributors and dispatchers will still be needed to manage the complex electrical grid.
Similar Job Titles
Auxiliary Operator, Control Operator, Control Room Operator, Multicraft Operator (MCO), Operations and Maintenance Technician (O & M Technician), Plant Control Operator, Power Plant Operator, Senior Power Plant Operator, Station Operator, Unit Operator
Distributor and Dispatcher:
Control Operator, Distribution Dispatcher, Distribution Operations Supervisor, Distribution System Operator, Electric System Operator, Journeyman Lineman, Power System Dispatcher, Power System Operator, System Operator, Transmission System Operator
Nuclear Equipment Operation Technician, Electrical and Electronic Repairer-Commercial and Industrial Equipment, Stationary Engineer and Boiler Operator, Gas Plant Operator, Gas Compressor and Gas Pumping Station Operator
Distributor and Dispatcher:
Civil Engineering Technician, Nuclear Monitoring Technician, Police Identification and Records Officer, Nuclear Power Reactor Operator, Airfield Operations Specialist
The trade associations listed below represent organizations made up of people (members) who work and promote advancement in the field. Members are very interested in telling others about their work and about careers in those areas. As well, trade associations provide opportunities for organizational networking and learning more about the field’s trends and directions.
- American Society of Power Engineers
- International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
- International Union of Operating Engineers
- National Association of Power Engineers
- National Institute for the Uniform Licensing of Power Engineers
- United Steelworkers
- North American Electric Reliability Corporation
Magazines and Publications
- Treatment Plant Operator Magazine
- Transformers Magazine
- Future Power Technology (online magazine)
From individual home furnaces to the bright lights of the big city… keeping homes and businesses powered-up takes round-the-clock operations at power plants. Whether from coal, gas, nuclear energy, wind, or solar sources… power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers control the systems that provide electric power. Nuclear power reactor operators control nuclear reactors. They monitor reactor equipment and systems, adjusting controls as needed. Operators may need to respond to abnormalities, determine the causes, and fix the issue. They must be licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Power plant operators oversee machinery to generate electricity, and keep the system in balance and under control. They monitor instruments to maintain voltage and electricity flows from the plant to meet consumers’ fluctuating demand for electricity. Power distributors and dispatchers control the flow of electricity traveling from generating stations to substations and to users. They reroute electrical currents around areas that need maintenance or repair, and prevent further damage during emergency outages. Many of these workers operate in highly secure environments, and give their full attention to monitoring controls during their shift… occasionally walking rounds to check equipment. Work schedules are often rotating 8- or 12-hour shifts, which can be wearing as living and sleeping patterns change frequently. While job requirements may vary from a high school diploma to a bachelor’s degree, these jobs all require extensive on-the-job training. Candidates must pass background checks, as well as drug and alcohol screenings. An understanding of mechanical concepts, spatial ability, and mathematical ability are necessary.
Content retrieved from: US Bureau of Labor Statistics-OOH www.bls.gov/ooh,
CareerOneStop www.careeronestop.org, O*Net Online www.onetonline.org