Energy Blend: Q&A with Yampa Valley Electric’s John Cromer
Powering Northwest Colorado is no easy feat for the coal-fired plants that provide a current for the area, nor is the ongoing task of operating and maintaining the many miles of cables that deliver the juice to homes and businesses. Craig Press sat down with John Cromer, transmission and distribution supervisor for Yampa Valley Electric Association, to discuss the challenges and rewards crews experience in ensuring electrical power gets where it’s needed.
Craig Press: How long have you been part of Yampa Valley Electric Association?
John Cromer: I’ve worked at Yampa Valley Electric going on 12 years, been in the industry 17. Prior to working here, I was in the United States military, but my family has been in this trade for over 60 years. I am technically what you’d consider a third-generation lineman. I started out contracting with my company locally, and after that, I started with YVEA as a journeyman lineman and worked my way up to T&D supervisor.
CP: What would you say has kept you with the company?
JC: I enjoy it, and being a lineman is a challenge. It’s not a job that’s for everybody. During the daytime, we handle various work orders, we get people power, we build their lines, we make repairs. For me, I think it was after hours — when the lights go out and you’ve got to restore power, that was probably the most enjoyable part of being out there. For some people, an hour feels like a lifetime without electricity. Once you restore the power, and their kids come outside and say, “thank you,” that makes it all worthwhile.
CP: Do you feel workers in your industry are adequately appreciated here for their efforts?
JC: Yes, when the power’s on. But, when it’s off, I’m sure there’s a lot of heartache. People have become very dependent on their electronic gadgets and gizmos, social media. People are quick to judge us, because they don’t always understand what’s going on. Sometimes, an outage will be really quick, and other times very lengthy. Safety plays a big part in it, and we take pride in the safety of our personnel making risks to get power back.
On a regular basis for an outage, the biggest thing is people who are running their own generators and back-feeding on the line. We take a lot of precautions to prevent that from happening and keep our guys safe. Weather plays a big part of it. Being in this territory, during spring and late fall, we get those heavy, wet snows that tend to take the lines out. Lines will build up to the size of baseball bats, and once the snow and ice starts to thaw, lines start to balance out and start to break, and that’s really dangerous. We’ve got places in our system that we know are urgent, where that happens most frequently, but we’ve taken precautions to help prevent that and reduce the number of outages.
Lately, it’s been fires. The season’s been very challenging for us, and even these little fires take a toll on us. We’ve got a faster response time to them lately, and practice makes perfect. Fires really haven’t been an issue in this area, but now things are changing, and we’re learning. When a fire occurs, I’ll get my teams together and go out and assess and call contractors to have ready. Fire outages that would be hours and hours — we’ve cut that time in half.
CP: How large a staff of linemen is available? What’s an average work week like for them?
JC: Out of the Craig office, we’re staffed with eight; out of the Steamboat office, 10. Our operations department as a whole consists of 27 people. During normal business hours, construction season is May to November; that’s when the heaviest workload comes through. Our guys can expect a 40-hour week, plus overtime, but it’s also when we experience the most outages, so some guys might have a full week plus 50 hours of overtime on top of that sometimes.
CP: How does the expanse of YVEA’s customer base impact service?
JC: You’ve got to take into consideration our service territory consists of over 2,800 miles of lines, and it’s a large area for our guys to cover. Our system is aging, and there’s poles out there that were put up back in the ’40s. We’re fortunate our board of directors are being proactive and doing what they can with the money that’s available to help improve our system. One of the key phrases we use is “harden our system” so we can protect it from storms. The other thing I’d quote is, “updating and upgrading.” We’re actually trying new techniques specifically for our underground systems and to extend the life of the cables and reduce the number of outages. Our reliability, we foresee it increasing it dramatically, but we’re a little taxed right now, since it’s a big system.
Our service territory extends almost to the border of Utah. We go up into Wyoming, and we go south down around State Bridge. A lot of the issues our crews face is the terrain. Even in the driest conditions, our poles aren’t always in the most accessible places. All co-ops across the nation are unique. In places like a city, a concrete jungle, it’s obviously a lot easier. For us, we’ve got line that goes 30 miles to the west to Maybell, and when that goes down, we have to check all 30 miles to find the problem. However, we’re putting in new electronic devices that will help us pinpoint exactly, within 100 feet, where the problem is. That way, we’ll have the ability to send crews right to it and reduce outage times.
CP: How has equipment changed for you from when you first started in the industry?
JC: Everything that we used to use was all oil and hydraulic, and now we’re moving more toward stuff that’s electronic. I’ll give you an example. The AMI (advanced metering infrastructure) deployment that will be completed before the end of this year, we have customers who have outages that we’re out there before they even know it. That’s a real benefit. The meters also give us the ability to narrow down the area where the problem occurred. We’re using devices that allow us to use distance, we’ve got new internal processes, and our engineering department is fantastic. They’ll be able to interrogate a device from the office and get us within blocks of where the problem is within the city.
CP: How is your work different in a supervisor role compared to earlier?
JC: I have the ability to make a difference now. When you get into a supervisory role, you become responsible for everyone, and I’m the voice for my teams. When I was a journeyman, I was the voice trying to talk to the person in my position, and it’s a little more challenging at this level. You learn a lot more, that it’s not just the nuts and bolts. Generally, someone in the position I’m in now has been in the trade for some time and come up in one discipline or another, whether it’s metering or linework. I’m only as successful as I am because of the people I have underneath me. I have a great support structure.
CP: Are there any misconceptions people might have about YVEA’s part in the energy landscape?
JC: Actually, here, we’re quite fortunate. People in this community get the opportunity to see it beginning to end, starting with the coal mine, going to the plant, getting distributed through transmission, then us for distribution, and then to their house. That’s the great thing about where we’re at. Not everybody fully understands or realizes this is where power comes from. Granted, there are other resources, but this is is where it’s started.