Keeping Service Online and Updated for Efficiency and Safety
By Rachael Kvapil
The technology used at Golden Valley Electric Association has evolved rapidly from when Al Sparks, systems & network engineer supervisor, began at the utility 25 years ago. He has seen many changes implemented in all departments—from modern communications to control systems—and anticipates additional changes coming down the line as GVEA looks for new ways to improve all areas of service.
In 1997, Al followed a former boss whom GVEA had hired 6 months earlier as its IT manager. Al started in data processing and navigated uncharted territory as technologies emerged that we now take for granted. Things like corporate email were common at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where he previously worked, but not yet integrated into GVEA’s workflow. Al says one of his team’s first tasks was to provide workstations for everyone and improve the website. He says computers didn’t sit on every desktop then the way they do now, and he quickly became part of a group pushing for workstation integration. However, his main responsibility was maintenance of the financial mainframe, particularly getting the system past Y2K, which was a big concern for any company with computerized systems. “GVEA even had us, the e-Shop and linemen at work, on standby, on New Year’s Eve 1999 in case something went wrong when the date/time flipped over to 2000,” Al says. “There was pizza for all. And nothing went wrong.”
Al’s current position mainly supports the industrial side of operations, including the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) and Energy Management System (EMS) communication system. The SCADA/ EMS system requires data communications to the substations it has remote control over, and Al’s department oversees that. The system makes it possible to manage power grid substations along its entire service areas, including Fairbanks, North Pole, Delta Junction, Nenana, Healy and Cantwell. Al also provides support for the radio system used by field personnel to talk with the dispatch center. At the power plants, his department provides support to each plant’s network, the environmental monitoring system, camera systems, and any industrial related computing, ensuring the plants have network communications back to Fairbanks.
“The nice thing about my job is I get to work with people who are doing the direct work that provides power to GVEA’s members,” Al says.
Al says he was recently entrusted with more staff and additional responsibilities in his position. This meant learning about projects and developing new skills to provide better industrial support.
“As someone who was mostly in the weeds configuring and networking various servers, budgets weren’t something I dealt with,” Al says. “It changed when I moved into management around 5 years ago.”
And though 25 years seems like a long career, he has no intention of retiring any time soon. Al says his department is focused on keeping up with new technology that benefits GVEA. He says technology is always changing, and they’re always looking for ways to better communicate with their substations, between administrative departments, and develop upgrades to the utility infrastructure. Al says cybersecurity is also a major focus when it comes to maintaining the safety of private information.
Al says there is an increasing need for IT personnel, especially as processes become more automated. Five years ago, he says the IT industry saw a brief oversaturation of the workforce, but since the COVID-19 pandemic, he feels more positions are opening up in the field, though not as broadly as when he began his career in the 1990s. Still, he says there are many online tutorials and courses that can give people a better insight into the multifaceted IT industry and help newcomers decide what part they might find interesting. Al was born in Darmstadt, Germany, where his father worked as a civilian for the Army. The family later moved to Clovis, New Mexico, where his father took over the family business. Al joined the U.S. Coast Guard in 1979. In Alaska he was first stationed in Sitka, then Juneau, and later in Fairbanks. Al says many skills developed while in the Coast Guard are still used in his current position, such as coordinating support teams and managing communications during outages.
Al says he has not done recreational ocean sailing since leaving the Coast Guard. He does like to boat along nearby rivers and camp in his free time.