How lineworker Mike Elliott makes the grid stronger for customers

Duke Energy upgrades its system serving North Carolina coast and beyond

By most standards, Mike Elliott’s morning commute is unconventional. His 40-minute drive to Southport, N.C. is followed by a 2-mile journey across the Cape Fear River.

“It’s a short trip,” Elliott said, “about 20 minutes by ferry, but I usually knock out some work. Emails, that sort of thing.”

The experienced lineworker is on a Duke Energy team focused on reliability across the North Carolina coast.

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Bald Head Island is only accessible by ferry or private boat. No passenger cars are allowed, so most people ride bicycles or rent golf carts.

Today, he’s at the Village of Bald Head Island, where advanced technology is serving customers. The northernmost subtropical island on the East Coast, Bald Head is one of the most remote communities powered by Duke Energy.

Endangered wildlife, red bay laurels and giant oak trees thrive in a lush maritime forest – part of the island’s prestige.

It can complicate line work, however.

“It’s like a jungle over here,” Elliott said. “It is beautiful, you know, tourists enjoy it. But it’s a whole different ball game for lineworkers who need to access the area.”

Serving customers on the island is made even more complex, said Duke Energy project manager Matt Crumpton, by an electrical system that is entirely underground.

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A lineworker with 40 years' experience, Mike Elliott grew up in Leland, N.C., the most populous town in Brunswick County.

“It’s not easy, working on underground,” Crumpton said. “It’s more nuanced than going into a neighborhood with overhead lines, where you can look up and see that a power line turns down this street and goes to that house.”

With a knack for underground lines, and familiarity of the island, Elliott played a key role in a power grid improvement project that strengthened Duke Energy’s system against storm impacts and allowed for isolation of outages and remote automatic repairs.

“When construction begins, especially on these complex projects, things may not look exactly as they did on paper,” Crumpton said. “Say, we need a different configuration to get from Point A to Point B to Point C. Mike helped us make those adjustments on the fly, because he has such an intricate knowledge of underground systems. So, I don’t know that we could have done it without him.”

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Bald Head Lighthouse, known as Old Baldy, is the oldest lighthouse still standing in North Carolina.

Elliott first went to Bald Head 34 years ago, mapping out its electrical system by hand, he said, before computer systems.

Much of it was used to generate a current map of the island, which helped construction and engineering crews who worked on the grid improvement project.  

To enhance reliability for customers, Duke Energy replaced more than 11 miles of copper conductors (power lines) with a stronger, more resilient aluminum.

“We deal with a lot of corrosion,” he said. “There is salt in the air, on the ground, in the water, so we utilize different materials and construction techniques to combat the salt contamination. It’s very much tailored to our region.”

New switchgears – part of an electrical system that regulates and manages power flow – will also improve overall reliability, he said, by reducing the chance of unplanned power outages.

"If you work on underground, you gotta know how to use a locator," Elliott said of a piece of equipment that helps lineworkers find power lines they can't see.

They went a step further by installing “smart switches," which function similarly to switchgears in that they regulate the flow of power.

Where they differ is smart switches can self heal.

“We’ve been installing these self-healing switches all over the mainland,” Crumpton said. “But Bald Head didn’t have any of that because their system is underground. So, we designed these to be submersible for a period of time in case of flooding, a first for our region.”

Self-healing technologies like these helped avoid more than 1.4 million customer outages in 2022, saving more than 7.2 million hours of total lost outage time.

“Let’s say a branch fell on a power line,” he said, “which, depending on the situation, could cause an outage. Smart switches can sense things like that. It knows there’s a fault on a line. Then, it quickly isolates the problem, and reroutes power to as many customers as possible. We’re talking minutes, not hours.”

The self-healing switches on Bald Head Island can be submersed in water for a period of time, a first for Duke Energy's coastal region. 

Elliott arrives at Alligator Pond, named for American alligators, a species native to North Carolina, that hunt for food in the freshwater lagoon.

He puts on a pair of orange and yellow safety gloves that extend about halfway up his forearm, and opens what looks like a large metal box, army green in color.

“The folks in our control center can monitor and manage these remotely, so that’s great because it gives them visibility into what’s happening out here, Elliott said.

“The smart switches will help with general operation, too; being able to redirect electricity without having to send someone out here.”

As part of a larger effort to enhance reliability across the coast, the self-healing switches designed for Bald Head have also been installed on the mainland, in neighborhoods Crumpton said may not otherwise have them.  

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Elliott said he enjoys working on a team that helps Duke Energy provide safe, reliable power for customers.

Based out of Duke Energy’s Wilmington North Operations Center, Elliott’s service area encompasses more than six counties, including Brunswick County, where he grew up.

At 18, he pursued line work as a career. By 20, he was working on underground lines.

He liked the challenge. And still does, 40 years later.

“To me, it’s interesting because you can’t see it,” Elliott said, “but you still have to put it together. Kind of like a puzzle. And when I work on these special projects, which take years, you know, I really like to study them.”

What continues to drive him? The people. Elliott said they’re at the center of everything he does.

“I love the customers,” he said, “and I love the guys I work with. We’re like a family, you know, we help each other. It’s just what we do.”