How do they do that voodoo?

Nerves of steel, quick decision-making, clear and concise communications. These are the skills that readily come to mind when picturing a race car driver, emergency room doctor, or an air traffic controller. Picture, also, the operators and managers in the MISO Control Centers.

Nothing in our lifetime is impacting our lives and the national economy as the COVID -19 pandemic. It forcefully ends people’s lives, strains our health care system, shutters numerous businesses and cocoons us in our homes. During this crisis, however, one thing has remained constant—the reliable transmission of electricity across the MISO footprint. How does that happen? I talked to two MISO control center operators (Eagan and Little Rock) and one MISO control center manager (Carmel) to better understand how they do that voodoo that they do so well:  ensure that electricity continually flows to the hospitals, grocery stores,  homes and more.

Even though the control center operators may seem “disconnected” from events in their communities, they are not. Lately, when operators aren’t talking “grid”, they are talking about COVID-19. They can’t help but talk about it. To comply with CDC guidelines, the control center areas are thoroughly and repeatedly cleaned and sanitized—especially the desks and the common surfaces. Operators have their temperatures taken before they start their shifts. Social distancing is adhered to. Desks are not shared.

The men and women who work in the MISO Control Centers are very much like air traffic controllers. Their ability to stay focused and alert and remain calm are recognizable traits. In the control centers, the stillness and quiet may seem odd at times, punctuated only by ringing telephones. Other days, the centers sound like a three-alarm fire. The operators triage and assess problems that arise such as outages (planned and unplanned) and weather-related damage, and they provide solutions. The problems may change, but the goal remains the same: the reliable transmission of electricity throughout the MISO region.

Operators work 12-hour shifts (5:00-5:00). The shift begins with the engineer from the previous shift providing a run-down on outages and other significant events to the engineer on the incoming shift so the operators know in advance the areas where they should focus. The same ritual occurs with the next shift change. Day shifts are busier and very different than night shifts.

Lin Bo, an engineer at the Eagan Control Center, runs studies for issues on the Real-Time system and also works closely with the MISO Markets Department.  The key is to maintain the functioning of the Energy Management System (EMS). “The front-end operators are the Reliability Coordinators—the decision-makers—who must be pro-active, focused, and confident,” Bo said. “Given the stress, the control center operators must manage, the key is to stay well: get plenty of sleep and eat healthy meals.”

Matt Ekstrom is a manager at the Carmel Control Center. He describes the talents he observes in the operators: excellent multi-tasking skills, ability to manage stress, and top-flight communication skills. “The operators are skilled at handling issues as they arise,” Ekstrom said. (Case in point: when I interviewed him for this story, an operator told him about an outage concern. They discussed different options. The solution: effective triage.) As part of the COVID-19 preparations, the operations management team ran through several “what if” scenarios that might impact the control center and how they could best be managed. Ekstrom added that another important aspect of the control operator’s job is trust. “We need to have deep trust in each other—our skills and capabilities. That ensures smooth operations.”

“Anticipation” is more than a Carly Simon song; it is a much-needed skill for control center operators. “The operators need to be able to anticipate and know what to mitigate or avoid,” according to Scott Allison, an operator at the Little Rock Control Center. “The day shift may see a lot of outages and needs to look at the studies from the previous day and pay attention to details,” he added. Teamwork and collaboration are also strong skills among the control center operators. Allison also stressed the importance of the operators “staying healthy so they can operate at their highest level and be able to avoid distractions.” He feels a strong sense of pride in the work of the operators and how it benefits the community.

“There is a sense of community pride among the control center operators. I like to call what we do here the most important job that you didn’t know existed,” Ekstrom added.

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