Power plant operators monitor, control and maintain machinery used to generate and distribute electricity. Power may be generated from one or more sources, including coal, gas and hydroelectric energy.
Plant operators evaluate charts, meters and gauges to check voltage and electricity flow, and to identify any problems. They adjust controls to respond to fluctuating levels of electricity demand from customers and stop and start generation equipment when necessary.
Duties and responsibilities
- Adjust controls to generate requested electrical power or regulate flow to and from substations
- Monitor power plant equipment, gauges and other indicators to identify any operating problems
- Control and maintain auxiliary equipment including fans, compressors, filters and pumps
- Use control boards to operate power generating equipment such as boilers and turbines
- Stop or start power generators and any auxiliary equipment as needed
- Monitor logbooks and records and consult with other staff on status of operations
- Coordinate with systems operators to regulate line voltages and transmission loads and frequencies
- Regulate operations based on readings from charts, meters, gauges and instrument and computer data
- Clean, lubricate and maintain generators and auxiliary equipment to prevent deterioration or failures
- Receive outage calls and request necessary personnel to evaluate problems and handle emergencies
- Put standby electric generators on line, and monitor operation during outages and emergencies
- Examine and test power distribution machinery; collect fuel samples for laboratory analysis
- Operate equipment, such as gasifiers or pipelines, specific to the fuel used to generate power
- Adjust and repair equipment, and perform maintenance such as replenishing battery electrolytes
- Record operational data in required forms and logbooks; compile reports and evaluations
Skills and knowledge
AVERAGE WORKING HOURS
Nights, weekends, holidays occasionally
Power plant operators may spend long hours standing or sitting at a control station. The work requires constant, focused attention. You may also do rounds, checking and repairing equipment as well as performing other duties.
Operators typically work full time, in 8- to 12-hour shifts that provide round-the-clock coverage. Shifts can include late nights, weekends and holidays.
Power plants are highly secure environments, and workers must be vigilant against potential attacks. The focused work, long hours and vigilance required can make this a stressful job.
Annual salary estimates are based on percentile wage data collected through the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) survey of US workers.
Power plant operators typically need a high school diploma and extensive on-the-job training. Some employers prefer candidates with a bachelor's or vocational school degree. Coursework in maths and science, particularly algebra, trigonometry and electricity, are recommended.
Training may take several years to complete and can combine both classroom and hands-on experience. Some employers may require aptitude testing provided by the Edison Electrical Institute (EEI). Those with work affecting the power grid will likely need to be certified through the North American Electrical Reliability Corporation (NERC).
Some power plant operators may also need to be licensed engineers or firefighters. Check with your state licensing board for their specific requirements.
Years of experience, including continuing education and training, will help you move on to positions with more responsibility. Career advancement opportunities include supervisor, trainer and consultant roles. Some operators earn an associate’s degree and transition to a job as a nuclear power plant technician.
Joining the military service after high school is another option to gain training as a plant operator. The military employs thousands of operators and is always in need of new staff. Experience as a power plant operator in the military can easily transfer to work in the private sector later in your career.