Of all his roles in his career at Duke Energy, Howard Greene said he most enjoys the fast-paced nature of managing the grid.
“There's really nothing that compares other than maybe air traffic controllers, where you have a lot of planes lined up, and you've got to coordinate,” he said. “It’s the same thing, but it's at the speed of light. Energy moves so fast that if you don’t get ahead of it, you don't have a chance to catch up.”
Greene has worked for Duke Energy for 45 years and in the Energy Control Center since 2001.
He arrives at his desk at 5 a.m. and turns on a dozen monitors. Each of the monitors, in addition to a movie-theater like wall of screens, helps Greene and his teammates monitor and control the flow of energy from power plants to customers.
Greene took over Duke Energy’s Instagram (@duke_energy) to show us what a day in the life at the Energy Control Center is like.
As power plants generate electricity, grid operators in the Energy Control Center must ensure that the amount generated matches customer demand at any moment – too much electricity flowing through the grid can cause overloads and outages while not enough can cause outages, too.
Operators look at temperature changes throughout the day that cause people to heat and cool homes, severe weather threats that can knock out power lines, and maintenance at power plants, high-voltage lines or substations to determine how much electricity the company can produce and when.
“Without us monitoring the grid,” Greene said, “there wouldn't be a guardian at the gate. We guard the gate to make sure all the things that need to happen, happen to keep the grid reliable.”
Duke Energy plans to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. As part of this goal, the company is adding more renewable energy. Renewables cause more fluctuations than traditional power plants because of weather and requires more planning. The company is also upgrading the grid with technology like smart meters and digital sensors to reduce and shorten outages.
Greene said these things give operators thousands of data points per second and allows them to make more informed decisions than ever.
Over the last decade, Duke Energy has been renovating or building new Energy Control Centers in each of its regions to prevent physical and cyberattacks and equip operators with technology to take advantage of the new data available from the grid. They’ll complete construction on the final Energy Control Center in Raleigh next year.
“This helps us be prepared for a clean energy transition from an operations standpoint,” said David Hinkle, who managed the Energy Control Center renovations. “We are positioning ourselves to manage all these variable resources put on the grid.”
The center’s new software and large screens display the transmission system of power plants, high voltage lines and substations for Duke Energy and neighboring utilities. Of the three types of employees in the Energy Control Center, Greene is a reliability coordinator, which means he is responsible for monitoring power flows for Duke Energy and neighboring utilities in the Carolinas and Virginia.
Having an overall view of which power plants are generating electricity, which lines are in service and customer demand helps him see the grid’s status at a glance while powerful computers allow him to run studies based on real-time data. When other companies call to ask if they’re approved to work on power lines or start or stop a power plant, he can get an answer quickly.
“As you see things change, you have to be really aware of what's going on and really tuned in to make sure that you're ahead of the game,” Greene said. “We're watching storms, cloud cover, temperatures and other things that affect the system.”
Operators did not have digital readings when Greene started. They relied on bar charts, manual logs and predictions to make the decisions.
“These innovations made the job a lot easier,” he said. “We have the ability to monitor so much more than we had before.”
Over his 45 years with the company – from construction to power plant operations – Greene has developed a fascination with how electricity is generated and delivered to customers and a gratification in knowing his work helps power the lives of so many people.
“There's so many moving parts,” he said, “and we're all working together as a team behind the scenes to make sure those needs are met.”