Author's Blog

Every picture a story ……

I stumbled across this poor quality photograph a few days ago which I took with my Blackberry    ( remember them ?) phone on New Years eve 2012. It was the control room , the nerve centre of power generation for the whole Island. There are three men sitting around the table. One ( white shirt ) with his head in his hands , fatigued by the weight of the task at hand and the responsibility it brought with it ; that of ensuring that all 9,000 of our customers and visitors had power to bring in the new year. The blurred figure is Erin Jeffries , the operator on duty , a young man who I had known since he was a ‘youth boy’ growing up partly in Calabash Bight where his grandfather was from. With the dexterity of a juggler he tweaked the frequency dial while keeping his eye on the Vars , voltage , load demand , station power usage and a list of other critical data that was shown on a series of gauges and meters on the operation console in front of him. I took the photograph ; I hadn’t slept for 29 hours and had been surviving on Café Oro , Zambo plantain chips and potted meat. My eyes felt like they had a truck load of sand in the lids. I hadn’t seen my two daughters for as long , I could only assume they were ok since I hadn’t heard anything from them.  

Two out of three automatic voltage regulators ( AVR’s) had failed and I had searched around everywhere and after hundreds of emails and phone calls located both in Chiquimula , Guatemala in some obscure dust covered warehouse ; even better deal the seller was sending his top technician with the AVR’s in his suitcase to install and commission them. He is the man in the blue t-shirt seated in front of a laptop in my photograph. He had a young wife and an infant daughter who were waiting for his return for the holiday. Turns out , he had never installed these types of AVR before and between us we managed to damage one of the two by connecting in error the wrong reference voltage . We were on an island during a holiday in a third world country and logistics was against us and so we did what we did best in emergencies , scrounge , adapt and solder using the best parts of our damaged AVRs to replace the one we had damaged.

It took some doing and some searching on the internet and a few calls but we were ready to try it out when I took the photograph. The guy with his head in his hands was the Distribution Engineer , Cacho , whose job it had been ( together with his 2 crews of linemen ) was to sectionalize the outgoing feeder loads whenever our four generators overloaded or underloaded as the situation arose , directly proportional to our customers power usage during a 24hour cycle. We had been conducting blackouts since the problem began on the 26th and any particular area would go without power for at least 6 hours out of 24 , the customers that were put out the most were those who were out at nightimes with the heat and the mosquitos. I lost friends during these times , they would call in frustrated and ask when power would come back on and I , hungry and stressed , would snap back at them and them back at me and it often escalated and bridges were burned. Bridges on a small Island where connections , friendships and reputations are everything that once burned take years to build back.

It was just as well that my boss , Richard was a good sport who had been to war and being a leader of men knew how to trust his subalternates , keep the ass-chewings to a minimum and like hot sauce , dish out praise sparingly. I would call him every now and again and keep him informed , he would crack a joke and then tell me in his comforting East-Texas drawl , “ all ya’ can do is try ya’ best “.

Well it worked , the AVR’s didn’t fail and we had all 4 generators online and synchronized and following the load as they were supposed to. In Spanish , the transitive verb ‘socando’ is one of my favourites. It means ‘tightening’ or ‘clenching’ as in clenching your buttocks in trepidation and that is what we did for the first hour running on our patched up AVR’s ……..’socando’ until slowly we relaxed , confident that we had made it and that we could go home and eat and sleep. It wasn’t about a salary , it was about the satisfaction of knowing that families in their homes , oblivious to our efforts and our individual personal sacrifices were all going to enjoy having power to celebrate with ; drunken reveler and watchnight churchgoer alike.

It’s satisfying but exhausting work the power business ; no social life , no holidays , families suffer , marriages get destroyed the world over. People get hurt , physically , mentally and emotionally trying to keep the power on and improve service much like firemen , law enforcement , medical workers et al. I dedicated a large chunk of my life to the power industry on this Island and on my final day there was no going away party , no ‘thank-you’ plaque. The new management treated me like a leper. The disappointment keeps me awake at night and I miss the camaraderie of working with the linecrews , operators , engineers and mechanics mostly during the adrenaline charged outages but the upside is I have a life back to enjoy with children I hardly know and relationships I had underappreciated. My faith has been my strength during this transition and before when things were going south within the company and I have no doubt the wounds will heal with time. As Oswald Chambers once wrote , “ Isaiah said that God spoke ‘with a strong hand,’ that is , by the pressure of circumstances. Nothing touches our lives but it is God himself speaking.”   

And yes , I still work in the power industry ……. Private sector one more time !

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