Brian Bartow does what computers can't at Basin Electric's Dry Fork Station power plant in Gillette.
Brian Bartow does what computers can’t at Basin Electric’s Dry Fork Station power plant in Gillette.
He applies his human instincts to the hundreds of computer-operated machines that run the plant’s turbine. The concurrent need for both natural and automated functions at the plant pins Bartow at the nexus of a more than century-old experiment between man and machine.
Barring a few exceptions, nearly every machine at the plant is tied to computers that feed into a control station where there are 27 monitors that have the ability to look at everything from the boiler’s functions, emissions rates per minute, the chemical balance of the plant’s water and the capacity of dust collectors.
Bartow isn’t employed to compute algorithms and control the thousands — maybe millions — of functions simultaneously occurring at once in the plant.
Bartow gets paid to look, smell and feel for things computers can’t detect: leaks, cracks, abnormal temperatures, high and low pressure readings and obscure noise.
“And then there’s the sixth sense when you know something isn’t right,” he said.
He spent 20 years working at PacifiCorp’s Wyodak Plant learning every inch of every machine. When he saw that Dry Fork was opening, he was one of the first three lead floor operators hired by Basin Electric.
Bartow says he’s always asked why a computer can’t do his job.
In some cases, a computer censor can’t react to a malfunction fast enough. In other cases, a warning sign displayed on a computer monitor allows for plenty of time for humans to react, he said.
“They pay us to find problems before they become big problems,” he said.
Without Bartow and the five other field operators maintaining the turbine, the 300,000 homes dependent on Dry Fork’s electricity would have the discomfort of knowing that no human supervises the plant’s powerful machines. Without the computers, consumers would have to put a lot more trust into man.
“For the most part, the machines kind of run themselves. On the other hand, consumers need us to monitor continually to make sure it is on the right track and not going astray with vibrations and temperatures and things like that,” he says.
Bartow says there is a stasis between man and computer at Dry Fork. It’s not like the conflict between computer Hal 9000 and the astronauts in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” where one breed needs to die in order for the other to live.
In this case, both beasts need each other.
“But in 20 years it will probably all run by itself,” he says. “At least I won’t be here.”
Bartow moves through the plant with a speedy gait. A flashlight is in his right hand. A wrench is on his tool belt. A walkie-talkie is fastened to his chest, and a hardhat rests on his head.
As a lead field operator, Bartow must snake, keyhole and shimmy his way through the plant’s insides. The enclaves of pipes and valves look like a plumber’s worst nightmare — everything looks unrelated but it’s all connected to make electricity from coal.
Bartow reads meters and pressure gauges while walking the plant’s 17 floors.
“A good operator walks around like Stevie Wonder,” he says. “His head is moving in all directions to see if he can spot something out of the ordinary.”
Basin Electric has Bartow on the payroll because he saves the company time, money and headaches. A computer can’t have the foresight to know what will make something trip in the future, he says.
In early September he spots a chilled water line dripping glycol above a water drain. He puts a deficiency tag on the pipe and a bucket under the leaking water line. He submits a report for the line to be fixed. A computer wouldn’t have caught the deficiency.
One small leak in a pump can lead to a 40-gallon spill on the floor. A steam leak can lead to a trip—an immediate shutdown—of the whole plant, he says.
“For the most part, you think the plant is going to run well,” he says. “When you think it’s running well, that’s when something happens.”
Bartow’s family moved to Gillette when he was 1 year old. His father found work in the oil fields and started a home.
Bartow met his wife at the local high school. They got married right after graduation and have no plans of leaving any time soon. In the footsteps of his father and four older brothers, Bartow worked on the oil rigs when he finished high school.
“I never regret not going to college,” he says. “I just wish I would have worked at (Wyodak) sooner. And with this job I have now, I know how lucky I am because I used to bust my ass in the oil fields for 15 hours a day and not get paid well for it.”
He was a high school athlete and still keeps in excellent shape. His arms look like they’ve spent considerable time with weights over the years. He has a home gym and has done workouts such as P90X just for fun.
“I was in the best shape of my life when I did that one,” he said.
It was athletics that got Bartow into the electricity business. When he was in a softball league during his years on the rigs, a few of his teammates — power plant employees — told him to get a job at Wyodak.
Bartow and his wife have one son and a daughter. The daughter works as a instructional facilitator in the Campbell County School District. His son is working to complete his degree in chiropractic medicine. He will be do two internships in Scottsdale, Ariz., and hopes to get a job there.
“That would be sweet,” Bartow says. “Then I can get him off the money tree.”
At 51, Bartow is one of the oldest employees at the plant. But his built physique, square jaw line and wide smile shave years off of him. His job requirements keep him on the move. He walks at least three miles though the plant every day. He hates sitting down. His least favorite part of the job is watching the computer screens when he has to monitor the plant via computer in the control room.
“When I work in there I get the urge to snack,” he says.
Bartow prefers steps to elevators, walking to riding and working on the floor of the plant instead of at a desk.
“If I had half of his energy, I would be a bad S.O.B.,” says Floyd Bryant, a lead floor operator in Bartow’s crew. “He never stops moving.”