What to Know About Being a Power Plant Operator

portrait of Stefanie Grodman
by Stefanie Grodman
Published on November 18, 2021

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Power plants convert resources like petroleum, coal, natural gas, wind, and hydroelectric energy into electricity, which is then distributed to consumers. Although natural gas and nuclear energy were the leading sources of electricity generation in 2020, renewable energy is the fastest-growing source, doubling between 2000 and 2018.

Power plant operators control and maintain equipment that generates electricity. They also monitor the generators' output as electricity travels from larger plants to smaller substations to meet consumers' needs.

While power plant operators usually need a high school or GED diploma, most of these professionals learn essential skills on the job. However, certain employers may prefer to hire operators with some postsecondary or vocational training.

Power plant operators manage and maintain power-generating machinery such as boilers, fans, pumps, and turbines. They operate control boards and specialized software programs to start and stop generators, maintain necessary voltage, and make sure that plants distribute electrical power appropriately to designated consumers or regions.

Because improper operation can be costly, inconvenient, or even dangerous, these professionals must monitor electricity distribution closely and enforce safety protocols, using charts and meters to evaluate voltage and output.

Power plant operators typically assume the following job responsibilities:

What Is a Power Plant Operator's Career Outlook?

The efficiency of automation, such as smart-grid technology, has reduced the need for human labor in power plants. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the number of available positions for power plant and systems operators to decline by 14% between 2020 and 2030.

However, there will still be sustained demand for operators to manage plant systems. Trained workers must replace professionals who leave their positions or retire. The BLS projects that there will be 29,000 open positions for power plant operators in 2030.

What Is a Power Plant Operator's Salary Potential?

Many power plant operators are able to find lucrative employment. According to the BLS, power plant operators earned a median annual salary of $84,650 in May 2020. The top 10% of power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers earned over $121,490 per year. Salary potential also depends on a professional's experience, location, and employer. For example, operators working for government organizations earned a median annual wage of $86,350 in May 2020. Those working at utility companies earned $91,170.

Frequently Asked Questions About a Power Plant Operator's Career

Is power plant operator a good career? true

This occupation can be an excellent fit for individuals looking for stimulating, results-driven work. Many power plant operators enjoy delivering an essential resource to public spaces and private residences.

Many individuals who enter this field are eager to earn a substantial salary without a postsecondary degree or extensive vocational training and access a pathway for potential upward social mobility. According to the BLS, the average annual wage for all workers was $41,950 in May 2020. Power plant operators earned a much higher average yearly salary of $84,650 during the same period.

Is it hard being a power plant operator? true

Although this occupation offers considerable advantages, there are also difficult elements to working as a power plant operator. As automation becomes more widespread, power plant operator jobs will likely decrease, making positions more competitive for individuals entering this field.

Power plant operators must also monitor dangerous equipment and promptly interfere if machinery is compromised or malfunctioning. To keep a close eye on generators and other equipment, operators spend much of their time in control rooms and frequently make rounds to observe their facilities. This requires prolonged focus and attention to detail.

Because power plants must serve clients and communities around the clock, many operators work long shifts less traditional hours, such as overnight or on weekends.

How long does it take to become a power plant operator? true

Power plant operators must have a high school or GED diploma. Although they are not required to earn a postsecondary degree or attend trade school, these professionals usually complete comprehensive on-the-job training through traditional classroom instruction, jobsite observation, and hands-on learning. It may take workers up to three years of on-site training and work experience to become fully qualified operators.

Some organizations require operators to take the Edison Electric Institute's Power Plant Maintenance and Plant Operator Exam, a preliminary evaluation of a candidate's potential to work in power plant operation. Operators working in nuclear power plants must also be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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