Hydro: A day in the life at Tyee Lake
Brent Mill, who oversees operations and mechanics at the Tyee Lake Hydroelectric Project near Bradfield Canal, performs a series of checks on the output levels of the plant inside its powerhouse.
When the residents of Petersburg and Wrangell flip a switch to turn on a light or push a button on an electronic device they probably don’t give much thought to where the power comes from – as long as the electricity keeps flowing.
The power comes from somewhere close, tucked away in a picturesque river valley east of the Bradfield Canal, near the southeastern tip of Wrangell Island
That place is the Tyee Lake Hydroelectric Project. It is a 20-megawatt power generation facility that supplies the boroughs of Petersburg, Wrangell, and occasionally Ketchikan, with the juice that lights up our lives.
In order to “wheel” that power out of the Tyee Lake, a group of highly trained, though multi-tasked, experts in electrical generation work multi-day shifts as on-call operators of the plant and associated facilities.
Those facilities are nearly 40 miles from civilization of any kind. During a stormy week in December, two men, Brent Mill and Steve Beers were on duty at the unique power-generating location.
Mill is a Wrangellite and oversees mechanics and operations at the Tyee plant during his shift rotation. He has worked at Tyee for seven years and has experience in electrical generation, including a career in the U.S. Army. He said it takes a certain type of mindset to work long days in the remote Alaskan location.
“You’ve got to be able to live by yourself,” Mill said. “And, you have to be able to get along with the other guys.”
Beers deals mainly with general maintenance and operations, but added his view on what it takes to be a successful Tyee employee.
“Everyone out here is a self-starter,” Beers said. “Everyone out here has been in management and everyone can individually take care of things because we’re cross-trained. We can all do one thing or a number of things. I’m even the garbage man out here.”
Housing at Tyee consists of warm, personalized and comfortable houses for each of the four full-time employees, with repair or other contractors who might visit the site, having an equally appointed 3-bedroom house with a full kitchen, hot water with high pressure thanks to its proximity to the lake tap, and a view that some millionaires can’t afford in the best of economic times.
One of the most important aspects of the day for the workers at the facility is to take data information from the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition and Swan-Tyee Intertie Control systems, which is then noted and entered into computer systems at the facility.
“At around 7:30 in the morning, we go through and take readings off the SCADA, the STICS monitor and then we take the readings off the units, along with the kilowatt readings,” Mill said. “Then, I enter all of the information into the computer logs, which I give to (project foreman) Mick Nicholls, who makes the monthly report.”
That process repeats itself again before the 4:30 p.m. end-of-shift each day.
The experience necessary to make a transition from other lines of work – whether mechanical, electrical or otherwise – is a useful tool at Tyee, Mill said, though he added that everyone who comes out to the plant starts out on an even keel.
“One of our new guys out here is an electrician, but he doesn’t know anything about operating,” Mill said, adding, “I didn’t know anything about operating when I first got here. It was a clean slate when I came in here and Carl Thrift trained us. We all have a different skill and that’s what is wanted. We want someone who has a skill and can also train to be an operator. That’s the way it’s been out here ever since we started.”
Carl Thrift was the plant foreman of the Thomas Bay Power Authority from 1991-2012 and began his career with TBPA after working as a longtime millwright for the former Alaska Lumber Products facility in Wrangell. Brent Mill also worked at the ALP location twice between 1972-2006.
Once hired, and trained to make the rotational lifestyle of work at Tyee, Mill said they enter into a lifestyle that includes working at the “conn” or control room of the facility.
“We work 10 days on and four days off,” Mill said. “There are three of us that have regular scheduled shifts on the conn duty. We also have one that is relief so that when one of us goes on vacation, or if we get sick or hurt, they take their place.”
Just getting to the plant can be a challenge, with water access only available during high tides, and only a pair of scheduled round-trip flights from Wrangell via Sunrise Aviation every week to refresh crews and needed supplies.
“During the summer you can only get in by water on high tide,” Mill said. “We use Sunrise to get back and forth twice a week and have a contract with them.”
Of the four employees who work at the plant, all hail from Wrangell – which is a necessity of logistics and expense for TBPA – and is the main reason that has prevented Petersburg residents from working at the remote site.
Brent Mill inspects one of the transformer units located at the facility.
“It would be the added expense of flying from Petersburg to Wrangell,” Mill added. “They’d have to fly from there to Wrangell and then to here, and then back the same way. That’s the only reason.”
And if the world should ever come to an end outside Southeast Alaska, either from war or other major disaster, the power at Tyee can keep rolling out to the communities it serves thanks to the nature of the power grid in the region.
“As long as we can eat, we can be out here,” Beers said laughingly. “That isn’t going to happen, though. We’re going to go home and see our families and, if there is a real problem, we’ll bring them out here. We can absolutely send power out because we’re not tied to anyone else. We’re not on a grid and even if Ketchikan had problems all we would have to do is flip a switch.”
Beers has worked at the plant for eight years and is a journeyman lineman, electrician and plumber.