Human Birds on a Wire
Human Birds on a Wire
As the sun rises over the high desert community of Lucerne Valley, a crew of some of Southern California Edison’s most accomplished lineworkers gather underneath two massive 180-foot-high steel transmission towers. They’re here to practice “barehanding,” a method of maintaining and repairing the lines that keep electricity flowing throughout the company’s 50,000-square-mile service area.
To the uninitiated, it sounds crazy: handling lines and equipment that are energized with up to 500,000 kilovolts of electricity. Nothing separates the lineworkers from the live wires other than a pair of gloves no thicker than what you might wear working in your yard.
“Barehanding is very counterintuitive. It actually has demonstrated to be a safer work method than working on a de-energized transmission line,” said Raj Roy, SCE’s director of Transmission. “There’s still risk, of course, but the lineworkers are wearing Faraday suits, which provide them additional protection.”
A Faraday suit is made of cloth interwoven with steel.
“It allows the energized field to travel around us, kind of like a bird on a wire,” said Josh Langley, an SCE Helicopter Assisted Line Organization crew foreman. He begins the day’s training with a tailboard meeting detailing several additional safety protocols, including ensuring the Faraday suits and gloves are properly connected, and rescue plans are communicated if a lineworker needs help.
Today, the crew will be lifted onto the structures by a “Bronto” crane, so named because of its resemblance to a Brontosaurus. It has a fiberglass arm attached to the bucket that carries the crew members to the top of the towers. Before anyone can start working, the Bronto is tested to ensure it’s not conducting electricity to the ground.
As a metal rod touches the 500 kV energized line carrying power from the Hoover Dam to Victorville, there’s a visible blue arc and loud sizzling you can feel standing below. It’s a clear reminder of what’s at stake.
“Working on an energized line can actually be safer,” Langley said. “People are more focused when they know the line is hot.”
So why go through all of this? Why not just de-energize the lines while work is being performed?
“Introducing this work method has three benefits: safety, speed and cost,” Roy said. “It pretty much eliminates the risk of induction. We also don’t have to take a 500 kV line out of service, which is a big deal. Most equipment replacement can be completed faster with this work method, which leads to real savings and operational efficiencies. Lastly, keeping the power flowing through this line, especially during Flex Alerts on extremely hot days, provides more reliable and consistent power for our customers.”
With the safety protocols satisfied, the lineworkers are hoisted atop the towers and begin the day’s task of changing out a bundle of insulation bells connecting the line to the towers. The intricate work doesn’t take much longer than a car’s oil change.
“You see a lot more camaraderie and teamwork when doing barehand. You have to work as a team to accomplish everything safely,” said Mark Joslen, an SCE HALO crew foreman. “It’s just like when you first learned to climb; you’ve got to learn to trust your hooks. Now you’re trusting your suit. At the end of the day, it’s just line work.”
Just line work, perhaps. But as California depends more on an electric grid that is not only growing but becoming more reliable, resilient and ready, it’s line work that becomes increasingly critical to the state’s clean energy future.
For more on SCE’s efforts for a reliable, resilient and ready grid, visit edison.com/cleanenergy.