Energex vacation work gives Caitlin's engineering career a powerful boost

1st March 2016

University classes start this week, but QUT student Caitlin Nicholas got a head start over summer learning how to protect thousands of South East Queensland homes from lost power, or worse.

The second-year electrical engineering and statistics student from the QUT joined Energex’s protection systems team for a 12-week vacation program to work in power transmission and distribution systems – getting power safely from substations to homes.

“I find the transmission and distribution side of power exciting,” said Caitlin.

“I worked as part of the protection systems team, testing and maintaining systems Energex has in place to cut power to homes in emergencies and power surges, so homes and substation infrastructure are undamaged.

“Inside substations, relays that protect transformers by disconnecting power during surges or lightning strikes are a relatively small cost to protect the expensive infrastructure,” she said.

“Without this, infrastructure may not be repairable, potentially leaving whole suburbs without power.”

Caitlin holds a $12,500 industry scholarship from Energex and is a recipient of multiple academic scholarships, including the QUT Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarship and the flagship Dean’s Scholar Program with the QUT Science and Engineering Faculty.

She was one of four QUT students selected by Energex for vacation work based on leadership skills, community involvement, and interest in the power industry.

“Power is such an important thing in our everyday lives. We use it all the time and we couldn’t function as a society the way we do without it.

“There’s a lot of emerging technology entering the industry – renewable sources coming into the transmission lines and it’s exciting to think and I can be part of it,” Caitlin said.

Caitlin’s Energex supervisor and power systems engineer, Daniel Dwyer says vacation work allowed students the opportunity to decide if they really liked the power industry, and gave them a foot in the door for future employment.

“Vacation work helps bring new and talented people into the Energex pool. A lot of graduates who come to work with us have worked for Energex before on similar placements.

“It’s also good exposure for students to understand what they are signing up for,” he said.

As part of the protection systems team, Caitlin signed up to ensure public safety by testing and maintaining the systems Energex has in place to cut power to homes in emergency and power surge situations, so homes and expensive substation infrastructure is undamaged.

“Effectively we prioritise public safety,” Mr Dwyer said.

“The protection team monitors power network relays, which measure currents and volts in lines.

“If we have energised lines on the ground that’s a massive danger to the public, which is why we disconnect power when lightning strikes or a branch hits the lines.

“Outages over storm season could get up into the thousands depending on how bad weather becomes.”

Energex keeps technicians on standby every day of the year, but increases staff during storm season.

“On stand-by crews are ready to go from our operations centre to patrol, find the problem and, depending where it is, we can open the network and get supply to some customers, fix the problem and restore supply to everyone else,” Mr Dwyer said.

“Some relays are only called upon to operate once or twice a year, but still need to be tested and maintained to make sure they can detect faults as designed to.

“If a power surge hits a home there is not a lot we can do, but before that happens we can manage the high voltage power flow by maintaining devices that monitor the system for abnormalities thousands of times per second, and disconnect if we detect them,” he said.

To undertake vacation work with the Energex protection systems team like Caitlin, students are required to have a minimum of exposure to electrical engineering with preference to those with power engineering experience, including a basic knowledge and understanding of three phase power and basic knowledge of network faults.

Further information: Novella Moncrieff, corporate communication coordinator, 07 31387675, sef.comms@qut.edu.au

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