It takes many kinds of engineers to build the grid of the future, and despite what you might expect, much of their work can’t be done from a desk.
“When you hear the word ‘engineering,’ you think, ‘he’s behind a desk all day with a piece of paper and a pencil,’” Chris McGuffin said, “but I’m really not. Engineering is more of a mindset.”
McGuffin, who worked as a lineworker before completing his degree in civil engineering at Clemson University, started at Duke Energy as an engineer monitoring energy demand and designing ways to increase capacity and improve reliability. Now, as a supervisor in construction and maintenance, he helps his crews in Anderson, South Carolina, get what they need to complete the types of projects he used to design.
Though his is not a typical career path for an engineer, McGuffin said engineering is about problem solving. He gets to use those skills daily while streamlining communication between crews in the field and his teammates in the office as they work together to install equipment to prevent outages and serve more customers.
He took over Duke Energy’s Instagram account (@duke_energy) for Engineer’s Week to show us what his career as an engineer is like.
Construction and maintenance crews are the face of Duke Energy. When you build a house, an engineer will come out to help start your service. When a storm knocks out the power, lineworkers will rebuild the power poles and lines.
“My guys will hook it up start to finish,” he said. “Our main goal is to help people get through the process that nobody wants to fool with. It’s time consuming, so we want to make that easier for our customers.”
McGuffin grew up in the Clemson area and knew he wanted to be an engineer when he was interested in construction equipment and machinery as a child. As a supervisor at Duke Energy, he gets to build things and know he’s making a difference for the community as the company improves the electric grid.
Getting to wear blue jeans and work outside, he said, is a bonus.
Duke Energy uses data to determine what projects McGuffin’s team will take on. As the company invests in automating the grid with electronic sensors and switches, it can better monitor electric demand in areas where the population is growing or determine what neighborhoods might experience more outages. By analyzing this data, engineers can plan where to make improvements like building a substation or upgrading power lines.
“We’re trying to build a smarter grid to figure out what’s going on in real time,” McGuffin said. “It helps us plan for the future, and it helps the customer because we can give them a better product at a more efficient cost.”
McGuffin spent his first four years at Duke Energy as a capacity planning engineer working on grid improvements near Clemson. The area has had rapid growth of new homes and businesses, so he worked on several projects to increase the electric capacity to meet demand.
He helped build this substation that serves most customers surrounding the university. From finding land that’s out of sight but still close to the company’s transmission lines to designing the circuitry and working with government relations to educate elected officials and others who live nearby, building a substation requires the technical skills associated with engineering but also collaboration skills to work with the community.
“When we plan one of these projects, it’s not just us saying, ‘We need new wire, let’s go hang it in the air,’” McGuffin said. “Every option is going to be exhausted before we do this.”
While working as a supervisor in construction and maintenance isn’t something he expected, he said he’d encourage those interested in engineering to research all the aspects and consider how to use those skills to shape a career based on your interests.
“I am probably not your typical engineer,” he said. “I have an engineering degree, yes, but I feel like I have picked a different path at Duke Energy.”
Whether he’s working with his crew, figuring out design specifications or helping restore power after a storm, McGuffin said he’s glad to know he can use those skills to give back to the community where he grew up.
“It’s up to you,” he said, “as to where you want to go.”