There is little opportunity for part-time or summer work experience in this field. However, many power plants (both nuclear and nonnuclear) have visitor centers where you can observe some of the power plant operations and learn about the various processes for converting energy into electricity.
Workers in power plants monitor and operate the machinery that generates electric power and sends power out to users in a network of distribution lines. Most employees work for electric utility companies or government agencies that produce power, but there are a small number who work for private companies that make electricity for their own use.
In general, power plant operators who work in plants fueled by coal, oil, or natural gas operate boilers, turbines, generators, and auxiliary equipment such as coal crushers. They also operate switches that control the amount of power created by the various generators and regulate the flow of power to outgoing transmission lines. They keep track of power demands on the system and respond to changes in demand by turning generators on and off and connecting and disconnecting circuits.
Operators must also watch meters and instruments and make frequent tests of the system to check power flow and voltage. They keep records of the load on the generators, power lines, and other equipment in the system, and they record switching operations and any problems or unusual situations that come up during their shifts.
In older plants, auxiliary equipment operators work throughout the plant, monitoring specific kinds of equipment, such as pumps, fans, compressors, and condensers.
In newer plants, however, these workers have been mostly replaced by automated controls located in a central control room. Central control room operators and their assistants work in these nerve centers. Central control rooms are complex installations with many electronic instruments, meters, gauges, switches, and software programs that allow skilled operators to know exactly what is going on with the whole generating system and to quickly pinpoint any trouble that needs repairs or adjustments. In most cases, mechanics and maintenance workers are the ones who repair the equipment.
The electricity generated in power plants is sent through transmission lines to users at the direction of load dispatchers. Load dispatcher workrooms are command posts, where the power generating and distributing activities are coordinated. Pilot boards in the workrooms are like automated maps that display what is going on throughout the entire distribution system. Dispatchers operate converters, transformers, and circuit breakers, based on readings given by monitoring equipment.
By studying factors that affect power use, such as weather, dispatchers can anticipate power needs and tell control room operators how much power will be needed to keep the power supply and demand in balance. If there is a failure in the distribution system, dispatchers redirect the power flow in transmission lines around the problem. They also operate equipment at substations, where the voltage of power in the system is adjusted.