Grizzly encounter just a day at work for BC Hydro engineer
Bushwacking BCIT grad helps maintain B.C.'s 18,000 km of transmission lines
In his work for BC Hydro, Trevor Scott feels pretty much at home in the bush, and pretty familiar with bears. But this bear was different.
This one was a grizzly, and it was circling him and two other workers — jaws snapping for effect — in the woods near a transmission tower on the north coast.
"One guy there was not familiar with bears and was ... shaking," recalls Scott. "We were worried he was going to bolt, and you're definitely dinner if you're running."
After initially yelling at the grizzly, the guys figured this bear was not scared or amused. So they tried speaking softly, and slowly backed off until the grizzly — no longer feeling threatened — ambled off into the bush.
"I appreciate that much of the transmission system passes through the homes of animals like grizzlies, and like any other property owner, it's important to treat them with respect," says Scott. "I'd happily go back to that site, but I would certainly have my guard up, and my bear spray out."
Maintaining existing transmission lines, and building new ones to keep up with increasing demand, are among BC Hydro's biggest responsibilities. There are more than 18,000 kilometres of transmission lines and underwater cables across B.C ., and as a civil engineer, one of Scott's jobs is to hike out to inspect slope stability at sites, or to look for landslides or avalanches from a helicopter or jet boat.
Or in hiking boots.
"Sometimes a helicopter will fly you in and you'll spend 10 hours hiking through the bush," he says. "The brush can be so dense you sort of swim through it as you swat away mosquitoes."
Engineer takes an accidental path to BC Hydro
Like most British Columbians, Scott's knowledge of BC Hydro had pretty much started and ended with his electricity bill. Then the utility came knocking, pizza in hand, in hopes of recruiting engineers like him at BCIT a few years ago.
"I actually had no idea BC Hydro hired anyone other than electrical engineers," says the Richmond-raised Scott, now part of BC Hydro's geotechnical design team. "I just had no idea, never really thought about it."
It turns out that with BC Hydro customers' demand for electricity expected to grow by more than 40 per cent in the next two decades, we require more than $10 billion in capital projects over the next five years. That makes civil engineers in great demand at BC Hydro.
So what is it exactly that you do?
Most of Scott's friends have no idea what his job is really about. So he keeps it simple.
"I start by just telling them that the transmission system gets the power from the dams to cities," says Scott. "And from there it's distribution lines that get the power to our homes and businesses."
Typically, we don't really think much about transmission lines until a tower loses its footing. That's what happened on the banks of the Fraser River near the Port Mann Bridge two summers ago — flood waters eroded a tower base beneath the water line — and it's the type of thing Scott is trained to help prevent.
Usually, this means identifying destabilized slopes and other issues that might eventually cause a tower to fall, then putting them on a list for correction in the next year. But sometimes, quicker action is needed.
"Last summer on the Elk River near Cranbrook there was a structure close to the river bank," he says. "And the river bank was eroding something like five feet per day, and there was only 20 feet to the structure.
"If we hadn't acted on it, four or five days later, the structure could have fallen in the river."
Scott also does preparatory work for transmission line construction — drilling for soil samples and other work to determine the most safe, stable areas for towers.
He has worked on the Northwest Transmission Line, which will power new and existing industrial growth north of Terrace. And this month, he worked on the Interior to Lower Mainland transmission project, which is essentially the twinning of transmission capacity between Coquitlam and Merritt.
The B.C. Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island are growing so fast that they now use about three quarters of BC Hydro's electricity. And at the same time, industrial growth — particularly in mining and liquefied natural gas (LNG) — is booming in the north. That may all point to economic prosperity, but BC Hydro's dams are hundreds of kilometres away from where most power is used.
That's where transmission lines come in. The cost of building those two new lines to get the power to where it's needed could be close to $1.5 billion, and there are five other new transmission projects underway.
BC Hydro's safety culture comes as a welcome surprise
When Scott joined BC Hydro, he had expected that safety would be a priority. He just never envisioned the safety culture would run as deep.
"Safety is talked about a lot, and it influenced my personal life and the decisions I make there," says Scott, an avid downhill mountain biker who tackles some of the gnarliest trails on Vancouver's North Shore. "Going mountain biking, if I go by myself I now let people know where I am, which trail I'm on, just things I'd never thought about before."
Scott is particularly grateful for BC Hydro's emphasis on safety now that his younger brother Jason — a former member of Canada's men's gymnastics team — has started training as a power line technician. And he's aware that electrical safety isn't taken so seriously in all countries.
On a trip to Vietnam, Scott was aghast at the sight of wires hanging from transformers and power poles, right down to public sidewalks.
"One time I had to cross the street to go around some downed power lines, but the locals would just walk and step over them," he says, shaking his head in disbelief. "That's amazingly dangerous."