Winter Takes its Toll on Utility Workers

Posted: December 1, 2018

By Michael Rovito

The icy grip of winter comes on fast and stays long in the 49th state. Hardy Alaskans endure it all—from subzero temperatures to foot upon foot of snow, to long periods of darkness. While those who live outside the state might bristle at the extreme nature of Alaska’s winters, residents of The Last Frontier generally see it as another unique aspect of living here.

Behind the scenes, Alaska’s electric utilities work to ensure reliable power is delivered to customers so they can stay warm, keep the lights on and carry on with their lives regardless of the weather outside. And while the Lower 48 can have its own weather challenges, Alaska’s weather extremes are unique, in part because of their regularity.

This is true in the 56 communities that get their power from Alaska Village Electric Cooperative. The co-op, which has the largest retail service area in the world, contains some of the most winter-impacted communities in the state—all except one are off the road system. But that does not keep AVEC from making sure its customers have power.

AVEC Public Relations Officer Amy Murphy has detailed the hardships of co-op workers in past issues of Ruralite. Tales of 60-below-zero temperatures, even worse wind chills and snow drifts to the roofs of houses make for chilling reading. The harrowing tales coming from those who work in the field might make readers appreciate their fireplace and furnace even more.

“It’s not uncommon for our employees to get a call about problems with a residential service and they end up walking or riding over the snow-covered home while looking for their service entrance,” Amy says.

Man digging snow away from a door with a snow shovel
Jud Billing digs out the entrance at AVEC’s power plant in Hooper Bay after a storm.

From digging out a power plant entrance, to hauling gear on a sled by hand to a worksite, AVEC employees always have to keep the weather conditions in the back of their mind while the job at hand is in front of them.

The word cold is synonymous with most places in Alaska, and for those residents at the top of the state, it’s a way of life nearly year-round. That is why Barrow Utilities and Electric Cooperative General Manager Ben Frantz has to remain vigilant to how the temperature affects his system.

To prepare for the onslaught of a North Slope winter, Ben’s utility tries to complete necessary maintenance work before extreme cold makes it uncomfortable—and possibly dangerous—to do so.

“We try to have all our turbine generator change-outs done,” Ben says, describing one of many routine tasks, along with gear timing and other mechanical jobs, that take place pre-winter.

Of course, safety also is a concern during winter, most notably for slips and falls on icy surfaces. But these factors do not mean winter is all bad for a utility like Barrow. In fact, the colder temperatures can prove advantageous for utility work.

“When the ground freezes deep, it’s more beneficial when we have to address breaks or leaks because it provides a more solid work area,” Ben says.

The ground in most parts of Alaska begins freezing in October and does not usually thaw until May—or later. And while the frozen ground can be beneficial for some utility activities, it puts a sever damper on others.

At Copper Valley Electric Association, Travis Million, the manager of power generation, spends a lot of time just before freeze-up ensuring as much work as possible is complete.

“We work hard to complete projects and new service/extension requests before the ground freezes,” Travis says. “This time of year always has a rush on wrapping up projects. Typically, once the ground freezes, projects are put on hold until the ground thaws again. It becomes much too difficult and time consuming to try and dig up the frozen ground.”

Travis says much of the summer work performed on the distribution and transmission lines is largely in preparation for the next winter. Activities such as dealing with bothersome trees or other impediments in the right of way are important pre-winter tasks that make a utility worker’s winter job a lot easier.

Alaskans are a hardy bunch, and winter is a way of life. Years of practice have helped utilities adapt to the struggles of a long, cold winter, and utility customers benefit from this.

The life of a utility employee—be they a lineman, maintenance worker or administrator—takes on new challenges in winter. To customers it may seem like a yeoman’s struggle to keep the lights on, but ask someone from a utility and they will say it is just another day at the office.