Behind the switch

Published 12:44 pm Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Left, top to bottom: Gene Pederson, Loren Sprague, Scott Landsman, Kenton Larson and Dean Dahlum. Right, top to bottom: Trevon Grotto, Rich Harriman, Al Casterton and Jack Kortan



By Bonnie Peterson, Special to the Tribune

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Just a flip of a switch and lights come on and motors begin to hum. Having readily available and reliable electric service is the norm, an unspoken expectation of homeowners and business operators across our nation. While often taken for granted, this delivery of electric power is a vital backbone to the nation’s economy and modern communications technologies.

Lights and machines operate because of a well-coordinated system that connects electricity production facilities with high-voltage transmission lines and from there to substations that step-down the voltages. A substation is located to serve a region of consumers and the distribution 7,200-volt power lines stemming from the substation distribute the energy to consumers. In the rural areas of Freeborn and Mower counties, responsibility for these electric distribution lines rests with the line workers of Freeborn-Mower Cooperative Services. The cooperative serves more than 6,000 member-owners via 1,983 miles of energized line.

“What the public may not realize is the danger and commitment associated with the task of delivering electric service,” explained Jim Krueger, co-op president and CEO. “Our member-owners should be proud of the fine safety record held by our cooperative. Not only do our employees work daily with high voltages, but they must do so safely and in all types of weather. Our linemen are professionals in every sense of the word.”

Cooperative crews install, update, repair and maintain electric overhead and underground distribution lines.

“Our entire distribution system is outdoors, and this attribute appeals to workers in our industry. Working outdoors is one of the things most linemen enjoy about their job,” said Larry Underdahl, co-op director of operations. “But, of course, this also means that our crews work in everything from 100 degree heat to subzero temps and, of course, to repair the aftermath of storms. If you can remember the great ice storm of 1991 which devastated our system, you can imagine the extent of their challenges.”

High winds and lightning strikes are often considered a wake-up call for linemen.

“Bad weather can play havoc with electrical lines, causing power outages. We are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for response to power outages,” notes Jack Kortan, co-op line foreman with 28 years of experience. “Besides working in a range of weather conditions, from very mild to extremes, we have a physically demanding job that requires lifting, climbing poles, trenching for the installation of underground cable or working in overhead buckets up to 50 feet off the ground.”

“The big projects, such as storm recovery, are rewarding. But, as a lineman you also get to interact with the co-op members. That’s something that I’ve really enjoyed through the years,” said Gene Pederson, meter technician and lineman who will retire this month with more than 44 years of service to the cooperative.

Like father, like son – electric utility work often becomes a shared career path. Jack Kortan’s two sons, Logan and Connor, are pursuing careers as line workers. Tyler Underdahl, Larry’s son, is also a recent graduate from line worker school. Troy Pederson, Gene’s son, is currently employed as a lineman at a neighboring electric cooperative.

“This is purposeful and stimulating work, and the electric cooperatives have a family atmosphere about them. It’s not unusual to see the next generation of workers coming from families with strong connections to the industry,” Krueger stated.

“We are now getting into full swing with our summer work plan. There are 11 major projects that we would like to complete,” added Underdahl. The projects include constructing a new tie-line between substations, to allow the flow of electricity to be re-routed during an outage, and upgrades of other lines and conversions from overhead to underground lines. “In total, the cooperative’s budget for system enhancements in 2012 is more than $1.7 million.” The work will be funded largely by loans from the Rural Utilities Service. These loans are generally for a 30-year period and repaid out of revenue from the sales of electricity.

“Our goal is to deliver safe and reliable energy at a competitive cost,” explained Mary Nelson, co-op communicator. “This takes a lot of people working together in a way that follows the cooperative principles. At Freeborn-Mower Cooperative Services, we focus on providing quality service through our not-for-profit operation. Customer service is not a department. It’s our attitude at Freeborn-Mower. When our linemen are rolling the electrical cable off of a big wooden reel, to us it’s our way of rolling out red carpet service to our members. ”