With two little boys and a daughter on the way, I often think about what life will be like for them when they grow up. My two-year-old son, Paul, has the gift of making anyone smile, and he has boundless energy and enthusiasm. My four-year-old son, John, is gifted with creativity, intelligence and determination.
If one of them were to become a lineman someday, I wonder what challenges and opportunities they would face in the utility industry. In 15 or 20 years, how will technology change the day-to-day lives of field crews?
I asked both linemen and a technical expert for the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) about what they see in the future for the line trade. EPRI is currently working with linemen, superintendents, safety directors and chief engineers on a task force to evaluate the future needs and emerging technologies in the utility industry.
The live-line maintenance committee is studying new technologies and discovering how they can be applied to line work. For example, the utility professionals are discussing whether or not existing procedures and equipment will still be applicable as line crews continue to build lines at much higher voltages. The committee members are also evaluating ways to reduce strain on workers, leverage robotics and study sensors that detect the presence of voltage or current.
By discussing the future of the industry, the line workers are devising ways to improve productivity and enhance safety. While each lineman has a different idea of what his or her job will look like in the future, the majority expect line work to get easier and safer due to new technology and tools. Here are some ways in which linemen expect their jobs to change within the next few decades.
More efficient equipment
Over the last 100 years, linemen's jobs haven't changed dramatically, said Bruce Hamel, a troubleshooter for Omaha Public Power District (OPPD). While he doesn't expect the basics of linemen's day-to-day work to change, he does anticipate a significant change in electrical equipment as well as tools. “There will be more equipment to make our jobs easier, but we'll still have to climb poles and deal with Mother Nature and trees,” he said.
Luke Hartz, general foreman for Michels Power, also expects the technology to continually change in the industry. “With new technology every day, I believe that our job is getting safer as well as more efficient,” he said. “There are new tools and equipment being developed all the time for our industry, and in the next 10 to 20 years, I think our jobs will change dramatically.”
Advancements in mobile technology
Linemen once depended solely on radios and dispatchers, but in the last few years, more utilities have begun to invest in mobile computing technology. For example, at OPPD, the linemen now have laptops in their utility trucks. While Hamel said he didn't grow up with computers, he envisions that mobile computing technology will continue to change the way that linemen communicate and transmit information in the field.
Since the beginning of the line trade, linemen have worn out their elbows, knees and shoulders. While Hamel doesn't see the number of injuries changing dramatically in the future, he predicts that more vendors will come out with better hand tools. For example, 10 years ago, the majority of linemen used manual compression connectors, and now many workers are using battery-operated tools.
Because of the shortage of skilled workers, Hartz expects linemen to be in high demand for years to come. “With many linemen retiring in the next five years, I imagine we will be very busy for awhile,” he said.
As more linemen begin to retire, however, Bo Fediuk, line supervisor for the New York Power Authority, hopes that the knowledge on how to build lines won't be lost. “A lot of the linemen who originally built the power lines out there are either retired or have passed away,” Fediuk said. “The new era of linemen are maintaining the lines, but they've never dead-ended or run wire. It's time to get some information out to them from the old-time linemen.”
Hamel agrees. He said that many of the new tools and technology are making it easier for linemen to work in the industry, but at the same time, he fears these advancements are taking some of the skills out of the line trade. For example, with the aid of bucket trucks and new fall-protection devices, today's linemen aren't climbing poles as often as the veteran line crews.
More energy-efficient vehicles and machinery
One trend that Hamel and other linemen have noticed at their utilities is a push to go green. For example, OPPD added a hybrid truck to its fleet about a month ago. The utility's customers are demanding environmentally friendly power, Hamel said.
Linemen can't predict the future of the industry, but they can be certain that as the years wear on, they'll get new tools in their toolboxes, new work practices to follow, and new ways to improve their safety and productivity in the field.