Every day, more than 28,000 market transactions occur to ensure that we have enough power on hand and in reserve to meet the demand.
The incredibly knowledgeable and skilled workers that oversee this complex system at the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) are new members of IBEW 1245.
Based in control rooms located in Folsom and Lincoln, these workers are the nerve center of the power grid serving 80% of California and portions of Nevada, which comprises one-third of the Western Interconnection.
“Our primary focus is making sure that nothing is going to happen on the grid that’s going to cascade and spread into other areas and create large problems,” explained Lead Reliability Controller Andrew Smith. “So if there’s overload on the system, we want to make sure that the TOPS, or the transmission operators or the balancing authorities, are doing their due diligence and mitigating for those issues … our job is to make sure that things get fixed, and that we don’t get ourselves into a really bad issue for blackouts, like they had in San Diego several years ago. Our job is to eliminate those issues.”
Preventing the need for blackouts — or “shedding load” as they say at CAISO — is no simple task, especially in the summer months when demand is at its peak.
“There is so much that we look at on a daily basis,” said Lead Generation Dispatcher Wendy Lam. “We’re always planning to make sure that we can keep the lights on for our customers. We have our day-ahead processes, we have our real-time processes, and then we’re just constantly monitoring what our resources are doing.”
When heat waves and wildfires sweep through and put extra stress on the system, the team at CAISO is busy behind the scenes, doing all they can to bring sufficient power in to the people who need it.
“There was a fire went through [the California-Oregon border area] a few years ago and took all but one line out … we couldn’t bring any more
power down from up north,” Smith recalled. “We had every generator on that we had in the California footprint … They got very, very close to shedding load that day. That was pretty rough.”
The transition to the clean-energy economy, coupled with the increase in demand, has led to significant evolution in the work for the 1245 members at CAISO.
“The generation fleet has changed so much since I’ve been on this desk … managing all these renewable resources, managing higher customer loads every summer,” said Lam, who has worked in this role for four years. “Our whole shift, we’re planning. What are we doing in the next 15 minutes? What are we doing the next hour? How are we planning for peak to make sure we have enough resources online to meet our customer load? What’s the worst contingency that can happen? And are we carrying enough reserves to recover from that contingency?”
Working at CAISO requires an in-depth understanding of the specificities of the different utility companies, vast knowledge of forecasting models, a big-picture perspective on power resource management, and the ability to quickly adapt to ever-changing circumstances.
“I’ve been a transmission operator. I’ve been a balancing authority. And now I’m the reliability coordinator. I love this job,” said Smith as he listed the different roles he’s held during his six years at CAISO. “It’s different from the other jobs that I’ve done. You have a much higher-level overview. You don’t get wrapped up in the weeds. You get into the meat and potatoes, the big stuff. I like that. It’s not boring. It’s very challenging.”
The workers at CAISO first began their union organizing effort with IBEW 1245 in August of 2020, mainly driven by a lack of wage transparency and parity — both internally, and with workers doing similar jobs for other employers. The workers voted to join IBEW 1245 in autumn of 2021. During bargaining, the members were finally able to accurately compare their wages with one another, as well as those at comparable jobs with other employers.
The union bargained with CAISO for nearly a year to ensure that the new members received wages commensurate for their skillset. When they ratified their first collective bargaining agreement in February of this year, the workers saw an average wage increase of more than 20% across the board, thanks to general wage increases and new wage schedules for all classifications.
These members haven’t been in IBEW 1245 very long, and many of them have little experience with unions in general, but they are already recognizing the benefits of strong union representation at work.
“I come from a non-union company. I’ve never ever been a part of a union [before],” said Smith. “It’s interesting to see the avenues that opened up when the union got involved. Just seeing the pay discrepancy that we kind of knew about, but weren’t really privileged to all the information … the union helped open that door, so we could see what everybody kind of suspected. That was really good.”
“I think we’ve all been very happy with the compensation,” said Lam.
–Rebecca Band, IBEW 1245 Communications Director
Photos by John Storey