Meet the Electric Utility Director

Electric Utility Director Tim Lawrence has been with the Town for less than two years, but brought 32 years of experience in his field with him. His experience in Manassas, VA – which has a much larger electric utility – included work in distribution, generation, substations, field activities and metering, and that wealth of knowledge has already had significant impact in Berlin.

The maintenance and operation of an electric utility involves many different tasks and considerations and can vary from utility to utility to some degree. In Berlin, electric distribution is essentially the maintenance of the equipment, such as poles and lines, which get power from the generating plant to the customer and, in Berlin also includes meter installation and reading. This department is often referred to as the “Line Crew”. Electric generation in Berlin is essentially obtaining or generating the power, such as through the operation of the power plant on William Street. In Berlin power comes more from the Town’s purchase of power through a PPA, or Purchase Power Agreement, with another utility; operation of the power plant only occurs during “peak shaving”, which will be explained in more detail later in this article.

Professionals in the electric utility field have an educational background that may include a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering, Journeyman Lineman School, which is a four-year trade school, and/or 8,000 hours of on-the-job experience. For Journeyman, obtaining this certification can be a 7-8 year process. One misconception that is often held is that electric utility professionals are Electricians; this is not the case and will be discussed later in this article.

What services does your department provide?

  • Providing affordable, reliable electric utility service from peak-shaving generation to distribution of service to homes or businesses
  • Meter-reading
  • Maintenance of streetlights
  • Home-energy audits
  • Temporary power for festivals and
  • Tree-trimming near utility lines
  • Hanging of banners for festivals and events, and holiday lights and decorations

What are the typical day-to-day functions for you?

For the Distribution side of the utility, activities vary throughout the month, but our typical tasks include reading meters on a monthly basis for billing purposes, connecting or disconnecting power for customers, trimming tree limbs from utility lines and replacing streetlights as needed.

Other projects include the replacement of low-pressure sodium street lights (which are the yellow-tinted lights) with induction lighting. The yellow lights were very energy efficient at the time that they were introduced, but many people did not find them aesthetically pleasing, and, in particular, police and emergency personnel found that it was difficult to determine colors under the lights; for instance, dark blue or dark green cars looked black. The induction lighting is more environmentally friendly and provides a brighter, more natural and pleasing light.

We have also been re-locating utility poles for various projects, such as sidewalk installations, and we have recently completed the installation of motion sensor switches in areas of Town Hall as well as the replacement of every light bar in Town Hall, the Police Station and Planning & Zoning with more efficient lighting through an Energy Efficient Community Block Grant from the Maryland Energy Administration. These improvements, along with the application of window tinting that was also under the EECBG grant, are expected to save the Town more than $2,000.00 on electric bills – yes, the Town does pay utility bills to itself.

The Generation Department is primarily involved in maintaining “power factor unity”, which means that the Town must meet or lead the power factor provided us by our purchase power utility. This means that we must insure that we, as an overall electric utility, are using exactly what the outside utility provides us – no more and no less. As you can imagine, this involves constant monitoring of the system and making adjustments to meet the power factor. When our users are using more power than is being provided, we engage in “peak shaving” which means that we must generate power to increase what we are directly providing to our customers to make up the difference. If you envision power usage as a line graph (see illustration below; data provided is for explanation only) with peaks and valleys, we are always trying to keep the graph as even as possible, thus the term peak shaving.

What changes have you experienced or implemented for your department and the way it functions? What changes would you most like to see?

I have implemented increased safety standards for both Distribution and Generation departments through the purchase of industry-mandated safety equipment and gear. For instance you may have noticed that our field crew personnel – the Line Crew – having been wearing uniforms for the last 18 months or so; while the apparel does make our crew more readily identifiable, as a uniform should, the shirts, pants and jackets are actually manufactured of specially treated material rated for work around electricity. The exception to this is that, in the hotter months, our meter readers can wear regular clothing. I have also increased training opportunities and/or ensured that an individual employee does not work in an area without industry-acceptable training and experience.

In the future, I’d like to see Berlin use “smart-grid” technology which permits meter reading and connection/disconnection from a remote location, allows customers real-time use monitoring, and monitors transformers and other aspects of the system. I also plan to explore the possibility of using smaller, more energy efficient vehicles for meter-reading purposes.

What can you tell citizens to make your department’s job easier and their interaction with your department go as smoothly as possible?

One problem that we frequently encounter is meter access; meter readers have to estimate readings when they encounter things like locked gates or other obstacles or dogs – while the customer may believe their pooch is the nicest dog around, we can’t take the chance of a meter-reader being bitten. If we have to estimate a reading, at some point this may “catch-up” with the customer in the form of a higher bill when a real reading is finally obtained.

Another area where customers can really help us do our job better and more efficiently is during unplanned power outages. While outages are much less frequent with today’s technology, they do still occur and our customers can be confident that we are working as rapidly as possible to restore power, while ensuring that our employees are safe. It’s completely understandable that people call into the utility to report the outage, but calling repeatedly or demanding to speak to personnel only delays things – it ties up the time of office staff and if line personnel have to stop what they’re doing to take phone calls, this usually means that they have to come down from a pole, and either drive to the office or relay via radio back to the office. Obviously, they can’t be working on the problem if they are using their time to answer calls. During an outage, we provide frequent updates to office staff at Town Hall (or the police department during non-business hours).

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Being able to provide a reliable and affordable electric system to our customers. We are also happy to assist individual customers in reducing their electric usage, and cost, by helping them to assess their property and determine possible areas for improvement.

What is a common misconception people have about your department? What is an aspect of your job that is less enjoyable?

One of the biggest misconceptions is that we are electricians. Licensed electricians work with the wiring of a structure, primarily inside, which is “de-energized” while they work. Electric utility employees do not handle wires beyond where the lines meet the building and are, more often than not, working with “live” wires. This is one reason why it is essential to contact your energy provider for any work outside the structure, and why we cannot assist with problems inside the structure.

Having to terminate customers’ services for non-payment is easily the least enjoyable task that our employees have. It is unfortunate that this sometimes has to be done, but the employees that have to turn the service off are simply doing their job; becoming irate or abusive with the employee will not change the situation. That said, the customer service staff at Town Hall can provide customers with a number of options to avoid disconnection; the worst thing that a customer can do is to ignore the bill or the disconnect notice. Contacting (link to phone, email) us as soon as they realize that they are falling behind may mean all the difference.

Another misconception is that, because we are a town-owned utility, we are not regulated in the same way as other electric utilities. With a very few exceptions, this is not the case; we are regulated by the Maryland Public Service Commission on almost all matters, particularly those related to our interactions with customers.

Where do you see your department in 10 years? What is on your “wish list” for your department?

I see Berlin continuing to make improvements to the system – keeping up with tried-and-true technologies, safety standards and up-to-date equipment. Ultimately, I’d like to see all of the electric wires located underground, which makes the system more reliable as well as more aesthetic.