When Ken Blackmon comes to work each day, there’s always something he carries with him.
Blackmon comes to work at Duke Energy’s Dearborn Hydroelectric Plant in Great Falls, S.C., with the wonder of hydroelectric power he experienced on his first day nearly 40 years ago.
Blackmon, an instrument and controls technician, celebrates his 40th anniversary at the plant in June and remains in awe of what Dr. Gill Wylie, James B. “Buck” Duke and William States Lee brought to the region in the early 1900s – they harnessed the power of the Catawba River to make electricity.
Their first plant was built in 1904 when the Catawba Hydro Station began providing electricity to Victoria Cotton Mills. Construction of Dearborn began in 1921 and began generating electricity in March 1923. Today, the plant can produce 42 megawatts (MW) of clean, renewable power.
Hydropower is still an important part of Duke Energy’s balanced energy mix as the company moves toward its goal of net-zero carbon emissions, providing 4.3 million MW of clean renewable generation in 2022.
“It’s so unique and special the way a river is used to generate electricity,” Blackmon said. “It amazes me every day. Hydro has been around for a very long time, yet I’m impressed with the foresight and skills demonstrated to develop the process a century ago.”
Blackmon’s career began at Great Falls at age 22 when he was hired as a custodian. In less than a year, he took on an operations role and has supported the Great Falls, Dearborn, Rocky Creek and Wateree hydro stations.
Lengthy tenure and expertise at Duke Energy run in the family.
His father, Charles A. Blackmon Sr., retired after 30 years at the company, where he was a construction supervisor at the Lancaster Operations Center after beginning his career as a lineworker.
Blackmon’s 40-year anniversary coincides with the centennial of the Dearborn plant, an occasion not lost on him.
“I’m really proud to be part of the evolution of service and support hydropower brings to the community throughout our years of operation here,” Blackmon said.
He honed an array of troubleshooting skills over the years and knows what’s required to keep a hydroelectric station running. Monitoring and resetting control motors, circuits, overloads and wiring connections are all part of a day’s work.
When Duke Energy automated control functions in the 1990s, the company looked to Dearborn as the first hydroelectric station to implement the “Hydro Vision” process.
“Many of us were initially skeptical,” Blackmon said. “All the controls at the time were hardwired. Whenever a change in load was needed, a dispatch station would call us on the phone to direct us to motor a unit, load a unit, shut down or start up. We didn’t think automation was going to work in replacing this process. But ultimately it was successful.”
With the introduction of Hydro Vision, efficiency, safety and service have improved. The plant can start and generate at capacity in five minutes or less.
“Ken was one of our original operators as we made the automation transition,” said Randy Herrin, vice president of Carolinas Regulated Renewables and Lake Services. “He’s always been eager to learn and was instrumental in helping others recognize that by retooling, new skills could be developed along with new opportunities to have greater impact.”
Herrin said he can see Dearborn generating clean, renewable energy for another century.
“The hydro assets we operate are critical components and contributors to meeting and exceeding our renewable goals,” he said. “Duke Energy has been an integral part of developing the community at Great Falls, initially with jobs and power to support the textile industry, and with our recent investments in park lands, habitat enhancements and recreation in the Great Falls area, we are excited to see what the future holds for the next century.”
For Blackmon, the journey has been rewarding.
“Playing a small part in our success and serving the community over the past 40 years is something to feel good about,” he said. “I’m proud to have contributed.”