Brendan Joyce (ETM): Keeping the Lights on at Duke Energy

“Do you like coffee?”  That was the first thing I was asked upon entering the lab. “You’ll need it!”

As first impressions go, this wasn’t the best. I was already terrified that I would be working tirelessly, wasting away in a windowless lab, bored out of my mind. Yes, I did end up working in a windowless lab, and yes, I worked my butt off, but boredom was something I never experienced.

I spent my summer in the Environmental Services lab at Duke Energy on beautiful Lake Norman. Our lab specializes in water quality and fuel quality assessment. As a fuels team intern, my primary responsibilities consisted of running ASTM fuel quality tests on electrical transformer oils. Duke Energy has thousands of large transformers that are needed to keep the electricity running for their 7.4 million customers. The data we collect from our tests is essential to keep the transformers from malfunctioning and potentially exploding. My coworkers were constantly being called in for emergencies due to the unpredictable nature of the industry.

On my first day, I toured the lab and was introduced to my coworkers, workspace, and what each machine tested. I was then given a list of all of the machines that I was expected to understand and operate. My primary responsibilities were to test Total Acid Number (TAN), Interfacial Tension (IFT), Electrical Breakdown (kV), Power Factor (PF), and the color of transformer oils. My secondary duties also included dissolved gas analysis (DGA) and moisture. I would also occasionally get to help the scientists in the water quality lab with their coal ash pond samples.

I won’t go into too much detail about each test, but it is important to note that each test is absolutely necessary to properly manage a transformer. Tests for moisture and dissolved gases, for example, are the most important tests we perform. The smallest amount of water or an excess concentration of gases like acetylene or ethylene can cause the transformer to overheat and potentially explode. Even the smallest amount of dirt can cause a transformer to explode.

A typical day in our lab consisted of running samples, cleaning lab equipment, and data entry. The rest of my time was dedicated to drinking coffee and memorizing procedures. We would typically receive hundreds of oil samples every week—almost always on Fridays. We would then have seven days to analyze and return the results to the electrical engineers for further interpretation. Occasionally we would get “rushes,” which required immediate 48-hour action.

The most memorable of these rushes were the transformer oils from Carowinds. On June 10, one of the three transformers at Carowinds failed and caused a power outage while people were still on the rides! Rather than waiting for a replacement, they decided to overdraw electricity from the two remaining transformers, which in turn caused even more outages. This meant it was our responsibility to keep the other two units running, while also potentially keeping the guests alive!

I really enjoyed my time at Duke Energy. My responsibilities as an intern had real purpose, which is something I have never fully experienced before. It was especially interesting to get a feel of what it was like to work in a professional lab environment rather than the traditional classroom-style labs. As an ETM major, I believe that this lab would be a great starting place for a long career with Duke Energy. Duke has a multitude of directions that you can take your career, starting from the field, the lab, or even their new push toward renewable energy.

Everyone in the lab got along relatively well and I made some life-long friends. The trail by the lake also provided a great place to exercise, relax, and alleviate stress. Going to work was never a drag because we were always busy and the days almost seemed too short. We even got to make our own ice cream! In all honesty, waking up at 6:00 am was most likely the main challenge I had to overcome this summer. Duke Energy was a great place to work and I would recommend it to anyone!