Business

On the Job

As a grid operator, he’s got the power

Matt Powers keeps tabs on National Grid’s power system from the company’s Northborough control center.
Rose Lincoln for the Boston Globe
Matt Powers keeps tabs on National Grid’s power system from the company’s Northborough control center.

As a grid operator, Matt Powers is under pressure to deliver electricity around the clock, even when a freak storm knocks out lines. As a controller at the National Grid system control center in Northborough, he and 58 other operators keep tabs on the electrical transmission system, working from eight 23-inch monitors on his desk.

“Electricity is one of our most vital resources,” said Powers, 38. “We’re on the front lines, ensuring that it’s delivered reliably and safely to consumers and businesses.”

Can you explain the basics of the electric distribution system?

Electricity comes from the power plant, and is pushed out into transmission lines. These transmission lines feed into substations, then power lines.

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 A lot of people don’t have a clue about this stuff, and why should they? As long as the lights go on when they hit the switch, that’s what counts.

What does the control room look like?

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When I first walked in here nine years ago, I thought, “This looks like NASA mission control.” I might get a call, “Revere Street in Everett, Pole 2439 on fire,” and I’ll call for a line truck and follow it on a GPS screen. On another screen, I might pull up a substation, and see how the main electrical line runs into town. Still another console can show where people are calling from to report outages.

Clearly, this is a job that needs to be staffed at all times. What is your schedule like?

We do 12-hour shifts, nights, weekends, and holidays. I work three nights, 5:30 p.m. to 6 a.m., then I’m off; switch to days, 5:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then rotate again.

Are animals and trees big problems?

Despite our best protective measures, squirrels and raccoons get into equipment. National Grid has also spent a lot of time and money in tree trimming. It could be a blue-sky day, but when a branch decides to snap, it will snap, causing problems with lines.

What sort of decisions do you need to make while on the job?

Any time the phone rings, it could be a crisis. I’m the one running the show when the fire chief in New Hampshire calls and says, “We need this de-energized now,” because a live wire is on a car after an accident.

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 I immediately start formulating a plan to take care of the issue while keeping customers with electricity.

It’s apropos that your last name is “Powers.”

When I get calls at work, some people have said to me, “You’ve got the power, Powers.” I’ve also been called Max Powers, Super Powers, and Austin Powers.

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com.