A Sense of Purpose

Behind-The-Scenes Team Keeps Northern Wasco County PUD Running

By Rodger Nichols

While utility lineworkers are often known as the face of Northern Wasco County PUD (NWCPUD), it takes many people in many roles to make the power flow smoothly.

Chris Allen

Northern Wasco County PUD Power Manager Chris Allen, left, and Assistant General Manager Kurt
Conger examines site plans during a visit to the PUD’s generation facility at The Dalles Dam. Photos courtesy of NWCPUD

An unexpected benefit of the pandemic has been the expansion of the available labor pool due to increased technology enabling staff to work from home. More people are willing to tackle new jobs if they don’t have to move their families and take children out of familiar schools.

A good example of that is Chris Allen, who joined Northern Wasco County PUD as a power manager last July at the heart of the pandemic. He is able to work from his home in Longview, Washington, only visiting the office in The Dalles one or two days a week.

Although Chris initially worked in the high-tech industry, he decided he wanted a career change. He went back to school, focusing on water resources and environmental engineering.

“In 2009, about halfway through my masters, I had an opportunity to work for the Bonneville Power Administration in their hydro operations and planning organization,” he says. “That’s the organization that plans all of the river operations for the federal system. It’s really about moving water for all of the intended purposes as well as power production.”

Other uses include irrigation, navigation, recreation, and flood risk management.

Chris spent almost a decade at BPA, then decided to explore public utility work.

“I was really drawn to the idea of being a little bit more intimately connected with customers and having direct impacts on the lives of the local community,” he says.

That led Chris to Cowlitz PUD in Longview, where he worked for two years in their power resources office.

“It is a little bit unique in nature,” he says. “You have your generation, the nuances of your transmission systems, and your load service obligation, and you have to make that all come together so that when customers go to flip on the light switch, the light actually comes on.”

The exterior of the PUD’s underground generating facility at The Dalles Dam.

As NWCPUD’s power manager, Chris is in charge of making sure power is available. He ensures contracts with providers are current and correct, and that the PUD’s physical assets are functioning.

When he’s not balancing a complicated system of inputs and outputs, Chris likes to get out of the house.

“I’m an outdoorsman by nature,” he says, “hiking, fishing, and hunting. I also like mowing my 5-acre pasture with my tractor. It’s a great way for me to unplug as well. I’m accomplishing stuff that needs to be done and able to disconnect and recharge.”

Chris is greatly satisfied with his job.

“I had a great career in high tech, and I was being compensated very well,” he says, “but I felt a bit empty in terms of what I was returning to my community. I was looking to do something bigger than myself, so at the end of the day, I could feel good about contributing to the community and my neighbors. For people wanting to look at public service as something that inspires them, I definitely recommend people looking at the utility sector.”

Kurt Conger

This year, Kurt Conger celebrates 10 years at the PUD and 40 years in the industry.

His career began with an engineering degree from Colorado State University, with an emphasis on power systems and energy conversion. That led him to a stint in the Peace Corps, which sent him to Fiji to work on small hydroelectric projects and other energy projects for the government.

The PUD’s generator at The Dalles Dam.

After two years of service, Kurt worked for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the American Public Power Association, the trade group for publicly owned utilities. In the mid-2000s, he worked as a consultant on the White River Falls project for Northern Wasco County PUD, among other projects.

“I was at APPA until 1998,” he says. “When my family relocated to Seattle, I got a job as a consultant to Seattle City Light in power operations planning.”

He left City Light in 2012.

“Dwight Langer (former NWCPUD general manager) was looking to add a person to his staff as a power management specialist,” Kurt says. “I was really happy to change my commute from one-and-a-half hours a day to 15 minutes—and that’s if the roundabout by Brewery Grade is backed up,” he says with a grin.

Kurt is now the PUD’s assistant general manager. He works with large retail customers, load forecasting, and large-scale projects, such as new substations.

When he arrived in The Dalles, Kurt found the demand for power was growing. The PUD needed to find power for customer demand in excess of the BPA allocation, which isn’t getting any bigger.

“Nobody’s damming rivers, and BPA is not building power plants,” Kurt says.

These days, BPA provides about half of the PUD’s power. The PUD’s generators at The Dalles and McNary dams add close to another 10 percent. The rest is bought on the open market.

That demand continues to grow. In 2013, Google announced plans to add to its existing data centers in The Dalles. In 2016, the Taylor Lake complex was announced, which added enough load to the system that a new substation had to be built. It was a complicated project requiring a lot of systems planning. Google announced recently it would be building more server farms in The Dalles.

Looking back, Kurt says the local load expansion has been tremendous. He also cites a project to upgrade the turbine in the utility’s generation plant at McNary Dam.

“The original turbine was made in China with blades that were poorly manufactured and kept cracking,” he says.

The new turbine was designed with complex geometry. The result, Kurt says, is no blades have cracked since, and the turbine puts out 7 percent more power.

“Since I arrived here at the PUD, the load more than doubled, reaching over 1 billion kilowatt-hours per year,” Kurt says. “There’s never been a dull moment in the last 10 years.”